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You Always Hurt the One You Love

I’ve struck up an email correspondence with a reader named Mary, whose elderly mother has borderline personality disorder, and a psychiatrist named David Allen. In recent correspondence, Dr. Allen suggests that people with BPD show their love for family members in a distorted way. Their criticism and evident disdain are really demonstrations of love, albeit unrecognizable to those on the receiving end.

A few years ago, he wrote this on his blog: “When parents act in an obnoxious manner . . . that pushes their adult children away, this is referred to as distancing behavior. Parents who know they were abusive, even if they do not admit it, may secretly believe that their children are better off without them. Hence, they engage in distancing to push their children away, thereby protecting their children from themselves.”

Such parents feel they are so deeply flawed they have to shield their children from these flaws. I told him I found this interpretation of BPD behavior counter-intutitive, and he understood. Most family members do. It sure doesn’t feel like love to be called names, and to be undermined, criticized, and judged. Dr. Allen suggested continuing to consider the possibility.

I broached this confounding topic to my friend Nancy, who has had, in the past, a BPD diagnosis (among others). She appears in my book Missing as a kind of guide. (Let’s say she’s Vergil to my Dante. Comparing BPD to The Inferno is not too far off the mark.)

She immediately identified with Dr. Allen’s thesis, but phrased it a little differently. She focused on perfectionism and reminded me of the black-and-white thinking characteristic of BPD. Nancy generally feels, she told me, that if someone else has a problem, she is unable to fix it. Helping, offering some comfort, doing a little bit–these gestures just don’t come to mind when one is hemmed in by perfectionism.

She can’t make it all right. Therefore, she may as well do nothing, or may even say something dismissive in order to ensure that the other person doesn’t rely on her, because relying on her would be a mistake! Why rely on her when she can’t solve the problem?

I’m contemplating these ideas, trying them on, attempting to see my mother’s hurtful behavior as perverse manifestations of love. Let me know if any of this rings a bell with you.

2 Comments

  1. Mary wrote:

    I recommend anyone interested in this topic to go take a look at Dr. Allen’s entries re: this type of behavior, as well as his excellent entries re: how to disarm a BPD afflicted person. Thank you Kathy Ewing for your efforts re: this difficult and painful topic.

    Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink
  2. Thanks for the shout out.

    My thesis is a little more complicated. The distancing parents are also trying to prove to everyone else involved (and themselves for that matter) that they really are the horrible persons that they covertly believe themselves to be.

    The reasons they feel they have to do this are too complicated to explain briefly here, but I cover them on other posts in my blog.

    Furthermore, the distancing behavior is also done ambivalently, because the parents really do wish to have a better relationship with their offspring – although the children would never know it. So it comes across more as “I need you – I hate you,” or, as Pink sings, “Leave me alone – I’m lonely.”

    I’ll be putting some illustrative examples that I had included previously on my personal blog in a post on my Psychology Today blog two weeks from tomorrow.

    Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

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