Borderline Personality Disorder in High-Conflict Divorces

This blog examines how behaviors characteristically associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can fuel high-conflict divorce. BPD shares many attributes with narcissistic personality disorder, especially when it comes to the effect of those train in divorce litigation. Like my blog on narcissistic personality disorder, my use of “he” and “she” interchanges because BPD applies to everyone with little regard for gender.

Behavioral Defenses of BPD Individuals Correlate with High-Conflict

Understanding the behavioral traits of individuals suffering from BPD can illuminate their actions during the divorce process, giving others insight into their motivations and intentions. Many people with BPD have a history of long-term childhood trauma or abuse and don’t set out with the goal of harming their significant other. However, they can become very psychologically and physically abusive as a result of the entrenched perceptions they hold about themselves and others.

Borderline Personalities Exhibit Splitting and Constant Shifting of Emotions

Splitting refers to seeing people as either “all good” or “all bad,” with nothing in-between. Many people engage in some level of splitting. When it comes to those with BPD, she either absolutely loves you or loathes you. She hates you or respects you. She thinks that you love her or hate her. If she feels bad, she will blame you and see you as completely responsible for her feelings. If she feels threatened and believes that you will or have abandoned her, she will turn on her charm and once again idealize you. She’ll love you in the morning and the more hurt she feels during the day, she may hate you by the time you come home.

We can think of “splitting” as a defense mechanism that someone with BPD will use to maybe quell her overwhelming anxiety and turmoil that she feels inside. It can skew what was really going on in your relationship. For example, someone with BPD can perceive your inability to call at a certain time as proof that you will abandon her, so to calm her anxiety, she believes that you are intentionally not calling because you do not love her and have forgotten about her. This extreme “black-and-white” thinking disregards reality – she does not understand that people sometimes become busy and forget to call or have no time to call.

Borderline Personalities Have Difficulty Accepting and Understanding Loss and Divorce

A person with BPD often engages in self-sabotaging behaviors and brings about her own abandonment. Her intense fears of rejection and abandonment may cause her to engage in behaviors that test a spouse. Referred to as “testing” and “confirming,” she will believe something as true and then test others for proof that she is right to believe such thought. For example, if she believes you are getting ready to abandon her, she may test you by telling you that you should leave to see if you will leave. If you leave because she asked you to leave, you’ve abandoned her, thus confirming her belief that you were going to abandon her.

She is constantly scanning her environment for impending abandonment or rejection. An example of this would be constantly threatening to divorce you during one of your many intense arguments. She will tell you how little you mean to her, and how little you love her. She may even attempt to convince you that you are easily replaceable. Her personality traits prevent her from understanding that no reasonable person can withstand such turmoil with such frequency, and you may really believe that she doesn’t like you and would be better off in your absence. You’ve attempted to leave, but she promises change, and quite often, what I find is that people get sucked back into the dysfunctional relationship with promises of change.

If you finally find the strength and resolve to leave and terminate your marriage, she cannot accept that you’ve finally had enough of your toxic marriage. She refuses to accept that she has crossed one too many boundaries, and she takes your act of leaving as something she can control. She may come to believe she is in control of your behaviors and your decisions. In this situation, it is helpful for both parties if you assert your boundaries and make sure you reinforce your boundaries. For example, if she keeps insisting you discuss reconciliation by calling and texting you repeatedly, make sure you do not deviate from your decision to not talk to her about these topics by not answering her phone calls, insisting on not answering these types of texts, and by not giving her false hope.

People with BPD cannot heal from some inevitable losses by grieving properly and going through normal periods of depression and anger, to finally acceptance. They may become stuck on the “bargaining” phase of loss or the “anger” phase of loss. They may repeatedly stalk you by showing up announced or uninvited to your home or places you may frequent, they may bait you into fighting with them (a reaction to them, even negative, is better than none). If she attempted to bait you or test you in the past by threatening to leave you, you probably begged for her to stay, unknowingly.

Borderline Personalities Have Very Intense and Changing Reactions and Emotions Because of Problems with Emotion Regulation

Commonly, many people with BPD suffer from thin-skin and hair-trigger tempers. I believe this is the primary reason many clinicians incorrectly diagnose those with BPD as being bipolar. Although this can be another diagnosis, the underlying reason for a borderline’s high-conflict personality is emotional dysregulation and not being able to process or react to real or perceived slights reasonably. They can go from being calm to extremely angry, often reacting with explosive anger, almost instantly because of their insecurities and anxieties.

Once the hair-trigger temper sets in, it will be a herculean task to soothe her and help her calm down. If she reacts with vitriol and uses vulgar language or becomes physically abusive, I believe the only thing you can do is leave and if necessary, engage law enforcement to protect you (and your children, if you have any). Her problems regulating her emotions may cause her to rage with the slightest provocation almost instantly. So many of my clients often describe the interactions with the high-conflict person as feeling “off-balance.”

A borderline’s fluctuating emotions can change within minutes, and she may not understand why her throwing a book at you may cause you to fear her because after she’s thrown the book, and you’ve subjected yourself to her abuse, you retreat, and her fear of abandonment and rejection kicks in, so she cycles from intense anger to what feels like love very quickly. She goes from yelling obscenities to crying inconsolably.

Borderlines Often Expect You to Control Their Anxieties and Regulate Their Emotions

The logic for someone suffering from BPD seems to be, “You are solely responsible for making me [angry] [sad] feel this way, so you are responsible for making me feel better.” Obviously, neurotypicals understand that no one is responsible for how we feel, and we are responsible for how we feel and react to certain people and issues. A person with BPD cannot seem to take the responsibility for life’s struggles and can rely on you to help her calm down or feel less anxious. This task is unfair and extremely impossible for anyone to shoulder alone, and during separation or divorce, you will need to make sure you don’t feel responsible for another adult’s mental health issues. If she calls you a dozen times during the day to quell her anxiety, you have the ultimate power to refuse her calls. If she guilts you or tries to manipulate you, make sure you understand that you are responsible for you (and your children), and she is responsible for herself. You cannot be her only support network.

Borderline Personalities Have Favorite People

Once you were her favorite person, the person she idealized, and her survival depended upon your relationship. I know it may be confusing because you probably never felt loved or favored, but her rage may have prevented her from becoming vulnerable to admit to you how much power you really had over her. Once her “splitting” sets in, you may become her “most-hated person,” so she will blame you for everything happening in her life. If she is sad, you are to blame, and her anger will be directed at you. She may even become very violent and aggressive toward you by stalking you, trying to abuse you, and she may even ask others to view you negatively, becoming angered with them if they don’t.

Again, your safety should be of paramount concern so ask for support from friends and family. Many instances of domestic abuse and violence could have been prevented by victims if they took the threats more seriously. If a trusted friend tells you to seek a protective order, you should heed the advice.

Borderline Personalities Often Have Deficient Insight

Similar to narcissistic personality disorder, those with BPD fear abandonment and rejection, but have trouble connecting their own conduct to an outcome they try to avoid. They cannot comprehend that their behavior is abusive and that people naturally want to avoid being the victim of abuse. For example, a spouse along the borderline personality disorder spectrum may repeatedly accuse a spouse of cheating for no reason and punish her by acting cold and even cruel sometimes. Naturally, she leaves him to escape the situation. The borderline spouse either refuses or is unable to take ownership for contributing to this outcome.

Borderline Personality Disorder Can Lead to Isolation

Persons with BPD experience intense jealousy which can lead to overprotective behavior. If they see their “favorite person” start to distance themselves from them or spend time with others, they feel threatened or offended. A borderline personality cannot accept the idea that someone they care about does not dedicate all their time and attention to them. They might blame their spouse or their spouse’s friends, forcing them minimize and ultimately end those relationships. This is how some people who are getting out of a marriage with someone suffering from BPD end up isolated from friends and family.

Beginning the Healing Process

Some people develop a sense of self-blame as a result of their relationship with a borderline personality. Being subjected to intense physical or psychological abuse can be traumatic. To begin the healing process, one must take that crucial first step of distancing themselves from their abuser. If this means getting a divorce, an attorney with decades of experience handling high-conflict divorce cases can help you. At Keithley Law, PLLC, you can count on our legal team to support you throughout the divorce process and protect your rights and interests.

To schedule an initial consultation in our Fairfax law office contact Keithley Law,PLLC today by calling (703) 865-7710.

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