Emotionally Abusive Borderline Relationships

Dealing with emotionally abusive borderline relationships can cause many to not recognize the signs of abuse because they feel love or empathy towards the borderline person. Emotional abuse is usually subtle and often we do not know it is occurring. It could be controlling someone’s behavior in passive-aggressive ways, so they feel guilty about going out with their friends.

How do emotionally abusive borderline relationships get played out? Those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) can portray themselves as the victim and their partner as the villain who becomes blamed for the problems. Often, the person with BPD will react towards loved ones as if they were the abusers from their past, and take out vengeance and anger towards them.

When the person with BPD feels abandoned, they can become abusive or controlling as a way to defend against feelings of abandonment or feeling unworthy. Often, the trail of destruction can adversely impact the relationship, causing the relationship to end pre-prematurely.  Often, the person with BPD is unaware of how they drive their relationships away, which perpetuates the belief that others are abandoning them, all of the time.

Emotional abuse in Borderline Personality Disorder can be an everyday occurrence, without realizing it. Consider a typical example of a man with BPD who complains that his partner ignores all of his text messages, saying that she is rude and does not respond. Whereas, she advised him that she was catching up with friends and wanted some time to herself. She checks her phone and finds messages of being accused of having an affair and not consider him. She feels guilty about having fun with her friends and feels controlled, which repels her from contacting him, so she ignores his messages until she ends up becoming the person who does not care about his feelings, by ‘acting out’ the person that he projects her to be.

In this example, the man is avoiding the negative feelings that he has about himself, including insecurity and jealousy, by externalizing the blame, so that his partner has a problem that needs to be fixed. This prevents him from facing his feelings or dealing with his relationship.

These relationships end up stuck in the blame game, due to the defense mechanism splitting. It in order for change to occur, it is necessary to deal with the splitting defensive pattern in the person who is borderline.

According to James Masterson, the borderline person holds onto a re-union fantasy of the hope that the Rewarding Loved Object (caregiver) will return and love them in the form of an adult relationship, causing them to cling to relationships. When this does not occur, or they perceive abandonment, it triggers the Withdrawing Object fantasy, causing them to believe that everyone will eventually abandonment them because they feel not good enough.

Often, the emotional abuse in BPD occurs when defending against the perceived threat of abandonment, or avoiding feelings of abandonment, by holding onto a re-union fantasy of the Rewarding Object who will love them.  When the partner does not fit this fantasy, they’re perceived as unloving, uncaring or abandoning, becoming the Withdrawing Object. The person with BPD distorts the way they see others, as either ‘loving’ or ‘non-loving’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Those suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder use the defense mechanism called splitting, which causes them to see themselves and others as extremes of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This causes them to feel love or hate, happy or sad.

When the borderline person perceive others are abandoning them, they feel bad about themselves. Whereas, when they perceive others love them, this causes them to feel good about themselves. In this way, the person with BPD has a sense of self that is dependent upon how others treat them.

A person may feel that they are good because they please their partner and put lots of effort into making them happy, whereas they may feel that their partner is uncaring or unloving because they do not put the same effort into the relationship.

When the BPD person becomes triggered to feeling unworthy or abandoned, they project these feelings onto their partner, since they cannot tolerate them within themselves. In this way, their partner becomes all bad, uncaring or mean, and treated accordingly.

If a partner does not return a call, he can be depicted to be uncaring or rejecting. Forgetting to call can trigger past feelings of being unwanted, that become so overwhelming that they are displaced onto the partner for treating them this way. The partner can be on the receiving end of an abusive attack and feel wrongly accused.

When a person perceives that their partner is causing the pain, they become the problem. It becomes difficult to see any good in a partner if one puts their past wounds onto them, so they become the person who is seen as causing the hurt. It is easy to take out your anger on the person you feel is responsible for it.

The husband who came home late is seen as not caring about his wife.  A wife may not think her spouse loves her, no matter what he says.

When the BPD person is caught in the negative side of the split, anything that their partner does can be seen as bad (unloving or uncaring), because it brings up how bad she feels (not good enough). Her partner could meet all her needs and it might not make the difference.

If you are in a relationship with a person with BPD and feel blamed for things that do not represent your actions, there can be ways to manage this.

Dealing with Emotional Abuse in Borderline Personality Disorder

  • In dealing with emotional abuse in borderline personality disorder, it’s imperative to separate the behavior from the person who is borderline. Instead of judging the person, focus on the behavior that was hurtful and express how it impacted you, to set a limit on the behavior.
  • Placating the aggressive behavior, or letting them get away with it, will only enable the behavior to continue through positive reinforcement.
  • Instead of reacting, by feeling blamed or attacked, see their behavior as way to get out what they are feeling and use it as an opportunity to be curious about how they are feeling. This allows them to take responsibility for how they are feeling, rather than displacing their feelings onto others.
  • It’s more effective to come back to the discussion when things are calm and be curious as to why they took your actions in a certain way, and point out that that it was not your intention; to challenge the perception.
  • Show astonishment that they see you in a particular light, if it does not fit. “Why do you think I do not love you, when I missed your call”.
  • After all this, if the emotional abusive borderline partner cannot own their behavior and take responsibility for addressing it, then you might want to ask yourself, ‘why do you put with it’?

In managing emotional abuse in BPD relationships, boundaries and limits are often necessary early, before the abusive behavior becomes set in stone. The person who is borderline needs to understand that their actions can hurt others, which is often outside of their awareness.  This needs to be said in a non-judgemental and non defensive manner, yet stated firmly with conviction. The unwanted behavior is addressed by not blaming the individual, otherwise it will trigger the negative self beliefs, which are likely to become defended against with rage and anger.

It more effective to understand the feelings behind the reaction, rather than react towards any accusatory or blaming behavior. It becomes easier to clarify what they feel, so you understand their feelings and point out any areas that you feel do not fit your actions.  It is wise to not say ” You’re wrong or crazy, otherwise you will become the person they fear. This will allow the person who is borderline to see that you are not the person you are accused to be. This will assist them to see the situation more clearly, when they get more in touch with how they feel. This will assist them to deal with their feelings and take responsibility for their behavior.

When the person who is borderline is gently challenged on hurtful behavior, the defensive acting out behavior stops. The behavior improves, but it brings up the underlying bad feelings. This can be a vulnerable time when the borderline needs containment for how they feel, since they will get in touch with past feelings and feelings of worthlessness. However, usually the feelings are too intense for the person who is borderline to handle on their own, and therefore it is imperative for them to attend counselling to process the underlying feelings, otherwise they will have no way to manage the feelings when they come up, causing them to get stuck in defensive patterns once again. The defences are there because the ‘self’ is not strong enough to face the intense feelings, so therapy is required to build the capacity and strength within themselves to manage the intense feelings.

Preventing Abuse in Borderline Personality Disorder

Nancy Carbone provides individual Counselling Melbourne services and couples counselling for those with personality difficulties. Nancy trained at International Masterson Institute in New York for the Psychanalytic Treatment of Personality Disorders.

You can visit https://www.counsellingservicemelbourne.com.au/personal-counselling/relationship-counselling/ .  To visit more mental health articles at Counselling in Melbourne follow us on social media on Facebook and Twitter

© All written content is copyright Nancy Carbone 2018

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash