Why Someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder May Struggle with Friendships

Human connection is important for us all and, as a mental health provider, you likely want to help your clients foster healthy and supportive relationships. When working with someone with dissociative identity disorder, you have to understand what factors may make friendships challenging. This blog discusses several, based on lived experience and community advocacy!

Much of this applies to people living with OSDD-1 (Other specified dissociative disorder) as well, who also have multiple identities.

Trauma and Struggling with Friendships and Intimacy

DID systems are often highly traumatized, and this can make it hard to relate to people who haven’t gone through the serious traumas we have. When your early childhood was defined by trauma and survival, typical childhood exploration and connection was often neglected. Fight or flight was prioritized over play. Essentially, someone living with dissociative identity disorder was built to survive their environment, not inherently enjoy it. Learning to enjoy relationships, connections, and friendships can be a struggle for any trauma survivor, especially those so heavily impacted by what they experienced.

It’s also possible the person with DID has been hurt in other close relationships, and might struggle to trust now. It takes time to feel safe exploring emotional intimacy with a friend and dissociation can make that extra challenging. When someone dissociates, they may disconnect from their emotions and have trouble talking about them. This could lead to choppy conversations around feelings, distance during conflicts, and other factors that can lead to struggles in friendships.

Different alters have different friendships

Alters in someone with dissociative identity disorder are usually highly unique individuals, often expressed as whole as full people. This means that each alter may have different needs, ways of expressing themselves, and different people they connect with. Essentially, a person that one alter likes as a friend may not be the right person for another alter.

(In OSDD, alters are sometimes less differentiated. Additionally, some people with DID may see their alters as parts of one whole person and not separate individuals, although this appears to be less common.)

Another challenge with different alters and friendships is that alters can change places. One alter may be engaging with a friend, and then another alter switches and takes executive control of the body and consciousness, interrupting the conversation or potentially being unaware of what has been going on. Additionally, a part of meaningful friendships is being able to regularly connect with your friends. People with DID may not have the ability to do that reliably. A friend may be expecting a date with one alter, but another alter shows up because they happen to be the one in control at that time. This is something others may struggle to understand and it can create potentially unfair conflict, if there is a lack of understanding about how DID works. People with DID can’t typically control these switches and part of befriending someone with DID is understanding that.

This is one reason why psychoeducation with your clients is important. If they understand more about their dissociative identity disorder, they will be better equipped to effectively communicate with others and explain what is happening (like why they seem like a suddenly different friend). Honest and open communication can benefit friendships of all types, especially when dissociation is involved.

One Alter May Dislike a Friend

An alter might dislike someone that is another alter’s friend, creating conflict (intentionally or not). This is common with protector alters, but can happen in any sort of system arrangement. Since alters can be as whole as individual people, navigating different relationships while all sharing one body can be a challenge.

Conflict resolution and inner communication between the system, as well as discussing triggers and red flags, can be helpful for overcoming this. It’s possible that a protector alter is overreacting (because of their nature to protect), but it is equally possible they are noticing real harmful behavior. Fostering good communication skills in your clients, especially between their alters, is essential for helping them navigate challenges like this as an effective team.

And, as always, remember that one alter is no more important than another. There is no “one true self” who gets a final say on friendships. All alters should collectively work together regarding any conflicts to overcome.

The need to Mask

People with dissociative identity disorder are often forced to mask, or are naturally covert (having no obvious symptoms) to adapt to a society that rejects multiplicity. Masking is a term coined during the neurodivergency movement, essentially meaning covering up one’s innate self or self-expression to fit better into an oppressive society. This is common with autistic people and those with ADHD.

This can put a lot of stress on the DID system and make it hard for them to focus on, or feel comfortable in, friendships. Imagine trying to hide your most true self. Dissociative identity disorder is not just a trait, it’s the very core of who we are. We are multiple identities within one body, and needing to conceal that to protect ourselves from an ableist society can be incredibly painful. It can also cause great detriment to friendships, especially building new connections while not knowing who we can be honestly ourselves around.

It’s hard to feel close to someone when you are hiding the very truth of who you are: a collection of selves.

Stigma about multiplicity

On the note of masking, people with DID or OSDD-1 are stigmatized by society. Multiplicity is treated as something from a horror movie (and is often directly featured in horror movies). Systems lose friends over this stigma when they come out about who they are. It’s a terrifying thing to reveal you live with DID, especially since there is such a great societal and professional misunderstanding of what it is like.

One of my close friends once asked me, seriously, if I was going to murder them when I first came out about my DID. I’m not alone in this story, as I’ve spoken with hundreds of DID and OSDD systems who have experienced the same or something incredibly similar and stigmatizing.

If you are a mental health professional, you’ll want to be aware of the societal rejection of multiplicity and how taboo it is treated. There is also professional stigma which is something you should be actively combatting too. Take this training to get a better understanding of what living with DID is truly like.

Amnesia

Amnesia is part of the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for DID…and it can be quite impactful! Sometimes, an alter will forget a friend’s name or not recognize them. This can be tough to explain if the person doesn’t know about their DID. Additionally, amnesia can lead to forgetting dates, get togethers, important memories, and shared experiences. All of these can naturally impact friendships, especially if the friend is unaware of the impact of DID.

Amnesia is particularly common around alters switching, like when one alter takes the place of another in controlling their shared body. When this happens during a time with a friend, it’s possible the new alter will need to mentally catch up on what was going on. They may not remember the prior conversation and may repeat things, express confusion, or share different opinions even after the previous alter just shared an opposing opinion. This can be confusing for someone unaware of their friend’s DID to understand. Again, psychoeducation and open communication can assist with this.

Helping Someone with dissociative identity disorder have healthy friendships

As a whole society, let’s work on normalizing multiplicity! Start by sharing this post. Then regularly talk about dissociative identity disorder as a valid way of existing as a human. This all normalizes multiplicity.

Mental health professionals can help support dissociative identity disorder systems in a variety of ways regarding friendships. Some examples are creating scripts to navigate social situations (like how to explain forgetting a recent conversation), and helping alters better communicate with each other to reduce conflict and amnesia barriers.

It is always important to consider safety when encouraging someone with DID to open up about their diagnosis with another. Does that friend have the potential to be abusive? Are they likely to spread that new knowledge around, effectively outing the DID system? If the conversation goes poorly and the friendship ends, does your client have a support system they can turn to? Keep these in mind whenever encouraging a client to open up about their experiences to a friend.

Most importantly, every mental health professional should be familiar with the lived experience of dissociative identity disorder. Take my comprehensive training on DID here! It includes a presentation, Q&A session, and practice session to explore realistic scenarios you may face when working with someone with DID, including navigating external relationship conflicts.

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About the Author

Hello! I’m Calion, a consultant educating mental health professionals, students, organizations, and the public about dissociative identity disorder. I have lived experience with the condition and have been studying it since 2017.

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October 27, 2021