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The Borderline Mother

The brutal womb and the child of the borderline.

Key points

  • A consistent pattern of neglect and/or abuse is generally necessary to overcome the natural tendency to love one's mother and loathe her instead.
  • A borderline parent lacks insight and believes that they are a fine parent of an ungrateful child.
  • Adult children of borderline parents struggle with the illusion that they were loved when they weren’t. 

Guest post by Dan S. Lobel, Ph.D.

“I wish my mother was dead…is that a terrible thing to say... am I a horrible person?”

When a Parent Can't Love

Tortured individuals who are trapped in a form of emotional abuse have made this statement many times in my office. They are made to feel guilty for reacting to the abuse. Feelings of loathing are inspired by years of emotional abuse while the mother accuses the child of ingratitude or disloyalty for feeling this way. The Bible teaches us to “honor” our parents and hence these statements are made with shame and guilt. When I hear statements such as these, I consider the following:

  • This person may be the child of a parent with borderline personality disorder. It is almost unique to the child of a borderline to feel a lack of attachment and lack of love for the parent while at the same time blaming themselves for feeling this way.
  • People who are concerned about saying/feeling terrible things or being a horrible person are seldom horrible people. Truly horrible people are generally not concerned about being judged this way, or any other way, by others. They also generally do not seek help from mental health professionals other than to get medications, which they often abuse.
  • A person making a statement like this must have been emotionally abused to harbor such feelings and to blame themselves for feeling this way.

This aspect of the parent-child relationship, where the child lacks loving feelings toward the parent and feels guilty and shameful for doing so, is one of the hallmarks of the borderline parent-child relationship. Since the diagnosis is more common in women, we’ll focus here on the mother-child bond.

Loving and Loathing

Feelings of loathing towards one’s mother require overcoming the natural programming of humans to love their parents. A consistent pattern of neglect and/or abuse is generally necessary to overcome this natural tendency and result in loathing. But the loathing is not unique to the borderline parent-child relationship.

Children of alcoholics or child abusers often loathe their parent but they do not feel guilty or shameful about it. Children of narcissists often feel loathing towards their parent but there is no guilt attached because the narcissistic parent is indifferent to the attachment with the child as they are too self-preoccupied. The borderline parent compels the child to be more nurturing towards them by portraying themselves as good parents who are dealing with an ungrateful child. These feelings of guilt and shame are unique to the loathing of the children of borderlines.

Consider the following exchange.

Child: “Mom, I don’t feel well. I have a sore throat.”

Mother: “Take some tea with honey.”

Child: “I don’t like tea with honey, it upsets my stomach.”

Mother: “You ungrateful little bastard.”

Upon first glance, it appears that the child is asking the mother for help or nurturance, the mother attempts to provide it. So far so good. The problem is that if the offering is rejected, even for good reason, the sick child is now cast as a bad child for not taking advice that is unhelpful. Thus, the child must either take the tea with honey and add an upset stomach to his/her malady, or be accused of being a bad child for not accepting the mother’s help, even though the help is misguided.

What went wrong here?

The problem is the help is not being offered for truly altruistic reasons, but rather to support the mother’s desired image of being a good mother. When this is rejected, the mother becomes enraged and attacks the sick child. The child suffers not only the original malady but also the sense of being a bad child and hence the shame and/or guilt. This quickly inhibits the child from asking the parent for help with anything, as the help makes them feel worse. What does an exchange sound like with a truly nurturing mother?

Child: “Mom, I don’t feel well. I have a sore throat.”

Mother: “Take some tea with honey.”

Child: “I don’t like tea with honey, it upsets my stomach.”

Mother: “How about some soup?”

Child: “Thanks, Mom.”

Mother: “I wish I could be more helpful.”

Child: “I appreciate that.”

The Loyalty Test

The lack of nurturing is not the only problem with the borderline parent-child relationship. The borderline parent lacks insight and believes that she is the fine parent of an ungrateful child and goes to any length to prove that this is the case. This is weaved into the context of any and all conversations and may be provoked through conflict. Consider this exchange between a mother and daughter on the daughter’s 50th birthday.

Mother: “For your birthday I bought you tickets to a play. We can have dinner and then just you and I will go to the theater.”

Child: “Mom, I was planning to spend my birthday with my husband and children. We have plans to go away.”

Mother: “Can’t you go away another time?”

Child: “We already have plans.”

Mother: “You are ungrateful. I will go to the play with someone else.”

This exchange leaves the child feeling guilty for celebrating her birthday with her family, as was previously arranged. Note that the mother provokes a conflict that proves the child is ungrateful, or bad in some way, while at the same time takes no responsibility for not checking with the daughter as to whether or not she has plans. Nor does the mother consider buying tickets for the daughter and letting her decide who she would like to go with. Again, what is on the surface a loving and generous gesture is really a disguised test of loyalty that the child is almost certain to fail, leaving her feeling indebted to the mother. In addition, the borderline mother can almost never be wrong, and will rarely apologize.

To the Borderline Mother, You Are the Problem

Consider the following exchange.

Mother: “I really think that Senator X is doing a great job. I will vote for her for reelection. How about you?”

Child: “Actually I am not happy with the way Senator X voted in fiscal matters.”

Mother: “You are a male chauvinist.”

This is a typical exchange for a borderline parent-child pairing. Here the mother is quickly enraged because the child does not agree with her. The political issue, while initiated by the parent, is not really the issue. The issue is the need for agreement. Once again, the child is made to feel bad about him or herself. Perhaps the most illustrative is the following exchange.

Child: “Mom, I cannot make it to dinner tonight, I don’t feel well.”

Mother: “You don’t feel well? I am still suffering from the Cesarean Section they gave me so that you could be born.”

Borderline Mothers and Adult Children

Over time, this toxic pattern of exchanges causes the child to be increasingly guarded with his or her mother. They no longer seek the help of the parent because she is generally not helpful but rather causes more hurt in her efforts to respond. A normal person withdraws further and further from this persistent and disturbing relational style. At the same time the borderline parent, completely lacking insight, continues to act as though she is being loving and giving and expresses hurt and anger that the child does not seek out her counsel and company.

The child interacts out of obligation, but never to the extent that the parent wishes, and hence builds a sense of loathing over the course of the lifetime. This sense of loathing increases over time and hence is more intense as the child gets older. By one’s 50s or 60s, if the parent is still alive, they seek relief from a lifetime of emotional abuse.

In successful therapy, the child (often, now an adult) is able to see that their reaction and anger is understandable, given the pattern of abuse and neglect that was disguised as caring.

Moving On

Perhaps the most difficult thing to accept is that one's own mother is not capable of insight and will never truly understand why her child avoids or sets boundaries with her. Sometimes confrontation and boundary setting may work, but be prepared for the "ungrateful" pushback; and be prepared to be triggered yourself. Alternatively, and for self-protection, an adult child may even decide to go along with the charade that their mother was the only victim in the family, while understanding that often the reverse was true. And, sometimes, cutting off entirely is the only choice. Borderlines don't tolerate the middle ground very well.

Children that fantasize a wish for a parent’s death (or simply to be relieved of a toxic relationship) do so because they were emotionally and continually abused, while being made to believe that they were nurtured appropriately.

It's tough to get past such an essential hurt, but it's worth the effort. With good therapy, time and better life experiences, the adult child of a borderline mother can sometimes come to accept what happened, and even, occasionally, forgive. But, he or she will never forget.

The adult children of borderline parents struggle with the illusion that they were loved when they weren’t. Can you think of a more destructive kind of abuse?

Dan S. Lobel, Ph.D. is in private practice in Katonah, New York.