Borderline Personality and Custody

Be prepared for an epic battle.

Posted Sep 10, 2019

One of the greatest challenges that can face a married couple or a couple in the process of getting a divorce is when one or both partners suffer from a mental health disorder. The issues that arise from the stress of marriage and child-rearing are complex for even the most emotionally stable couple. Adding a mental health challenge to the situation can make difficult issues astronomically harder.

It is well accepted that extreme stress can exacerbate mental illness. As a family law and matrimonial attorney who frequently collaborates with therapists on child custody and high-conflict divorce cases, there are seemingly countless stories that illustrate mental health issues coming to a head during divorce proceedings. They may surface in the run-up to divorce or during litigation and then are often played out to their extreme during the trial and even after the dust should have settled. This makes what is a typically challenging and painful process even harder for both spouses, as well as for the children involved.

I have found there is a particularly dangerous unpredictability when it comes to child custody litigation if one of the parents suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

The Mayo Clinic describes BPD in part as an “intense fear of abandonment, even going to extreme measures to avoid real or imagined separation or rejection” and “a pattern of unstable intense relationships, such as idealizing someone one moment and then suddenly believing the person doesn't care enough or is cruel.”

When you combine the feelings of loss and rejection that one may feel as they divorce, the fear associated with litigating child custody issues, and the fact that stressful life events often exacerbate symptoms in those suffering from mental health disorders, you can surmise that a person suffering from BPD may have great difficulty maintaining any semblance of good judgment and rational thinking. 

The “reasoning” that motivates someone with this disorder might be as simple as: "You are either with me or against me, and once you are against me, I will destroy you at all costs." For some, no tactic is too extreme if it will meet that goal.

Consequently, this disorder can drive someone to do what is unthinkable to others. Motivated by what may feel to hem like a real sense of desperation to keep their children, a partner may intentionally accuse the other of having committed horrendous crimes. BPD in a parent can manifest as an attempt to destroy their spouse’s reputation, livelihood and most importantly, their relationship with their children.

Sadly, I have seen people married to spouses with BPD and other mental health disorders falsely arrested and falsely accused of child abuse, which has sometimes resulted in the falsely accused spouse losing their jobs and reputations in the community. And while the falsity of the accusations and their spouse’s mental state may all come to light after a long, protracted, and expensive litigation, the falsely accused must endure what seems like an endless battle. And once falsely accused, the stain of that accusation often never fully clears.

And then there is the damage this kind of experience does to the children who are caught in the middle. What a child suffers when one parent is accusing the other of abuse — falsely and publicly — is truly horrific and can affect them emotionally for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, it is all too common for children to be interviewed by Child Protective Services and even forced to undergo unnecessary physical examinations as a result of parents with BPD making false accusations to even the score with the parent initiating the divorce.

There are several ways you can help protect yourself when preparing to disentangle from a relationship or a marriage, and ultimately keep or gain custody of your children, when your spouse suffers from borderline personality or another mental disorder:

  1. If you are already working with an attorney, let your attorney know of your specific concerns immediately, and take his or her advice on the next steps that are deemed right for your situation.
  2. Be sure to let your attorney know about any prior mental health episodes that your spouse had, including prior to the marriage.  The foregoing should include any hospitalizations, suicidal ideations, suicide attempts, issues that your spouse may have had with former partners, including any allegations that your spouse made about former boyfriends or girlfriends.
  3. If you are not already working with an attorney, find someone who understands mental health issues and ideally, someone who has worked on cases similar to yours.
  4. Sharing information and documentation is key. Be very candid with your attorney about your concerns. Share any examples that illustrate your concerns. 
  5. Additionally, talk to a therapeutic professional who has experience in this area, and let that person know what you are concerned about and why. Having a third party who has expertise in this area to document concerns and fears, before accusations are made, could be very helpful if your worst fears come true.
  6. While it is unwise to challenge someone who is acting irrationally, it is ideal if you can document any erratic behavior on the part of your spouse, including details such as times, places, etc.
  7. As hard as it might be, it is important to have witnesses to as many of your interactions with your spouse and children as possible, including – if you are already separated – having conversations in a public place or with someone neutral present. Do not isolate yourself or allow yourself to be isolated.
  8. Keep a record of any concerning interactions, particularly with your children. This could be helpful if the allegations are made in the future. If you are still living in the same residence, it is also important to be very careful about any interactions with your spouse and your children. Be extremely mindful of what you say and how you say it to ensure something is not later interpreted in an irrational way.
  9. Make sure that you are aware of your children’s providers and that you interact with those providers in a professional manner.
  10. If you are planning to ask for a divorce, it is important to involve your therapist in the process.
  11. If you have been charged with any crime against your spouse or child, you must abide by any orders of protection that have been filed, even if you know they were put in place due to a false allegation. Be sure to cooperate with the Court, ACS and/or CPS and to work with your lawyer and therapist.
  12. It is helpful to find a professional who you trust to speak with while going through this stressful time to protect your emotional well-being and the emotional health of your children.
  13. Above all, place your children’s needs first. And remember, no matter what, this is your child’s parent. That means that this person will be in your child’s life forever and you need to find a way to foster a relationship between your child and your child’s parent in a safe way.  

What I have often heard from clients when they have been falsely accused, is that there were signs of mental illness that they ignored—prior hospitalizations, suicide attempts, unusually ugly breakups with prior boyfriends or girlfriends, prior Orders of Protection and accusations.

The very best way to protect yourself from experiencing any of the above is to recognize the signs of mental illness. Love does not need to be blind and the signs should not be overlooked or ignored. Be careful with whom you have a relationship, a child and a marriage.

Most importantly, please take care of yourself, and your children, during this incredibly difficult time.

These opinions should not substitute as legal or mental health advice, as each case is unique. If you are facing a similar situation, it is critical to contact a family law attorney or mental health professional in your area as soon as possible.