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Couples Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder

How can couples therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder help to overcome splitting behavior? Can couples therapy help BPD?

Those suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are usually depicted as having stormy relationships. One moment, the person with BPD can’t wait to leave their relationship, and the next moment, things are all good in their relationship.

The relationship can feel very confusing for their partner, who gets mixed messages when they feel pushed away, and then pulled back into the relationship again. They may feel blamed or accused of not loving their partner, and then expected to forgive and forget when the person with BPD gets over an emotional episode.

How can couples counseling for Borderline Personality Disorder overcome these behaviors? Why does the person with borderline behavior act this way? How can couples counseling deal with BPD?

The splitting defense mechanism causes the person to see things in a split way, as extremes of either good or bad. They can feel either all good or all bad. They can see others as either all good or all bad.

Splitting can cause the individual to see themselves as the innocent victim, and see the other as the villain. However, at other times they may blame themselves and feel at fault,  down playing how others abuse them. They may feel in love, but ignore the signs of abuse. Typically, when they see all the good aspects in a person, they ignore all the bad aspects, and vice versa.

When in the positive side of the split, the person sees themselves and others as all good, while ignoring the bad aspects. On the other hand, when a person is in the negative side of the split, everything their partner does is bad, because it causes them to feel bad, completely overlooking the good aspects about that person.

According to James Masterson, when the person is in the positive side of the split, they feel good (“self” representation) when they perceive they are treated well by others (“other” representation). In the negative side of the split, the person will feel bad (“self” representation) when they perceive they are treated badly by others (“other” representation).

Often the person with BPD will break-up from a partner when they are caught in the negative side of the split. When they feel bad about themselves, it causes them to interpret the behavior of others in a bad light, who may be perceived as mean or uncaring.

Splitting in BPD causes the person to protect themselves from feeling bad by attempting to feel good. The person with BPD cannot tolerate the bad feelings within themselves and responds by projecting them outside of themselves. When they project how bad they feel their partner becomes all bad.

They may also rid themselves of feeling bad by getting their self-worth from others in the form of people pleasing, seeking approval or needing re-assurance that they are good enough or loved. When others do not reward their efforts they can feel bad, unwanted or abandoned, causing them to respond in a hostile way or threatening to leave their relationship.

The person with BPD may not be aware that these feelings belong within them, causing them to perceive that their partner is  responsible for them feeling this way.

If a partner does not return a call, he may be projected to be uncaring or rejecting. Forgetting to call can trigger feelings of being unwanted and abandoned. If the feelings are overwhelming they can be displaced onto their partner for treating them this way.

When the person with BPD perceives that their partner is hurting them, their partner can be seen as the problem. It becomes difficult to see any good in their partner if they are putting their past wounds onto them. So, they become the one who hurt them.

According to James Masterson, the person with BPD has no intrapsychic separation from the care giver. This means the person still holds the internalized views that they have encapsulated from the care giver, which forms the way they see themselves and others. If, deep down, the person felt they weren’t good enough, for being a littler terror, by experiencing an uncaring and abusive care-giver, then this may represent the way they feel about themselves and others. These earlier representations about the “self” and “others” remain outside of one’s awareness and get relived in relationships.

Many people begin couples therapy for BPD when it becomes unclear as to whether their partner is uncaring or not; when it becomes unclear if the partner is causing them to feel bad. At other times, they may recognize that they react according to perceived situations, and wrongly accuse their partner for how they feel.

As a couples therapist for BPD, it is important to recognize when the splitting defense mechanism is operating. The person who is BPD feels better about themselves when they project these bad feelings onto their partner. They are often splitting when they portray their partner in the worst possible way. In other instances, they could be blaming themselves by preventing themselves from seeing the bad aspects of a partner, in order to hold them as the good object so that they feel loved.

People usually see the good aspects in the beginning of a relationship. When a person is in the positive side of the split, they may not recognize the warning signs that something is not right in the relationship. However, a person in the negative side of splitting might view, for example the husband who came home late, as someone who does not care about his wife. A wife may not think her spouse loves her, no matter what he says.

When the BPD person is caught in the negative side of the split, anything that their partner does can be seen as being bad (unloving or uncaring), because it brings up how bad one feels (not good enough). Her partner could meet all her needs and it might not make any difference.

Overcome splitting with Couples counseling for BPD

Couples Therapy for Borderline Personality Disordered individuals assists to manage the intense bad feelings, instead of blaming their partner for their past wounds.

Counseling BPD couples when the person blames their partner for the problems

The partner of the borderline can feel blamed as causing the problems, when they are located in the negative side of the split. Often, whatever their partner says can be misconstrued and taken the wrong way, causing their partner to either shut down or fight back. This can trigger the person who is borderline to feel bad about themselves, and the splitting defense becomes intensified. In this way, the borderline person can believe that their partner caused them to feel unworthy or unwanted. They may think that their partner does not see how their actions had hurt them, whenever they defend themselves by pointing out that they are over-reacting or taking them the wrong way. This can reinforce how the person with BPD feels about themselves and their partner. Often they feel that their partner is mean and uncaring about how they feel, becoming the bad guy. In these episodes the person who is borderline may not see the positive aspects of their partner.

Relationships become stuck, unable to see each other clearly. BPD splitting can cause relationships to end this way.

In couples counseling, the borderline person usually sees partner as the cause of the problem, when they are in the negative side of the split. The partner is often viewed as mean, uncaring, or rejecting. The person who is borderline will often attempt to change their partner because they are convinced they are unloved or unwanted. When the person with BPD finds fault in them, they push them away. The person with BPD can split the therapist against their partner by making them out to be the problem, the person who has done wrong. This often portrays their partner in a bad way. The couples therapist should resist this pull of focusing on changing the partner in these instances. Instead, it is more effective to explore why the partner has withdrawn in the relationship. If the couples therapist gets drawn into the splitting, the therapist can end up taking sides and seeing the partner as the problem. It can cause couples to stay stuck in the state of blaming each other, further perpetuating the splitting (seeing the partner as bad and themselves as the victim).

The relationship will remain stuck if they blame each other. Couples therapy  requires a therapist who disrupts the splitting defense in order to elicit the underlying feelings, so the person can be understood for how they feel, rather than pushing their partner away and blaming them.

Couple’s therapy for BPD can assist to defuse what feelings belong within oneself and what pertains to the actual relationship. This assists the person to see themselves and others more clearly.  When a person shifts their perspective by recognizing their feelings, then they can let go of projecting on to their partner. This will allow the person who is borderline to see their partner in a realistic light, not the person they are projected to be. This will assist them to take back their projections when they get more in touch with how they feel. This reduces blame and de-escalates the conflict. Overcoming the splitting can shift couples from being stuck, so they can gain new perspectives and overcome all kinds of problems.

Counseling couples for BPD who blame themselves for the problems.

When the person with BPD is in the positive side of the split they may overlook their own needs, and blame themselves for the problems. They are seen as all bad and the other is all good. So, they attempt to see their partner as good, so they can feel good. This allows them to feel loved in the relationship. They blame themselves for the problems and see the other in a positive light, often ignoring the problems in the relationship.

In counseling couples with BPD, it is imperative to explore why the person who is borderline blames themselves for the problems, while assisting them to discuss the issues and bring them to the surface, when they are overlooked. It is sometime necessary to challenge the partner who may be mistreating them. By not blaming themselves, this snaps them out of the splitting, so they can see themselves and others more clearly. This allows them to see things in a more realistic manner, rather than seeing themselves as the problem and the other in a positive light. It is important to seek a couples therapist for borderline personality disorder in order to overcome the couple dynamic.

Couples Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder

Nancy Carbone

Nancy Carbone is a Counselor and Psychotherapist as well as Couples Therapist. She specializes in the treatment of personality disorders from the Psychoanalytic International Masterson Institute in New York. Nancy has been a clinical trainer and supervisor. She has worked as a therapist for over 17 years in private practice and organizations. Furthermore, she has a Masters of Soc. Sc. (Counsel); BASW & BA (psych). You can visit her at www.counsellingservicemelbourne.com.au and Facebook.

APA Reference
Carbone, N. (2018). Couples Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 17, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/couples-therapy-for-borderline-personality-disorder/

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Sep 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Sep 2018
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.