Study of Personalities of Parents in Family Law Settings


Concepts used in family law courts to describe personalities of parents who brought a dispute to Court were studied, based on a sample of cases summarised in Complexfamilies.

Concepts to Describe Personality

The DSM-5 international system for classifying mental health issues refers to three broad concepts to describe personalities.  Two concepts are widely recognised, and the third concept is emerging.  The two widely acknowledged concepts are normal personal and personality disorder, which are defined in DSM-5:

  • normal personality is an habitual way of dealing with regular daily events including daily hassles, where a personality trait summarises an enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to and thinking about a range of events
  • personality disorder is an enduring pattern of inner experience and behaviour that is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of situations; that leads to clinically relevant distress and impairment; that is of long duration; and that is manifest in two or more of the major areas of cognition, affectivity, interpersonal functioning and impulse control.

The third emerging concept that describes personality is distressed personality trait.

Further information is given below about each concept.


Normal Personality

Normal personality is assessed by psychologists using a psychometric test that is a structured list of items describing behaviours that have been shown statistically to cluster consistently between many individuals.  Individuals complete a psychometric test by self-reporting items showing how frequently they exhibit each behaviour.  Individuals receive scores on dimensions for each personality trait that is assessed by the test.

The NEO PI-R is a personality test for adults that has been shown to describe normal or functional personality traits for people from many cultures (Costa & McCrae, 1992; Widiger, Costa & McCrae, 2013).  NEO PI-R identifies five main personality traits that are scored on dimensions using five-point scales.  Individuals who score at end points of traits are described here as showing a personality type.  Widiger, Costa and McCrae acknowledge that personality types at each end of trait dimensions can be dysfunctional if behaviours are inflexible and produce outcomes that are distressing and counter-productive for individuals or others.

Clinicians use names to describe personality types.  The five main personality traits and associated personality types are:

  1. Conscientiousness, ranging from spontaneous to planner
  2. Neuroticism (negative emotions), ranging from stoic to emotionally expressive
  3. Agreeableness, ranging from individualistic to altruistic
  4. Extraversion, ranging from introvert to extrovert
  5. Openness to Experience, ranging from conventional to sensitive.


Personality Disorders

DSM-5 identifies ten personality disorders that are:

  1. paranoia based on features of marked distrust and suspiciousness
  2. histrionic with excessive emotionality and focus on the self
  3. borderline with features of strong and erratic emotions that interfere with relationships and self-image
  4. narcissistic with an emphasised need for admiration, lack of empathy for others, and grandiosity
  5. antisocial with a disregard for the rights of others and a violation of these rights
  6. dependent which is manifest by a pattern of submissive behaviours and a strong desire to be cared for
  7. avoidant which is manifested by hypersensitivity to negative social evaluation, feelings of inadequacy, and social inhibition
  8. obsessive-compulsive which is manifest by a preoccupation with orderliness, predictability, perfectionism and control
  9. schizotypal which is manifested by acute discomfort in social relationships, together with eccentricities and perceptual/cognitive distortions
  10. schizoid which is manifested by a restricted range of emotional experience and expression, and detachment from social relationships.


Distressed Personality Trait

DSM-5 recognises research showing that personality functioning varies along a dimension or a continuum, and that differences in personality functioning can be viewed as varying in a quantitative manner rather than a qualitative manner.   The term distressed personality trait is used to describe consistent behaviours that are dysfunctional and that fall between normal traits and personality disorder.

Distressed personality traits can be seen as maladaptive variations or accentuations of normal personality traits that occur under conditions of high stress when a person’s usual coping methods are not operating well.   A person with a distressed personality trait has distinctive thinking about self and/or others in a pattern that becomes self-perpetuating and inflexible, influencing the person’s emotions, behaviour and overall adjustment.   Skilled therapy is required to change a distressed personality trait, where therapy aims both to assist the person to manage situations of increased stress and to adjust normal patterns for dealing with daily hassles.  Therapy aims to help a person to improve their coping skills for complex situations.

Table 1 lists descriptors that link normal personal traits, distressed traits and personality disorders.  Descriptors in Table 1 are used in the study of personalities of parents whose cases appeared before Family Law Courts in Australia, as reported below.

Table 1.  Descriptors for Personality Variables

Normal TraitsDistressed TraitsPersonality Disorders
   PlannerRigid, Suspicious, PersistentParanoid, Obsessive-compulsive
   IndividualistDomineering, Self-centred, Aggressive, ManipulativeNarcissistic, Antisocial
Negative emotions
   Emotionally ExpressiveEmotionally volatileHistrionic, borderline, avoidant
   IntrovertDetached, DisengagedSchizoid
   ExtrovertReckless, Easily influenced by peers, Easily bored

Note that the links proposed in Table 1 have not been confirmed in scientific studies.



A study was conducted that assigned personalities of parents who appeared before a Family Law Court to categories in Table 1, using a sample of cases summarised in Complexfamilies.

The first 270 cases summarised in Complexfamilies were reviewed, involving 540 individual parents.  Descriptors used by family assessors or judges were noted and were converted to the descriptors in Table 1.

The study found that only four individuals were described as having a personality disorder, being three borderline personality disorder and one obsessive-compulsive disorder.

There were no reports of the NEO PI-R being administered to any parents in the sample.

The author assigned distressed personality traits to parents based on information reported in Austlii, as summarised in individual case summaries as shown in Complexfamilies.



A total of 73 individuals were assigned to a distressed personality trait, representing 13.5% of the sample.  Some individuals were assigned two distressed personality traits.  Table 2 shows how frequently each distressed personality trait was assigned in the sample.

Table 2.  Frequency of Distressed Personality Traits

Distressed Personality TraitsPercentSum
Agreeableness – Low or Individualistic
Conscientiousness – High or Planner
Negative Emotions – High or Emotionally Expressive
   Emotionally volatile2.6%2.6%
Agreeableness – High or Altruistic
Conscientiousness – Low or Spontaneous


Table 2 shows the assigned distressed personality traits in order of decreasing frequency, grouped according to the core personality type.   Core personality types in decreasing order of frequency are: Individualistic, Planner, Emotionally Expressive, Altruistic and Spontaneous.



The analysis found that distressed personality traits occurred more frequently than personality disorders in the sample of parents appearing before a Family Law Court.  The distressed personality traits that occurred most frequently involve high levels of the Conscientiousness trait, followed by low levels of the Agreeableness trait, high levels of Negative Emotions, high levels of Agreeableness, and low levels of Conscientiousness.

The study found that five distressed traits were commonly reported, from a total of ten distressed traits.

Skilled therapists are able to provide effective treatment for individuals with distinctive personality types who exhibit dysfunctional behaviours under conditions of high stress.

The study supports a conclusion that it is useful to introduce the concept of distressed personality traits into work involving families who appear before a Family Law Court.  The study suggests that appropriate therapy will incorporate the idea that some parents appearing before a Family Law Court have accentuated their usual coping skills under the stress of family tensions and a court appearance to the level that their accentuated traits have become dysfunctional.  These parents benefit from learning new coping skills to deal with situations that are very stressful including family distress.



Based on data from the study, the following definitions are offered for the distressed personality traits that occurred frequently in the study.

  • Aggressive reflects the use of physical force or interference with usual rights to coerce a person to behave in desired ways by instilling fear.
  • Domineering is reflected by behaviours that aim to coerce another person to behave in desired ways, without use of physical force.
  • Emotionally volatile reflects the frequent display of very high levels of emotional distress that appears to be not under self-control by the individual.
  • Impulsive is reflected by behaviours that occur quickly and do not show a normal capacity to anticipate likely consequences, including disinhibition in some situations.
  • Rigid is reflected by an inflexible pattern of behaviour where a person is preoccupied with implementing their own thoughts and does not vary their behaviour in situations where many others expect flexibility.
  • Self-centred is reflected by a strong and ongoing focus on self-interest and a disregard for the reasonable interests of other people in a close relationship.
  • Submissive is reflected by significant concessions to others that are not balanced by reciprocal concessions, where the person conceding is self-sacrificing and subservient.
  • Suspicious is reflected by ongoing worry, concern, hypervigilance and distrust of others; including great difficulty in reducing concern after receiving information that most people would find reassuring.
  • Ultra-critical is reflected by repeated criticisms based on a person trying to impose a high standard of behaviour on another person for many topics.




Costa, P.T. Jr., & McCrae, R.R. (1992). Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO Pi-R) Five-Factor Inventory (NEO FFI) professional manual.  Odessa, Florida: Psychological Assessment Resources.

DSM-5.  (2013).  Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (fifth edition).  American Psychiatric Association.  Arlington.

Morey, L.C. (1991). Personality assessment inventory.  Odessa, Florida: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Widiger, T.A., Costa, P.T., and McCrae, R.R. (2013).  Diagnosis of personality disorder using the five-factor model and the proposed DSM-5.  In Widiger and Costa (Editors), Personality disorders and the five-factor model of personality, pages 285-310.  American Psychological Association: Washington DC.