When the Ex-Wife Has Borderline Personality Disorder: A 3-Step Guide for Stepmoms

Updated on August 13, 2018
Alice Marlowe profile image

Alice Marlowe PhD, PMHNP, RN, holds a BA in Psychology and is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.

What is Borderline Personality Disorder?

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental health disorder. It is part of the Cluster B personality disorders, known for being emotional, dramatic, and erratic. Other disorders in Cluster B are antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder. What all these disorders have in common are a lack of impulse control and difficulty regulating emotion.

Disclaimer! It's impossible to use the internet to diagnose someone with a mental illness. However, I will go over the symptoms associated with BPD so you can make an educated guess about what might be going on in your situation. While everyone displays some of these characteristics from time to time, people with a true personality disorder display these traits regularly across all times, places, and circumstances.

Before You Keep Reading

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The DSM-5 Criteria for BPD Explained

The DSM-5 criteria can be found online, however, it's long and it can be confusing. I'm going to touch on some of the highlights here. First, a person must have problems with both self functioning and interpersonal functioning.

Problems with self functioning include issues with

  1. Identity (unstable self-image)
  2. Self direction (instability in goals, values, etc.).

Problems with interpersonal functioning include

  1. Empathy (can not recognize the feelings and needs of others or prone to feel slighted or insulted)
  2. Intimacy (intense, unstable relationships marked by mistrust or neediness, anxious about abandonment, and alternates between either loving or hating the person).

Someone with BPD will have pathological personality traits. These include negative affectivity, disinhibition, and antagonism. Here is what that looks like in every day life:

  1. Emotional liability (unstable emotional experiences, frequent mood changes, emotions that are out of proportion to the event that happened)
  2. Anxiousness (intense feelings of nervousness, or panic, threatened by uncertainty, fears of losing control)
  3. Separation insecurity (fears of rejection)
  4. Depressivity (feeling down, miserable, or hopeless, thoughts of or suicidal behavior)
  5. Impulsivity (acting in the moment without considering the outcomes)
  6. Risk taking (involved in dangerous or risky activity with no regard for consequences)
  7. Hostility (frequent angry feelings, anger over minor slights)

In addition to having the above traits, a person with BPD will have these traits across time and situations. This means they act like this most of the time and not just in certain situations. The traits cannot be because of using drugs or alcohol. They also can't be explained away by another reason, like a cultural norm. People with BPD have an all or nothing approach to their thinking. A person, place, or thing is either all good or all bad and there is no in between. In a stepfamily situation this means your husband may always be all bad all the time. The children may sometimes be viewed as all good by their mother and sometimes all bad. You, the stepmom, are likely always all bad.

Source

Now that you are done reading the criteria:

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How Do I Know if the Ex-Wife has BPD?

Unless you kidnap and drag the ex-wife to a therapist for an official diagnosis you will never know for sure if she has BPD. Many people will use the term bipolar to describe someone with volatile mood swings. Bipolar disorder is a completely different diagnosis. A person can have both. If the ex-wife in your life changes moods every 30 seconds, bipolar disorder is not the likely diagnosis.

Source

I'm 99.999999999% Sure the Ex-Wife has BPD, Now What?

Don't shoot the messenger. There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. In general, people with personality disorders avoid therapists like the bubonic plague. Even if the ex-wife was officially diagnosed, BPD is notoriously difficult to treat and manage. The most common form of therapy used to treat BPD is Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). This is an intense treatment that offers a skills-based approach to teach mindfulness. DBT can improve the symptoms of BPD but the BPD is still there. Since stepmoms do not have magic mind control (bummer!) and cannot force an ex-wife to do anything let's move on to what you can do as the stepmom dealing with this type of situation.

Step 1: Disengage From the Vortex of Drama

Repeat after me: You didn't cause it. You can't control it. You can't change it. The absolute best thing you can do for your mental health and well being if you suspect the ex-wife has BPD is go no contact with her. This should be easy for you as the stepmom but more difficult for your spouse who shares children with the ex-wife. You must resist the urge to try to explain yourself or your thoughts. If the ex-wife has BPD she will lack empathy, be an emotional roller coaster from hell, and have the temperament of an angry honey badger. There are zero reasons on this planet to engage in any type of interaction with a person like that.

Perhaps you have already gone no contact with the suspected BPD ex-wife. It's time for a security check-up. Make sure her number is blocked on your phone (let's be real, the stepkids could be attacked by a gorilla and she would die before she ever contacted you by phone to let you know). Check to see if all her accounts on Facebook are blocked. The ex-wife in my life has about 8 personal Facebook accounts so it's imperative that you block each and every one. Twitter? Instagram? Email? You should be Stepmom Fort Knox. In any real emergency the ex-wife would never contact you anyway but if she was having one of her more impulsive angry days you better bet you can become a target, even if she hasn't spoken to you in years. My in-laws continue to be a random target of the ex-wife in my life when she has bad days and the divorce was final almost a decade ago. Be preemptive!

Step 2: Master the Art of Silence

Let's say you have successfully blocked the ex-wife from every form of written and verbal communication on the planet. That's great, but (there is always a but!) you may still encounter her at an event for the stepkids. You are now asking yourself if it is possible to remain no contact in these types of situations. Yes! Absolutely yes!

It takes a considerable amount of will power but you can develop the Art of Silence. The last time I remember speaking to the ex-wife in my life at a child-related event was 2012. After that, I mastered the Art of Silence and I have never looked back. Remember that people with BPD do not care about your feelings or the feelings of the children. They are impulsive and their emotional reactions to even a perceived slight can be astronomical. People with BPD can be downright hostile in benign situations and cause a massive scene. Even if you are genuinely trying to be a nice person and engage the ex-wife in an everyday, completely normal and boring conversation, there is a high chance she will perceive a wrong and all hell will break loose. Do not give her the ammunition to fire up the vortex of drama. That back to school night or science fair can quickly devolve into the Nightmare Before School and the Science Fair Shit Show all because the (likely) BPD ex-wife decided your hello was not nice enough. The ex-wife likely thrives on the drama and reaction so your mission is to give her zero reaction.

If you must encounter the ex-wife in person in any capacity I suggest having quick and easy access to a smartphone or other device that can be used to record video. The stories you read about false accusations of physical and sexual abuse in custody disputes often originate from ex-wives that likely have BPD. You want to protect yourself. Taking a video of the ex-wife in public does not make you look crazy if you practice the Art of Silence. The only person looking crazy is the one putting on the show worth recording.

Step 3: Educate Yourself About BPD

The sad reality in situations where the ex-wife, aka Mom of the Kids, has BPD is that the children will be negatively affected. You can eliminate the ex-wife from your life by removing her means to harass you but you cannot eliminate the trickle down effect her disorder will have on the children. Even if you are a stepmom in a non-custodial household where the children only come over every other weekend some of the vortex of drama will make its way into your home through the children.

The children are not responsible for their mother's behavior. Do not take out your anger and frustration on the children.

In the last several years books about BPD and BPD mothers and parents have made there way to the market. By learning all you can about BPD you can help yourself, your partner, and the children navigate the vortex. Reading books and articles about borderline mothers is extremely useful to gain an in-depth understanding of what you are dealing with.

  1. Understanding the Borderline Mother - This book is expensive but insightful and worth the investment. I've read it cover to cover at least 3 times and often find myself returning to bits and pieces of it after an emotional dump from the ex-wife. It explains the four types of borderline mother (queen, witch, wait, and hermit) and explains the relationships between borderline mothers and their children. I wrote an extensive review of this book to help you decide if it is the right book for you.
  2. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents - This book has been recommended in circles of adult children who have survived mother with BPD. While you, the stepmom, might not be the adult child in the situation this will help you develop empathy and understanding about what your stepchildren are going through. It's not mother specific.
  3. I Hate You - Don't Leave Me - This bookwas gifted to me by a mother who raised a daughter with BPD. I pull this one off the shelves when I find I am back in the place where I question why the ex-wife is doing this or that. My copy is well worn with notes all over the margins.
  4. Stop Walking on Eggshells - The classic book handed out to anyone and everyone who deals with a person with BPD. It does an excellent job of explaining the disorder and what a person with BPD is like. It is not specific to mothers.

The Borderline Mother
The Borderline Mother

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    • profile image

      Nick 

      4 days ago

      This article has helped me understand another angle of what I am dealing with in my ex-wife. In the comments, people share their views on BPD, some even stating that they have this disorder. I commend you for speaking out and sharing your personal experiences with it. But those of you speaking negatively about this article must not have really had to deal with someone that fits this articles description. Or, you are the mother that has their visitation removed because of this disorder, and I do understand how that feels.

      I am father that has been through a lot to better my two sons’ lives. Their mother did/said things that I truly will never understand what her objective was other than to be hurtful. She had sole custodial rights for two and half years, and I had to fight the lies and the false allegations to get where I am today. It was a long process and the judicial system saw through the lies and manipulation attempts from her and corrected their errors with the initial decisions. I have sole custodial rights/decision making now. Boys are doing 100% better in school, interacting with others extremely well, and most importantly…they are anxiety ridden nor are they lashing out at each other because they are upset about what has happened to our family.

      I would like to ponder further how many people with BPD have carried out unfaithful acts as my ex-wife did. I know it is tough when we live in a society that typically views fathers as the problem when really it must be viewed equally. Sure, our laws were written ages ago when society felt the women’s role was at home (I do not agree with this at ALL mind you) tending to the children and taking care of the home.

      What I am going through I know won’t dwindle down as it only has intensified as time progresses from the final divorce hearing. My ex is on the far end of the BPD spectrum and I do hope for her sake she tries to change. Staying angry at others only hurts oneself in most cases. But when it comes to divorce, a person must realize that the children can really be affected. So closet your BPD people or get the help so that you can be an active self-sufficient person for your family. Cause society can go F it self as far as I am concerned.

    • profile image

      Danielle 

      2 months ago

      Wow this article was spot on. So scary, I feels so hopeless. My husbands ex has this. Anything she does is chaotic. None of her own family members have a relationship with her, her bf is an ex drug addict who says he is a “mental health expert” and now the children have realized how toxic their mother is and do not want to go back. How can the court system help us with this? She constantly sabotages everything. Shes is blocked on everything and still makes her way thru somehow. 10 emails a day calling from unknown numbers calls the police constantly. It’s a living nightmare. Please help. I’ve put an order in for a restraining order but they denied me I have a hearing next week.

    • profile image

      Breathing Again 

      2 months ago

      Enjoyed reading this article.

      Need a little further advice.

      My husband's ex has a diagnosis of BPD. There are 5 children from their marriage in which 4 are over the age of 18. The youngest is 16, a girl. The ex had not spent much time with the kids over the last 11 years as she was unable. Now the youngest is spending every other week with the ex. There is now this static drama in my household that seems to stick in the air. All done through the youngest. The youngest has become manipulative and not taking responsibility for her actions and blaming others for things. I am at the end of my rope. My husband says it is gravely important for me to be there for this child and I am thinking it is gravely important for me to save my soul!

      What to do in this type of situation?

    • profile image

      SH 

      2 months ago

      Thank you so much for your article. I'm sorry to hear that it's offended some people and the comments have become so heated. I found it really helpful. I've been with my partner for 8 years and we each have a child. I was also previously a single mum. I have no contact with my step-daughter's mum (nicer than saying 'the ex'), who I understand is in treatment for BPD, which I think is a positive, but unfortunately doesn't seemed to have helped much, based on recent events. I don't avoid contact to be 'immature', but rather to minimize conflict (e.g. randomly being sworn at in front of my child for saying 'hello') and potential violence (which I have witnessed against others such as my mother in law). It's not my job to be anyone's verbal/punching bag and certainly not my son's job to witness this purely because he has a step-sister with a mum who isn't in control of her emotions. Not our problem. Sorry, not sorry. I won't go into the continued aggression we've been subjected to, and I don't feel I need to justify my experiences, but I do know it's nothing I did/said, as it started from day 1 even though I'd purposefully put off meeting her and had no contact, so as not to 'stoke the fire'. I've never experienced anything like this in other areas of my life, nor has my partner. I don't experience this with my son's dad/step-mum, who I like very very much. So we're at a complete loss and very worried about how mum's behavior will affect the child in the long term. Unfortunately the behavior has also been directed at my little one, who certainly didn't do anything wrong. He'll he's trying to deal with with normal emotions of his own separated family so certainly doesn't deserve to be labeled a 'retard' etc etc etc. I've been reading articles such as this to try and understand what we're going through more intellectually and less emotionally and reach a place of empathy, rather than anger or disgust. Which has honestly been really hard. I'm human! I feel very sorry for the people here who are suffering BPD and feel maligned by this article. It must be so hard and you must feel very misunderstood at times. I applaud those who are seeking treatment and are doing well, but please understand that some people are simply not. At the same time, please try and also have empathy that, as the target of a someone with BPD, my life, my partner's life, his family and that of both kids, has also been absolutely turned upside down, through no fault or instigation of our own, simply because we fell in love and that upset someone else's sense of security/self-image/fear of abandonment. Actually it's affected everyone else's mental wellbeing too. While we should all try and come from a place of empathy as much as possible, it's important for people in all crappy situations to have a place to talk it out and feel like we're not crazy. BPD sufferers deserve that too, but perhaps this isn't the best forum. Reading angry comments, some feeling from my humble perspective they're 'sticking up for the perpetrators' in these horrific stories of abuse and going on the defensive, is really reinforcing the abuse some of us have suffered, without knowledge of our individual circumstances. And abuse is NEVER OK, regardless of what the perpetrstor is personally going through. It's just not. And honestly, I read a few emotional outbursts that kind of aren't doing much to advocate for BPD sufferers, rather reinforcing some of the stereotypes in place and also some of the abuse some of us are trying to heal from, which isn't helpful to anyone. Well, this article rang true for me with what I've experienced and I appreciate your words. I didn't come on here to vilify anyone with mental illness, but to try and understand how I can better manage its flow on affect in the lives of my family, including two young children children. Hopefully everyone here finds peaceful resolutions to whatever suffering they are experiencing - no ill will intended towards anyone or intent to pile on to anyone's suffering. Just a bit fed up with the behavior of one person alone.

    • profile image

      Laine 

      3 months ago

      So, no one but a specific few types of medical professionals can diagnose BPD (as per the 'disclaimer') but you're going to go ahead and pretty much encourage it with a checklist of behaviours (great job explaining the DSM criteria - no one who has read it needs a psych degree to make a diagnosis now!) and a nice little comparative chart anyway?

      To be upfront: I have BPD and I'm very high functioning, actively working on my recovery/health, etc. I'm well aware that I'm not one of those 'nightmare' BPD sufferers you're talking about, but you didn't exactly make it clear that we're not all jerks and that many of us are in therapy. Thanks for making it sound like we all just resist recovery because we're assholes and like being crazy. I see that you didn't mention how we don't seek help because we feel like we're not worth the time and how we trivialise our own problems because there are people out there who have it worse than us.

      We suffer. A bit of compassion would go a long way - people with BPD feel black and white (we don't think that way - we're not idiots - we just feel very strongly one way or the other about something or someone in a given moment even though we can tell ourselves we're not being reasonable) and if you don't want us to hate you, maybe try not being a jerk. My first boyfriend's new girlfriend (the first one after me) was kind to me when we ended up at some campus event together and I was okay with her right from then on (and my ex too). I was even sad for the pair of them when they split a few years later.

      We don't mean to cause drama. We don't want everyone to hate us. We don't want to embarrass ourselves. We are really, truly suffering. We're much more likely to hurt or kill ourselves than deliberately ruin your life.

      Maybe your hello wasn't nice enough. I'm sure your scathing prejudice shone through.

    • profile image

      Aaron S 

      4 months ago

      My ex-wife was diagnosed with BPD years ago. I didn't know when we were dating/married but it definitely came out later. She doesn't seek help anymore and she is an absolute nightmare to co-parent with. I wouldn't wish dealing with it (BPD) on anyone!

    • profile image

      Chris 

      5 months ago

      As a step-mom dealing with a BPD ex for 19 years, this article is pretty spot on with good advice of how to handle this often draining family dynamic. This article was intended to be used as advice and tips for STEP-MOMS dealing with similar situations. It is simpily 1 perspective, and should be used and considered if you are a step parent and your spouses ex is Toxic.

      No where in the article did she pretend to be self-righteous, perfect, or without flaws. Just because you call a thing a thing doesn't mean that you believe your perfect and without flaw. We as individuals are allowed to choose who we allow into our lives, and if you are a step -mom dealing with a high conflict bio parent, either gender, then you have the ability to choose how engaged you are with that person. Some people really have no idea what they are dealing with when they encounter a personality disordered individual, and will often times exaughst themselves trying to make amends, accomodate, and be cordial, all to later have it thrown right back in their face. This article and many others like it on the net, seek to help and validate what people who are affected by the personality disordered individual already suspect.

      Specifically, this article gives tips and advice to deal with high conflict ex from a step-mom's perspective. She tried to make it about both women and men, but tried to give advice from her perspective that is a step-mom. Nowhere did she state that men can not have mental illness, and nowhere did she need to state that since this is an article geared to the female reader who is a step mom dealing with a high conflict bio mother. Just look at the title and that should clue you into what the subject matter will be about. Just because she doesn't really mention men in terms of being the high conflict ex, dosen't mean that she is trying to imply that that siuation never happens.

      Honestly, she is being empathetic towards step-mom's and there ability to cope with the stress and vortex of drama inflicted by the PD ex. If you want to hear empathetic views on Personality Disorders then read an article that deals with that subject matter. When you are on the recieving end of abuse that you feel stuck and unable to cope with then you sort of loose your empathy for the abuser.

      Silent treatment and disengagement is probably some of the best advice in handling conflict with a person who doesn't process emotions healthy. By choosing to disengage and remain silent in order to protect your own sanilty, can see how that is sociopathic or narcissist. One could try to flip that way, but the true test to that will be to look at the other relationships in your life and how healthy and fulfilling they are. Most likely the PD indiv. with see unhealthy relationships, conflict with their own family members, and patterns of sabatoging behaviors. If a non PD indiv. decides to go no contact and disengage from the BPD indiv because of inflicted abuse, but has many other healthy relationships and fullfilling life patterns, then that is a means of self protection not narcississm. Its not done to be manipulative, it is done in order to have a peaceful life, free from crazy making drama that a BPD indiv. can bring.

      There are many senarios and situations, and of course there is always 2 sides to every story. But speaking from experience, It is impossible to try to reason with the emotional rollar coaster of a BPD female who shares a child or children with your spouse, even worse if they were married and shared a life together. You are either all good or all bad, and almost always the step parent will be seen as all bad. No matter what you do, say, think, feel or don't do, say, think, or feel you will be wrong and sometimes made to be the cause of the problems. But more often, the more you engage in conversation and try to extend kindness, appreciation, and understanding the often more angry and rageful BPD females become. How I see it from the emotionally healthy step-mom perspective, I am put into the catagory of dislike simply by breathing and being who I am (the new wife), any acts that could make me seem better like, thoughtfullness, kindness, consideration, will create more dislike instead of its intention to create a co-parenting situation. If I am good ( good wife, good mother, good friend, good anything) then the BPD ex wife see's it as she is then bad because we can't both be good people. Her kids can't like my cooking because then they don't like her cooking, my spouse can't actually love me because then he never and doesn't love her. Anything that I as the step mom needs to be seen and treated as all bad in order for the BPD ex to have any ability to see herself as a good and worthy person. We can not co exsist in a place where we both may be good people. Once I figured this out for myself it allowed me to disengage and stop running on the hammster wheel. I no longer felt the need to reach out, become friends or cordial, and co-parent with my spouse and her. I simply backed away, remained quiet, and educated myself about this disorder. Now my step daughter is 18 years old and has lived with us since she was 14 years old. I don't speak anything negative about her mother, actually I dont have much to say because I have not had a conversation with her in 3 years. My husband on the other hand has had to conversate with her and he remains calm, sticking to the subject and things have went well for years. Now that my step daughter is older she can make decisions for herself and my husband and I really dont need to have any communication with her mother. Have to say, things have gotten better with time as my step daughter got older and now things are coming full circle, all of the years of mental abuse she inflicted on her poor daughter, she now hardly speaks to her mother. Again, not my doing or decision, actually we encourage our daughter to reach out to her mother and keep a relationship because that is what is healthiest for her, but the decision is up to our daughter who is 19. She too is tired of the choosing me or them, all or nothing, attitude her mother believes. If she chooses to live with us, then she must not love me attitude has gotten old to deal with, and it is really a sad outcome. Honestly, at times I feel really sorry for her she has pushed away anyone in her life that has ever loved her, all in an attempt to not feel abandond. Sound familiar?

    • profile image

      xxcky 

      5 months ago

      hmmmm

      So men can't have BPD, Bipolar or other mental illness?

      You don't sound very empathetic to me, pretty hostile, and -- you have history of unhealthy relationships.....

      I'm just curious, what bad habits do you have?

      Do you gamble, look at porn, lie, are you or have you been unfathful?

      Have you raised your voice been verbally abusive or physically abusive?

      Have you ever been laid off a job, arrested, DUI, OUI?

      Do you drink more than 3 drinks per week (8 ounces), smoke marjiuana, take other drugs or prescription drugs?

      Just sounds a wee bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

      Silent treatement, sounds a wee sociopathic and/or narcistic.

      Or,

      A perfectly sane, healthy adult male, just happened to fall in love with a BPD spouse?

      I think there is more to your story, would love to here the ex's side.

    • SebX profile image

      SebX 

      5 months ago

      My borderline ex had a therapist who only threw gasoline on the fire. That was right around when we separated over 8 years ago. Either the therapist was borderline herself, or she was completely fooled by my ex (classic borderline trick!) OR the therapist was simply amoral and unethical. Take your pick. I am headed back to court next week - once again, 8 years and over $250,000 in attorney fees after separation from a 9 year marriage!!! - because my ex and her narcissistic father apparently will never stop. So it's very difficult to pretend to have sympathy for mentally ill people just because it looks nice. Finally, the families who are hurt are those who are unaware of just how incredibly evil a borderline person can be, which is a pity when the truth is available and could help them but some people would like to hide it to prevent any hurt feelings!

    • profile image

      Lily 

      6 months ago

      If you are a therapist and find this article insulting then you don't have experience with BPD.

    • profile image

      Living with a bpd mom 

      6 months ago

      LPC10years.... this wasn't unkind at all. It was honest, and after being in therapy for years, and living with it, I can say it was very accurate. As a matter of fact, it might not have been raw enough.

    • profile image

      LPC10yrs 

      6 months ago

      I have been a therapist for 10 years and I find this article to be unkind to those with mental health problems. It also is irresponsible to put the info out here in this manner. I hope that no families have been harmed by your post.

    • profile image

      Sharon 

      6 months ago

      I don’t see the video of the art of silence

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