How to Help Your Partner With Dissociative Identity Disorder
Learning you have dissociative identity disorder (DID) can be very difficult. It is a whirlwind of emotion, confusion, and panic. As someone who was diagnosed with the disorder just over a year ago, I can attest to the intensity of the confusion. What I didn’t realize at the time was how this was going to affect my relationship with my fiance, who had been dating me since high school and had been my partner for just over five years. Of course, my first plan of action with my therapist was telling her that I had the disorder. It went smoother than I thought it would, and I will say that she may be in the minority of people learning their partner has DID, as she was not surprised in the slightest and actually said “I was wondering when you would notice!” Turns out, she had been documenting my behavior and tucking it away for years. She had been doing research without my knowledge and learned quite a lot about DID long before I knew I had it. She told me she started suspecting it nearly two years prior to me finding out about it, which was shocking to hear, to say the least!
Now, what is dissociative identity disorder? If you are reading this article, you might have had a partner that was just diagnosed. You might not have any idea what it is. I highly encourage you to read more about it in academic articles if you can, and learn more about C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) as the two disorders go hand-in-hand. I will give you a brief rundown of what DID is, but the reality of the disorder is far more complex than I will be able to describe in this short article.
Dissociative identity disorder is a trauma-based disorder, characterized in the DSM-V as a “disruption of identity characterized by two or more distinct personality states.” Part of DID also includes a discontinuity of behavior, consciousness, memory, perception, cognition, and sensory-motor function. Amnesia for daily events, important personal information, and past traumatic events that are inconsistent with ordinary forgetfulness is also a criteria for the disorder. For myself, this included forgetting several days at a time, blacking out conversations with people at work and school, and not remembering any of my life before the age of 8-9 years old.
Something that is not considered a diagnostic criteria of DID, but is required for the disorder to form, is repetitive childhood trauma before the age of around 7-9. To briefly explain how DID forms, prior to that age, children have separate “ego states” that make up their personality. When they are younger, this includes things such as needing to go to the bathroom, being hungry, or wanting attention. When they get older, children start to form personality traits within these ego states, and around that 7-9 age, all of these ego states coalesce and become one solid personality. Children who experience trauma that is often severe and repetitive over a long period of time, will form amnesia barriers between these ego states. For example, if a child is going through a form of abuse, their brain will form amnesia barriers between the normally functioning child and the memories of the abuse. One ego state will have those memories, while the other ego states will be unaware. This allows the child to function normally and allow them to survive what is often extreme trauma that they would not be able to handle if they lived with the trauma memories in daily life.
So what happens with these ego states that are separated by amnesia? As a child experiences more abuse or more of the world and its dangers, these other ego states will “switch in” and handle those difficult moments. These ego states that experience trauma are often referred to as “EP’s” or “Emotional Parts.” This does not necessarily mean they only hold emotion, this just means that they hold trauma memories. Ego states that do not hold traumatic memories are called “ANP’s” or “Apparently Normal Parts.” They function in the day-to-day life such as going to school, going to work, doing chores and homework, etc, that the EP’s would not be able to handle. They often are unaware of the system of alters existing and therefore unaware of the trauma. The ANP that is “out” most often is generally considered the “host” alter. In a statistically large portion of systems, all other alters will pretend to be the host (often referred to as “masking”). This can make it difficult for outside people to know that a person is a system. This is called remaining “covert” and is essential for a system’s survival in the real world, where a majority of people are not a system alters.
When these ego states experience the world, they will form personality traits that encompass their experiences. They will have different names, ages, appearances, tastes in food and clothing, and even different allergies or vital signs to other alters. Some systems even document having alters with different eyeglasses prescriptions or reactions to medication.
Now that you have a brief overview of what DID is, what can you do as a partner of a dissociative identity disorder system? Here is a small list of things to begin with, with explanations:
1. Not all systems are the same.
When you are researching DID, you will likely come across a lot of different things. Systems writing articles, systems with YouTube channels, systems with blogs, etc. All DID systems are different, just like everyone’s brain is different. How a system reacts to their trauma and forms alters varies significantly. This is important to note when reading my articles as well. I share my personal experiences, but that is not the experience of all persons with DID. All DID systems are different and should be treated as such.
2. Alters are not just “personalities” or “facets” of the person you know.
Everyone has different facets to their personality, such as their “work self” or their “home self” or the “parent self.” That is not the same with DID systems. Their alters are different people, often extremely different from each other, with different memories and experiences that the person you know doesn’t have.
For example, in our system, I am a 24-year-old host alter. I like creating art, reading, and writing. I identify with the body’s appearance, and am non-binary. I am considered introverted and quiet. There is an alter in our system named Alice. She is an 18-year-old teenager. She is very goth, extraverted, loud, and rebellious. She doesn’t like kids, is a cis female, and has a completely different appearance than me on the inside. Another one of our alters is named Foster. He is considered ageless and is very flirty, extraverted, and enjoys makeup and dressing up. He dresses in a Victorian style, and is much taller than the body. We have alters that are children, an alter with a British accent, and an alter that is a shadow demon. Alters can be animals, fictional creatures, objects, and vary significantly amongst each other in most cases.
3. Getting to know alters is the first order of business.
Some alters might be excited to get to know you. Others will be more cautious. Some might adore you, others might despise you. You will likely not be friends with all of them right away. Many of them have serious trauma, which can make it hard to trust others. Be patient, be understanding, and know that they are different and will have different needs. Some alters will enjoy hugs, others will not want to be touched at all. Establishing boundaries with every alter is essential in order to help them feel comfortable around you. Journaling or keeping notes can help, especially if your partner has a high alter count in their system. (Systems can range from two alters to thousands.)
4. You will not date every single alter.
Like said previously, you might not even be friends with all of them. Our fiance is currently in a relationship with three of us, including myself. Out of 20+ alters, that is not many! She is best buddies with several and a lot of the children consider her to be like a parental figure, or at least is someone they can trust.
5. Understand that your partner is likely very traumatized and might not know it.
Alters are only the tip of the dissociative identity disorder iceberg. It is the most observable part of the disorder, but the reality is that DID is a very severe form of PTSD. The brain split itself into pieces because of the trauma they endured. They will have flashbacks, nightmares, and all other symptoms of C-PTSD. It would greatly benefit you to research more about C-PTSD and its effects on people in adulthood.
6. The host is not the “original” alter, or the “real” one.
Outdated sources of DID (which generally refer to it as MPD, multiple personality disorder) consider the host alter a “core.” This is outdated and is not supported by scientific evidence. The most recent supported theory of DID is called the “Theory of Structural Dissociation” which details this further. With children who have DID, their personality never formed into a single personality, meaning that there is no such thing as an “original” or “first” personality or alter.
I could go on and on, but these are the most basic and most important things to understand as someone who is in a relationship with someone who has DID. It is a very complex disorder, and the most important thing is to be supportive and understanding, as living with the disorder can sometimes be extremely difficult and draining. However, a healthy life is possible! And that can start with having a healthy relationship with someone who believes in them and wants to help them.
A fantastic workbook is “Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation” by Suzette Boon, Kathy Steele, and Onno Van Der Hart.
This article was written by Jules, the host alter in a DID system of 20+ alters.
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