Stop Walking on Eggshells

When someone in your life has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder

What Borderlines and Narcissists Fear Most: Part B

Borderlines fear abandonment; narcissists fear loss of supply

This is part 4B of my series on the similarities and differences between borderline and narcissistic disorders. You can find part 1 here,  part 2 here,  part 3 here, and part 4A here.

In part A of this two-part series, I explained that a narcissist's greatest fear is losing narcissistic supply. Today I'm tackling the BPD counterpart, fear of abandonment. Both have to do with the fundamental way people with these PDs relate to others.

Fear of abandonment is the engine that drives borderline personality disorder. The real or imagined belief of imminent separation destabilizes all the other BPD traits. For example, a lunch date with an opposite sex coworker may make them not only jealous, but be a portent of the breakup of the relationship (splitting). From appetizer to dessert, expect your cell phone to ring incessantly. After you turn it off, expect 20 text messages from your girlfriend starting with mild "how are you's?" and ending with desperate pleas of, "if you don't call me now this relationship is over!"

People with BPD desperately cling to others as if they were a life raft. Feeling so out of control with themselves, they may constantly try to seize control of situations and other people to make their own chaotic world more predictable and manageable. In conversation, they may constantly draw the focus of attention back on themselves. And they may go to great lengths to avoid being alone.

Janet, a BP, says, "I have a horrible fear of being abandoned by my boyfriends. I worry that sooner or later they¹ll realize I¹m empty and leave me. I¹m jealous of every woman they mention--even the ones they've never met--because I always convince myself that someone else is a better match for them. If my current boyfriend doesn¹t explicitly tell me that he loves me several times a day, my alarm bells ring and I accuse him of not caring about me and wanting to break up with me. I long so much to have a normal independent relationship, not this anxious attachment."

Caroline's husband sought reassurance physically. She says:

He always needed to touch me and to be touched. If I sat on the couch watching TV with him but didn't touch him intimately, then I wasn't affectionate enough. Walking upstairs in front of him was a time to be grabbed. Bending over to pick something up was a time to be grabbed. Sleep was not an option unless we had sex first. If we were home in the middle of the day together, then I was supposed to initiate sex. We had sex with the kids home and when they were asleep in the hotel bed beside us. He coerced and manipulated me into saying "yes" to sex, even when I first said "no" or I clearly didn't want to. I'm getting counseling for spousal rape.

The end of a relationship may not mean the end of the acting out of abandonment fears. Husbands, in particular, report that ex-wives constantly draw attention to themselves by creating drama, especially around the children they coparent. Negative attention is better than no attention. Second wives become targets because the BP cannot let go.

Remember that people with BPD split not only you, but themselves.This means that a break-up with you means they're "all bad" and they will never have another relationship--or the next potential partner will reject them too. This leads to other negative feelings such as depression, hopelessness, dependency, and worthlessness.

Something called "a lack of object constancy" feeds into the fear. Simply put, it means that when their loved ones are not around (such as the lunch date) they become as terrified as an 18-month-old put down for a nap who can't call on the presence of a loving caretaker 12 feet away in the living room. Hence the phone calls.

In her memoir, How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me, by Susan Rose Blauner, Blauner says that facing a loss-even one she initiated, triggered incredible fear that reminded her of past loses (potential loss trigger the same feeling). She writes:

"I would mentally disconnect from the person as if he or she didn't exist-out of sight, out of mind, growing bigger and bigger until I felt out of control....Even with all the years of practice I literally forget about people if they aren't in my life on a regular basis....So I drag out the pictures, take quiet time to remember their essence, write about them, call them, and reconstruct our connection."

One of the most confusing things about fear of abandonment is that sometimes people with BPD display it through clinginess and neediness, they often act in negative ways that drive others away from them. The repeated cell phone calls are once example; others include:

  • Protestation like, "You never loved me," "You like your hobby more than me," and the old standby, "I know you are having an affair."
  • Insistence that you isolate yourself from other people.
  • Stalking and continual contact forced upon you after the relationship is over. Even arguments are better than being along. Your new partner may even get dragged into battle, split, and verbally harassed.
  • Continual threats of divorce or breaking up ("I'll leave you before you leave me.") This is extremely common and very confusing because the next minute the person with BPD wants to be close again.
  • Potential or real losses in lower-functioning people with BPD may trigger suicide attempts or self-harm.

Elliot's experience with his borderline ex was extrremely typical. He says:

My ex-wife would freak out if I was not with her. If I were to do anything outside of work that she was not involved with, she would cause chaos, drama, or a fight. If I stayed overnight out of town for work she would act up and I would spend most of my time in the hotel on the phone with her until the early hours of the morning. If I were to go to dinner with a long-time friend, a fight would ensue.

Going to the gym often would cause problems. If I were to do anything that was not with her she would inevitably start a fight and a lot of times I would not end up going. I was no longer allowed to be friends with any women who were just friends because "that is not normal." These were women who I had been friends with years before I met her.

Partners of borderlines twist themselves into a pretzel to avoid triggering abandonment fears. The first thing to go is relationships with family and friends, which leads to an isolation and an escalation of abusive behaviors. Lack of privacy and jealousy are major issues. High conflict people will read their partner's email and texts and imagine infideities that never took place.  

Fear of abandonment is also common in people have a borderline partner. It is one reason why people stay in abusive relationships and miss the abusive person even if they are the ones who left the relationship. I'll talk about that at another time.

Randi Kreger is the co-author of Stop Walking on Eggshells.

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