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The Borderline Father

Is your dad a borderline?

By Daniel S. Lobel, Ph.D.

Fathers with Borderline Personality Disorder (fBPDs) often differ from mothers with Borderline Personality Disorder (mBPDs) in the attachment they have with their children and the nature of the associated abuse. A primary difference between the two is that whereas mBPDs focus on their children as primary attachment objects with associated exaggerated dependency, fBPDs often see their children as secondary attachment objects with less associated dependency.

This is important because if a Borderline father is more likely to see his partner as a primary (and problematic) attachment object, the consequence is that he may then experience his children as interfering with access to his primary attachment object and hence competitors for her affection.

fBPDs and Infants

Gestation and childbirth interfere with his partner’s ability to focus on the fBPD.

Pregnancy and childbirth can distract the fBPD’s partner in many ways. The fBPD often becomes enraged at the child and the mother of the child because the mother lacks interest, energy, and focus on the fBPD that was there before children. (This is a natural consequence of the demanding nature of early motherhood.) Sadly, as a consequence, this interferes with the fBPD’s attachment to the child even before it is born and intensifies after childbirth.

The fBPD experiences abandonment associated with the withdrawal of the mother associated with her taking care of the child. They often complain of sexual abandonment associated with the usual temporary interference with sexual activity associated with pregnancy and childbirth. This gets worse as the infant demands feeding and other care throughout the day and night often leaving the mother too tired to attend to the fBPD.

Fathers without BPD are often understanding, and in fact, find the mother’s nurturance toward their offspring admirable and attractive. The fBPD finds this threatening and may become enraged at the mother, the child, or both. Under these circumstances, the fBPD may encourage or demand that the spouse neglect the child so that she might attend to his needs.

fBPD: “Let's go to our favorite restaurant tonight for a nice romantic dinner.”

Mom: “What about the baby?”

fBPD: “We can get a babysitter.”

Mom: “I feel that she is too young to be left with a sitter. She is still breastfeeding.”

fBPD: “You can pump some milk.”

Mom: “I just don’t want someone else feeding her yet.”

fBPD: “Maybe having a child was not such a good idea after all.”

In this dialogue, the fBPD is encouraging the mother to violate her maternal instinct by abandoning the child (briefly) and then punishing her reluctance. He comes to see both the infant and the mother as obstacles to his access to his primary attachment object: the mother. Acting out by the fBPD in the form of adultery is not uncommon under these circumstances. The mother’s attention to the child is seen as an abandonment, thus justifying his seeking affection elsewhere.

fBPDs and Toddlers

As the child gets older, the fBPD is more likely to bond to the child. The bond tends to be secondary, however, and focused primarily on the needs of the father, rather than those of the child.

fBPD: “How would you like to watch a football game with daddy?”

Child: “Don’t you usually watch football with Uncle Tommy?”

fBPD: “Yes, but Uncle Tommy can’t make it today.”

Child: “OK.”


fBPD: “Where are you going?”

Child: “Daddy this boring. I don’t want to watch anymore.”

fBPD: “But the game is not over yet.”

Child: “I want to play outside.”

fBPD: “This is the last time I ask you to spend time with me.”

In this example, the secondary nature of the attachment to the child is immediately apparent as he asked to sit in for a preferred attachment object (Uncle Tommy). The child most likely will jump at the chance anyway to have time with the father. In this situation, he fails and is then rejected and made to feel bad about his efforts and hence himself. This often prompts the child to be more solicitous next time, while his or her confidence is diminished by being blamed for not pleasing the fBPD. This then justifies abuse in the form of abandonment, devaluation, or perhaps even physical abuse.

fBPDs and Children

Child: “Hey Dad, I need to confirm you'll be driving me to my game Saturday.”

fBPD: “What time does it start?”

Child: “Same as every week—2 o’clock.”

fBPD: “I may be a few minutes late.”

Child: “Dad, if I am late, I cannot start.”

fBPD: “You are putting pressure on me.”

Child: “Dad, you knew I had to be there at 2.”

fBPD: “You ungrateful little sh*t. You wouldn’t be in the league if not for me."

In this example, the father has put some other opportunity ahead of being at his child’s ballgame. He is embarrassed when the child confronts him on this. His solution is to make himself the victim by making the child feel bad about wanting his father at his ballgame.

fBPDs and the Adult Child

While the fBPD routinely treats his relationship with his children as a secondary bond, he nonetheless expects the child will have a primary bond with him. This means that he expects that the child will make him first priority when there is a conflict. This may become more apparent as the child enters adolescence or young adulthood.

fBPD: “I need a ride to the doctor tomorrow at 10. Can you pick me up?”

Child: ”Did you just make this appointment?”

fBPD: “No, my friend was supposed to take me but something came up.”

Child: “Dad, I have a big interview tomorrow morning, and I cannot reschedule it.”

fBPD: “Can’t you just move it up a few hours?”

Child: “No Dad, it will damage my opportunities.”

fBPD: “After all that I do for you I don’t think that I ask too much.”

Child: “I am happy to take you to the doctor’s. I just need advance notice.”

fBPD: “I may not always have advanced notice.”

Child: “But this time you did.”

fBPD: “Oh, so I need to make an appointment to get sick.”

Child: “You are not sick. This is a routine visit!”

fBPD: “Forget it. I will ask your sister.”

Here the fBPD was exercising his second option, because his first option, his friend, fell through. He nonetheless expected the child to drop everything and treat the father as a primary attachment. When the child does not do so, the fBPD becomes abusive.

Like the female sufferers of Borderline Personality Disorder, the fBPDs are intolerant of criticism and cannot take responsibility for any error or flaw.

fBPD the Victim

Child: “Dad when you finish emailing, I'd like to speak to you about something.”

fBPD: “Go ahead, I’m listening.”

Child: “I will wait. I don’t feel like you're listening when you're answering emails.”

fBPD: “Emails were OK when you needed money for school, you ungrateful sh*t.”

Child: “I am just trying to have a respectful conversation with you.”

fBPD: “You are going to tell me how to be respectful! I wish I never had children.”

Here the fBPD responds to criticism with abuse. This is a characteristic pattern of both male and female sufferers. The child is punished for attempting to negotiate a mutually respectful relationship with the parent.

The fBPD is wounded by any criticism from anybody. The pain triggers instant rage and the fBPD assumes the posture of victim. This then justifies any and all abuse toward the child, which is generally expressed immediately and without restraint. The child’s “crime” of finding fault with the parent is amplified to a “felony.” The fBPD treats the child as though he or she has launched a vicious attack and responds with full ferocity.

Paradoxically, despite the intensity of the instant vitriol that can be triggered by any perceived criticism or slight, these aggressive expressions are transitory.

fBPD: “Son, wasn’t there something you wanted to discuss with me?”

Child: “That’s OK, I took care of it.”

fBPD: “I’m not on the phone anymore!”

Child: “Dad, I already resolved the issue.”

fBPD: “Oh, so now you are going to punish me by not talking to me.”

Child: “Dad, it’s not a punishment. I will tell you if you really want to know.”

fBPD: “Well I really don’t. I have better things to do than talk to a loser like you.”

Here the fBPD expects the child to just ignore the abusive attachment just prior and share openly with the parent. The child is immediately in a dilemma in that he is being asked to share openly with a parent who has recently brutalized him. He is then punished for his natural reaction, hesitation, and then punished again for acquiescing too late.

Women are three times more likely than men to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. This means that there are many more fBPDs than mBPDs, but the men are no less hurtful. Their need to see themselves as infallible compels them to assume the victim role whenever they feel criticized or slighted. They most often react with an abusive attack at the perceived offender.

Surviving the Borderline Father:

Growing up with one or more parents afflicted with BPD causes significant damage to the child’s sense of self. Relief can only be achieved by stopping the abuse. This is done by installing consistent boundaries that do not allow for this type of abuse. Once this is achieved, healing of the self can occur by recognizing the damage done by the abuse and recasting the relationship in more realistic terms.

The nub of the problem is that if you have been raised by a Borderline mother or father, these behavioral scenes are your normal. First, you need to step outside the abusive relationship sufficiently to realize what’s been done to you. After all, children don’t ask for abuse from the people they love the most in this world. Then, psychotherapy can help with objectifying what’s going on, setting good limits, and being the best son or daughter that you choose to be under the circumstances.

It’s a fight that’s worth the effort.

This piece is by guest blogger Dan S. Lobel, Ph.D. who is in private practice in Katonah, New York.

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