He arranged a separation from Charlene to recover, and to begin to feel safe again. The toughest moments came when he wanted to hear her voice that had encouraged him so often. Growing up in a home with a devouring mother who put him down when he wanted to think and act on his own behalf, he was attracted to Charlene’s adoration and constant attention. Sure, she was volatile – calm and caring sometimes but insatiable and stifling at others. But now, he was seeing another side of her, and feeling as abused as he had when he lived at home with his parents.
Not long after the threatening incident that led to the couple separating, Jackson discovered that Charlene had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). He was furious and felt he had been duped. Yet Jackson couldn’t stop wanting to talk to Charlene and meet up with her from time to time. He didn’t know how to get the more nurturing parts of Charlene that he needed to keep his confidence and spirit up, and how to be safe from her verbal and physical abuse.
Having a relationship with a BPD partner is like living in two worlds at the same time as Jackson discovered. It was heaven on earth when Charlene made him feel like he was the only thing in her world. When she was feeling attracted to and attached to Jackson, he was the ‘good’ guy. But when she was empty and desperate for him to fulfill the promise of being her idol, she would taunt him and nag at him until he focused solely on her. At those moments he was the ‘bad’ guy, withholding from her, making her feel as if she didn’t exist.
The Essential Relational Problems That BPD People Live With
Otto Kernberg gives a useful description of a BPD person’s “splitting” defense in his book, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism . He describes how they split themselves up into empty/bad and full/good parts, and do the same to their loved ones. When Jackson was doing the dishes or working on an illustration for his client, Charlene felt empty and therefore made Jackson into the ‘bad’ guy. But when he was attentive and focusing on her, he was the ‘good’ guy, filling her up again.
It’s exciting for Charlene to put pressure on Jackson to walk out on himself and join her in her state of anxiety and emptiness. She wants him to blur the boundaries and become part of her. That’s so satisfying. But as soon as he needs to be his own person again, she gets enraged and threatens to hurt him.
Why Can’t People with BPD Stay Full and Remember That They are Loved?
BPD adults have missed out on two essential developmental experiences that affect all their attachments.
- They can’t feel you and hold you as a constant loving being in their mind’s eye. You are either ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘absent’! It’s called a lack of object constancy. So when Jackson went for a walk with Charlene just before they were preparing dinner the night of the threatened attack, she felt him as the good person, present with her. But the moment he wanted to do something else while she was preparing the dinner he became the ‘bad’ person, abandoning her and making her empty again.
- They have trouble imagining your intentions and needs. It’s known as trouble mentalizing. According to this theory of BPD, put forward by Bateman and Fonagy in their book, Psychotherapy for BPD, when Charlene gets angry that Jackson wants to do something else as she prepares the dinner, she cannot imagine that he may need the rest room, or need to check messages on his work e-mail, or just need to read a trade magazine. She imagines only that he is tired of her and wants to get away – hence the rage and threats. Mentalization based treatment is very successful in helping people like Charlene control their extreme feelings by learning how to read the intentions of their loved ones.
Jackson and Charlene didn’t stay apart for long. They had short periods of separation and reunion in waves. He needed her to make him the center of her universe and a worthwhile person who was necessary to her life – all the things he never got from his parents. She needed him to make her feel that she was better than his mother and could provide him with support, ensuring that he would stick around. It became a co-dependent relationship. It’s on the foundation of co-dependency that many relationships involving a BPD person and a narcissistically wounded person (Jackson) survive.
Introducing structure and predictability really helps couples like Charlene and Jackson.
- Make specific times to be together with no other intrusions for short spans, so that Charlene will ‘know’ she isn’t abandoned or unloved and start poking Jackson to attend to her. It helps with the difficulty she has with ‘object constancy.’ Spell out the details like from ‘6pm-6:30 pm is sharing our day together time. Jackson starts talking first and Charlene listens for 3 minutes, then vice versa.’ It may sound calculated but in my experience BPD partners use the entire time to either vent or dig at the other for information to prove loyalty. Structuring the talking-listening makes the encounter satisfying for both.
- Plan to do things together during those times that bring both of them together in a world called ‘us’ – so that Jackson doesn’t feel he has to give up his world to be engulfed by hers, and so that Charlene learns that other worlds exist that include her.
- Engage in regular and constant ‘check ins’ with each other – saying out loud what you are feeling and thinking in the moment. It works by giving feedback about what is going on inside Jackson so that Charlene doesn’t go to her usual abandonment story. Jackson’s saying things like, “I’m really tired after that walk!” will help Charlene appreciate that he doesn’t want to lie down because he is tired of her, but that his body needs a rest!
- Have a network of friends outside the relationship. Family relationships are bad for both parties, so friends and colleagues become crucial in helping the couple avoid co-dependency that fuels the cycle of instability.
- Encourage your BPD partner to write down their feelings while you are not in the same place together. So if Jackson is at the Gym and Charlene is doing laundry at home, she might get anxious that he is meeting someone new and won’t ever come home. Writing down those feelings at the time and then sharing them later is a very effective tool to control volatile feelings and discuss them later when reality proves the anxieties unfounded.
Writing the feelings down helps settle the turmoil and release it in a coherent manner. It engages the more rational part of the brain with the emotional centers and helps the BPD person to get grounded and then do a reality check. It’s much less likely that when Jackson comes back from the Gym, Charlene will attack him with her unprocessed anxiety and fear of abandonment.
In my experience of working with couples where one person has BPD and the other is narcissistically wounded (the common combination of attraction) they agree to these five core stabilizing suggestions and use it for a short while. As soon as stability is created, they abandon the scheme and the whole cycle of volatile emotions, safety-issues and fear become center stage again.
Dr. Jeanette Raymond is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Los Angeles. She is the Author of: Now You Want Me, Now You Don’t! Fear of Intimacy: Ten ways to recognize fear of intimacy, and ten ways to manage it in your relationship.