What You Need To Do When Your Discover Your Partner's Personality Disorder

Photo: Milan Popovic via Unsplash
What You Need To Do If You're Dating And In A Relationship With A Partner With A Personality Disorder
Love, Self

If your boyfriend has a personality disorder, he can't change without professional help.

When the person your dating and in a relationship with has a personality disorder, what do you do?

Does he really have a personality disorder or are the personality traits you observed just part of his character? This is an important question you need answers to and it's something you need to know.

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Here’s the main difference: Everyone has a personality structure. That’s what makes us who we are as individuals.

People with healthy personalities can usually function well in most areas of life. They most often have a number of friends and are able to experience a full range of emotions.

They can also handle stressful situations, have a sense of personal identity, and are usually flexible and have an internalized moral and ethical code. Most often, they can be counted on to do what they say they will do.

In other words, they are stable.

This is opposed to those who may have a personality disorder. They are usually highly inflexible, are very opinionated, and often try to push their ideas on others. They also can become filled with rage over minor slights or mistakes made by others — this often occurs all of a sudden.

Frequently, they are critical of people and blame others for what they do. Sometimes, they can be very needy but they can also isolate themselves which can make it difficult for them to maintain friendships and for you to have your own friend group.

Doing things the same old way — a way that is familiar — is a difficult pattern to change.

If a guy has significant problems and is inflexible, chances are he will continue to do the same old things again and again despite what he might say about changing. This is due to the fact that human beings, by nature, frequently have a hard time trying anything new. 

To illustrate this point, here's a story told by Louis Cozolino, M.D., a well-known neuroscientist, in his 2017 book, The Psychotherapy of Neuroscience

A man once asked him the difference between a rat and a person. Wanting to play along, Cozolino asked for more information.

The man said that if you have 5 tunnels and put a piece of cheese at the end of the 3rdtunnel, the rat will find it because of its keen sense of smell and spatial ability.

If you set up the same test the next day but move the cheese and put it at the end of the fifth tunnel, the rat will go back to the third tunnel and look for the cheese. However, when it is clear the cheese is no longer there, the rat will move on to look for it someplace else because the rat is a realist.  

On the other hand, a person will keep looking for the cheese at the end of the third tunnel because the person expects it to be there since it was there the first time.

Adding more information about the reason for this curious phenomenon, the man said that after several generations in the person’s world there will be shrines build to pray about the cheese at the end of the third tunnel, gods will be invented to honor the third tunnel and its cheese, and demons will be created to warn against going near the other tunnels.

This will all be created because people want the cheese to be where they found it the first time. Getting them to look elsewhere is something new and new is frequently not perceived as good.

So, what does this vignette have to do with personality disorders?

When people have personality disorders, change is difficult. Unlike the rat, they continue to go down the third tunnel. This is due to the fact that they have learned to protect and defend themselves emotionally by adopting certain behaviors.

Quite often the way they act is not problematic for them, it is only difficult for people who interact with them.

Here’s the problem: If you are in a relationship with someone with certain types of personality disorders, trying to get them to change can be a life-long struggle. And healthy relationships? Almost impossible with them.

To paint a clearer picture of what it's like to be in a relationship with someone who has a personality disorder, here is the story of Candice.

During a night in early December, she went out with her girlfriends to celebrate one friend’s birthday. She had a great time but decided to leave early since she told Jason, her boyfriend, she wouldn’t be out too late.

On her way home, she called him to say she was on her way. When he didn’t answer the phone, she noticed that her heart started to beat faster.  

Was Jason asleep or did he ignore her call because he was angry, she wondered? She quickened her pace and began to feel worried. She was curious about her reaction since by nature she was generally a calm, carefree person and not prone to feeling worried about her comings and goings with boyfriends.

After thinking for a while as she continued to make her way home, she decided her tense feeling was probably due to the fact that she had only known Jason for a few months. 

As she approached the front door, she noticed that the lights were out which she could see from a small window above the door. Deciding to be extra quiet since she assumed Jason was asleep, she was surprised to see him sitting in the dark.

Before she could say anything, Jason yanked her purse out of her hand, opened it up, and threw everything on the floor while calling her "a stupid, trashy b*tch."

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Candice was stunned, she felt numb and didn’t know what was happening. While Jason had pouted and raised his voice before when he was angry, he had never yelled at her or grabbed her purse before that night. To make matters worse, he went on ranting and raving, saying she’d robbed him of everything he’d ever had in life.

More perplexed than ever, Candice sat down on a pillow he’d thrown on the floor, her body shaking. The rant continued as her sense of safety on the floor vanished. She tried to figure out what had led to this outburst as she sat trying to pretend she was a silent, still statue.

The fear of disturbing Jason as he continued to depict her as a despicable character seemed to get a grip on her. She began to wonder whether or not she was a thoughtless, bad person for upsetting him.

Had she stayed out too late, did she care more about her friends than Jason? Did she think of herself too much, as he claimed? 

In the days following this event, Candice felt guilty and bad about herself for upsetting Jason. She vowed not to go out with her friends at night ever again. Jason seemed to gloat about his "win", saying over and over again that Candice could stay in his good graces by "towing the line" and sticking to their deal.

As time went on, Candice began to cut off her friends and do everything with Jason — a way of being that was unfamiliar to her. Jason meanwhile became domineering, controlling, and demanding. 

He appeared to have a need to see himself as the powerful one in the relationship relegating Candice to the role of a "weak" woman, a position she had never been in before meeting Jason.

What happened between Candice and Jason?

This is an example of a defense mechanism Jason employed to get rid of a part of himself he couldn’t tolerate. In the first phase of this process, Jason projected some aspect of his character that he felt he had to shed. He had to get rid of a "bad" part of himself that he could not tolerate.

However, the ridding of that unwanted part was only partial in terms of relief for him. There was also a wish to keep tabs on what was projected in an attempt to control Candice. In that way, the projector — Jason — created and maintained a symbiotic-type fusion with Candice, allowing him to maintain a sense of oneness with her.

It was as if they were one person with one mind instead of two healthy people living to achieve their own goals as well as those they may have had as a couple.  

Once this was achieved, Jason unconsciously tried to pressure Candice into behaving in a way that fit his idea of her as a loose person with questionable morals who had to be watched. Since Candice initially responded to him as she did and continued to do so, acting out the fantasy he created about her, the identification was in place.

In this case, Candice was expected to behave in a way that was congruent with Jason’s fantasy and she did just that until she consulted with a professional and got into therapy.

What is the likely outcome if Candi and Jason stayed together?

Chances are, Candice would feel trapped and controlled. She would most likely give up many of her friendships and do things mainly with Jason. Eventually, she may have become depressed and more than likely would have begun to feel the effects of a damaged self-concept, that is, if she hadn’t found a therapist who could help her find her identity again.

In spite of the fact that Jason promised time and time again to change after having a number of outbursts like the one mentioned above before Candice left him, his behavior was not likely to change without professional help because this was the way he learned to cope with feelings that threatened him.

He was unlikely to be able to change on his own because unlike the rat, humans continue to do the same old thing and cope with anxiety based on the protective measures they have learned over time.

Simply saying he wouldn’t do it again had a high probability of failing. Similar to the human in the story about the tunnels and the cheese, Jason will do what he has done before because it has worked in the past.

As long as he continues to maintain the power and control he seeks in romantic relationships, there is no reason for him to change.

So, what can you do if you ever find yourself in this kind of relationship?

The best thing to do is get help for yourself so you can get another perspective from a professional. No one is worth sacrificing their sense of self or the respect they deserve.

People need to have literal and emotional freedom to do what is best for them based on their own goals and needs in life. No one should be controlled by another person.

Being dictated to by a man will not allow a woman to achieve what she wishes to accomplish in life. Living with intention — without constraints being placed on you as a person — is vital for optimal growth.

In the big picture, if you are in a relationship with someone like Jason, proceed with caution, seek professional consultation and consider whether or not you want to be with someone who is unlikely to change.  There are a lot of options in life, no one has to be trapped in a relationship with a demanding and controlling person who puts her down, is humiliating and demands compliance with his wishes.

If you are in an untenable situation such as the one described above, you can seek assistance for professional help through the American Psychological Association, The American Psychoanalytic Association, and the American Bar Association if legal counsel is needed.

State psychology and counseling associations can also help in terms of finding appropriate referrals. ​

RELATED: 16 Signs You Love Someone With A Serious Personality Disorder

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Karyne Messina is an author, psychologist, and psychoanalyst.