Dealing with a ‘borderline’ mother-in-law
DEAR MARIANN: My husband’s family and I think that my mother-in-law has borderline personality disorder. She can be very difficult to deal with and has cut herself off from us since my husband and I married five years ago. Is there any good way to suggest that she get some mental health help?
MARIANN’S RESPONSE: My condolences concerning the challenges you are encountering with your mother-in-law. A “borderline personality” is one of the most draining and time-intensive clients a counselor can have on their caseload. Usually one is the maximum that can be balanced within a practice, unless the clinician has limitless patience to handle the complexity of counseling “a borderline.” Needless to say, that does not make your situation much easier. Marriage is difficult enough, let alone having the ongoing drama of a mother-in-law who, if she is a true borderline, can cause chaos and seek attention. Hopefully she resides a few states or time zones away. However, if she has exited from your lives, this is not typical for a borderline personality.
For those readers unfamiliar with this trait, “a borderline” is someone with an intense range of emotions and a frantic fear of abandonment. To counteract this dread of being alone, the borderline personality seeks to be the center of attention and extremely needy. Adolescents who cut themselves on the arms or legs, (aka “cutters”), or do other acts of self-mutilation, are often diagnosed as borderlines. These clients describe a sense of absolute emptiness and the act of cutting allows them “to feel something” beyond this self-described emotional void.
You do not mention your mother-in-law’s age, so my guess is she might be getting worse, versus better, which is also opposite to the usual borderline personality. As a borderline progresses into mid-life, reaching their 30s or 40s, the “drama” lessens, especially if one is a “cutter” as described above.
Besides their “colorful” personalities, borderlines can go through intense extremes involving wreckless spending, promiscuity, binge eating, poor driving skills, and a major potential for substance abuse. It is estimated that 65 percent or more of all borderlines have a dual diagnosis with addiction. Another commonality is that many have endured a trauma or sexual abuse as a child, which leads back to the fear of abandonment as an adult.
If there is the potential of substance abuse, often that is the key to treatment rather than specific to the borderline issues. Someone with a borderline diagnosis is often oblivious to their personality extremes, inappropriate behavior, and lack self-awareness as to the strife they cause to friends and family. As mentioned in previous columns, unless someone is dedicated to seeking help and making changes, especially when an addiction is involved, no one can do it for them. So if your mother-in-law is also a substance abuser, that might be the inroad to counseling, with the borderline issues tackled next. Also, if you or anyone else in your family is in therapy, possibly having that mentioned to your mother-in-law will seem less threatening than telling her she needs counseling. Knowing that others are going through their own struggles might open dialogue as to addressing her own issues.
My suggestions when interacting with a perceived borderline personality include setting clear guidelines, possibly both verbally and in writing. Since she has seemingly “cut herself off” from you and your husband, possibly she is upset that you have already done this. These guidelines would include how many times daily you will accept telephone calls from the person or make trips to their home to help with a perceived crisis. If you set boundaries with a borderline and remain steadfast, chances are they will stop trying to orchestrate your lives with constant demands and “life-or-death” emergencies. Since your mother in-law has seemingly gone the other direction, this might be the lesser problem for you of the possible two extremes.
Mariann Main is a Licensed Counselor and a Delaware native. Her column appears weekly on Saturdays. To submit a question and have Mariann answer it, visit delgazette.com/life-questions-with-local-answers or send mail to the Delaware Gazette office, 40 N. Sandusky St., suite 203, Delaware, OH 43015.