Black/White Interpersonal Relationships and Borderline Behavior

When your borderline splits you black

Posted Jun 16, 2009

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) has become something of the flavor of the week in recent years. It is a useful label when properly applied, but has become so ubiquitous as to have lost some of its gravitas. In truly understanding this disorder, it is important to appreciate one of its most salient social characteristics; the tendency for the borderline to "split" others, defining them as black or white; that is, wholly good or wholly bad, with no room for a grey area.

BPD is a psychosocial disorder that carries with it an underlying system of clinical depression and/or clinical anxiety. It is, itself, not organic in origin. Sometimes it co-occurs with Bi-polar Disorder, and is also typically associated with both addictive and compulsive behavior.

The most dominant marker for BPD is emotional dysregulation, which is an inability to grasp or respond to states of emotionality, and/or respond to the experience of those states of emotionality in others, in a manner that would be considered to fall within the bounds of conventional social propriety. Emotional dysregulation, then, is an inability on the part of an individual to recognize what would be considered the boundaries of typical response to what is sometimes an even modestly emotionally charged social interaction.

There are, in service of this, two prominent "styles" of borderline breakthrough that occur upon the entire continuum of borderline behavior - the "aggressive" and the "demure" borderline styles.

The aggressive borderline character responds to stress, anxiety and perceived rejection with rage, object-directed, self-directed and other directed physical violence, as well as passive -- although sometimes active -- suicidality and homicidality. Think "Fatal Attraction".

The demure borderline character retreats from a situation where they perceive themselves to be victimized or potentially victimized and engages in a sort of "social dissociation" - a kind of morbidly passive-aggressive reaction to social stressors that looks and feels like a complete emotional shutdown and withdrawal; this is informed in part by an intense imperative on the part the individual to avoid taking responsibility of any kind for surrounding situations and circumstances, even when those situations and circumstances are self-created. Think "professional victim".

All of us can be a bit "borderliney" at times - falling victim to moments of emotional dysregulation, getting a little stalkerish, paranoid or hypervigilant, sowing the seeds of discontent or spreading malicious gossip, retreating into a state of passive avoidance or extreme non-confrontation, etc. This is something of the impetus for what is a profound personality disorder managing to lose some of it gravitas in common usage. We can all get a little "crazy", at times. It is when these traits are at the core of an individual's social style or pose a level of social interference so extreme as to in fact be characterized as a personality disorder that things become more interesting.

We are initially drawn into a borderline relationship by the charm and glamour of extreme idealization about who we are and whom or what it is we represent that is presented to us - we are split white. This circumstance feeds our ego and makes us feel safe, wanted and loved. Men are particularly vulnerable to the perils of this social idealization because the sexual charge of these sorts of relationships tends to be intense in the extreme, leaning decidedly more toward the kink than the vanilla.

Almost immediately, however, the inability of the borderline character to develop an authentic emotional connection prompts this idealized perception to tarnish as they feel that they are not getting their needs met, that they are unfulfilled or they are unhappy, etc. Depending on the rapidity of the cycle, within weeks, months or sometimes years, this idealized image is replaced, bit by bit, with, for lack of a more clinical term, its evil twin. The other is split black, and once one is taken there, the perception on the part of the borderline character, while it may flip-flop for a time, is not likely to be reversed.

One of the primary psycho-social manifestations of the borderline style is the tendency to objectify others. Follow this: emotional dysregulation, by definition, demands a failure in the ability to understand and/or process emotionality; a failure in the ability to understand and/or process emotions suggests a failure in the ability to develop emotional connection; a lack of emotional connection leads to treating others as "things", not people. The borderline personality thus lives in a world populated by objects, rather than others - objects of love, objects of hate, objects of mirth, objects of rage - always objects, always extremes and never truly connected, whether violent or demure in style.

No matter the style of borderline behavior -- nor the degree of emotional dysregulation presented -- eventually and inevitably people and things within the borderline system become transformed from their original idealized "white" state into what might be referred to as a negativized "black" state. That is, they become the focal point of a negativity so extreme -- a negativity is driven by a sense of disappointment, betrayal, abandonment, loss, etc., whether real or, more likely, perceived - that the person or thing comes to be characterized as wholly bad, sometimes even evil, and deserving of some punishment or retribution.

The consequences of this split characterization on the part of the borderline character can result in behavior that ranges anywhere from simple stalking to social retaliation to murder. I had a friend in New York whose former mistress would stand in the doorway across the street from his place of business for hours just smoking cigarettes. A colleague of mine once spent the night in a psych ward handcuffed to a bed because he wouldn't answer his former girlfriend's telephone calls; a nurse, she had called 911 and convinced the dispatcher that he was suicidal. Another friend of mine was completely ostracized by the members of his country club because his former fiancé fabricated on-going tales of social and sexual deviance about him that she fed into the rumor mill. One of my patients once held a knife to his wife's throat because he didn't have the shirt he wanted for a business trip back from the dry cleaners. This list is endless.

The real treachery here is that this insidious process of ideal-to-evil reversal slowly and inexorably assails the ego integrity of the person being split and that person, while intellectually knowing that the other is acting out in an unacceptable, and sometimes dangerous, manner begins to doubt their own sanity. This is because the person being split begins to mirror the traits and behaviors of the borderline character s/he is experiencing in reaction to, and sometimes in an effort to manage, the behavior with which s/he is confronted; something that I refer to as the counter-borderline character.

An understanding of the various aspects of this disorder can be helpful for us in managing and maintaining our relationships, as well as our less intimate interpersonal interactions, with someone exhibiting borderline traits.  This is by virtue of our awareness of the nature and degree of social and emotional dysregulation that we may be confronting, and endeavoring to hold space for that, as well as understand what part of the relationship it is for which we are actually responsible.

© 2009 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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