Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder in Family Law Cases

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Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder in Family Law Cases

© 2018 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

The diagnostic manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) tells us that up to 5.9% of adults in the United States has borderline personality disorder (BPD).[1] When someone with this disorder is involved in a family law case, especially involving decisions about child custody and access, there is often a great deal of emotion, frequent professional conflict and numerous decision-making procedures that each barely resolve the conflicts (negotiation, mediation, court hearings, evaluations, counseling, etc.). It helps to understand BPD, in order to manage these cases better.

What Is BPD?

Borderline personality disorder is a mental health disorder with many of these types of symptoms: Fear of abandonment, unstable relationships, unstable self-image, impulsiveness, self-harming, wide mood swings, feeling empty, sudden and intense anger, and paranoid thoughts. However, personality disorders (there are ten in the manual) are typically not obvious at first until someone is in a close relationship or involved in a conflict.

Often, in romantic relationships with someone with BPD, there is an intense and exciting romance, followed by making fast commitments, then a turn for the worse as conflicts and chaos take over both people’s lives. There is lots of blame, yelling, sometimes hitting and other forms of domestic abuse. All of this is often interspersed with periods of friendly and caring (and sexual) behavior. It can feel like a roller coaster and can be very confusing for both people.

In many cases, only one person has this disorder and the other person doesn’t have this disorder (or another disorder), and is caught by surprise at the suddenly extreme behavior. In reality, the BPD sufferer has a “dual persona.” It’s all part of the same personality, but there is the public persona, which seems really great, and the private persona that may be involved in abusive verbal and/or physical behavior. Sometimes it takes up to a year to realize that a partner has this problem, because they can be very charming, exciting and loving at first. Therefore, people are encouraged to wait at least a year before making major commitments, such as getting married, having children or buying property together.  

Why Do People Have BPD?

No one chooses to have BPD. There are three basic potential causes:  

1)      Heredity: People are born with a temperament and genetic tendencies. This may be the biggest factor. They may have ancestors who were intensely adversarial in order to survive during wartimes and other adversities. Fearing abandonment may have been a very good motivator for survival, such that holding tightly onto mates and children would have been good for the family’s survival. Fierce jealousy, clinging behavior, anger at a partner’s and child’s independence may have been helpful to keep the family together through thick and thin. (In her new book, The BIG Book of Borderline Personality Disorder, Shehrina Rooney says she believes she was born with BPD, so she may have this genetic history somewhere in her background.)   

2)      Early childhood trauma: The first five years of life are when personality development mostly occurs. Insecure attachments between parent and child can often be identified in the development of borderline personality disorder. A secure attachment is necessary to learn emotional self-control (self-regulation); gain a sense of confidence in oneself and trust in others; recognize differences between people and what others are feeling; learn to tolerate stress; learn give and take in relationships; and to learn how one affects other people in order to adapt and change one’s own behavior for greater social success. With an insecure or abusive parent, these essential lessons are often not learned, and unsuccessful or abusive behaviors are learned instead.  

3)      Cultural influences: Our modern entertainment cultural relies heavily on images of dysfunctional relationships in movies, in TV shows, on the news, on social media, etc. These include lots of relationship manipulation, violence, impulsive acting out, yelling, throwing things, storming out of rooms, etc. It’s as if our culture is intentionally teaching borderline personality disorder behaviors. But it grabs our attention and gets us to watch, so it sells advertising and it won’t be changing anytime soon. For someone with genetic tendencies to have BPD traits, or who grew up in a very inconsistent household, these behaviors may be seen as the way to have normal relationships. (She shows her love and commitment to me by keeping track of my every move. He shows his love and protection for me by slapping me when he thinks I’m getting out of line. Isn’t this what everyone does?)

Is There Treatment for BPD?

Yes! Over the past thirty years, treatment methods have been developed that teach daily living and self-management skills and have been having a lot of success with people who are willing to commit to a few years of therapy. The most well-known and wide-spread method is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). There are therapists in most big cities and some smaller communities who have been trained in this skills-building approach.

Whatever method is used, it’s important to have a therapist who is personally secure and can be emotionally stable in the face of the chaos and anger that those with BPD bring to therapy. Therapists trained in more standard psychodynamic therapy can be good with BPD if they are also good at staying calm and teaching some type of self-help skills. Just supportive therapy can actually make things worse, if they reinforce blaming comments, say their behavior is normal or justified, and join in focusing on the behavior of other people in their lives. Unfortunately, many therapists inexperienced at treating BPD often believe their clients and reinforce their problematic behavior, rather than helping improve it.   

Handling a Family Law Case involving BPD

Given the dynamics of borderline personality disorder explained above, there are many mistakes that family law professionals commonly make. Here is a list of 10 Do’s and Don’ts:

1.       Don’t try to give someone with BPD insight into themselves and their dysfunctional behavior. This just reinforces their defensiveness, triggers their extreme anger, doesn’t lead to change and makes your relationship worse—because the person thinks you don’t like them as they are. Just forget about it!

2.       Don’t focus too much on the past. This also triggers defensiveness and anger, doesn’t lead to behavior change, and you can get stuck there and waste a lot of time. Put more emphasis on the future.

3.       Don’t emotionally confront them, with your anger, frustration, irritation, etc. These trigger their emotion dysregulation and it’s hard for them to calm down and focus again. Likewise, don’t ask them how they feel, because it puts them in touch with their chronic feelings of being helpless, vulnerable, weak and like a victim in life.

4.       Don’t tell them that they have borderline personality disorder, or any disorder. That’s only for a treating therapist to diagnose and discuss, not a family law professional.

5.       Don’t get sucked in if the person tells you that you are wonderful, one of the greatest people they’ve ever know. People with BPD see things in all-or-nothing terms, including people. If you are placed on a pedestal by them, you will soon be knocked down—way down. Just be matter-of-fact and emphasize that how their case goes depends mostly on how well you communicate with each other. Don’t let the focus be on you.

6.       Do give them your empathy, attention and respect (an EAR Statement®), especially when they are getting angry with you or not doing what you need them to do. If a client appears to have BPD, then frequently using statements that show empathy for them can often help calm them and make it easier to work together.

7.       Do focus on what their choices are now and for future action. Try to turn everything into a choice, so that they don’t feel that you are dictating to them what they have to do. This keeps them focused on thinking rather than emotionally reacting to what is going on.    

8.       Do gather information from them and show your appreciation for their thoughts on the case. They may have really important information, but hold back because they fear you will abandon them if they tell you the full story. Let them know you are open to all information, otherwise you may get caught by surprise when someone else tells you news about them. If the person with BPD is the opposing party, look for information from past failed relationships, as that may often be helpful to your case. For example, they may have a history of other family law cases with similar dynamics to your case.

9.       Do encourage ongoing treatment (see above) if your client or the opposing side has been formally diagnosed with borderline personality traits or the disorder. Court-ordered treatment can be effective in some cases, just as court-ordered substance abuse treatment often works in drunk driving programs. Promises to change are pointless when someone has BPD. People should demonstrate that they are making a change before increasing parenting time or other responsibilities. It’s common for family law professionals to naively believe that such a person will improve their behavior with just a simple lecture from a lawyer or judge. They need an ongoing program of change, to practice new skills.

10.   Do terminate your relationship carefully, if you need to end it prematurely. Don’t threaten to fire a BPD client, as that will just make their defensive behavior worse. It’s best to take a step-by-step approach, so that you don’t trigger their intense abandonment feelings. These are the clients who may sue their professionals or stalk them if they are abruptly cut off. Don’t make it their fault and don’t make it your fault. Emphasize that your styles, approaches or goals are different. Tell them you’ll help their next professional and let them contact you with brief questions during the transition.

Conclusion

Understanding the emotions, distress and behavior of a client or opposing party with borderline personality disorder will help any family law professional avoid potential major difficulties. By not being too close or too rejecting, you may be able to help the person a lot and, indirectly, help their children too. If you need to litigate the case, see my other books for more detailed strategies, including High Conflict People in Legal Disputes  and Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.   

But don’t expect to change the person; just help them resolve their case in a matter-of-fact, positive manner. Keep in mind that many do settle their cases when given enough time, empathy, attention and respect.

[1] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

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Bill Eddy is the Training Director for High Conflict Institute, and the author of several books. For more information on borderline personality disorder, see The BIG Book of Borderline Personality Disorder by Shehrina Rooney and The Borderline Personality Disorder Wellness Planner for Families by Amanda Smith, LCSW.

Photo: Nik Shuliahin on Unslpash