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Borderline Personalities and Divorce

Anecdotal evidence suggests that individuals with personality disorders, particularly borderline personality disorder, have both higher rates of divorce and more difficulty negotiating this difficult life transition. A legal colleague asked me to examine why this may be true and how best to help people with this diagnosis when their marriage ends.

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The DSM V provides validating information. It describes BPD as a personality trait characterized by unstable self-image, feelings of emptiness, conflicted close relationships and a preoccupation with real or imagined abandonment. Close relationships are viewed in extremes of idealization and devaluation. It is easy to see how the normal shifts in a marital relationship, from the initial “ecstasy of attraction” to the usually more prosaic rhythm of domestic life, can feel like a betrayal to such individuals. They may constantly seek the high of a new romantic involvement and have intense anger to the spouse who cannot meet this expectation. In addition empathy, such an essential skill in maintaining a long term relationship, is often very limited in those with BPD. Thus, often multiple divorces may occur in their lives.

Divorce itself, difficult for the most stable individual, is often a mine field for these people. The abandonment they fear so much has actually happened, even if by their own choosing. Feelings of emptiness and instability in goals, which often occur for emotionally stable people going through divorce, are issues they have dealt with for most of their lives and become exaggerated during marital separation. And for some individuals with BPD, the stress of ending a marriage can even result in dissociative states, when they experience feelings of detachment and/or confusion about their personal identity and may have difficulty recalling events or accessing important personal information.

If you are an individual who has been diagnosed with BPD and are going through a divorce, recognize how difficult this experience can be for you. It is a time for you to turn to supportive people and self-soothing activities to help you modulate the intense feelings you will probably have. If you have not already tried therapy, it might be helpful now, particularly Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, a form of cognitive therapy which addresses how to accept uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and develop new coping strategies.

Working as an advocate for those with BPD can be challenging. If they are amenable, encourage them to try or return to some form of psychotherapy. The client may idealize their therapist and at times see her attorney in a negative light, but together they can be seen as a helpful team. In addition, expect and do not personalize angry outbursts. I am not recommending that you allow abuse of any kind to occur—to the contrary it is helpful to set appropriate limits and model acceptable behavior. Electronic communication may be useful in giving your client time to respond to emotionally challenging content. Above all, recognize just how difficult this entire process may be for them and have realistic expectations of how well they can represent their cause.

Going through a divorce is usually a very difficult experience. Typical feelings of anger, fear, and confusion may be intensified for those with an unstable self-image which is characteristic of BPD. Support and understanding for both the client and those trying to be helpful to him are crucial in making this process as beneficial as possible.

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