EP 60: Is Your Spouse a Narcissist? Interview with Bill Eddy, author of Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Does your spouse have Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder? Today we interview Bill Eddy, family law attorney, therapist and author of Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

You will learn the key symptoms of these disorders, and what you must do to protect yourself if your spouse has one of these disorders.  Listen to this great episode, and be sure to get further information from Bill below.

Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder on Amazon

Learn more about Bill Eddy at the High Conflict Institute: www.highconflictinstitute.com
This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Shawn: Today we have a very special guest. We have with us Bill Eddy. He is a family lawyer, family therapist, President of the High Conflict Institute, and author of an awesome book called Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Bill, welcome to the show.

Bill: Thanks for having me, Shawn. I’m looking forward to discussing this with you.

Shawn: So Bill, let’s start by giving us your background. As I said, you’re a therapist and an attorney. Is that right?

Bill: That’s correct. I started out as a therapist and basically did that for twelve years as a licensed clinical social worker. I counselled children, I counselled adults, I counselled people with depression, anxiety, sometimes personality disorders. I’ve worked in hospital settings and in patient psychiatric settings for adults and adolescents, and I’ve also worked in out patient clinics. So I did that first and that was pretty much the 1980’s. Then, I became a lawyer and focused on family law and started that in 1993. So I’ve actually been practicing as a family lawyer for over twenty years.

Shawn: So you have a certainly unique perspective, both on the legal aspects and the emotional aspects that are going on with people as it applies to divorce and splitting.

Bill: That’s absolutely right. And you can’t really separate the two even if you try. That’s a lot of what led me to write this book.

Shawn: So let’s dig in to Splitting for a second. I think given the current cultural environment, the knowledge of or at least the awareness of borderline personality and narcissistic personality is certainly within the cultural lexicon these days. I know that even just from our conversations that your book sales are actually increasing every month just with people wanting to know more about the subject.

Let’s start at the beginning. What is borderline personality and narcissistic personality?

Bill: Well, basically I learned about those when I started out as a therapist. They are technically diagnoses if someone has the disorder. So borderline personality disorder (BPD), narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), are two of the ten personality disorders in the manual that therapists use to diagnose people. That’s the DSM-5 now. It basically means that the person is really, really, stuck. It means that they don’t have flexibility. They just keep doing things over and over again and have problems in their interpersonal relationships and they keep repeating the patterns of those problems. The patterns are basically with borderline personality disorder. I want to say some people may have traits but not a whole disorder. This is a real kind of continuum.

Borderline personality is particularly notable by extreme mood swings. Someone might be very loving, friendly, just one of the most charming and appealing people, and then in a second they can reverse course and be incredibly rageful, furious, angry, throwing things sometimes, violent sometimes, more often verbally abusive and then the next day be like, “Oh, how are you doing?” and you feel like saying “What was going on yesterday?” but you don’t want to do that. You don’t want to reopen that kind of thing. So that’s the pattern in a nutshell with borderline personalities. This extreme kind of, love you and hate you mood swings.

With narcissistic personality, the emphasis is more on their self esteem, and they have a hard time regulating their self esteem just like borderlines have a hard time regulating their emotions. So narcissists are always pumping themselves up, trying to look big and be important and emphasize “I’m great. I’m superior to everybody else”, and they look down on other people.

So both of these personalities kind of have these more extremes and it’s part of how they manage themselves; but they are particularly difficult in a relationship. If you divorce somebody like this, it often triggers some of their worst behavior. That’s just a very brief nutshell. A caution I want to make is, don’t tell somebody you think they have one of these disorders. It just makes your life miserable.

Shawn: I think that’s wise advice. I hear from people all the time, including many of the listeners from the show. They’ll send me an email and they’ll say “Hey. I think I’m living with…” or they’ll actually be quite sure that their spouse, usually they’ll say has narcissistic personality disorder. What kind of specific behaviors might lend someone to really know if they are living with a narcissist or if they are just kind of making it up or misdiagnosing someone, or shouldn’t even be in the game of diagnosing their spouse. What kind of things should someone really look for?

Bill: Let me start with some cautionary words to your last question which is, people shouldn’t be diagnosing their spouses and especially shouldn’t be saying to their spouse or to other people, “Hey, my husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend has this personality disorder” because that upsets everybody, whether someone has it or not. What I encourage is to have your private working theory. In your mind think, well maybe this person is a narcissist. What should I be looking for and how should I be responding? But I’m not saying this out loud.

So with a narcissist what you often see is that they do a lot of insults. They’ll put you down, and say “Well that’s stupid.”, “Why did you do that?”, “You didn’t clean up the such and such.”, “You’re really awful.”, “You’re like a hateful slob.” Or “Why did you say that to your friend, you’re so obnoxious.”, “You’re so stupid!” So it’s insults that put you down, so you feel put down. But also, narcissists take up all the oxygen in the room. They want to talk about themselves. There’s the saying, “Well enough about me. Now let’s talk about me.” And you can pick that up sometimes early in the dating process, is that they really absorb. They forget things about you. It’s kind of like you’re not there except as an audience for them. So there’s the insults, there’s the self centeredness. They want to be admired, and they want you to spend a lot of time saying how wonderful they are. “Doesn’t this make me look wonderful?”, “Don’t you think I really killed it when I gave that presentation?” And I mean, everybody wants to get some praise but they’re stuck with that. That’s the thing with these personality disorders. People are just really stuck. They’re kind of like everybody else but they don’t have the flexibility and a close relationship to give back. Narcissists really have a hard time giving back, and they lack empathy. They’ll be like, “Well why did that bother you?”, “Yeah I stepped on your toe but so what?”, and they may humiliate and embarrass you in public, and that’s one of the signs also. So that’s narcissistic personality disorder in a relationship.

Shawn: Unfortunately, I think that you’re describing a lot of people that people know, just from those descriptions. I can feel my own head nodding and going off a checklist of certain people who certainly display those behaviors. Now of course, like you said, I will continue to keep that as a working theory. I’m sure many of the listeners as well can certainly identify or at least know someone who fits that description almost perfectly.

Bill: That’s true. I want to mention something we mentioned in the Splittingbook. We’re looking at about six percent of the U.S. population with this disorder. A huge study was done a few years ago. As a disorder that means the person doesn’t change, they just keep doing this and have negative consequences. Maybe they get fired or maybe people split up with them. That’s the problem. About six percent of the people. But people have some traits of this, maybe not as a disorder, and so you probably double that in terms of people who have some noticeable traits, although people without the disorder may be more able to tone it down, more able to change over time. Yeah, there’s a lot of people with that.

I want to add something here. Personalities are kind of a combination of genetics and environment. So the way you’re born is partly influencing who you’re going to be, and your environment influences that. Over the last forty years or so narcissism has increased because we have a more self centered lifestyle through the media and all of our handheld devices. We spend a lot of time with our devices and so we all have perhaps some narcissistic tendencies. But it’s not a disorder if it’s not dysfunctional, and messing up your relationships. Most people reflect on themselves and say, “Oops, what can I do differently?” when something goes wrong in a relationship, the disorder is when people never look at themselves.

Shawn: Why don’t you explain that last point just a little bit more. What actually distinguishes a disorder from just someone who exhibits some elements of a trait.

Bill: It’s really that stuckness, that they really don’t change. They really don’t look at themselves, and they’re preoccupied with everybody else and their behavior. If you’re in a relationship with someone with narcissistic personality disorder, they’re going to be able to talk about what you’ve done wrong without admitting a single thing on their part. That’s a warning sign. If they’re surprising you with telling you all these things like, “Let me address you.”, “Let me tell you what you’re doing wrong.”, “Here’s how you should really be.”, that’s a common narcissistic trait. The disorder is when they’re really stuck there and can’t look at themselves, can’t change, and really are focused on others. When it’s not a disorder it may be someone is more self absorbed or kind of some minor insults, but then they back up and say, “Oh I’m sorry I said that. I didn’t really mean to.” It’s really the self awareness and the flexibility. That’s the big difference.

Shawn: Let’s return to borderline personality disorder. It’s less well understood I feel by most people. If you’re living with someone or in a relationship with someone who has borderline personality disorder, why don’t you explain some of those everyday traits that you might see a little bit more?

Bill: The big thing is those mood swings. So let’s say you’re sitting on the couch watching a show on TV and everything is going fine. Your partner suddenly says, “Are you having an affair?” and you go, “No, why would you say that?” “Well you seem kind of quiet tonight” “I’m quiet because I’m watching the show. I’m feeling comfortable. We’re cozy on the couch.” And so they start an argument because they feel more connected when there’s more emotion. So when things are calm they often get stressed that something’s wrong. So that’s really hard on a partner who, when things are calm, feels good because it’s nice to have a calm time in a relationship. So it’s this roller-coaster, and you feel like you’re walking on eggshells. In fact, my co-author with the Splittingbook, Randi Kreger, was co-author of a book, Stop Walking on Eggshells. Just about living with someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. So it’s the mood swings but part of it is the intense anger that they can go into a rage that’s frightening. As I said, sometimes abusive. Sometimes it becomes physical. People hit, push, or throw things. A lot of it is verbal but their anger, they feel justified to really hurt the other person. They may say terrible things, spread rumors, engage in what we call a distortion campaign, and especially when someone’s getting a divorce, a borderline person is really outraged and they feel it’s in their right to publicly humiliate and attack their former loved partner. So it’s these extreme swings. Underneath I want to mention, they have a fear of abandonment. So they kind of cling to people and relationships, and then if they think that they’re being abandoned they go into this rage. So it’s feeling that rollercoaster, that walking on eggshells. You never know what’s going to trigger another explosion. That’s kind of that.

Shawn: Bill, do both disorders affect men and women? Does one have a greater percentage than the other in terms of experiencing or having these disorders?

Bill: Well, this big study that was done a few years ago, National Institutes of Health Study, said that borderline is slightly more women than men. It’s about fifty-three to forty-seven percent, something like that. Narcissistic is more men than women, I think that’s sixty-three to thirty-seven, sixty-two percent men, thirty-eight percent women. I guess the point with this is it’s both. Don’t assume that a woman who acts like this must have borderline personality, and a man that acts like this must have narcissistic personality. One of the things that we’re seeing is that there may be up to a forty percent overlap with these two disorders. So if you’re dealing with someone who shows some self centeredness, and then they get really angry, you might go “Gee. Is this narcissistic or borderline? It could be both.”, And I might mention, in the younger adults this seems to be more prevalent than in older adults. The generation that’s most likely to be dating, there’s a higher incidence of this. So people really need to learn about it so that they don’t stumble into a relationship with someone who’s super charming, and then turns out to be borderline, narcissistic, or both.

Shawn: Let’s shift gears a bit. I think that’s an excellent overview into both borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. Now, everyone listening is considering the divorce process. If you’re going to be divorcing someone who, with your working theory as you said, has one or both of these disorders, how do you even begin? What’s your first step if you think that your spouse kind of has probably, highly likely, has one of these disorders and it’s time to get a divorce? Let’s talk in terms of practical. What’s the first step that you should kind of start doing in that world?

Bill: Well I think you really need to prepare yourself and if possible, it’s better to do preparations before you announce that you want to get a divorce. With someone, as I described, say a borderline or a narcissist, this is going to trigger their worst emotions and their worst response. So, you want to get prepared. You want to gather your information, do some reading, and ideally talk to a lawyer. At least consult with a lawyer, consult with a therapist and say, “What should I expect? These are some concerns of mine that my partner shows. What should I be expecting here?” You want to prepare yourself and you want to get support to have people help you go through this. The clearer you are and the more supported you are the less likely you are to trigger the worst responses. It’s unpredictable because you’re not really responsible for what the other person does.

Shawn: Do you need to keep a record, for instance, of maybe fights that you’ve had? Or arguments? Just different behavioral things that occurred over time?

Bill: That’s one thing we recommend. Keep a journal somewhere safe, so it’s not found by your partner, of concerning events. With a lot of cases when people get divorced from a borderline or narcissist –and by the way there’s other personalities that can give people difficulty. So even though the book focusses on those two, the same principals are involved if your partner is particularly paranoid or particularly anti-social or dramatic, histrionic, those kinds of things have the same process. So by keeping some writing of worst events, let’s say there was a pushing event where each of you pushed each other or one yelled something and you yelled something back in front of the children. You want to write down what really happened because a lot of times high conflict divorce cases start with an emergency hearing, and someone is asking for a restraining order. A lot of cases I had started that way. Someone with borderline or narcissistic personality exaggerated events to get a restraining order and get their partner kicked out of the house. So I tell people you know, on a quite day walk around your house and photograph your furniture, make copies of bank accounts so if you get thrown out of the house you still have all this information. Maybe you should set aside a little bit of cash to get you through if something like this happens, or maybe your partner is going to wipe out a bank account. We’re not suggesting you’re taking much out of a bank account.

In California it’s community property, it’s 50/50. I tell clients never to take more than fifty percent of a bank account. But even that may not be appropriate. So that’s why you should talk to a local lawyer. These kinds of preparations, be prepared for a firestorm if you’re dealing with someone like this because people are so often caught by surprise. I’ve had people read our splitting book and say, “Everything you said might happen, happened. I’m so glad I knew what to expect because it was so surprising till I read the book.” So I think it’s getting people psychologically and legally prepared.

Shawn: Bill, you mentioned what could happen when the children are involved. Could you tell us a couple things? The first is what kind of things should you look out for when you have children and you’re about to embark on this divorce process with someone with borderline and narcissistic personality disorder? Second, I think you have some specialized resources if I remember correctly.

Bill: So the first thing is you may start hearing from the kids that the other parent is saying things negative about you. That’s often a warning sign that there’s difficulty. Parents shouldn’t be badmouthing each other to the kids. You have a problem with each other, talk directly to each other. That’s a very common thing; it’s indirectly talking to the kids negatively about the other parent. Sometimes the kids start seeming to resist being around one of the parents. Even if you’re both in the same house, this is what they call alienation, where one person is bad mouthing the other parent in front of the kids and the kids absorb that and may even join in with that. I’ve had families where there’s a narcissistic parent and the kid starts talking like that parent to the other parent saying, “Mom, you’re stupid.” Or “Why did you do that?”, “You’re annoying!” and you suddenly get these criticisms with words that you know came from the other parent. So these are warning signs. These are things you might want to write down because they show the kids being influenced even at an early time. On the other hand, you yourself want to be careful not to do that.

This really answers your second question. One of the things we develop is a method of working with kids, and even parents going through a divorce called new ways for families. We’ve developed a whole program which is used in five or six family court districts systems. What it does is it had four big skills that parents learn and practice and teach to their children. Any parent can teach these skills at any time, even if you’re still with a partner, especially a difficult partner. The four skills are: flexible thinking, managed emotions, moderate behavior, and checking yourself rather than having opinions about everybody else –looking on yourself. By teaching the kids these four skills in general, it helps them understand that what the other parent is doing is really inappropriate, like all or nothing thinking or unmanaged emotions. Rather than criticizing the other parent you can say, “Wow. That person on TV, do you think he had managed emotions or unmanaged emotions?” or “Your friend just did something extreme. Do you think that was all or nothing thinking or flexible thinking?” so that the kids learn these as skills for life, which will really help them in their lives. But they also can understand that the other parent is really kind of out of balance, without you badmouthing the other parent. This is kind of an approach to managing before a divorce, if there may be problems. And if there is a divorce, to use this method to help calm things and hopefully manage helping the kids through the divorce process.

Shawn: We’ll include a link to new ways for families in the show notes so people can learn a little bit more about your approach because I think that’s extraordinarily valued and particularly helpful in this situation. One other thing I wanted to ask is, how do you choose an appropriate attorney given the unique issues involved in this particular scenario where they might need need some sort of specialized skill or at least a different approach than just the local attorney you might know from the billboard.

Bill: This is a little tricky but basically what I recommend is talking to three lawyers and try to get names of lawyers from somebody you know who felt good about working with their lawyer. To be honest, I’ve been a family lawyer now for over twenty years, and I’d say eighty-percent of family lawyers really want to help their clients. Ten to twenty percent are stuck in trying to make money from people’s pain essentially. These are the ones that you hear about in the news. I don’t want to deny they exist. I think they are about twenty percent. Eighty percent people are satisfied with. They found them helpful, they could communicate with them. The thing is to get three names and see who you feel comfortable communicating with.

Communication with your lawyer is the number one thing. Even if they’re not well versed in borderline or narcissistic personality disorder and most family lawyers have not been trained in that. If you can communicate with them then you can tell them, “This is what I see,” or “This is what I’ve read,” or “This is my concern.” And I do consulting with clients and their lawyers on the phone about strategy for dealing with these, and the lawyers are appreciative because its an area they don’t know, and their clients are appreciative because they realize things they feel like doing, they need to be more careful about. So the idea is, interview three lawyers and pick the one you feel you can communicate with the best. Also though, ideally, get someone with at least five years experience as a family lawyer. Family law is a complicated area legally and emotionally. You need someone that’s familiar with how all these interact. Someone with at least five years experience, and someone you can communicate with. Those are the key essential ingredients.

Shawn: I think all this information is extraordinarily helpful for the people listening. For those who want additional information from you, what are the best resources that you can point them to, to get some more information about yourself?

Bill: Well the best is to come to our website and it’s www.highconflictinstitute.com and we have books, we have videos, we have articles, we have information about consultation and also about giving seminars. We give a lot of seminars all over the world –mostly the U.S. The dynamics of these problems are really the same worldwide. This is about family, this is about kids, this is about personalities, and it’s really important I think, to get informed. We’ve got people that like books, we’ve got people that like articles, we’ve got free articles. I think we try to be a resource in as many ways as possible. Highconflictinstitute.com

Shawn: Bill, thank you so much for coming on to the show.

Bill: Well thank you. It’s been my pleasure.

Bonus content:

Shawn: Bill you have a lot of experience and I’m sure you’ve seen so many different things especially when you’re dealing with both borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. Can you just share with us a story that comes to mind that would be good for the listeners to hear?

Bill: Sure, happy to do that.

So, I’ll give you an example that involves our new ways for families method, for people going through divorce which teaches skills to the parents and then the parents to the kids. So in one of the court systems where this is being used there’s a case where there’s a mom who seemed to have extreme thinking, and my guess is she probably had borderline personality traits, if not the disorder. She spoke highly negatively of the father around the daughter who during the divorce process became very resistant to spending any time with her father; she really took sides. This is called alienation when there’s no reason for this but kids take sides. So dad of course was frustrated and angry, but the girl eventually stopped seeing him.

After I believe it was about a year that she hadn’t seen him, she refused to see him, both parents took the skills training of our new ways for families method and part of that is six individual sessions for each parent with their own counsellor, then three parent child sessions. Each parent alone with the kids. So part of it is to have the parents support each other. So mom agreed that the daughter should meet with the father three times, and she encouraged her daughter to do that. The daughter agreed because it was only three times, even though she said she hated her father.

So she meets the first time with her father and basically he says, “I know you’re upset with me. You’re angry. Tell me what you’re upset about.” So she dumps on him for about twenty minutes or something. Everything he’s ever done wrong from her point of view and how awful he is, and then he says thank you. He was trained to be open and to listen, and not to get angry back, and the daughter was confused. She said, “Why are you thanking me? I just said all these angry things, I thought you’d be angry at me.” And he says, “No, I’m glad that we’re talking. Tell me more.” And so they got talking and he was open to her and the mother had encouraged her to talk, so it really turned things around for them.

After not seeing him for a year, now they have dinners together once a week. It isn’t a 50/50 schedule like he would have liked but he has a relationship with his daughter, they’re communicating, they’re on positive terms. So that’s an example I think of how the all or nothing intense emotions kind of often pushes kids to take sides, and a way to try to undo that by focusing on positive skills instead of who is to blame and who is at fault. I’m really pleased with that story.

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