Can Relationships with People who have Borderline Personalities be Saved?

© 2015 Megan Hunter, MBA

In the autumn of 2005, I happened across an article about high conflict divorce. I’d worked in divorce law long enough to know that these were the outlier cases—the seemingly impossible cases that were beyond what most would consider a “normal” divorce—they were family destroyers. These cases did not settle easily and often required a judge to decide every matter at issue. They usually took a year or more to be finalized and then ended up becoming “frequent filers,” coming back to court to fight about anything and everything. These cases drained the budgets of the courts who adjudicated them, served as a source of frustration and helplessness for the professionals who handled them, and wiped out savings, retirement, and college funds for the high-conflict couple. But worst of all, the parents’ behavior affected their children in damaging, disturbing ways.

Family law professionals share the notion that approximately 20 percent of family court cases consume around 80 percent of the court’s time, energy, and resources, similar to the Pareto Principle. Most divorcing or separating spouses get through the process by settling it between themselves or by using mediation. Some need the assistance of professionals like lawyers, but they also eventually reach resolution. However, the approximately 20 percent of cases considered high conflict are those that keep lawyers, psychologists, therapists, social workers, and the courts busy. Indeed, high-conflict divorce and related child custody cases have created an unintended, thriving, multimillion-dollar, self-sustaining industry.

Families already in crisis typically seem to worsen in our adversarial court system. Some cases take years to litigate, with multiple attorneys and tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lawyers for each parent, lawyers for the kids, psychologists, counselors, custody evaluators, parenting coordinators, and other professionals. Some custody evaluations can cost upward of ten thousand dollars. Long after the legal case is finally finished, the fighting continues as parents battle over co-parenting issues and everything else for years to come. More conflict, more loss, more drama, more chaos. And: More damage to the kids and the parents!

Progress but still discontent

The court system is usually the end of the relationship road, and that frustrated me. Debate swirls around divorce statistics, but the reality is that at least half of the people in this stage of life—in which they cohabit, marry, divorce, remarry, and have children—will eventually come calling on the court to either dissolve the marriage, decide who gets custody of the kids, or determine how much time the kids will spend with the other parent.

Although the high conflict industry provided my income, I grew disillusioned as part of the clean-up crew. While it was satisfying to know we were helping move people through the court system with more ease (and thereby reducing the stress and frustration felt by professionals, as well as with decreasing the threat of lawsuits and complaints against their licenses), what kept nagging at me was an underlying belief about the population we were serving: that these were people who simply couldn’t change and the only solution was to end the relationship.

Granted, many of these people displayed really ugly behavior and seemingly deserved the labels they were commonly given—“crazy,” “psycho,” “psycho bitch,” “lunatic,” “borderline,” “narcissist,” “sociopath,” or “psychopath.” Typically, only the most patient people, usually mental health professionals, had any success in dealing with them. Most others eventually learned to avoid them because the very thought of dealing with or even being around them was too distressing. It’s true; they’re exhausting to deal with or be around. Some of us find ourselves in constant conflict with them, while the rest of us just try to run away from them.

However, the more I studied human behavior, particularly the brain’s role in relationships and conflict, the more wasteful it seemed. I asked myself: Was a segment of society incapable of having successful relationships? Could relationships be saved if at least one partner understood the brain nature of this relationship impairment? Could divorce or relationship dissolution be avoided if at least one person took ownership of managing the relationship in a skillful way? What would happen if they had the right set of instructions for this particular brain; if they understood their own brain’s unconscious reactions? And, finally, could we have success by adapting our perception of the most difficult people – those we think of as Borderline (Borderline Personality Disorder) and instead think of them as someone with what I call a “Complicated Operating System™”?

What can be done to save “complicated relationships”?

The Complicated Operating System is a fear-based system that needs to feel connected with another human being in order to feel okay. So it’s constantly on the lookout for threats to that connection. You don’t see it because it’s all happening behind the scenes and it wants to eliminate those threats. Sadly, this creates chaos and exhausts the spouse. What can be done?

Here are a few things to get started:

  • First, accept the reality that your partner operates differently than you expected, even though they don’t appear differently on the outside.

  • Remind yourself to have empathy for your partner.

  • simply accept instead of trying to understand

  • think of the good and happy parts of your partner

  • think of the bad behavior as temporary

  • imagine him or her as a wounded person who needs help, even though hostility may be coming from him or her

  • challenge yourself to rise to the challenge of helping make both lives better.

Commit to:

  • understanding and accepting your partner’s Complicated Operating System

  • adjusting your expectations

  • becoming disciplined enough to truly help your partner

  • Take care of yourself physically and emotionally

  • Understand your own conflict style (what happens when you’re triggered)

  • Establish a threat-reduced environment

  • Avoid being judgmental

  • Practice using a soft, non-judgmental, non-condescending and accusatory tone of voice

  • Seek counseling together and don’t suggest that your partner needs counseling

  • Connect and Shift in intense moments

  • Connect with Empathy, Attention and Respect (E.A.R.) (see Setting Limits with E.A.R. by Bill Eddy)

  • Shift them into positive emotions by leading them down the thinking path after they’ve calmed down

  • Develop structure in your relationship through the use of contracts that both of you do together to work on your individual and joint relationship issues (see Sample Contract here).

  • Be honest about your own needs, which naturally creates healthy boundaries

  • Build consequences into the contract for both of you

Maybe we can prevent relationships from needlessly ending and bring peace into all our lives by learning a new way of dealing with people who handle relationships a little outside the norm.

Co-founder Megan Hunter is a speakerauthor, and international expert on high-conflict disputes, complicated relationships, and Borderline Personality Disorder. She has over 13 years experience as the Family Law Specialist with the Arizona Supreme Court, and Child Support Manager of the Dawes County Attorney’s Office in Nebraska.

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