When the Ex-Wife Has Borderline Personality Disorder: A 3-Step Guide for Stepmoms
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
Do you think the ex-wife in your life has BPD?
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
- Identity (unstable self-image)
- Self direction (instability in goals, values, etc.).
Problems with interpersonal functioning include
- Empathy (can not recognize the feelings and needs of others or prone to feel slighted or insulted)
- 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:
- Emotional liability (unstable emotional experiences, frequent mood changes, emotions that are out of proportion to the event that happened)
- Anxiousness (intense feelings of nervousness, or panic, threatened by uncertainty, fears of losing control)
- Separation insecurity (fears of rejection)
- Depressivity (feeling down, miserable, or hopeless, thoughts of or suicidal behavior)
- Impulsivity (acting in the moment without considering the outcomes)
- Risk taking (involved in dangerous or risky activity with no regard for consequences)
- 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.
Now that you are done reading the criteria:
Do you think the ex-wife in your life has BPD?
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.
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.
- - 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 Understanding the Borderline Motheran extensive review of this book to help you decide if it is the right book for you.
- 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.
- - 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. I Hate You - Don't Leave Me
- 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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.