If you're in a relationship with someone with borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, you may be surprised to learn that the relationship may be less intimate than you think it is. It may be intense, time-consuming, long-lasting, and take up most of your mental space. But the most important test of intimacy is to ask yourself the questions, "Is this relationship a safe haven where I feel loved and accepted for being me?" and "Do I trust the other person and vice versa?" If the answers are "no," read on.
Many partners of BPs and NPs can't distinguish between intimacy and intensity—the hearts and flowers and all the smitten singers you hear on the radio going tra-la-la about how their heart will burst if they can't have the person they met two days ago notwithstanding. Many of the big romances onscreen and in novels are about people who barely know each other.
Real intimacy has to do with trust, understanding, and feeling understood. People who are intimate—and I'm not talking about sex—reveal vulnerabilities without fear that what we share will be used against them. Intimacy relies on safety, patience, mutuality, respect, constance, and no secrets. Without healthy self-disclosure at the right time, there can be no intimacy. And that takes honesty about who we are and how we feel. The more intimate you are, the safer you feel and the more worthwhile the relationship.
Intensity, on the other hand, has to do with secrecy, lack of trust, high drama, fear, lack of boundaries, and disrespect. Most of all, it serves to distract each person from working on their own issues because most of the time is spent in fantasy, the cycle of idealization and devaluation, bitter arguments followed up by apologies and sex.
According to psychiatrist James Masterson, author of Search for the Real Self: Unmasking the Personality Disorders of Our Age, sharing what is deepest and most real about ourselves followed by mutual sharing is of vital importance to a sustained, mutually satisfying relationship. Unfortunately, this is the one thing that both narcissists and people with BPD have trouble doing.
As you may remember from past blog posts, NPs have constructed a False Self that inhibits doing precisely that. And one of the criteria for BPD is the inability to forge their own identity. Masterson says another factor that makes intimacy possible is being able to see both the good and bad traits of the other person at the same time, yet another inability of BPs and NPs, who split (see people and things in black and white).
Each personality disorder has its own limitations, too. First I'll speak about borderline personality disorder and intimacy, then narcissistic personality disorder and intimacy.
Intimacy and Borderline Personality Disorder
They say, "Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it." It's even worse when your desire for something and your fear of having it cycle from one to another, like it does for those with borderline personality disorder. They desperately fear abandonment and want intimacy. But the minute they have it, they'll push you away because:
• You're engulfing them and they need distance because genuine intimacy makes them feel flooded or overwhelmed. So they push you away by becoming remote, critical, or argumentative. But the distance makes them uncomfortable, so they draw you in ... which engulfs them so they drive you away ... and the cycle goes on and on. Or....
• They fear abandonment so much they're afraid to get close and make themselves vulnerable. So just when things are going well, BOOM! They will unconsciously create a "fault" in you, something so bad they must be away from you–at least for a little while until they need you again ... at which point they will notice something so horrible about you they don't want to be near you anymore–until they need you again ... and the cycle goes on and on. Or...
• Since you're probably going to leave them anyway, they push you away before you get a chance to leave them. But you don't want to end the relationship and you come back, looking for the "old" BP and the loving times and you're a wonderful person, and you get back together and things are great–until they're convinced you're going to leave them again which is crazy because you've promised them over and over you would never leave, but still they push you away again and the cycle goes on and on ...
A man says,
You try to figure out what went wrong using logic. Why, after a lovely day of sharing and closeness, did your borderline partner scream at you and drive away in the car at 75 miles an hour? If you ask her why she did that, she tells you that you've somehow changed and she doesn't feel safe around you anymore. It's your entire fault. And this is real to her. She believes that you're the one who's acting strangely and no amount of evidence to the contrary can convince her otherwise.
If you want answers, you can't use regular logic. You must use borderline logic, no matter how mind-bending the rules. Here is the way their thought process goes:
1. Intimacy = abandonment. This is why the closer you become, the more they act out around you. Other people can't tell–it's your little secret.
2. I don't want to belong to any club that would have me. So there is something wrong with you for wanting to be with me.
3. People you care about constantly send out invisible infra-ray signals they will reject you, and it's up to you reject them before they they can reject you.
4. If someone doesn't want to spend every minute with you, they don't want to spend any time with you at all. There is no past or future, only right now. Here comes another text, phone call, and demand.
5. Any distance between us (even a difference of opinion) is a sign the relationship is falling apart. Don't need your own space–even in your mind.
Why would someone think this way? Perhaps when they were young, their primary attachment figures (parents most likely) were a source of soothing and danger. This engenders a "disorganized" or "disoriented" attachment style. People with attachment issues seek intimacy, but at the same time they're uncomfortable with it because they're so preoccupied with fears of abandonment. This makes it hard to feel close, but also hard to stay away–the "I hate you-don't leave me" riddle. (This can happen with borderline individuals who have not been abused, as well.)
A man says of this ex:
My former partner craved intimacy constantly; yet, she needed to be in control of it and feared it at the same time. If we were deeply emotionally intimate she would say "I am scared you are going to hurt me since I am vulnerable now." I would assure her that it made me love her even more. But, inevitably, she would then find something that I said or did that confirmed her theory. It was always something minor like not answering my cell phone quickly enough, or even just shifting my gaze from her for a moment.
I watched this same thing with other people. She craved intimacy all the time and was intolerant of people who weren't deep and emotional. Yet she always found "something" wrong about the people she interacted with. She didn't trust most people, and she never completely trusted me, which hurt. It was hard to not take it personally.
Once in awhile, she would really let me in and let me hold her and move into the deepest of emotions. But it never lasted long—only a few minutes or so and she would catch herself being vulnerable and would quickly move away from me. I always felt tremendous heartache that she couldn't stay longer in that deep and loving space.
Chronic feelings of emptiness also drive this negative cycle. Emptiness drive borderlines to seek emotionally intimate connections—even if it means negative emotions. When things are calm, even in a secure relationship, they may feel empty and insecure inside. So they create a conflict in order to feel more emotional intensity and connection even though this pushes people away (which is the opposite of their intent). But this emptiness keeps popping up inside, driving them to seek intimacy even in bad situations.
Intimacy and Narcissistic Personality Disorder
People with NPD, on the other hand, don't seem to seek intimacy, but instead seek to be constantly filled up with compliments, admiration and respect for being a superior person. There are only two kinds of people in the narcissist's life—those who are better than her (whom she envies) and those who are worse (whom she can put down so she can feel better about herself). As the relationship goes on, generally the less safe you feel. That's a red flag that there's something really wrong.
A narcissist says:
Fear of intimacy has manifested a few ways in my life. The women whom I chase are out of my league (even if I don't think so); cold, emotionally detached; or already involved with someone else. I figure the ones with husbands and boyfriends are better than the other ones. But a fear of intimacy keeps me setting things up so the relationship will fail.
Even in my platonic relationships I can see it. I never tell anyone too much about me or give any one person too much information—the whole NPD shell hides our sensitive cores. Hard to answer about intimacy when one's nature is to hold it back.
This is from Sam Vaknin, narcissist and author (Malignant Self Love-Narcissism Revisited):
I seek adulation and adoration instead of love. When people try to befriend me or to get close to me, I experience growing unease that borders on physical repulsion and, if they don't relent, on panic. I know that people who are emotionally invested in me experience emotional absence, repulsion, deterrence and insecurity. I discourage them from developing emotional involvement with me by refusing to provide them with positive emotional feedback. I render their relationships with me as erratic and demanding as I can. I act imposing, intrusive, compulsive and tyrannical in the hope of driving them away.
When I am truly loved, I reframe reality and rewrite and reinterpret history so I highlight my intimate partners, coworkers, or friends' negative aspects, real and imagined. I drag everyone around me into a swirl of bitterness, suspiciousness, meanness, aggression and pettiness, gradually transforming my closest, nearest and dearest into replicas of my conflictive, punishing personality structure. This preserves the emotional distance between us, fosters uncertainty, and prevents emotional involvement.
Remember the NPD traits of entitlement and superiority? This is yet another stumbling black for NPs. In his book Search for the Real Self, Masterson writes, (p. 110) "True love is a union of two people, each for the good of the other [italics in the original] where the other's best interests have become at least equal to one's own...This investment in the other enlarges, enriches, and completes the experience of the self." People in love with a narcissist tend to do this too much—support the other to the detriment of the self—and NPs don't do it enough, if at all.
Do these tales from family members sound familiar?
- He's looking for perfect matches, perfect validation, and a life that revolves on his views only. If there is a mismatch, it destroys him. He won't open up to people because he doesn't dare discover any mismatches. When he finally does open up to people, you've got to know just how sensitive and fragile he is or just about any "normal" response or action could destroy him. He lives his life mostly alone.
- When we were first married, I didn't understand why he didn't want to spend time with me, at least so it seemed. All he was interested in was reading a book, surfing the Internet, or watching a movie. Then I suggested that we spend at least one hour each day doing something together. His reply was that I should feel welcome to watch a movie together with him. Just sitting next to each other—no touching—in silence on our couch while we watch a movie equals quality time. That was his idea of intimate time together.