I was asked recently to write more about being in relationship with someone who expresses as having a personality disorder.
Firstly, I want to be careful because I don’t want to vilify people who carry this diagnosis. There is a lot of inflammatory rhetoric particularly on the Internet concerning personality disorders, and the very labels themselves have entered into popular culture. The word ‘narcissistic’ is used commonly today, but would someone recognize a legitimate diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in, say, their neighbor? I’m not so sure.
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is on its way to becoming just as recognizable in terms of popular terminology and stigma. To counteract the stigma associated with BPD, there is a movement within the therapeutic community to rename BPD Emotional Dysregulation Disorder. I can understand this. Diagnostic labels of the psychiatric sort can dehumanize people minimizing an entire person until they are just viewed through the lens of a label.
Having grown up with a mother with BPD, I can tell you why there is therapeutic and social stigma around BPD. The disorder manifests in such a way in a person to enhance and magnify their best and worst traits even going so far as to bring forth talionic rage and homicidal tendencies. At times, it can resemble sociopathy. Without help from trained professionals specializing in treating BPD, there seems to be a lack of any ability to learn from past mistakes causing the same relational mistakes to be made repeatedly–even if those mistakes are extreme displays of violence. This notable inability to apply learning is what makes BPD so difficult to treat. It’s also why it’s so hard to stay in relationships with someone with BPD; you can’t hold someone accountable for their behaviors if they don’t learn from their past mistakes. The neuroscience behind this explains some of the behavioral manifestations, but it doesn’t lessen the abusive nature of it.
I love my mother. Dearly. It cost me to pause our relationship and put space between us. Why did I do that? Because she consistently blamed me for her behaviors and choices. What does that look like? I’ll give you a very black-and-white example so that the dynamic is easy to spot.
When I was under the age of 10, I was playing in our living room. I had a drink in my hand. My mother had our couch newly upholstered in a rather hideous floral pattern. As I was going to sit on our couch, I lost my balance spilling my drink on the couch. She saw this, and I observed her facial expression change from one of contentment to rage. It was an immediate switch. She ran over to me, clutched my upper arm very tightly, and dragged me across the floor while screaming invective. I was trying to get to my feet because I could feel my shoulder starting to pull from the joint, but I could not. I was crying and pleading with her to stop. She proceeded to drag me by my arm up the stairs, her nails digging into me, the connective tissue in my shoulder stretching. She got to my room, threw me on the floor, and slammed the door. My shoulder was almost dislocated by then, and there was already a well-developed bruise around my upper arm marking where she had grasped it.
This is a typical interaction with my mother. One of many. Years later, when I tried to discuss this with her, she responded, “Oh, you had that coming. You were fooling around and stained my couch.” She tossed her hair, gestured, and rolled her eyes.
She blamed me. It was my fault that she behaved badly. It was my fault that she was abusive. When I told her that she almost dislocated my shoulder, she said, “It’s not my fault that your shoulder couldn’t stay in its socket!” She blamed my shoulder! It is almost funny.
In her mind, she should have been able to apply as much force to my shoulder as she wanted because she was angry. It was my shoulder’s job to take it. If my shoulder broke or dislocated, then it was my shoulder’s fault. Not hers. This idea comes from a blindness, and that blindness is centered around a poorly developed cognitive empathy known in academic circles as theory of mind (ToM).
Theory of mind is the ability to understand that what I think is different from what you think. Going further, a well-developed theory of mind allows one to predict, infer, and deduce another person’s thoughts based on their cues and nonverbal communications. It also allows one to understand that what I think, want, and believe is not what other people want, think, and believe. Furthermore, what I do affects other people and my environment as well as how other people feel around me. People who carry a personality disorder diagnosis often have a ToM deficit, and this deficit contributes to the blatant displays of entitlement which fuel the blaming behavior.
In my recent dealings with my mother through an exchange of letters, she is still blaming me for her choices. She wants a relationship, but she continues to blame me for her abusive behaviors: “That only happened because you did _________.” There is a pathological behavior present here. She cannot account for her own choices and then go on to see how anything that she did might have caused a subsequent event. It is like trench warfare. To reach her, I would have to leave my trench and go out into the field risking assassination, and I’m no fool. She would take me out, and then, when I’m gasping for air, she would blame my body for being vulnerable to death.
My mother has both borderline and narcissistic tendencies so her “blame storms” are excruciating.
Sam Vaknin, self-acknowledged narcissist and author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, says:
I am constantly on the lookout for slights. I perceive every disagreement as criticism and every critical remark as complete and humiliating rejection–nothing short of a threat. Gradually, my mind turns into a chaotic battlefield of paranoia.
I react defensively. I become conspicuously indignant, aggressive, and cold. I detach emotionally for fear of yet another (narcissistic) injury. I devalue the person who made the disparaging remark, the critical comment, the unflattering observation, the innocuous joke at my expense.
A narcissistic injury is just as painful to the narcissist as abandonment is to the borderline. Thus, just as the borderline is hypersensitive to abandonment, the narcissistic is hypersensitive to anything that smacks of a narcissistic injury. (Randi Kreger)
In the end, my mother has emphasized that if I loved her, as she so loves me, then I would never “throw these things in her face”. I’m supposed to love her no matter what, and this is where I must offer a different opinion:
What does unconditional love usually mean as employed by a Narcissist, Borderline or other abusive personality type?
It means that you won’t hold the Narcissist, Borderline, Histrionic or Sociopath accountable for their bad behavior nor enforce appropriate boundaries and natural consequences for their bad behavior. Basically, they’ve confused unconditional love with you happily and obliviously tolerating their abuse of you and others, including children. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)
In my experience, this is true. This is also true:
If for whatever reason you’re committed to staying with your abuser (e.g., there are minor children or you’re confusing abuse with love due to your own childhood issues) then, yes, you do need to accept that your abuser is unlikely to change in any meaningful way, that she or he is severely limited as a human being and, at some point after she or he has completely depleted your resources, you may be further vilified and discarded for fresh supply. You don’t get points for being a compliant martyr at the end of the relationship. You get blamed for being broken — never mind the fact that it’s the abuser who broke you…(What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)
This is tough to hear. The psychologist who penned this article has a lot of followers as well as haters. She doesn’t pull her punches. I don’t agree with how she communicates everything, but she isn’t necessarily wrong either in terms of content. Abuse is abuse. An inability to change is still an inability to change. At the end of the day, does the ‘why’ of it all matter when you’re dying a slow death?
Finally, this is where she is most accurate:
Generally speaking, the mental health field has a difficult time admitting that women can be abusers, even when their victims are other women and children. Many wives and girlfriends of men with abusive exes and adult children of narcissistic and borderline mothers understand this all too well. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)
I was told for years that my mother was abused as a child and emotionally troubled, and I should just “love her through it”. If a man, however, did the things to me that my mother was doing, I would have been pulled out of the home as a child and advised to flee the relationship as an adult. The faith communities with which I became acquainted were notorious for this response.
As you can see, the concepts of unconditional love and radical acceptance are frequently (ab)used in couples therapy to persuade targets of narcissistic, borderline and sociopathic abuse, particularly if the abuser is a female who has “emotional problems,” that you’re an unloving and abusive partner (or adult child) if you don’t unconditionally accept your partner’s (or parent’s) abuse. If that last sentence makes your head spin, good. It should because it’s ridiculous. It also probably echoes what your narcissist or borderline has been drilling into your head, which is equally ridiculous. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)
It is not wrong to want to be happy. It is not wrong to want to feel safe. It is not wrong to want to be loved appropriately. It is not wrong to want to be a part of healthy, mutually life-giving relationships.
The only thing that tolerating or accepting abuse will get you is more abuse. You can call that unconditional love, but it sure sounds more like codependence and extremely unhealthy codependence at that. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)
What I have learned is that blame can be rejected. My mother or my ex-husband can blame me for anything, but I don’t have to accept it. I can let the “blame ball” drop to the ground and walk away. I do not have to take responsibility for something that is not and never was mine. Nor do you.
There may be disorders at play in others that limit their capacities to grow and change, but, if we are not limited, then we can grow and change. When you stop and think about that, and I mean really think about that, you must see that the playing field isn’t level at all.
The possibilities are limitless for you when you stop allowing another person’s limitations define your terms.
That is what I would offer you today.
Where are you allowing other people’s small capacities and limitations determine your own life’s possibilities?
What can you do right now to change that?
Borderlines and Narcissists Both Blame Storm by Randi Kreger