The Borderline Personality Disordered Family, Part I

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

There is an old saying in psychology that "people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are not born, they are made." What this saying refers to is the fact that child abuse, repeated from one generation to the next, results in BPD. In other words, those who were abused as children are at great risk of developing BPD and are likely to have been abused by parents who were Borderline.

Generally speaking the term personality disorder refers to patterns of behavior that were learned early in life, are regularly repeated and are unsuccessful as coping skills. Borderline Personality Disorder refers to a particular type of repeated behaviors characterized by the following symptoms as reported in the DSM IV:


1) Unstable interpersonal relationships characterized by idealizing the other person followed by devaluing the same individual.

2) Impulsive behaviors in the areas of sex, spending, substance abuse, reckless driving, and more.

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3) Chronic feelings of emptiness.

4) Intense anger, difficulty controlling angry impulses, physical fights and violence.

5) Paranoid thinking brought on by stress.

6) Suicidal threats, self mutilating and suicidal behaviors.

7) Constant worry about real or imagined abandonment by others.

8) Regular episodes of anxiety, depression, and irritability.

9) Self image or identity that is unstable.

It is not inevitable that the children of a BPD parent will develop this disorder if the other parent is able to protect the child and serve as a stable source of comfort and reassurance for the child. However, what happens if either both parents suffer from BPD or if one does and the other has another type of personality disorder?

The issue is that people with BPD tend to marry those with those who are also personality disordered in one way or another. For instance, the mother with a borderline personality is likely to attract someone with a narcissistic personality. Why, I hear you ask? The reason is that at the beginning of the relationship, when the person with the BPD is busily idealizing their boy friend, they will feel very appealing to someone with strong narcissistic wounds. Someone with a Narcissistic Personality wants to feel worshipped, heroic and highly valued. There is nothing more appealing to this person than the idealizing, worshipping behavior of the BPD individual.

In this dyad: Borderline person with Narcissistic person, trouble sets in when the Narcissistic person becomes arrogant and demeaning to the Borderline. This arrogant behavior is inevitable because the narcissistic needs of this person are insatiable and their self inflating and self aggrandizing behaviors finally have a devastating impact on their partners. The Borderline partner cannot withstand this stress, becomes filled with murderous rage, and demeans and devalues their former hero. A relationship that seemed "made in heaven" suddenly descends down into hell. The borderline person wants assurances that their partner will not leave them while the narcissistic person, with no sympathy for their partner, either threatens to or does actually leave.

However, the narcissistic personality is not the only one who is likely to marry the borderline. People who are passive and dependent and who will not threaten to leave are also likely to marry someone who has a borderline personality. Of course, two people with borderline personality disorders set the stage for a life of major tempestuousness and grief for all involved.

What Happens When Children Enter this Scenario?

When children enter into the battle ground of a personality disordered parent while the other parent suffers another type of personality disorder the stage is set for major grief to be suffered by one or all of the children. Given the nature of the borderline parent it is often one particular child who is singled out for abuse.

Which child is selected for abuse and why?

The child most likely selected for the wrath of the borderline parent is most likely the one who most reminds the parent of their own self. We will focus on the Borderline Mother because children are usually most exposed to her. While the child who reminds the borderline mother of herself is usually one of the daughters it is possible for the target of her rage to be a son.

Because of the fragmented way in which the borderline sees herself (either made up of good stuff or made up of bad stuff) the borderline parent views her children in the same fragmented way. Therefore, it is often one child who represents all the bad stuff inside the borderline parent who becomes the target of abuse. Then, another child will represent all the good stuff inside of the same parent and that child is viewed by this parent as being perfect. Neither child grows into an adult who feels good about themself. Of course, attributing one’s own characteristics to another person is called "projection." If there are additional children in the family they tend to be fortunate enough to be ignored by this pathological, toxic parent.

What becomes of the "good child" and what becomes of the "bad child" and how can adult survivors of this abuse cope with their parents? Read Part II of the Borderline Family tomorrow.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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