Some of the most emotionally abusive relationships and traumatic divorces involve the mentally ill. One of the most difficult of these mental illnesses is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) because it is not easily diagnosed. Behaviors can range from extreme violence to subtle patterns of emotional blackmail and projection. On top of that, many Borderlines tend to live in denial, constantly avoiding their own feelings of emptiness, insecurity, anger, disappointment and fear that more often than not stems from an abusive childhood. It is hard to treat and help someone if they don’t want to face their own abuse — abuse that they themselves suffered or the abuse that they themselves do.
Classifying Borderlines as “Acting In” or “Acting Out”
Not all borderlines are focused on harming others. Some are so busy with their own inner demons that they are trapped in a realm of substance abuse, suicide attempts, and self-hate that for most can be traced back to child abuse or neglect. They are often known as the “acting in” type. If this is the kind of Borderline in your life, count yourself lucky. That’s because they are both more likely to recognize their own problems and work on them and less likely to focus on destroying other people in a desperate attempt to portray themselves as worthy people who are victims in need of assistance.
The other group of Borderlines, sometimes called the “acting out” group, are narcissistic sociopaths with little sense of guilt or remorse. They often have little limit to what they will do to make themselves “win” and you “lose” and don’t care who else they hurt in the process. If you have been in a relationship with a person suffering Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), be aware that much of what is written about “acting out” Borderlines applies equally to Narcissists.
Blaming and Projection
A relationship with someone who suffers from BPD can leave the one being abused feeling confused and hopeless as they are often blamed for all the problems in the relationships, even including things they didn’t do. Often, such blaming for fictional behaviors is a form of projection used to distract from the Borderline doing the exact thing she or he is accusing the partner of doing. For instance, your Borderline significant other may be having affairs, but you can be sure you will be accused of having affairs (even if you have never had one) long before he or she will admit to one. You may find that many of your friends and family will have heard about your fictional affairs long before you even realize your significant other has been lying about you far and wide. When you try to explain what is really happening, many will refuse to believe the truth because they have heard so many lies about you they cannot imagine they are all false.
The Borderline’s excessive tendency to project or transfer their own negative feelings, behaviors, or perceived negative traits onto others usually arises from their own feelings of self-hatred and self-criticism. In order to deny and escape the truth about their own private hell (usually rooted in an abusive childhood), they instead project their own feelings of self-hatred and inadequacy outside themselves onto others. This is why Borderlines will constantly criticize you, accuse you of saying or doing something you haven’t done or said, and blame you for their problems and unhappiness.
Borderline projections can be very destructive and because most borderlines do not have healthy boundaries, situations can escalate and cause more unnecessary hurt and damage all the way to very serious false criminal allegations that can cost innocent people their jobs, children, and even their lives. For more on this, read up on BPD Distortion Campaigns .
Related to projections is the behavior known as “gaslighting” in which the Borderline tries to confuse another person into believing things that are not true. Often this is to create self-doubt. The target for this abuse can end up questioning his or her own sanity as the Borderline matter-of-factly relates “events” or “what was said” that the target does not recall because they never occurred. You can read more about this behavior in our article Borderlines Make You Feel Insane Via “Gaslighting” .
Divorce Can Intensify the Emotional Abuse
When you divorce someone who suffers from BPD, the emotional abuse does not necessarily end there. It can result in a high-conflict divorce costing you more than you bargained for, not just in terms of wasted money and time, but in very deep psychological wounds. The borderline ex is prone to litigate over everything and to refuse to cooperate with court orders, reasonable requests, and common sense. She or he will likely make even straightforward property settlement issues costly, dragging out the legal process by refusing or avoiding to comply with court decrees to return property, split retirement accounts, repay money owed, and more. He or she may manipulate others by crying poor, telling others that you have lots of money stashed away and have always been mean with money, when in reality they themselves have a much higher income and have more savings than you. Again, this kind of behavior is projection and also a way to humiliate and dominate you.
Another way Borderlines can mess with your mind and emotions is to try and suck you back into the marriage if it is the early stages of your divorce or separation. Be sure to set your limits and be prepared to stand your ground and stick to your boundaries. Borderline behavior will swing unpredictably, one week they may call and want to talk for hours, the next week they may block off any and all communication from you.
No doubt this will be very frustrating so it will be important that you have good legal representation – preferably an attorney who is familiar and understands what drives high-conflict divorces – and a supportive network of family and friends that you can trust. Most importantly, do your best to disengage from the situation. If you have tried every avenue to reasonably communicate with your Borderline and they continue to be unresponsive, do not persist by sending more communication thinking that they might not have received the others you sent. Otherwise the Borderline may distort the truth and accuse you of stalking and harassment.
Borderline Behaviors Regarding Child Custody Disputes
If you have children together, the harm from the Borderline will almost certainly be far worse than you can imagine. Many Borderlines, particularly those who do not focus on self-harm, have difficulty acting appropriately in regard to the children. They will do far more damage as their distress overflows to severely affect the children’s lives. Your children will be put in the middle of the war and used as pawns for the Borderline to control and manipulate. The Borderline will likely engage in parental alienation  against you and your children.
Don’t be surprised if your children are taught by the Borderline to lie to harm you, especially lies to paint you as an unfit and dangerous parent. Your children may be too young to understand the difference between a lie and a truth and merely imitate their sociopathic parent as ordered. In other cases, they may know they are lying and feel guilty doing so. But they do it because they are more afraid of upsetting the Borderline than they would ever be of you. You know what hell the Borderline can dish out and how hard it is to endure it as an adult. If you think about what it would be like as a child who cannot escape and is dependent upon such a sociopathic parent, you may gain an understanding of why your loving children may be willing to wrongly help destroy you.
Plan for the worst imaginable. You can be a good parent, hard worker, and honest person who has never done anything more seriously wrong than earn a parking ticket for an expired meter. But the Borderline may try to convince all coworkers, friends, and family (yours included) that you are a drunk, drug abuser, child sex offender, thief, spousal abuser, deadbeat, and more.
The efforts to inflict a distortion campaign  on you will increase dramatically when there are children involved. Expect a stream of false and exaggerated reports to the police and CPS to try to get you arrested, imprisoned, and banned from seeing your children. Your workplace may become an intolerable viper’s nest of lies and rumors as the Borderline makes sure everybody knows how horrible you are. If you dare to defend yourself with the truth, she or he will convincingly attempt to portray you as the psychopath and most people, lacking complete information and having heard about your supposed horrible nature behind your back for years, will swallow up the lies like hungry fish snapping at worms on hooks.
All this maybe twisted to look like it is for the “best interests of the children” or “protecting the children”. The Borderline is desperate to keep them away from you to prove that she or he is a better person than you and also because of their own fears of abandonment and poor self-image.
There is help available for those being abused by Borderlines and those suffering similar conditions that drive them to emotionally abuse their loved ones. Identifying and understanding the emotionally abusive behaviors is the first step. In her book The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing , Beverly Engel  points out that many couples can remain trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship without realizing how destructive and dysfunctional it really is.
Without intervention, the cycle of abuse continues, resulting in severe psychological damage and possibly another generation of emotionally abusive relationships. Engel’s book covers the gamut of emotional abuse from the less serious to the truly terrifying. She explains how even normally non-abusive people when treated abusively for long periods can eventually retaliate with emotional abuse of their own. This is a further scenario of how the cycle of abuse can turn adult abuse victims into abusers, much like happens to many abused children who become abusive partners and parents.
If you’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship, Engel believes you must come to terms with abuse or neglect in your past. Her book helps readers identify their “original abuser” (often a parent), identify traits in partners that are related to that abuse, and how to overcome the emotional abuse. She suggests methods to work with a partner who is willing to make some changes as well as things to do when there is no chance of stopping the abuse without ending the relationship. In order to minimize the chance of establishing yet another emotionally abusive relationship, it is critical to understand the emotional abuse cycle and one’s involvement in it before proceeding to a new relationship. Engel’s book helps readers with this challenge, too.
Engel devotes particular attention to emotional abuse in the context of two personality disorders, BPD and NPD (Narcissitic Personality Disorder) as she has found in her experience as a therapist that these personality disorders are particularly likely to both originate from emotional abuse and to cause future emotional abuse:
I have also singled out BPD and BPD because they — more than any other personality disorders or mental illness — are thought to be primarily caused by emotional abuse or neglect in childhood.
Another reason for my focus is that BPD and NPD are considered by many to be the personality disorder of our time. The sheer numbers of people suffering from these disorders has caused a great deal of focus on them, including a great deal of research as to their cause.
Identifying The Emotionally Abusive Traits of a Borderline
Emotionally abusive relationships and common Borderline behaviors heavily overlap. The following questions have been adapted from Engel’s The Emotionally Abusive Relationship  and Randi Kreger’s classic Stop Walking on Eggshells , another excellent book for people who know or suspect a family member may suffer from BPD. These questions can be used to both identify emotional abuse and hazard a guess that the abuser may suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder.
- Do you feel that anything you say or do will be twisted and used against you?
- Do you feel that you can never seem to do anything right to please your partner because what he or she wants is constantly changing or their expectations are unrealistic?
- Are you blamed and criticized for everything wrong in the relationship – even when it makes no logical sense and not even your fault?
- Do you often feel like you are in a no-win situation when it comes to dealing with your partner?
- Does your relationship with your partner feel like a constant emotional roller coaster, where there are periods of irrational and perhaps violent rages or the “silent treatment” alternating with periods of loving and normal moments?
- Do you feel like the person you care about sees you as either all good or all bad, with nothing in between, and with no rational reason for the black and white perception of you?
- Does your partner frequently criticize you, denigrate or deny your point of view?or accuse you of doing things you never did and saying things you never said?
- Are you constantly being accused of doing things you never did and saying things you never said?
- Do you often find yourself not being able to have an honest conversation with your partner because you are afraid of your partner’s reaction? As a result, do you find yourself concealing what you truly think and feel because it’s not worth the misunderstanding and horrible fight that will no doubt follow?
If you find yourself answering “yes” to most or all of these questions, you are being emotionally abused and your partner likely suffers from BPD or a similar personality disorder.
Please realize that diagnosing BPD is very difficult for a variety of reasons, so much so that even many professionals shy away from doing it. One experienced child custody evaluator says in a multi-decade career in which he’s evaluated many parents with personality disorders, he has only diagnosed one parent with BPD. As he explains, that was not because this parent was unusual — many of the parents behaved like Borderlines and such a diagnosis would be accurate. This instance was the only case in which he diagnosed a parent with BPD simply because the court ordered that diagnosis to be considered and either confirmed or rejected.
The evaluator stated that Borderlines often get very upset when they are labelled as such. Because of this, he and many of his colleagues conducting child custody and psychological evaluations refuse to use such labels as Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder even when they appear accurate. There was a suggestion that this also had to do with the likelihood that if he were to anger such a person with an accurate diagnosis, there may be some adverse consequences for him including licensing complaints and lawsuits. Further, most judges also lack training in psychology and don’t understand the diagnosis and therefore wouldn’t know what to do with it even if it were made.
One wonders what the point of a custody or psychological evaluation  is when the accurate diagnosis will not be made for fear of the consequences. Given this sad state of affairs, if you do find yourself in a divorce or child custody battle with a suspected Borderline or Narcissist, you may be better off avoiding the huge expense of a custody or psychological evaluation. This is doubly so when you consider that many Borderlines and Narcissists are adept at making the more mentally healthy parent look crazy while appearing to be victims.
If you recognize BPD-like behaviors in an emotionally abusive relationship, you likely will be able to benefit from the large numbers of books and resources created to help people understand BPD and find a way to deal with the abusive behaviors.
Please review the links below to learn more that may help you make the best out of a bad situation involving BPD and emotional abuse:
There are also a variety of excellent books available on BPD and its impact on relationships, divorces, and children. Below are a few excellent titles.