Like moths to a flame, individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are often intensely attracted to one another, pulled in by the magnetic appeal of perfectly mismatched relational styles. However, the passion of this pairing soon gives way to a destructive dance of pursuit and withdrawal, idealization and devaluation. In this section, we’ll examine what draws the Borderline and Narcissist together, the explosive cycles that ensue, and how couples can begin to establish new, healthier ways of relating.

The Borderline Personality Disorder with Narcissist Personality Disorder relationship cycle

It bears repeating that, despite the tone of much literature that refers to borderline and narcissistic “tactics,” neither the narcissistic nor the borderline-affected individual decided to feel, think, nor behave in the relationship-maladaptive ways that they do. Theirs is a way of experiencing and operating in the world that is distorted by the influence of genetic, temperament, formative, traumatic and/or other experiential factors.

It also bears noting that borderline-affected persons are not always female, and persons with narcissistic traits are not always male. But when it comes to the Narcissist-Borderline relationship, the most typical presentation is of a woman with borderline tendencies and a man with narcissistic tendencies. So, for ease of writing, in this article I will refer to the narcissist as “he” and the borderline as “she.”

The appeal of the Borderline-Narcissist pairing

Individuals affected by these disorders are often attracted to each other. This is because each carries an internal emptiness, but with opposite pulls—like magnets with opposite polarizations that are drawn to each other. The borderline person feels a relational void, a sense of not existing unless she is in a relationship. Her emotions lead her chaotically from one relationship to the next in search of that ideal person whom she can trust, and with whom she can vulnerably enmesh her life in order to give it meaning. Never feeling she is “enough,” and fearing abandonment, she then anxiously tests her partner’s commitment and love in emotionally volatile ways that scare him, damage him, and eventually drive him away.

The narcissist, on the other hand, is fiercely independent, having an inherent distrust of others. His strong self-determination exudes strength; he appears to be confident about his plans and direction in life. He is led by un-emotional passionate pursuit of goals that will achieve his plans for success, however measured. He lures loyalists who believe in him and his giftedness; who are willing to get on board and support his pursuits. He isn’t needy for relationships, but recognizes the benefit of loyal foot-soldiers. At the same time, his mission provides willing followers with a desired identity; they are glad to be a part; glad to be on board.

The narcissist’s unemotional, principled, independently confident direction and the borderline’s emotional, chaotic, relationally-dependent need for direction create a powerful Yang Yang appeal that is hard to resist. The borderline finds in the narcissist a secure engine to which to couple and give her life direction. The narcissist finds in the borderline an enthusiastic fan who generously doles out attentive support, encouragement, and sensual pleasure—at first.

As the relationship progresses, it will experience emotional peaks and troughs of various durations, which are disruptive and problematic to personal and relational life. The way this typically unfolds is that one of two things will eventually happen, and when it does, it will trigger the other.

The hypersensitivity of the borderline person might first mis-perceive events, such as a change of plans, an unreturned text, an impatient word, an annoyed glance, or a work interruption, as a sign that she is not valued, not prioritized, perhaps unloved, or worst—about to be abandoned. This will activate the borderline’s anxious, self-defensive pursuit strategies designed to claw back the attention, prioritization, love and commitment of the narcissistic partner. The approach, of course, has the opposite effect.

The Borderline’s relational pull

The emotional aggression of the borderline threatens the independence of the narcissist, activating his avoidant strategies, which cause him to withdrawal. That is, her “pull” activates his “push.” His withdrawal, which could just as easily have occurred first, feels exactly like the abandonment she had feared would occur. She fears the prospect of being left and alone, empty again, without someone to give her life identity and purpose.

The Narcissistic individual may react with rage or withdrawal, which then triggers the Borderline partner’s abandonment fears. 

Instead of giving him space and time to return, her feelings drive her to engage in yet another round of anxious pursuit. She might escalate to accusations, name-calling, profanity, property damage, threats to harm herself, or threats (or actions) to harm his career. All of these acts frighten and threaten the narcissist, who in self-defense distances himself even further, escalating as he withdraws. In his escalation he may yell, brandish anger, use profanity, make threats, call her “crazy” and malign her to friends and family.

Inherent to this relationship pattern is the idealization-devaluation-discard cycle. Courtney Hamlin describes it this way:

The Borderline views romantic attraction as reflecting an absolute view of the other as all good when conscious needs are being met, and all bad when they are not (splitting). Naturally, no partner can sustain this idealization. Furthermore, the Borderline individual’s tendency to project unacceptable aspects of their own character onto those around them will eventually shatter the perfect image they have of the Narcissistic partner, whom they then devalue and attack. If their partner has a Narcissistic personality structure, this devaluation is… traumatic… and causes intense pain. The Narcissistic individual may react with rage or withdrawal, which then triggers the Borderline partner’s abandonment fears.  The Borderline feels abandoned, anxious, and emotionally deregulated, and the pattern begins all over again, as the Borderline’s anxiety triggers the Narcissists wounds and desire to withdraw… using manipulation and control… to meet their own emotional needs. -Courtney Hamlin

This cycle will repeat itself in various forms of intensity. It will be interrupted by periods of reunion—usually initiated by the borderline person through sensual allure. Sex is almost irresistible to both partners. For the borderline, sensual closeness feels like love, and to the narcissist, sex satisfies his need to be desired and attractive, and his desire to be a rescuer-hero. Sex will therefore restore the union for awhile, creating enough of a bond to carry them to the next event that feels overly-distant to the borderline or overly-enmeshed to the narcissist, re-starting the cycle.

What is the answer to this dilemma? Many people have turned a corner in their relationships when they’ve come to grips with the fact that in all of their troubled relationships, they are the common denominator. They come to recognize that their pattern is a problem, causing disruption to relationships, and that their pattern has a name.

They come to understand the nature of their disorder; that some ways of thinking and acting are distorted and have antidotes. With humility, effort, therapeutic and group support, and discipline, they learn to check self-centered or emotion-driven impulses and act for the benefit of their partner.

In addition to individual self-improvement, couples begin to understand that their partner is not the problem, the pattern is the problem… the interaction of their disordered patterns is the problem. Couples who find a path toward health stop fighting each other and start fighting the toxicity that results from the clash of these conditions.

In short, the individuals find help (ideally through individual and group work) and the couple finds help through a couples therapist aware of this dynamic. The road to change is difficult, often long, and prone to set-backs. But, with a resolve to be well-informed and self-confessional about one’s own tendencies, and united as a couple against the challenges their pairing brings, a new way of relating can emerge.


The Borderline-Narcissist pairing, while initially intoxicating, often devolves into a destructive cycle of pursuit and withdrawal, idealization and devaluation. Breaking free of this pattern requires deep self-awareness, emotional regulation, firm boundaries, mutual validation and a united effort against toxicity. With insight, effort and professional support, couples can begin to establish healthier ways of relating and rediscover the passion that first drew them together. The road to change may be difficult, but a relationship of mutual care and respect is well worth the journey.