By Daniel Lobel, Ph.D.
In a past post, this author held that - as a rule - fathers with Borderline Personality Disorder (fBPDs) differ from mothers with Borderline Personality (mBPDs) in that their primary attachment tends to be to the spouse, rather than to a child.
With this in mind, male BPD’s can have quite intense attachment issues with their wives (or partners), fluctuating from extreme need to extreme rejection - or anger. This pain lies in the Borderline’s tragic and anguished relationship with attachment.
Divorce Triggers a Change:
The rejection associated with divorce can be traumatic, often causing the fBPD to transfer his primary attachment from the spouse to the child. Mothers with BPD often already have powerful (and pathological) attachment to their children, while the father with BPD literally needs a new attachment object as a result of the divorce. It is an urgent and powerful need.
As a consequence, this shift can be abrupt, often manifesting as a desperate effort to symbiotically bond with the child or children. The desperateness of this attachment can manifest in overly controlling and sometimes abusive behaviors towards the child and generally involves some or all of the following features:
All three of these processes generally serve to weaken the bond between the child and mother. Some of these processes seek to frankly alienate the child from the mother while some of them do so only incidentally.
Following are some of these processes.
The Brutal Competition:
The neediness of the fBPD drives him to prove to the child that he is more desirable than the mother in every way. If the child fails to validate this preference, the child is punished.
fBPD: “How is the macaroni and cheese?”
Child: “I like the way mommy makes it better.”
fBPD: “Your mother uses that boxed garbage. I used real cheese.”
Child: “I like the way hers tastes better.”
fBPD: “Real cheese is healthier.”
Child: “I like it her way.”
fBPD: “This is the last time I cook for you.”
The competition with the mother may cause parenting decisions to be made based on being perceived as more desirable rather than the welfare of the child.
Child: “Daddy, mommy doesn’t let me play video games during the week. Can I play now?”
fBPD: “I am sure that a little video game playing after school can’t hurt too much.”
Child: “Thank you daddy, you are the best.”
fBPD: “Your mother is a little on the over-protective side.”
In this example, not only does the father demean the mother’s judgment regarding “screen time” in order to compete for the child’s affection, he also undermines the mother’s parenting as the child now sees her as “overprotective” and hence unreasonable.
The Brutal Spy:
Divorced men with BPD often harbor resentment towards their ex-wives as they are seen as disloyal. This may be the case even if the divorce is initiated by the man.
They still feel abandoned and they resent sharing marital assets, including the children. While these feelings are common for many men after divorce, fathers with BPD can present as more dramatic and divisive.
For example, such men often use the child to gain information about the mother for various purposes.
fBPD: “So what did you and mommy do Saturday night?”
Child: “Grandma and Grandpa came over Saturday night.”
fBPD: “Did they stay for dinner?”
Child: “They took me to the diner.”
fBPD: “With mommy?”
Child: “Mommy didn’t come.”
fBPD: “Why not?”
Child: “She went out with her friend.”
fBPD: “Someone I know?”
Child: “I don’t know.”
fBPD: “A man?”
Child: “I don’t know?”
fBPD: “Did her friend come to the house?”
Child: “Daddy, I don’t like these questions.”
fBPD: “Oh, so you and her are keeping secrets. Well I have some secrets to keep from you.”
Once again, if the child refuses to participate, he/she is punished.
The Brutal Debt:
The child of an fBPD is constantly in his debt (from his pathological point of view) and constantly reminded of this fact. It is brought up whenever the fBPD does not get his way and used to make the child feel guilty, selfish or ungrateful for not giving in.
fBPD: “So how about we see a movie this Saturday afternoon?”
Child: “Dad, I have plans to go shopping with my friends.”
fBPD: “You would rather do that than be with your dad?”
Child: “No, but I made plans with them first.”
fBPD: “After all I have done for you, I am not important enough to spend an afternoon with. You ungrateful little sh-t.”
The Brutal Threat:
fBPDs often threaten others if they do not get what they want when they want it. The threats often involve some sort of abandonment or withdrawal of support. They often use these threats on their children to manipulate them into giving in.
fBPD: “Where would you like to go to dinner after your graduation?”
Child: “I am going to a graduation party after graduation.”
fBPD: “Can’t we have dinner first?”
Child: “The party is immediately afterward.”
fBPD: “Then I guess you don’t need me to go to the ceremony, so I won’t.”
They may even use the ultimate threat of abandonment: suicide.
fBPD: “Son, what are your plans for Thanksgiving?”
Child: “Dad, I will be with mom this year.”
fBPD: “Oh. I see. And what am I supposed to do?”
Child: “I spent Thanksgiving with you last year.”
fBPD: “I don’t remember that.”
Child: “Well that’s the way it was.”
fBPD: “So I am out in the cold with nothing to live for. Maybe I won’t be alive anymore.”
This also demonstrates the expectation that the son is responsible for the well-being of the fBPD.
The Brutal Victimhood:
The need to portray oneself as a victim is a hallmark symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder. Divorced or separated fBPDs often represent themselves to their children as victims of the child’s mother.
Child: “Daddy, why were you late picking me up after school?”
fBPD: “I had a flat tire on the way to pick you up and had to wait for the AAA.”
Child: “Mommy was never late.”
fBPD: “Mommy got the new SUV. She only left me enough money for this used piece of junk.”
Even worse, but not unusual, the fBPD may project his own sense of victimhood onto the child.
fBPD: “How did you get those bruises on your arm?”
Child: “I was wrestling with my brother.”
fBPD: “Where was your mother while this was happening?”
Child: “She was there.”
fBPD: “And she just stood there watching?”
Child: “She was on the phone.”
fBPD: “You poor thing. Daddy is going to make sure that this never happens again.”
Child: “We were just playing.”
fBPD: “Any time you don’t feel safe at your mother’s, you call me immediately.”
In this example, the fBPD suggests to the child that the mother is negligent and that the child is the victim of this negligence. Further, the fBPD offers himself as the champion of the child’s sense of safety and security. This damages the relationship between the child and the mother in order to strengthen the bond between the fBPD and the child.
Parental Inversion & Emotional Blackmail:
A common thread in all of the above interactions is parental inversion. This occurs where the parent puts the child in the position of taking care of the parent’s needs. In many instances this involves putting the needs of the fBPD ahead of the child’s need to have a parsimonious relationship with both parents. The parental inversion becomes particularly brutal when it requires that the child choose between parents.
To add to the brutality, blackmail is often invoked to compel the child to reject the other parent. The blackmail can take the form of threatened punishment, withdrawal or guilt. The above example involving the macaroni and cheese is an example of punishment whereby the fBPD threatens to no longer cook for the child because he does not favor the father’s cooking. The example above, involving the graduation dinner, exemplifies withdrawal, where the fBPD threatens to not attend the graduation if he cannot host the dinner afterwards. The example involving Thanksgiving dinner is an example of the emotional blackmail, using guilt by threatening suicide.
Unfortunately, the parental inversion and emotional blackmail can be present with very young children.
Child: “Daddy, can I call mommy and tell her good night?”
fBPD: “You will speak to her tomorrow.”
Child: “But I want to tell her good night now.”
fBPD: “If you call your mother there will be no time for a bedtime story.”
Child: “I just want to say good night to her.”
fBPD: “Then that will be your bedtime story.”
How Children Respond to BPD Parenting:
The fBPD does not seem to realize that this strategy almost always backfires. The inversion and the blackmail make the child less bonded to the fBPD, as emotional abuse does not intensify the bond but rather weakens it. This then increases the necessity for the fBPD to use these manipulative behaviors and is even seen as a justification for doing so.
Parents with BPD often believe the stronger, and more dependent, the relationship they have with their children the better, and hence the symbiotic outcome if allowed to come to fruition. Unfortunately, the child pays the price of not being able to separate from the parent in a loving and tolerant atmosphere. The child may suffer low self-esteem, low self-confidence and significant forms of dysfunction in personal and professional relationships as a result.
Take Home Message:
If you are a parent and think that you may be overly attached to your child after a divorce, it’s in everyone’s interest to get outside help from a qualified therapist. Just because you may be responding poorly, doesn’t mean things can’t be righted. Your kids are worth it.
On, the other hand, if you have a relationship with a parent that you experience as stifling or overwhelming, you may benefit from professional help to facilitate healthy transition to an adult to adult parent/child relationship. And if you are divorcing an ex-spouse that may be a Borderline father, you may benefit from therapy to keep your reactions and planning coherent.
These can be tough divorces.
This piece is by guest blogger Dan S. Lobel, Ph.D. who is in private practice in Katonah, New York. Dr. Lobel is the author of When Your Daughter Has BPD with a guest blog series on borderline pathology. He can be reached for consultation at Katshrink@aol.com.