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Borderline Personality Disorder and Divorce

Carolyn Woodruff

Today’s Ask Carolyn addresses Borderline Personality Disorder and how it can affect the divorce process. Borderline Personality is a Cluster B personality disorder characterized by unstable behavior, moods, and relationships. BPD is challenging to deal with in relationships, and can become even more difficult during divorce.

Dear Carolyn,

My custody file is at least a foot thick at the courthouse.  I thought this would be the year that we were done with custody, but custody is an ongoing saga.  My children are 8 and 10 year old boys. Every time I think we are finished, my ex (the mother) files a new motion. She has fired every counselor and psychologist that she has had. She is always right about everything, in her opinion.  She is intensely angry. She has even been married again and divorced again in the five years that this custody battle has been going on.  The court gave me fifty percent of the time with my sons at the initial hearing and this has been confirmed by the court at every subsequent hearing.  She just filed another motion for primary custody this week. What do I do?

– Weary Warrior

Dear Weary Warrior,

Your situation is truly unfortunate, but not necessarily uncommon. There are a few custody cases that have a “reputation” at the courthouse, and I’ll bet that yours is one of those. I feel very sorry for your sons.

I am not a psychologist, but I have worked with many great psychologists on these never ending custody battles. Here is what I would look for in your case—a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.  You will have to ask the court for a mental evaluation by a psychologist of your ex, and that psychologist will need to have the records of all of the counselors who have tried to help her.

Borderline personality disorder is a mental illness.  The usual markers are unstable moods, erratic relationships and behaviors, and “always being right”.  A Borderline views the world differently, so the borderline can thus “always be right”.  The Borderline hardly ever will stick with treatment, so you should ask the court to make your ex stick with a treatment plan or lose custody, and probably if your ex is, in fact, a Borderline, she will not stick with the treatment plan.  If the court will order that her therapy is a condition of her continued joint custodial rights, you may end up with primary custody if she refuses to comply.  If she is actually a Borderline, she may refuse to comply with the therapy set out by the court.

Please read the next “Ask Carolyn” for more information on Borderline Personality Disorder and its effect on custody and divorce.

Dear Carolyn,

My ex has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.  We are entrenched in custody and equitable distribution litigation. What do I need to know?

Carolyn Answers,

I recently had the opportunity to write to my readers regarding Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) in custody cases that seem to go on and on. I have more to say on the subject of BPD and this mental disorder in family law disputes.

BPD is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). This is the manual that most psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals use to diagnose mental illness. BPD first appeared in the third edition of this manual in 1980. Most people with a diagnosis of BPD suffer from (1) inability to regulate emotions and thoughts; (2) reckless and/or impulsive behavior; and (3) inability to create a stable relationship with other people, so relationships are unstable. No one is really sure what causes BPD, but the risk factors suggest that both genetic and environmental factors are probably involved. Some have suggested that early age sexual molestation is contributing in some cases.

Keep in mind, I am writing as a North Carolina family law specialist and experienced family lawyer, not as a mental health professional and these are my opinions based upon what I have seen. So what do you need to know?

  1. Corroborate, corroborate, corroborate. “Corroborate” in practical terms means that you must be able to prove what you say the facts are outside of your verbal testimony.  The BPD can make up facts and believe that the facts are true.  They can be convincing possibly because they believe in what they are saying so very much, when objectively, 10 other persons who witnessed the same event would totally disagree with the BPD and the other 10 would tell, basically, the same story.  The only way to protect yourself is not to be in situations with the BPD when it is your word against the BPD’s word.
  2. Do not be alone with the BPD.
  3. Prepare your case for court and head that way. While 90 percent of the family law cases can settle out of court, generally it is very difficult to settle with a borderline.  Your case must be well-prepared with third party proof, not just what you say.
  4. Study the book, Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissist, by William A. Eddy, Eggshells Press.
  5. Finally, and let me say it again: corroborate, corroborate, corroborate!!!
Have a family law question? Ask Carolyn!

Send your questions to Ask Carolyn through our website, on social media, by email at, or mail them to P.O. Box 9023, Greensboro, NC 27427. Please do not put identifying information in your questions.

Note that the answers in “Ask Carolyn” are intended to provide general legal information, and the answers are not specific legal advice for your situation.  The column also uses hypothetical questions.  A subtle fact in your unique case may determine the legal advice you need in your unique case.  Also, please note that you are not creating an attorney-client relationship with Carolyn J. Woodruff by writing or having your question answered by “Ask Carolyn.”

This blog is revised from a previous Ask Carolyn published in the Rhino Times.

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