'Should I Cut Off Contact With My Sister-in-Law With Borderline Personality Disorder?'

lonely sad woman deep in...
lonely sad woman deep in...

Reader Fed Up writes,

I think my sister-in-law is a borderline personality, and after years now of deteriorating functioning, unpredictable and at times aggressive behaviour, my husband and I have sadly reached the point where we cannot see a way to include her in our lives or the lives of our two little girls, aged 3.5 and 8 months.

In the near decade that I've known my SIL (now aged 25),  she's always been dysfunctional and anti-social, had only one friend, been unable to hold down a job, suffers from mood swings and randomly picks fights with the people that she does converse with (usually online). She is usually unwilling to make eye contact, mumbles to the point of being hard to converse with, and at times is obviously lacking in self care -- although if she decides that she likes you she can be a smothering presence that does not leave you alone.

In more recent times, many of these behaviours have become more pronounced, and although she is also often kind, empathetic and caring, and always loves spending time with our children, she is very unpredictable and can go from loving to hating my husband and her family at the flick of a switch.  Worse, she has recently taken to threatening suicide if she doesn't get what she wants or feels that people are pulling away from her.  Her parents' general response to these threats has been to simply ignore them.

Unfortunately, my SIL also has an extremely codependent relationship with her mother, who to a large extent enables her by refusing to enforce adult boundaries.  Basically it seems like my husband's family would prefer that we all just ignore her behaviour, no matter how dysfunctional she becomes or how it affects us or our children.  Although my MIL, a psychiatrist, has mentioned that my SIL 'probably has a personality disorder' and is prescribing her various mood stabilisers, I really think she needs independent treatment and diagnosis, especially given the nature of the relationship between them, however realistically I do not think anything will change.

Recently, after a series of incidents where my eldest daughter, my husband, and I have been upset by my SIL's behaviour,  we have formally cut off contact with her by telling her that she needs to seek independent help urgently, and that unless and until she does, we are not prepared to have her around us or our children.  My husband's parents are very unhappy with this decision, and do not seem to understand that we are trying to protect ourselves and our children, just as they are trying to protect their daughter.

Have we done the right thing -- for her, and most importantly for our family?  I feel we have, but at the same time I feel sorry for my SIL and want to help her to get better.  I am also sad that our children are losing contact with their only aunt, but cannot see a way around this given her condition.

Dear FU,

This is a hard situation. Your SIL is struggling, and it is a terrible thing to suffer with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), but you must also do what feels safe and healthy for you, your husband, and your children.  Here is a story of someone who cut off contact with a sister who may have BPD, here is someone estranged from alcoholic brothers, and here is someone estranged from their mother.  All of these stories are heartbreaking, because it is nobody's intention to distance themselves so completely from a loved one.  But it is often worse to remain in contact.

I do not know what behaviors your SIL does around your kids that make you feel upset.  I do know that many times, adults who have issues with family members will project their own fear, anger, and dislike for said family members onto their children.  If your unconscious goal is cutting ties with your mom, for example, it is easier to say, "My kid is scared of my mom" than to say, "I used to be scared of my mom, I can't stand being around her now, but my kid mostly ignores her and kind of thinks she's weird."  Even though the latter may be more true.

One possibility could be severely restricting how often and in what capacity you engage with your SIL without formally cutting off contact entirely.  For instance, having lunch with her and the kids every few months at a child-friendly restaurant is a far cry from inviting her to your home for hours at a time every other week.  In the former case, your kids will basically remember having fun and eating french fries with their aunt, and in the latter case, they may witness fighting and shouting.  My advice changes in the case that your SIL is violent or engaging in bizarre behavior in front of your kids, and I certainly do not recommend leaving her alone with them ever.  Also, if no matter what you do, every encounter with her ends with open arguing, then you also need to cut ties, at least temporarily.

Some more ideas: try to sit down alone with your SIL, just you two, without your husband, and talk with her.  She may feel like "everyone is against her" and may have issues with her brother that are being triggered when he is present.  Remember, he was likely always "the good one" and she was "the crazy one."  And make sure that your own disdain for how you MIL is handling this situation (and admittedly, nobody should be treating their own child) isn't further tainting your relationship with your SIL.  Be aware that she may be envious of you on some level for having a "normal" life with kids and a husband; she may fear that this will never happen for her.  In general, try to look at her and at this situation with as much empathy as possible before deciding to cut her out-- and even then, commit to re-evaluating the situation in a couple months' time.

Good luck, and till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Inlaw Issues Are So Tough.