The topic of abuse and BPD is quite complicated. There are no reliable statistics for the percentage of domestic violence and emotional abuse that is linked to personality disorders or BPD in particular. According to Dr Donald Dutton, a leading researcher of the connection between domestic violence and personality disorders “There is strong evidence that the majority of men who are either court-referred or self-referred for wife assault do have diagnosable psychological pathology. In general, about 80% of both court-referred and self-referred men in these studies exhibited diagnosable psychopathology, typically personality disorders.”
Frustratingly (for both clinicians and loved ones), the psychological defence mechanisms of dissociation, projection, and splitting often ensure that the person with BPD themself does not recognize the abusive nature of their own behaviours. It is very common for those with BPD to dissociate during periods of stress and behave in quite abusive ways which are perceived by the Borderline as a vitally necessary defence against imagined physical, sexual or emotional assaults on their well-being or safety (the tendency to re-live past experience of traumatic abuse in interactions with present companions is a hallmark of this and other traumatic or dissociative disorders). Convinced that they are dependent upon loved ones for their very survival, any perceived act of criticism or abandonment is very likely to trigger such a response.
The Borderline’s reaction to this perceived present “abuse” or “abandonment” can range from mildly manipulative to outright dangerous. If dissociating strongly enough, the Borderline may not even remember the events afterwards. It is very common for folks with this disorder to mentally re-script the events, placing themselves in the role of “victim.” Although irrational, the threat feels quite real to the Borderline, and unacceptable behaviours are vehemently defended with after-the-fact justifications.
For the non-Borderline loved one, obviously, these abusive behaviours can be exceedingly frustrating and/or harmful: although the internal emotional triggers for the behaviour may not have anything whatsoever to do with them, those closest to the Borderline are nonetheless the targets of it. Long-term, aside from the physical danger to both male and female partners and family, the psychological danger for the non-Borderline partner is a gradual absorption of responsibility for these projected ‘perpetrators’ and the resultant destruction of their own well-being and stability. The children and siblings of untreated Borderlines whose behaviour is abusive can suffer particularly. Indeed, a rigorous review by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control has found that up to 50% of those who engaged in domestic violence against a spouse had also physically abused the children in the home. Regardless of actual assaults, numerous studies have made it clear that interparental violence in the home has a serious impact on the emotional development of child witnesses.
The classic “victim/perpetrator” dynamic falls short of taking into account the histories of abusers, who are often former victims themselves, as well as the histories of the abused, who may be predisposed to interpreting hurtful behaviour as appropriate demonstrations of affection. Folks with BPD who experienced abusive childhoods are statistically strongly likely to re-enact this history via entering abusive relationships themselves in adult life.
This is an extremely difficult ethical dilemma to wrestle with: as Non-Borderlines, in the face of our own sometimes enormous pain caused by these abusive behaviours, we feel called upon to make a decision between blaming the person with BPD for being the abuser and wanting to comfort them for being the abused. Therapist David Daskovsky summarizes this dilemma beautifully in his essay on treating the patient-survivor, The Abuser and the Abused:
“Another way therapists may get lost in this abused‹abuser dichotomy relates to confusing the child victim with the adult they become. If one exonerates the child from blame for their abuse, does one also continue to exonerate them for their behaviour, which may well be a logical outcome of the abuse, as they grow up? To what degree and when do they begin to be culpable for their revictimizations, for their cruel identifications with the abuser, for their project to defeat caretakers to prove again that they were abused and neglected by thoughtless or selfish adults? In part, seeing these patients as either victims or victimizers may help one to avoid having to wrestle with such painful ethical questions.” [Daskovsky, 1998]
With an appropriate commitment to treatment, it is possible for BPD sufferers to recognize and modify their abusive behaviours; it is also possible for the non-Borderline partner or loved one to learn to evaluate and limit the effects of such behaviours. Without independent treatment for both parties, the hopes of achieving this (and salvaging a healthy, workable relationship) are far smaller.
Daskovsky offers this suggestion, difficult as it may be for loved ones as well as for professional counsellors:
“Working with abused patients requires that therapists learn to sit with unbearable tension between intolerable choices, choices that are not really a choice: Do I neglect or intrude, abuse or let myself be abused? We do not do these patients any favour by offering facile methods or uplifting sentiments in the face of this choicelessness. The paradox here is that by stopping trying to escape the helplessness, we might actually be able to offer something that is truly helpful. What is required here is a tall order for those of us whose stock in trade is to hope and help: We need to tolerate the reality of our patients and our own hopelessness and helplessness without acting to defend against these intolerable feelings. If we can succeed in doing this, we can help our patients to mourn for the choices they never had as children and to see more clearly the ones they do have in the present.”
If we can learn to stop making excuses for the abuse (mental illness does not equal free reign to harm others!) and sparing the person with BPD the natural consequences of their hurtful choices if we can overcome the tendency to assume guilt for things we did not do, if we can detach from the overwhelming desire to try to eliminate their pain ourselves, it is possible for our loved ones with BPD to learn to stand on their own two feet — and everyone involved stands a much greater chance of resolving and healing this tragic dynamic.
Please do remember that as an adult partner or friend of someone with BPD, you did not cause their disorder and it is not your burden to cure it. Your role is to support, guide and offer your perspective without enduring intolerable abuse. The decision to heal, much as with alcoholics, must ultimately lie with the BPD sufferer.