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How to Deal with Borderline Personality Disorder

People with personality disorders often seem to have two personalities.  They might be quite reasonable at work and with friends, then revert to dysfunctional, extreme behaviors at home.  Personality disorders usually begin in childhood or adolescence, and while those around people with personality disorders wish they would change, it doesn’t happen without: 1) recognition, 2) a strong commitment, and, in most cases, 3) years of therapy.  Many people have some traits of a personality disorder without actually having a disorder.  By the time they’re adults, it has become an automatic reaction to blame everything on the other person in the relationship.

THE DSM-5 CRITERIA FOR BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER INCLUDE SOME OF THE FOLLOWING CHARACTERISTICS:

  • Compromised ability to recognize the feelings and needs of others
  • Instability in goals and/or career plans
  • Unstable and/or conflicted close relationships
  • Preoccupation with abandonment
  • Frequent mood changes
  • Intense emotional swings, out of proportion to events and/or circumstances
  • Impulsiveness
  • Reactionary behavior in response to immediate stimuli
  • Difficulty establishing and following a plan
  • Engagement in unnecessarily self-damaging activities, without regard to consequence
  • Frequent anger or irritability in response to minor slights or insults
  • Antagonism

It is important to note that people with Borderline Personality Disorder, during a divorce or court proceeding, may also:

  • Purposely or unconsciously use sensitive information (such as finances, medical diagnoses, or other personal information) to sway others to their viewpoint
  • Seek revenge – by destroying personal property or spreading false rumors
  • Seek vindication – by demanding loyalty or filing lawsuits

People with characteristics of a personality disorder often show patterns in their behavior.  One of the most common is referred to as “splitting”, where, though maybe unconsciously, they see people as all good or all bad.  This can be an extreme way to cope with confusion, anxiety, and other mixed feelings often associated with divorce and child custody matters.

In their book Splitting – Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD and Randi Kreger, set forth excellent strategies for how to and how not to deal with borderline personality disorder:

HOW NOT TO DEAL WITH BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER:

As family law attorneys, we meet with people regularly who face the challenge of communicating with a partner with characteristics of a personality disorder.  Many times, when the other party communicates in an aggressive manner, it is perfectly understandable that sometimes you feel like responding in kind.  Maybe you want to cut them out of your life completely, or one up them with a real zinger.  While it may feel good in the moment, you are giving your partner ammunition to use against you and may even see your own words show up in court against you.  Don’t fuel your partner’s fire, because in the end, you may end up increasing the unwanted behavior that is directed toward you.

On the other end of the spectrum, and equally problematic, is giving up or giving in completely.  While it may be very tempting to give in to the demands of a high conflict personality in an attempt to settle or end your divorce or child custody dispute quickly, in most cases, we do not recommend it.  While not every statement or accusation necessitates a response, not correcting false statements may create future legal problems for you.  Don’t let your attempt to avoid conflict allow your partner to persuade others or the court that you should be punished or restricted by the court in some way.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD and Randi Kreger, Splitting – Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, New Harbinger Publications, Inc. (2011).

HOW TO DEAL WITH BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER

As family law attorneys, we help our clients navigate a difficult truth, daily.  It can feel like if you act reasonably and try to use the same cooperative problem-solving skills you do in daily life, you are at risk of losing your case.  Such is the dilemma faced by the reasonable person in family court, because family court is seen as highly adversarial, and can feel like it tends to reward combative thinking and behavior.  We do not believe this to be true and make it our priority to help our clients navigate the process.  Our attorneys advocate an assertive approach, and court research shows that lawyers who take an assertive approach are equally as effective with the outcome of the case as ones who use an aggressive approach, even though aggressive attorneys may appear more successful on the surface.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD and Randi Kreger, Splitting – Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, New Harbinger Publications, Inc. (2011).

THE ASSERTIVE APPROACH

  1. Start Documenting

It is critical that you keep detailed, accurate information to present to the court.  Focus on actual statements and behaviors, avoid opinions and interpretations.  If or when you need to describe events in court, you want to be seen as capable of presenting objective, factual information that is helpful to the judge and other professionals.  Information written down on the day of the event is far more credible that information documented days or weeks later.

  1. Think strategically, not reactively

Avoid acting out of frustration and anger.  Avoid reactionary communication with the other person.  Seek advice whenever you feel like responding out of anger or frustration.  Advise your friends and family of the same.

  1. Choose your battles

Going through a divorce or child custody matter with someone who exhibits characteristics of a personality disorder can lead one to feel that the court process is inherently unfair, allowing the other person to get away with things.  The actions in your case have to be strategic, and based on what is needed in your case, not on what you are upset about.  This is why it is so important to have a strong attorney who understands you, your case, and the characteristics of personality disorders that you may be dealing with on the other side.

  1. Don’t make yourself a target

Stop and think before you act.  You are being watched by your partner and your partner’s attorney.  They are looking for you to slip up so they can hold it against you.  Anything you say, whether to your partner, their family, or even your children, may be misconstrued or blown out of proportion.  Maintain a low (or no) profile on the internet and social networking sites.

  1. Be very honest

While it may not be the most comfortable thing you’ve ever done, you need to be up front and honest with your attorney about your own errors or moments of poor judgment, whether in the past, or that occur in the present, as soon as you recognize them.  You’re human, but you’re also a target, and you do not want to give your partner ammunition of which your attorney may be unaware.  Remember, credibility is everything in court, and while those with personality disorders are generally good at appearing credible, you must ensure you are more credible.

  1. Expose blamer behavior

Those with personality disorders have a tendency to create some of the most useful evidence against them during the litigation process.  Keep in mind that they have repeating patterns of behavior and will try to control the court process.  They tend to make dramatic statements at hearings and/or ask for heavy controls to be put on their partners (you) for a myriad of reasons.  These extreme statements can be very handy in showing the court later that they are false.

  1. Respond quickly

While there are some statements and correspondence that warrant no response, false statements and extreme actions generally need a quick response.  Otherwise, if you don’t respond, it may be perceived as if you agree that they are true or appropriate statements.  If you and your attorney respond assertively, not aggressively, the borderline personality disorder will typically back off.

  1. Manage your own emotions

Dealing with someone with borderline personality disorder characteristics can be extremely difficult, especially if their behavior escalates and their blame of you is extreme.  It is easy to want to respond with the same emotional intensity.  However, keep a matter-of-fact tone and voice.  Pace yourself and conserve your energy to deal with the important battles (remember, choose your battles).  Not every zinger needs a response.

  1. Develop patience and flexibility

Even if you don’t feel it, learn to calmly show patience and flexibility.  Allow time for your partner or former partner to process upsetting information and avoid presenting information or a decision as a crisis that must be instantly resolved.  People with borderline personality disorder will often overreact at first, so giving them a heads up and showing your flexibility may reduce the sense of a threat.  On the flip side, it is common for someone with the characteristics of borderline personality disorder to feel that they are in a crisis and want you to make an instant decision.  Be firm and tell them you need time to think it through but will get back to them.  Give them a time certain that you will respond (see below).

  1. Give clear messages and deadlines

You must balance patience and flexibility with a very clear message and deadlines.  Do not be ambivalent.  Remember, this is the assertive method of communication.  When clear communication is not enough, add a deadline.  You may not necessarily need to start with one, but if you receive no response, remember you or your attorney may want to memorialize your request(s) in writing.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD and Randi Kreger, Splitting – Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, New Harbinger Publications, Inc. (2011).

It is important to make your attorney aware of the personality disorder characteristics your spouse exhibits from the beginning.  You want to hire a strong, assertive attorney who will advocate for you and your interests.

For more information, or to schedule a consult with one of our family law attorneys, call 940-230-2386.

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