Borderline Personality Disorder: Meet the Parents, Part I

What Parental Behavior May Lead Children to Develop Borderline Traits?

Posted May 28, 2012

Rosie the Riveter

Do persons making the statement feels that their feelings for others are so toxic that they could kill them, literally or figuratively?  Well, sometimes, but not usually.

Does it mean that the lover-to-death thinks they will literally smother the object of their affections?  That answer maybe getting a bit closer to the heart of the matter.

A clue as to the real meaning of the statement is the "but" part that usually follows.  Aha!  Ambivalence is rearing its ugly head. A therapist might say that the person has an intrapsychic conflict or mixed feelings towards the significant other (or an approach-avoidance conflict if the therapist is a behaviorist. Sorry CBT'ers, but it's the same thing).

A non therapist might say the person has a love-hate relationship with the Other.

In an earlier post, I opined that the basic problem in the "borderline" family (one that produces offspring with borderline personality disorder [BPD]) is that the parents in such families see the role of being parents as the end all and be all of human existence, but all the while, deep down, they either frequently hate being in the role of parent or see their parental role as being an impediment to their personal fulfillment. 

I also explained how the person with BPD develops the Spoiler role in response to the double messages that this emotional conflict leads such parents to give off to their children.

It's all well and good to try to understand the behavior of the individual with BPD in terms of a response to parental problems, but that just kicks the question of an explanation for the disorder back a generation. In order to fully understand BPD, we have to ask, "What on earth makes these parents so damn neurotic that they compulsively have children and then covertly resent them?"  

(Neurotic, for those who forget, means conflicted).

If the parents are not patients themselves, the only way for a therapist to get to the bottom of this is by helping the patient with BPD to construct a family genogram. A genogram is sort of an emotional family tree, and is a mainstay of the type of family systems therapy designed by family therapy pioneer Murray Bowen.

Murray Bowen

Using historical figures and geneology records as illustrations, the book Genograms: Assessment and Intervention by Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson describes how genograms can be constructed . 

However, the genograms as described by Bowen therapists are, in my mind, incomplete. They concentrate on which relatives were over-involved or under-involved with which other relatives, and whether these relationships were hostile or friendly. IMO, this leave out an awful lot of important information. Two individuals may easily have a hostile and enmeshed relationships with each other over one area of functioning, say work or love, and yet still be very distant, friendly or complely uninvolved with one another over a different area of functioning.  

The Rosies did what they were told, and that is why we had the baby boom.

Fast forward twenty years. The daughters of this generation came of age in the sixties, when the women's liberation movement had started in earnest. Women were more and more torn between the earlier gender role requirements and the new cultural opportunities and expectations, and some women (as well as some men) did not make the transition very smoothly at all - for a variety of reasons. 

One common reason: the Rosie the Riveters, having had a taste of the career world, would vicariously live through the career aspirations of their daughters. However, at the same time they would be extremely envious of them as well as reminded of and frightened by their own repressed - and unacceptable to both them and their spouses and parents - ambitions.

Having children could easily bring the whole craziness to a head for some families. Even today, large numbers of mothers feel very guilty about not spending as much time with their children as they would like, and they are often criticized at every turn by their own parents as well as the Phyllis Schlafly's of the world.  (Phyllis Schlafly was a career woman who made a career out of bashing career women). 

Phyllis Sclafly

In doing genograms, one can often see just how far a family's operating rules in the present lag behind our current cultural norms.  In anthropology, this problem is called cultural lag. The cultural progression in Western nations, which is mimicked within certain families, was thus: First, women really could not have careers at all.  If they did, it tended to be in disreputable careers like show biz.

Next, they could have careers, but only when they were single. Even then, their choices were limited to mostly teaching, nursing, and secretarial jobs. Next - and this is where many families with BPD members are stuck - they could only have careers, but only if they had not yet had children. Then, they could have careers even if married with children, but they had to give priority to the husband's career.  Last, both men and women were entitled to the same freedom.

Gender role confusion and conflict can, given the right combination of ingredients, create a nasty intrapsychic conflict over the very act of procreating.  

In Part II of this post, I will look at the rest of the historical factors and patterns that can create such a conflict: Deaths and illnesses, financial reverses, religious demands, parent-child role reversals, being the eldest child in a traditional family, and having children to "save the marriage."