Borderlines in couples therapy can be very challenging. Many couples therapists dread working with clients suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is an unfortunately patronizing label given to a severe personality disorder that is characterized by a failure to emotionally self-regulate and effectively handle strong emotions. I prefer the term “affect-dysregulation disorder.”
Fortunately, Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) provides couples therapists with a few mnemonic devices to help convey important ideas to their borderline clients in simple ways. And these ideas are entirely congruent with Gottman Couples Therapy and EFT.
One of these is the famous Dearman approach for asking for what you want from your partner.
Express the feelings that you have about the problem, and it would be better if you described more vulnerable primary emotions, like sadness, or fear. Remember that secondary emotions like anger will pull on defensiveness and stonewalling from your partner. And this is very important…avoid contempt.
Assert your request about what you want your partner to do. Explain it’s importance to you. “That would make me happy.”
Reinforce their cooperation by conveying what about your request is in their best interest.
Mindfully keep on the Dearman Protocol. Don’t be distracted or sucked into a conflict.
Appear confident that you will be able to resolve the problem and that both of you will be satisfied with the outcome.
Negotiate about the details of the solution. Sort out the “must haves” from the more flexible aspects of the solution.
DBT also offers us the GIVE protocol:
Gentle: (avoid a threatening stance, criticisms or judgments).
Interested: Be interested in your partner’s perspective.“What do you think?”
Validate: what makes sense from their point of view? What is it about their side of the street that makes sense to you if you were in their shoes?
Easy and open approach: Be soft. Less severe. It’s not life or death. It’s a conversation with someone you love. Expect a good outcome. Aspire to be creative and use humor.
DBT offers us the FAST protocol to help those with BPD to be clear about what they want while striving to be lovingly engaged with their spouse.
Fairness: Be fair with yourself and your partner.
Apologies: Some Borderlines overdue apologies. It’s OK to want something from your partner.
Stick to what is important to you, but avoid being confrontational or caving in and harboring resentments.
Truthful: Be honest about what you need, and about your feelings, but try not to lean too much on anger. Talk about your fears and longings. What do you most want out of this situation? But don’t focus on helpless or hopeless feelings. You’re talking with someone you love. Ask for the best and expect to get it.
At the end of the day, working with Borderline Personality Disorder in Couples Therapy is about teaching mindfulness and a new set of relational skills.
It takes a bit of work and effort to rewire your brain. These mindfulness techniques will contribute to the ability to tolerate differences and stay regulated while engaged with your partner.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.