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Learn to recognize the subtle but important differences in abusive relationships involving a partner with BPD or NPD.

The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD) can intersect, making it difficult to determine which disorder is at work in a relationship.

Understanding the differences between abusive relationships involving BPD and NPD can help you determine how to change the dynamics in your relationship.

Regardless of whether there’s a mental health condition involved, there are resources available to help you protect yourself from an abusive partner or extricate yourself from an abusive relationship.

Committing abuse is a choice, and it’s never OK.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a condition wherein emotions and behavior may fluctuate rapidly, especially when the person feels threatened by abandonment.

Symptoms include:

  • extreme efforts to avoid abandonment
  • fluctuating sense of identity
  • history of unstable relationships
  • impulsivity in at least two areas of self-damaging behavior, such as binge-eating, spending, or substance misuse
  • chronic feelings of emptiness
  • difficulty controlling inappropriate or intense anger
  • stress-related paranoia or symptoms of dissociation

Generally, someone must show at least five or more of these symptoms to receive a diagnosis of BPD.

People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are often seen as self-centered, thinking of themselves as being above or better than other people. But there’s so much more to the condition.

People living with NPD may also have difficulty understanding how others feel and why they do what they do. Clinically, someone with NPD shows at least five of the following symptoms:

  • sense of entitlement
  • sense of self-importance and grandiosity
  • need for praise and recognition
  • low empathy
  • tendency to take advantage of others for personal gain
  • strong sense of being unique or special
  • scorn and arrogance
  • distrust, envy, or jealousy

To receive a diagnosis of NPD, these symptoms must interfere with most facets of life.

For the symptoms that cross over, like emotional outbursts, it’s easier to see the differences between the two disorders by examining the behavior and motivations behind them.

Manipulation (potentially verbally abusive)NPD: manipulates by discarding and devaluing others to maintain sense of self-importance

BPD: manipulates through jealousy, threats (especially of self-harm), or control to avoid abandonment
Intense rageNPD: feels rage at a challenge to their sense of grandiosity

BPD: is emotionally volatile, which can blind them to other people’s perspectives, and is more dissociative
Chronic emptiness or voidNPD: is emotionally shallow

BPD: has intense feelings around abandonment
Emotional volatilityNPD: idealizes their target and then devalues them before discarding

BPD: engages in “splitting” by showing love but reverting to anger, fear, or disgust to avoid abandonment
Lack of empathyNPD: shows a consistent lack of empathy

BPD: shows extreme empathy or lack of empathy depending on their emotional state

Your partner may have one of these conditions if they show five or more symptoms from the above lists describing BPD and NPD.

However, someone may show borderline narcissist symptoms or show narcissism in borderline personality disorder, complicating their behavior and diagnosis.

“Borderline personality disorder is characterized by a push/pull dynamic in which a partner may feel intensely attached or loving towards you in one moment and then pull away or reject you in another,” says Carrie Wasterlain, licensed clinical social worker and assistant director at The Dorm.

It’s the drastic shifts in mood and the attachment to others that characterizes BPD.

“Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a consistent inability to connect to or consider someone else’s feelings, along with an elevated sense of self-importance,” says Wasterlain.

Deep down, they feel insecure, but they communicate that insecurity with put-downs and anger.

As Wasterlain explains, “The main differentiator here is that someone with NPD will typically not waver in their grandiose sense of their own importance or achievements and their devaluation of others, while someone with BPD will shift between the extremes of confidence and insecurity at the same time they idolize and devalue others.”

Wasterlain explains that the partners of people with BPD or NPD may “walk on eggshells.”

They try to avoid confrontation or discussing problems with their partner at all costs. They may also feel unsafe raising normal concerns.

People with either condition have difficulty taking responsibility for their actions.

Wasterlain emphasizes an important distinction between these two disorders: “If a partner is consistently claiming that you’re the cause of their urges to self-harm, you may be dealing with symptoms of BPD.”

A person with BPD is much more likely to threaten self-harm in an attempt to manipulate their partner.

On the other hand, Wasterlain explains that a partner with NPD would rather hide their weakness or feelings than express them in any way.

“If a partner seems only to be able to find problems and inadequacies with you, but never with themselves, you may be dealing with someone who has symptoms of NPD,” says Wasterlain.

Also, people with BPD may cycle in and out of taking responsibility and acknowledging their harmful actions, whereas someone with NPD may rarely acknowledge their hurtful behavior.

Not all people who are abusive have NPD, BPD, or another mental health condition.

Additionally, just because someone shows some of the symptoms of NPD or BPD doesn’t mean they have the condition.

Both of these conditions occur on a spectrum. It’s possible for someone to exhibit some of the symptoms at times, yet not have NPD or BPD.

Be careful not to diagnose someone with a complex mental health condition based on a single article, internet search, or list.

The first step is to recognize that what you’re experiencing is abuse.

If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably already made this step.

The next step is to say out loud to yourself and your partner that the behavior is abusive. Say it again if you have to, which you probably will. Stick with it.

If your partner is in a pattern of behavior that leaves you feeling emotionally or physically unsafe or fearful, it may be time to consider reaching out to someone.

Your physical and emotional safety is the most important factor.

You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline to find immediate help and support. A representative can counsel you on how to safely extract yourself from the situation or help connect you with local resources.

Consider confiding in a friend or family member and building a support system that has your best interests at heart.

Remember that living with a mental health condition does not give anyone an excuse to abuse another person.

A label can make it seem as though that person has no control over their behavior. But abuse is a choice, and it’s not the fault of the person being abused.

It’s ultimately up to the person engaging in abusive behavior to monitor their behavior and change, which may include seeking treatment.

While it’s important to be compassionate toward someone with symptoms of a mental health condition, it’s equally important to set healthy boundaries and acknowledge when you’re being mistreated. You can then take steps toward strengthening your own mental health and healing.