Borderline personality disorder is a widespread disorder, with severe emotional and relationship deficits. Some of the basic characteristics of BPD are: a pattern of turbulent and unstable relationships, frequent emotional outbursts expressed through verbal abuse and rage, a difficulty to control one’s overwhelming emotions and decreased emotional regulation, an extreme fear of abandonment, a characteristic cognitive impairment termed as “splitting” (or black-and-white thinking) that may manifest in their closest relationships. Splitting causes them to view others as all-good or all-bad depending on the intrinsic circumstances, making it impossible to integrate both positive and negative traits as a whole and attribute both to others. Lastly, self-destructive behaviors are central to BPD, as an attempt to cope with a continuous and irreversible feeling of emptiness.
There is increasing evidence that Borderline Personality Disorder may be conceptualized as an enduring damage to the attachment system of the individual, which is deeply rooted in the earliest and most intimate relationships any individual forms: the one with their primary caregiver(s), their Parent(s). The attachment styles mostly related to BPD are disorganized attachment (fearful-avoidant in adults) and ambivalent attachment. The main focus in this article will be disorganized attachment.
At this point, it would be worthwhile to briefly refer to the different attachment styles, according to the Attachment Theory. There are two main categories: secure and insecure attachment, according to the degree of safety and security that are present within the most intimate relationships, originally established in the relationship of the individual with their primary caregivers. Secure attachment is characterized by feelings of security and ability of emotional intimacy in the relationship. On the contrary, within insecure attachment in adults, the attachment styles that may be discerned are anxious-preoccupied or ambivalent attachment (that corresponds to the anxious-resistant attachment in children), dismissive-avoidant attachment (that corresponds to anxious-avoidant attachment in children), and fearful-avoidant attachment, that corresponds to the disorganized attachment in children.(1)
What does each of these terms actually mean? Securely attached adults tend to have higher self-esteem, as well as more positive views of their partners and their relationships. They feel comfortable with emotional intimacy, while they are also independent in their relationships, maintaining a good balance between the two. Anxious-preoccupied adults require high levels of intimacy, approval and responsiveness from their partners, often described as overly dependent or “needy” in their relationships. They may have trust issues and less positive views about themselves and their partners. They also have a tendency to show high levels of emotional expressiveness, worry and impulsivity in their relationships. Dismissive-avoidant adults are characterized by high levels of independence, as if they avoid close relationships altogether. They regard themselves as self-sufficient and not needing someone else close to them. This pattern reflects a defense mechanism, where these adults distance themselves from intimacy in order to protect themselves from rejection and hurt. Fearful-avoidant adults have mixed feelings about close relationships, at the same time desiring intimacy and feeling uncomfortable with it. Same like dismissive-avoidant adults, fearful-avoidant adults have difficulties with emotional expression and proximity.
It is theorized that individuals with borderline personality disorder were unable to form a secure attachment with their primary caregiver, as they have often been victims of emotional -and other sorts of- abuse and neglect during childhood. When caregivers are rejecting, cold, inconsistent or emotionally unavailable in response to their children’s needs, children do not experience their caregivers as “safe”. Therefore, children learn to be motivated to be cautious, fearful, or avoidant towards their parents, as the latter do not fulfill their children’s emotional needs. At the same time, they desperately need support and protection from the very same people they wish to avoid- the ones that even unwillingly cause them harm. This pattern tends to follow an individual in adult life, making it difficult, if not impossible, to feel secure in their closest, most intimate relationships: the ones with their romantic partners. Seeing it from an insecure attachment perspective, in a similar way the basis of the stormy intimate relationship pattern that characterizes BPD is established: splitting, love-hate swings with any trigger, switching from extreme idealization to extreme devaluation towards their partner, whenever their excessive fear of abandonment is activated- that can happen at any moment, without any logical or explicable grounds- and their pull-push pattern towards their loved one, which is perfectly summed with the “I hate you-don’t leave me” attitude they exhibit. All of the above are actually ways that reflect the insecure attachment of these individuals.(2)
Not surprisingly, BPD is associated to a great extent with disorganized attachment. Disorganized attachment may be best conceptualized within the context of approach-avoidance dilemma for infants of whom their traumatized and traumatizing caregivers are both the main source of threat, as well as a secure base. The need for proximity and intimacy persists for the wounded child, and perhaps even increases as a consequence of the distress caused by the abuse the child withstands. In this way, emotional proximity becomes unbearably painful, as it is both needed and avoided at the same time. Paradoxically, the closer the child approaches their caregiver, the more painful experiences it goes through. From an early age, the BPD individual has learned to use various kinds of controlling strategies in order to maintain a basis of security and stability with their Parent. This is exactly the same pattern used later in their closest relationships, thus being experienced as intensely manipulative by their partners, who in turn get confused and frustrated as to how to form an atmosphere of security in the relationship, when nothing ever seems to be enough in order for the BPD partner to feel safe. The BPD individual desperately yearns for love and intimacy, yet he/she gets ultimately frightened and distant as intimacy increases, because then their childhood schemata of approach-avoidance towards their abusive parents are activated. Consequently, now it may be more clearly understood why aggressive outbursts and “black-outs” usually follow periods of increased affection within relationships of BPD individuals: the closer they go, the more painful it gets. Consequently, BPD individuals may even let go of an intimate relationship altogether, the deeper it approaches their traumatic memories. That’s the reason why close relationships are so turbulent and difficult to maintain.
Consequently, the ultimate question that arises is whether a BPD individual can ever feel safe, or form a secure attachment style within an intimate relationship. Unfortunately, the answer is not very favorable; unless the individual puts conscious effort and works through these deeply-rooted issues in therapy. There is the belief that BPD individuals can never actually feel safe, exactly because of the way they were raised. The emotional abuse they often went through in childhood cause them to feel unloved even by their own parents, internalizing that as their own inability to be loved by anyone. This gradually develops into self-loathing feelings and a subsequent incapacity to fill their emotional voids. Despite their urgent need to be loved, and their efforts to be seductive and lovable, they are often so insecure and afraid of being hurt if they get too close, that their own fear causes them to be abusive towards their partner, disabling them to feel the love they desperately need. The fact that they are often perceived as unlovable, and their painful awareness of that, further adds to their insecurity and fears, thus feeding a vicious cycle they feel trapped in. Therefore, the biggest challenge for an individual with BPD is to actually break through their self-created downward spiral, and allow themselves to enjoy the pleasure of intimacy; in order to finally enjoy the love they may have never experienced as children.
(1) Holmes, J. (2004). Disorganized attachment and Borderline Personality Disorder: A clinical perspective. Attachment and Human Development, 6 (2), 181-190.
(2) Fonagy, P. (2000). Attachment and Borderline Personality Disorder. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48 (4), 1129-1146.