High Conflict Divorce and Borderline Personality Disorder
Talk with any domestic court judge, attorney or clinical evaluator involved in what is often referred to as high-conflict divorce and the term “borderline personality disorder” will typically rear it’s ugly head.
Individuals suffering with this condition can be among the most complicated and frustrating of individuals to work with because of, among other things, their tendency towards rapidly shifting moods or attitudes towards court personnel. They may tend to overvalue and cling to the wisdom and insight of the court at one moment, than lash out with extreme hostility and vilification of the court at another time if they feel they have been slighted or misunderstood. This tends to leave everyone off balance, overly cautious, confused and at times even fearful of these individuals and what they might do or how they may behave.
Borderline Personality is a well- documented DSM-IVTR (the diagnostic manual of clinicians) diagnostic category which is complex and multifaceted. It is defined primarily by an individuals intensely unstable sense of self or self-image, the tendency to idealize than turn around and devalue others (spltting) and behaving in a rash and impulsive manner (over-spending, drug and alcohol abuse, theft, gambling and promiscuous sexual behavior). There is also a very notable and unrelenting, at least in many cases, sense of abandonment. The combination of these behavioral patterns can create chaos and lack of any real productivity in court with regards to resolving difficult custody and visitation issues.
The preponderance of borderlines are females, although it is not unknown that males may also be afflicted with this condition. There is also a significant heritability factor involved. Parents or other close relatives of the borderline may also have this condition. Its symptoms are often noticeable by late adolescence or by the early 20’s.
Borderlines often emerge from families where there has been significant chaos, threat and instability, but not always. At times it is difficult to pinpoint the specifics of the family environment which may have encouraged this condition.
Borderlines feel a chronic sense of emptiness and an intense fear of abandonment. It is these factors possibly more than any others which often fuel intense marital conflicts and help to exacerbate the issues in a bad marriage, encouraging more high conflict engagement. Borderlines often try and cling to a marriage to try and prevent a sense of loss. Even if the marriage is bad by most standards and both parties are rather unhappy, the borderline may feel that a bad marriage where at least I am not alone is preferable to having to be alone again. Borderlines are often in denial of the divorce process sought by the other spouse which makes going through the legal processes often difficult because they won’t adequately follow legal expectations or sign or agree to various documents.
In other cases, borderline individuals may strive to ward off impending divorce by denigrating their spouse and rationalizing that the marriage was not worth it to begin with. Others may become very angry or fight with the ex-spouse to ward off sadness. The actions and behaviors of borderlines are typically designed to ward off their terrible or uncomfortable feelings without much concern for others. It is their own sense of desperation and loss which is paramount.
Possibly of greatest significance though is the constant shifting from compliant to resistant or from overvaluing to undervaluing. It is these behaviors which tend to confuse and befuddle lawyers, judges and ex-spouses. Even in marriage many borderlines alternately cling and then distance themselves from their spouse. In mediation this tendency to constantly flip flop their opinions and feelings is possibly most pronounced. They often can’t tolerate settling or not settling. A common scenario in divorces with borderlines is one spouse saying something like, “I don’t understand it, we just agreed yesterday on this visitation schedule, than today she is totally against it.” The longer these changes of moods, thinking and behavior continues on the part of the borderline in particular, the more these behaviors continue to fuel a full-fledged “high conflict divorce.” Borderlines are ill-equipped to deal effectively with marriage or divorce. Navigating through the divorce process is more difficult with these types of individuals than those suffering from almost any other emotional imbalance. In the final analysis, decisions may have to be made for the borderline if any real constructive progress can be achieved in reaching a reasonable divorce settlement.
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