Stop Walking on Eggshells

When someone in your life has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder

The Assertive Approach in High Conflict Divorce

The assertive divorcing approach is better than being aggressive or passive.

In my next-to-last column, I explained that passivity during high-conflict divorce can be costly. In this blog entry, I'll tell you about an acronym that explains the assertive approach. This is an excerpt from Splitting: Protecting Yourself When Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissistic Personality.

The assertive approach doesn’t have to be hard to understand and practice. An easy way to think about it is to focus on KEEP, an acronym that stands for Knowledge and Energy to Explain Patterns.

Knowledge: Informing yourself of the thinking and behavior patterns of people with BP and NP traits will give you a sense of relief (it’s not about you!), and help you recognize and predict problems throughout your separation and divorce.

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Energy: The problems of people with BP and NP traits can suck you dry. This is true when you live with them, and it can increase when you separate. It may take months, even years, to reach a reasonable outcome. Pace yourself and build your energy.

Explain: The way you explain your partner’s behavior to legal professionals is highly important. By using the assertive approach, you will focus on providing information rather than allowing your emotions to take over and cause you to become too aggressive or hold back too much. This will show a large contrast between you and a partner with BP or NP traits, who may present information in a highly emotional manner. This means that you will keep good records of important events and then present this information in detail to decision makers.

Patterns: From the start, think about how you will explain your partner’s behavior patterns. Remember, legal professionals are still mostly unaware of personality disorders and their related issues. You can’t just say, “Oh, she’s a borderline, so you know what that means in terms of parenting,” or, “He’s a narcissist, so you know why I need protection.” Instead, you must present the details of these patterns, based on your record of events during your relationship and the separation process. (By the way, in court never label the person as having a personality disorder. We will explain why in part 2.)

Handling Issues Out of Court

An assertive approach also includes making strategic decisions about managing your case out of court and in the future. An easy way to remember this is to use another acronym: CALM, which stands for consider alternatives to litigation and manage your postdivorce relationship.

Consider alternatives to litigation: You don’t have to go to court. The majority of divorces (and parenting decisions, when the partners are unmarried) are decided out of court by agreement of the parties. There are many factors to consider. Trying out-of-court alternatives may help you keep your soon-to-be ex calmer and help avoid encountering even more extreme behaviors. It’s usually worthwhile to try methods like:

  • Negotiation through attorneys
  • Mediation
  • Collaborative divorce
  • A parenting coordinator

These methods may save you significant time, money, and trauma. But these alternatives often don’t work with people who have severe BP or NP traits, so you still need to be prepared to go to court. The assertive approach is about making rational choices, rather than overreacting (the aggressive approach) or just giving up (the passive approach).

Manage your postdivorce relationship: Many people are surprised and frustrated that a borderline or narcissistic ex may still be in their lives even after a divorce. You may be tempted to eliminate your ex from your life or, at the other extreme, become close again. Resist either urge. Each of these approaches will trigger more drama and trauma. As with everything else about the assertive approach, rationally consider all your alternatives and develop an arms-length relationship that can give you stability in your future.

In short, just remember the two acronyms: KEEP CALM. It’s a simple way to remember to use an assertive approach without overreacting or giving up.

There Is Hope

In preparing yourself for a separation or divorce, regardless of where you are in the process, keep in mind that thousands of people have managed the process well by using methods like those described in this book. It doesn’t have to be complicated if you stick with the basic principles of an assertive approach. Remember, your divorce is a process that may last several months and sometimes years. You can make mistakes, learn from them, and correct them. Nobody’s perfect, and given the nature of these difficult but charming personality types, few of their partners understand what they are getting into when they marry them.

You are not alone. Many others are going through similar situations. Knowledge and public discussion of the problems of people with BP and NP traits is growing. They are not bad people, and they want to be happy too. They didn’t choose to have a personality disorder and don’t understand how they sabotage themselves. It’s as if they were blind. We have a lot of empathy for them and want them to get the help they need—but this cannot be your responsibility.

Conclusion

The biggest problem in a difficult divorce is usually a personality problem, especially when one of the partners has BP or NP traits. One of the key characteristics of such personalities is the unconscious dynamic of splitting people into all good and all bad, which can result in extreme behavior when the person experiences a profound loss of attachment, self-image, control, or some combination. Using an assertive approach can help you succeed in family court and out of court, which we describe in depth in the chapters ahead.

By separating and getting divorced, you are embarking on a new life. Pace yourself. We will help you navigate this process. You have already started to increase your knowledge

Randi Kreger is the co-author of Stop Walking on Eggshells.

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