Here is something that most people do not know. After spending the last 40 plus years listening to my clients talk about their love lives, I realized an interesting fact:
Most people choose romantic partners who are their approximate equals with regard to understanding how to sustain intimacy.
This is similar to what went on when we were in elementary school. The teachers sorted us into reading groups. Everyone in the “Chickadees,” for example, could read at about the same level. Not everyone in the group had the exact same problems with reading, but everyone was more-or-less at the same level with regard to reading skills.
Intimacy Skill Groups: Relationships require skills as well, such as learning how to negotiate differences, communicate, forgive each other after fighting, and so on. I think of these as our “Intimacy Skill” set. I have found that people tend to unconsciously sort themselves into groups with regard to their level of intimacy skills. Very few people choose partners that are more than a half step above or below them with regard to their ability to maintain a successful relationship. If someone is too far above us in their grasp of Intimacy skills, they are likely to find us boring and difficult. If they are too far below us, we are likely to be uninterested in them for the same reasons.
Individuals with Borderline and Narcissistic Disorders share some of the same intimacy issues
- People in both of these groups lack what psychotherapists call “Whole Object Relations” and “Object Constancy.”
Whole Object Relations: “Whole object relations” is the capacity to simultaneously see both the good and bad qualities of a person and accept that both exist. This capacity is normally developed during early childhood through copying your parents and, most importantly, through being seen realistically and accepted and loved for who you are by your parents, despite your imperfections. This capacity can be acquired later if the person is sufficiently motivated and has appropriate psychotherapy.
Without “whole object relations,” people alternate between two equally extreme and unrealistic views of themselves and other people: either they are “all-good” or “all-bad.” Instead of integrating these views when they see something that makes it clear that the other person is not all-good, they simply switch to seeing the person as all-bad—and vice versa.
In both cases, they also temporarily forget all the past history associated with the side that is now out of awareness. Therefore, if they are seeing you as “all-good,” they only remember things that support that view. When they are seeing you as “all-bad,” they only remember the things that support that view. As both of these views are overly extreme and inaccurate, they are inherently unstable and sometimes can rapidly shift back and forth in the course of a day.
Object Constancy: “Object Constancy" has two basic parts:
- The ability to maintain one’s positive feelings for someone while one is feeling hurt, disappointed, frustrated, or angry with the person.
- The ability to maintain a sense of emotional connection to someone who is no longer present. This includes the ability to recall his or her face and other significant features that you associate with the person. Without this, the person is literally: Out of sight and out of mind.
The lack of “object constancy” is a consequence of not having “whole object relations.”
- Whole Object Relations and Object Constancy can be thought of as Intimacy Skills
According to the Object Relations school of thought about personality disorders, the lack of “whole object relations” and the lack of “object constancy” are the defining features of all personality disorders. This means that the lack of both is a defining feature of the current intimacy skill group of people with personality disorders. This mutual lack of “whole object relations” and “object constancy” actually increases the likelihood that two people who each have a personality disorder (including someone with a Narcissistic adaptation and someone with a Borderline adaptation) will fall in love with each other, and makes it less likely that either will fall in love with someone without a personality disorder – all other things being equal.
NOTE: In this article I am using the terms “Borderline” and “Narcissist” as shorthand for people who have made specific types of adaptations to their early home environments that persisted into adulthood as a series of thought patterns, behaviors, and life strategies that are commonly referred to as Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. No disrespect is intended. In my opinion, people are not Borderlines or Narcissists; this is the name for their current pattern of being in relationships and their approach to life.
- Narcissists and Borderlines Form Intense, Quick Attachments
Narcissists and Borderline individuals also have something else in common that makes them likely to choose each other: they both can quickly form intense romantic attachments based on very little information about the other person. Most people who do not have either a Borderline or Narcissistic adaptation tend to take their time when making the decision whether their new lover is “the one.” My Borderline and Narcissistic clients often bond instantly when they barely know each other.
They tend to do this for different reasons:
The Borderline Reason: Many people with Borderline adaptations live for love. They use connecting to someone as a remedy for feelings of emptiness, restlessness, and loneliness. They are what I think of as “Clingers.” They form quick strong attachments and resist any information that suggests that they should detach because this person is an inappropriate mate. The idea of detaching brings up their underlying fears of abandonment, so they find reasons not to leave.
When things get bad, as they often do when a Borderline marries a Narcissist, it is the Borderline mate that usually has the most trouble detaching from the relationship. This is because they are terribly conflicted: One side of them is quite rational and knows that the relationship is not working and that they should leave, while the other side is very fearful of taking the step of leaving because it means that they will be on their own again. Many people with BPD feel inadequate to deal with everyday adult life and being with someone – almost anyone – can feel more secure than being on their own.
Example: Maria, Benny, and the Bridge
Maria is a rather submissive Borderline woman who suffers from severe anxiety. She tends to develop phobias that limit how far from home she can go without her husband Benny. Benny is a verbally abusive, controlling Narcissist who likes that Maria is so dependent on him.
Maria entered therapy with the specific goal of finding the strength within herself to leave Bennie. She complained that Bennie was harsh, controlling, and emotionally unavailable. They had very little in common except the functions that they fulfilled for each other. Benny tolerated her fears and weaknesses because he enjoyed being the strong one. It fed his self-esteem. Maria tolerated Benny’s controlling ways because she felt inadequate to mold her own life. As long as Bennie made all the decisions, she was free to be as helpless and dependent as she liked. Maria said in her first session that she no longer wanted this type of relationship. She could imagine something better for herself with a man who was kinder and less critical.
All went fine for a couple of sessions. Then just when Maria was formulating a realistic plan for leaving, she suddenly developed a fear of driving across bridges without someone in the car with her. The more afraid she became, the more she clung to Benny. Her fear of crossing bridges on her own was a metaphor for Maria’s whole life. Self-activating and deciding to leave Benny was the equivalent of crossing the bridge by herself. As Maria’s plan to leave became more and more real, her underlying feelings of inadequacy and the subliminal memories of early abandonment and a deep need for attachment started to surface and manifested as this phobia. The phobia made her more dependent on Bennie than ever, for he was the “driver” in her life. Maria and I quickly realized that she would need her therapy to refocus now on these old re-emerging issues if she ever wanted to be able to be on her own and take charge of her own life.
The Narcissist Reason: Narcissists choose their lovers based on whether the person enhances their self-esteem. As their need for self-esteem enhancement is ongoing, they have no incentive to wait to get to know the person better. The things that attract Narcissists are not the enduring personal qualities of the other person or even compatibility. As long as the person has high status in their eyes and they find the person appealing, they are usually willing to go full speed ahead with the relationship. Unfortunately, as their real interest in the person is exactly this shallow, they often leave the relationship just as suddenly as they began it.
- Narcissists and Borderlines want different things from a relationship
Narcissistic and Borderline individuals can fall in love, but they are likely to expect such very different things out of the relationship that the relationship is unlikely to be successful for very long.
Narcissists want continuous self-esteem enhancement – Borderlines want continuous, unconditional love
Narcissistic individuals want their mate to enhance their sense of self-esteem, while Borderline individuals want continual reassurance that they are loved. Both sets of needs may be fulfilled in the early honeymoon stage of the relationship, but are less and less likely to be satisfied as they become more accustomed to being with each other.
Example—Artie and Jane
Artie, an Exhibitionist Narcissist from a working-class background, was immediately attracted to Jane, a high functioning very sexy Borderline woman from a wealthy family. He idealized Jane and believed that being in a relationship with someone so perfect would be heaven.
He pursued Jane for months, showering her with gifts, romantic dinners, and continually professing his complete devotion and love for her.
Jane was more insecure than she appeared and loved that Artie was so demonstrative and vocal about his love for her. The sex was great because he was eager to please her and he seemed to be able to anticipate exactly what she would enjoy without her having to say a word.
They were both blissfully happy for the first few months that they were together. Then, as time went on, they got to know each other better.
Now that Artie felt that he “had” Jane, he started to be less concerned about proving his devotion. He also began to notice that Jane was not the flawless, perfect woman he first assumed that she was. As Artie is a Narcissist, seeing Jane’s flaws caused him to stop idealizing her. This led him to become more careless around her, less overtly loving, and he started to mention things that he wanted her to do for him – like doing his laundry and shopping for groceries.
Jane started to feel angry, insecure, and unloved as Artie’s overt demonstrations of his love for her diminished and his demands increased. She alternated between clinging to Artie and asking for hugs and reassurance of his love and angrily withdrawing. She started to flirt with other men in Artie’s presence in the hope that making him jealous would cause him to become more loving.
Artie felt annoyed when Jane got clingy and insecure, and furious when she flirted with other men. Neither had the relationship skills to calmly talk to this out. Instead, the mutual disappointment caused them to treat each other badly and their fights escalated. Needless to say, the relationship soon came to an ugly end with each of them blaming the other for everything that went wrong.
Punchline: Borderline and Narcissistic individuals often fall in love because they are at approximately the same level with regard to their “Intimacy Skills.” They both are likely to be in the early stages of learning how to successfully maintain intimate relationships. In the beginning, everything may seem blissful because they both share the capacity for making fast, intense romantic attachments without looking very closely at the other person’s real personality. They are both likely to believe that they will get exactly what they have been longing for from their new romantic partner. Each sees the other as a dream come true.
Unfortunately, as the relationship progresses, their basic differences in how they approach life and what they want from each other and their lack of “whole object relations” and “object constancy,” make their relationship inherently unstable and unlikely to last. There is an old saying that applies here: A bird and a fish can fall in love, but how will they make a life together?