Borderline personalities have a poorly developed and unstable sense of self (For more on this, see also: Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder and Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder – Part 2). As a result, their relationships tend to be marked by much turmoil. One author poetically summed up the pathologically ambivalent dynamic borderline personalities often bring into their relationships with the title “I hate you, Don’t Leave Me.” Possessed of deeply conflicted and equally intense feelings about both themselves and others, and lacking in their ability to modulate their emotions, individuals with borderline levels of personality integration can make life for their relationship partners a painful experience, and depending upon what traits tend to be the most dominant in their personalities, the particular kinds of difficulties they can bring into their relationship vary considerably (I am among those who assert that the borderline personality syndrome is not a singular, distinct, personality style, but rather a failure of personality organization and integration, and therefore, depending on what traits are more strongly present, every borderline personality is different and brings unique challenges into their relationships. For more on this see pp. 130-132 in Character Disturbance).
Borderline personalities with prominent Passive-Dependent personality traits tend to be extraordinarily “needy” and “clingy.” They quickly and firmly latch onto those whom they perceive to have strength. They anticipate maltreatment but hang on tightly due to their deeper dread of possible “abandonment.” This makes them prone to episodes of great despondency and depression when they have the slightest inclination their relationship partner is growing in frustration over or simply tiring of their neediness. Borderlines with prominent Active-Dependent (i.e. “histrionic”) personality traits (for more on both the active and passive Dependent Personalities see pp. 32-33 in In Sheep’s Clothing and pp. 59-68 in Character Disturbance) tend to be highly reactive, attention-seeking, seductive, and manipulative. They also tend to be sensation-seeking and prone to making dramatic gestures – including potentially self-destructive acts – that keep the attention of others focused on them. If narcissistic or antisocial traits are also present, they can be prone to intense but incredibly shallow relationships where the relationship partners feel chronically abused, emotionally drained, and exploited.
A young man with a very significant history of emotional and physical abuse in childhood had a series of intensely-charged but short-lived relationships (Caution: As always, details of cases have been altered to preserve anonymity). He met all the requirements for BPD (labile moods and intense mood swings, self-damaging acts, periods of great despondency, etc.). In the abusive environment in which he grew up, all efforts on his part to assert himself were quashed with an intensity that was truly spirit-crushing. As a result, he came to view himself as inadequate and always gravitated toward those he perceived to be stronger and more capable. And in his emotional dependency (Passive-dependent traits were strongest in his personality but he had some active-dependent or “histrionic” traits as well), he would latch onto relationship partners with such intensity that he gave them little breathing room. But equally fearful of both eventual maltreatment as well as emotional “abandonment,” he would engage in a wide variety of behaviors (e.g., dramatic self-harm threats and gestures, displays of intense raw emotion, hateful, venom-spewed rants followed by plaintiff sobbing, clingy behavior and begging not to leave, etc.) that would rightfully “test” the level of commitment of any relationship partner. The partners, of course, tended to see these behaviors as deliberately manipulative, and, of course, the behaviors were also emotionally exhausting. And while there is no question this man’s behaviors had a manipulating effect, there was never any doubt in my mind that they were not consciously done to ensnare or punish but rather represented a true unconscious “acting-out” of his deepest fears and neurotic “complexes” (For more about what “acting-out” is and isn’t see: “Acting-Out” and other Commonly Misused Psychology Terms and “Acting-Out:” Top 5 Misused Psychology Terms – Part 2). Still, the behaviors were so stress-evoking that the partners would eventually “burn out” and flee he coup just to save their sanity (It’s worthy of note that the official Diagnostic Manual most mental health professionals in the U.S. presently use cautions against interpreting typical borderline symptoms as deliberately manipulative. And while this case underscores the importance of not making such a rash judgment, there are some borderline individuals – as will be exemplified in next week’s post – who have traits in their makeup that do predispose them to more active, deliberate manipulation).
Identity uncertainty is often part and parcel of the borderline syndrome. And I’m aware of several cases where that uncertainty extended to sexual identity as well (SPECIAL NOTE: This example is not meant in any way to suggest that sexual orientation or preference is necessarily an outgrowth of identity disturbance or that a sexual orientation or preference that some might consider a departure from the norm is necessarily a manifestation of a personality disturbance). In one case, a woman over her lifetime experienced periods of same-sex attraction only to find herself at other times greatly dissatisfied with her same-sex relationships and hungry for opposite-sex involvement. She made a surprising announcement to her husband one day that she was leaving him to be with a woman with whom she’d been having an affair only to want to return to him less than a year later. As you can imagine, this left her husband feeling more than a little confused and bewildered. This woman was a relatively “high-functioning” borderline (never displaying some of the other common emotional or behavioral symptoms and never qualifying for a diagnosis of full-blown BPD) and her sexual identity uncertainty was only part of a pervasive uncertainty about a wide variety of identity issues (the woman had changed careers, religious affiliations, and her sentiments with regard to having children and raising a family countless times). And there would be no stability in her working life, in her spiritual life, or her relationships until she came to a more certain understanding of who she really was at the core, what truly fulfilled her sexually, and what she genuinely wanted out of life. With much time in therapy where the focus was almost continuously on identity awareness and solidification, this woman eventually came to “find herself” and establish a relationship that has remained stable for several years.
Next week, we’ll be wrapping-up the series on borderline personalities. The case vignettes will include examples of borderline individuals with prominent narcissistic and/or antisocial features in their personalities (i.e. those with a fair degree of character disturbance as opposed to neurosis) and will illustrate the unique kinds of problems such personalities bring into relationships. I’ll also be talking about the hope there exists these days for individuals who have disturbances of the self to heal through specialized intervention.
On last Sunday’s Character Matters program I announced that I’d be airing the Barbara Roberts interview on domestic violence and other abuse perpetrated in the name of religion on this coming Sunday’s show. But unfortunately some persistent technical difficulties are preventing that from happening just yet. And because I had planned to do the show from a remote location (airing primarily the recorded interview with Ms. Roberts yet accepting phone calls), unfortunately, this Sunday’s program will be a rebroadcast of last week’s program (hopefully, this will not be a common occurrence). Given the continuing problems in the NFL and the renewed media focus on issues of domestic violence and child abuse, it’s a program that remains timely, and if you missed it last week, you’ll certainly want to catch it this week and/or share the podcast with your friends.