Dr. Burford is a Christian minister practicing science-based couples therapy through Couples Therapy Inc. He works with all couples with a specialization on couples wanting a biblical perspective. This post originally appeared on his blog.

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This article is long because it is important to offer in the same place comparison of the typical stages of marriage or long-term relationships to stages or patterns typical when addiction, personality disorders (specifically Borderline and Narcissism) and mental health challenges (specifically ADD, Bipolar, and Depression) are present.

To avoid the awkward use of “him or her,” I use: “them, themself, or themselves,” and “partner.”


Marital Stages

Many have written on the stages of marriage, some finding three, four, five, six, or even seven stages. There is plenty of crossover among the lists. I have chosen to use the stages identified by Sari Harrar and Rita DeMaria in their book, The 7 Stages of Marriage (2007). The labels that follow are theirs, the abbreviated descriptions are mine.

Passion - This is the “honeymoon” stage filled with magic and romance. We’re attracted to the differences between us; they’re “cute” or admirable. Phenethylamine blinds us to imperfections. Dopamine spikes every encounter. Our partner is our chief source of endorphins. Being together is our chief pursuit, other interests are de-prioritized, work, school, chores and other tasks are most enjoyable when we can do them together.

Like the childhood fascination with magic giving way to the adult recognition of illusion, this stage does not last. But that doesn’t make it any less real or any more expendable than childhood. It is formative; it is our foundation. During this stage we experience feelings that drive a connection that reinforces trust, producing oxytocin that fosters trust and enables commitment. We learn what it means to learn about and appreciate someone so wonderfully unique. We graciously yield to one another, living in consideration and other-centered love. We give the relationship plentiful food and oxygen (time and feel-good experiences) to keep it not only alive, but growing. This stage gives us an experience of youthful health to strive for whenever the relationship gets sickly. Not that we return to it exactly, but rather than fall for the same temporary feelings in an outside relationship that wounds or kills the marriage, we can return to these sentiments toward our spouse to bring our marriage back to life. Like playing a favorite old song, we can see in our spouse’s eyes the person who amazed us on that first date, and can treat them with the prioritization, love and respect we did then.

Realization - Sometimes described as the “honeymoon ending,” this is where our eyes are opened to our significant differences and the realities muted by phenethylamine loudly announce themselves. We discover that oneness does not mean sameness. We inevitably notice that our spouse does some things differently (spelled  “wrong”). Differing temperaments or genders or families of origin or belief systems show up in everyday decisions and it seems in every room of the house. Idiosyncrasies that we once thought cute become annoying. Disappointments, differing priorities, and a struggle to understand the alien being we married lead to unpleasant discussions that can threaten to kill the marriage through harmful fighting.

The opportunity here is to recognize that the perfect human doesn’t exist—and that you’re not that perfect human, either. Marriage has been defined as a commitment of lifelong love between two imperfect people. Better to accept the differences and idiosyncrasies of the person you’ve chosen to love and who has chosen to love you, than to fall for temporary feelings for someone else who will also wind up being imperfect. (And your relationship with this fantasy mate will be imperfect, too—guaranteed—because you’re there.) The Realization stage is an opportunity to accept a real person, not a dating app image. It is choosing to see the positive side of traits we could view negatively; to concentrate on what we like and admire about our spouse. This is a time for expecting and accepting that we won’t like all the same things, do everything the same way, have the same cadence, or prioritize the same things. A helpful lens to don at this stage is to see our spouse the way we hope our son’s or daughter’s spouse will see them—for their good qualities, not their bad, for we know they have both.


Rebellion - Former interests resurface or new ones are formed and pursued. These might include separate friendships, individual forms of recreation or exercise or relaxation. There may be different educational, political, topical, or career pursuits not shared by—and possibly not supported by—one’s spouse. A chasm begins to grow as each partner defends what is important to him or to her. These different interests and pursuits compete for time, energy, space, funding, and the family’s limited margin. There is jockeying for whose interests will be prioritized, whose educational pursuits will be allotted tuition and study time, whose career will determine whether the family will move. Whereas the Passion stage minimized our differences, and the Realization stage acknowledged and tried to welcome them, the Rebellion stage revolts. We rebel against each other, setting up self-defensive camps to protect what we consider valuable—and if push comes to shove—will defend as more valuable than what is important to our spouse.

The opportunity in this stage is to arrest the development of harmful patterns of fighting that will slowly tear us apart, in favor of learning effective conflict communication that will help our oneness grow. This is a time for respectfully communicating what is important to us through positive requests. Equally important (and often neglected in relationship literature) is to balance active assertiveness of our wants and needs with reflective listening concerning what our spouse values. Conflict reveals that there are two values either opposed to each other or at different levels of importance. What we want are not two self-defensive partners loudly asserting what is important to them, but two curious partners listening to understand what is important to their most significant other. We want two loving partners desiring to protect what the other is trying to protect through rebellion. If each side is crossing over to protect what is being defended by the other, the conflict ceases. The revolution is over; rebels become friends again; each trusts the other is there for them. Both are saying, “If it’s important to you, I’ll make it important to me.” And there is peace.


Cooperation - Life grows more complicated as the years pass. We juggle household responsibilities, growing families, work loads, paying for this and saving for that, health changes, tragedies, extended family idiosyncrasies, aging parents, and more. It isn’t a relaxing day on Daytona Beach; it’s a desperate day on the beaches of Normandy. The last thing you want to be is alone; you want help! Love at this stage looks less like a romance novel and more like an Avengers movie. Disparate partners combine their unique abilities to defeat a common enemy - in this case, stress. Not despite our differences, but because of them we find that we’re better able to handle things together. The self-actualization of the Rebellion stage makes room for self-transcendence (Abraham Maslow’s final realization of the apex of human needs) in this Cooperation stage. The union is preferred over the units; individuation yields to consideration. We’re not focused on which of us won, but on whether together we defeated the forces of evil aligned against us—or got the kids to bed. Whichever…

In this battlefield cooperation, romance is neglected to the couple’s peril. Even warring armies find time to eat and sleep; otherwise they die of natural causes. So do marriages. Don't allow your marriage to become all work and no play. Make time for play… Together. Get off your cell phones and laptops, and sit by a fire (a candle will do), look at the stars or listen to music together. Read something together. Go on a date. If nothing else, fold laundry and do dishes together rather than separately. Help each other. Make it fun. Go to bed together. Keep the romance alive.


Reunion - Reunions of any type look back upon how things were “back in the day.” That day may have been high school, boot camp, college or “back when the kids were little.” Reunions are about remembering who we were then and getting reacquainted with people as they (and we) are now.  We expect people to change between reunions; to grow older, hopefully to become wiser, to be pursuing old interests at a different level and new interests because they’re growing. We remember the adventures and how we stood side-by-side. Maybe we reconcile, overcoming those times we faced off against each other. But it’s a time of coming together again without all of the chaos and stressors (at least not exactly the same stressors) straining our friendship. And it’s a time of renegotiation of what our friendship will be like at this stage. How will we be there for each other? What will we do together?

In the case of marriage, this reunion and renegotiation may take place several times as our context changes. The end of the parenting years is a natural time for reunion, but so is the end of deployment, the achievement of a degree, the end of a trying experience, the change of a career, and others. It is a time to renew and renegotiate our friendship, figuring out our new roles relative to each other, learning how to be there for each other at this stage, finding ways to feed and fuel the romance, such that we remain boyfriend and girlfriend even while being aging husband and wife.


Explosion - This term does not refer to explosions between spouses (though that may happen, too), but “explosions” are crises, illnesses, deaths in the family, job losses, unwanted moves, bankruptcy, the death of a dream, etc. Explosions rock your world—both of your worlds, and your world together. Like Reunions, explosions can occur at any time and at multiple times within the span of a marriage.
When the ground shakes like this, we look for something stable to cling to. The marriage can be this stabilizer if we are committed to be there for each other in good times and in bad, for better and for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. If we have this confidence in each other, the explosion won’t blow us apart, but throw us into each other’s arms. If we learned in the Cooperation stage to trade the self-protection of Rebellion for the sacrificial protection of one another, then we will have experienced in less explosive times the safety of seeking comfort and strength in one another. We will have learned to listen, to empathize, to comfort and to support one another—all the things we both need when our world is rocked.   


Completion - Perhaps because of the above stages, many couples who share decades of life together report a high level of marital satisfaction in their golden years. This makes sense from the lens of Attachment Theory. Through the challenges of the preceding stages, couples have come to experience one another as their primary source of acceptance, friendship, comfort, nurture, safety, security, love and respect. Having walked hand in hand through life and discovered what it takes to build a meaningful marriage, there is the wisdom to not look for a better marriage with someone else, but to continually build into one’s current marriage what will make it even better at each stage. It is continuing to practice all the skills learned in each of the above stages. It is intentionally keeping high the ratio of moments that feel good between us (deposits into the Love Bank, to use Dr. Gottman’s metaphor), so that they far outweigh the moments that feel bad (withdrawals). It is not seeing the best years as behind us, but seizing the opportunities we have to make the present moment the best it can be. It is seeing in the eyes of our spouse the cute young thing we were lucky enough to date and lock lives with decades ago. It is thanking God for him or her and letting God melt our heart. The end of life does not necessarily look pretty, but the companionship at its completion can be beautiful.

Mental Health and the Stages of Marriage

Along with the above common marital stages, it is helpful to note the effects of mental health challenges on the relationship cycle.

Addiction and Relationship Stages

Three hula hoops—representing him, her, and the couple—are used by Dr. Mark and Debbie Laaser as a visual metaphor of the progressive stages of a relationship affected by addiction. Their article, “Hula Hoop Health: The stages of Relationship Health” details the effect of addiction and recovery on the relationship progression in these stages:

Autonomy/Being Single (each person alone in their own hoop)

Infatuation/Enmeshment (both persons fully immersed in the couple hoop)

Individuation/Differentiation (one person returns to their hoop to reclaim their individual interests and identity irrespective of the relationship, leaving the other lonely in the couple hoop and protesting; the second partner may also return to their individual hoop, leaving the couple hoop empty.)

Self-Care vs. Coping (healthy individuation with marriage-friendly supports vs. coping mechanisms unhealthy to the individual and to the marriage (compulsive, addictive, risky or unfaithful behavior.)

Independence vs. Codependence (the healthy spouse, troubled by the partner’s unhealthy coping, will move into the unhealthy partner’s hoop, seeking to help, rescue, heal, or pull them back into the couple hoop. This is resisted, feeling like blame, criticism, and control. The unhealthy person will move further away into unhealthy coping mechanisms, or will retaliate by moving into their partner’s hoop to blame, criticize and control them. Now both parties are blaming each other for the emptiness of the couple relationship. The ideal alternative is that each person take responsibility for their own healthy self-care, so they can be there for the other in the couple hoop.

Mutual Interdependence (not returning to enmeshment where neither has an identity aside from  the relationship, mutual interdependence is each person having one foot in their individual hoop and one foot in the couple hoop. Each is healthily pursuing their self-identity and interests, while being there for the other (supporting the other’s interests, empathizing, helping and encouraging) while also being there for the relationship (prioritizing it, giving it time, attention, affection, connection and nurture). If addiction is still a struggle, the couple’s mutual interdependence is illustrated by the addict’s foot being partly in his or her own hoop, partly in healthy self-care outside the relationship, and partly in the couple hoop. The non-addicted partner’s feet are likewise straddling hoops; one foot is in his or her individual hoop, one is in the couple hoop, and also partially in the addict’s hoop—but in a healthy, agreed-upon supportive way, not an immersed, codependent way.   

The Laasers’ full article, “Hula Hoop Health: The stages of Relationship Health” can be downloaded at: Faithful and True PDFs.

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Personality Disorders and Relationships

A word on Personality Disorders (PDs):

Inherent especially to those with Cluster B personality disorders (PDs) is a lack of insight; a lack of awareness that they act as described. That is, people with personality disorders do not choose to think and act in the ways they do. They are likely to hear the description of their disorder and say, "That's not me,” while those close to them will say, “That’s them to a ’T’." Their condition is rooted in some combination of genetics, family of origin, life experiences, trauma, and past relationships. But the result is that those with whom they are in relationship will find themselves constantly "walking on eggshells."

Resisting therapy, changing therapists, and quitting therapy:

Consistent with the lack of self-awareness that characterizes people with personality disorders, persons with PDs will resist therapy, or often will participate in therapy only to "fix the other person" who, from their perspective, is responsible for the relationship problems. Relationship or couples therapy will be difficult for the PD because empathy for and understanding of another person's point of view is bedrock for relationship therapy. People with personality disorders struggle mightily with empathy and with accepting another point of view, especially if it exposes a fault or responsibility of their own. An inability to accept responsibility—or a defensiveness against accepting responsibility for their contribution to relationship discord—is a hallmark of personality disorders. So, when it becomes clear that they will not be able to solely blame their partner for the relationship problems (aside from a vague, “I’m not perfect.”), but that their way in the relationship is part (or much) of the problem, they will be “done” with that therapist or with therapy, altogether. It is not uncommon for a relationship affected by a PD to run through several couples therapists, as the PD-affected person eventually refuses to return to a counselor who is challenging their part in the relationship problems.

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The Borderline Relationship Cycle

"Borderline" (short for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or referring to borderline traits) is a term often applied to women. But, it is not solely a female condition. Therefore, in this article, the BPD-affected person will be referred to either as “she” or as “them/they.” The non-BPD-affected person will be referred to as “partner.”

Background

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a Cluster B personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

It is characterized by:

“A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity that begins by early adulthood at is present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by 5 or more of the following symptoms:”

1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.

2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.

3. Identity disturbance: Markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.

4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating). (Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in criterion 5.)

5. Recurring suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats or self-mutilating behavior.

6. Affective instability caused by a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours, and only rarely more than a few days).

7. Chronic feelings of emptiness.

8. Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).

9. Transient, stress-related, paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.

Borderline Personality Disorder would be less mysterious if it were called “Emotion Dysregulation Disorder.” Alas, it is not. Persons affected by BPD experience extreme emotional highs and lows, responding impulsively to their feelings and to the story their emotions are telling them. These stories and the borderline’s impulsive reactions to their presumptive stories damage relationships (nearly all relationships), causing emotional or physical harm to partners, family members, coworkers, or others. Their presumptions, stories, reactions, challenges, and accusations are experienced as uncaring, mean, selfish, manipulative or delusional. Because of the capriciousness and inexplicability of BPD reactions, relationships are turbulent and confusing, filled with frequent misunderstandings, conflicts, woundings, and relationship dissatisfaction. The relationship is confusing to both partners because their close, loving, sexual connections feel so good, but the scary, chaotic disruptions feel so bad. The result is a rapid cycling of relational closeness and relational distance.

The beginning of romantic BPD-affected relationships is typically exciting, fun, passionate, romantic, and electric. Persons on the Borderline spectrum have endearing qualities. They are “big feelers,” empathic and sensitive to others’ pain, champions of the underdog, quick to step in as caregivers. They are compassionate, affectionate, and caring. They are lovers of animals, often overseeing a menagerie of pets like a doting parent. They are drawn to babies, but less so to children once they are old enough to declare self-will (because the BPD-affected parent interprets differentiation as opposition). The attraction is nearly irresistible because, when not triggered, borderline-affected people are lovely, lovable, and loyal romantic partners.

The relationship typically feels best early on, when the couple is solely engaged with one another, free from outside influences and “competition” for time and attention. The caring relationship can briefly resurface if the non-BPD-affected partner falls ill or otherwise in need of “rescue." The BPD-suffer’s natural compassion will rise to protect the partner, temporarily dropping borderline concerns for self protection. Once the crisis is over, however, emotional volatility will return.

The pathology of borderline traits is not fully understood, A genetic link is suspected, but it is hard to separate heritability from the psychological and behavioral impact of a parent who was emotionally invalidating, unavailable, abusive or neglectful. Whether by nature or nurture, relational safety in formative years either was not experienced, was inconsistent or short-lived, or ended in disappointment and hurt. The child did not experience empathy consistently, if at all, nor was helped in how to feel and manage emotions in a regulated way. If genetics are not at play, borderline traits and patterns may have passed down generationally as family system norms.

The fear of abandonment is the ultimate fear of a BPD sufferer, often rooted in their  neglected past. Whether from a childhood like those described above, or from abusive young adult relationships, a "disorganized, attachment style” develops—a person longs for caring, reliable connection to another human being, but at the same time distrusts it. The result is a push-pull dynamic in which the BPD-affected individual intensely embraces a close relationship, then—not trusting that someone can actually love and faithfully be there for them—will misinterpret myriad minor and innocent situations as criticism, rejection, abandonment, or precursors to abandonment. They will then challenge, accuse or otherwise attack their partner. To the partner, these  fear-based protest behaviors feel unfair, selfish, manipulative, or even unsafe, motivating the partner to withdraw. This was certainly not the intent or desire of the borderline person; quite the opposite. They are ashamed of their behavior when viewed in the rear-view mirror and drift back to the relationship because they desperately want and need the partner they had pushed away only because they feared the partner was going to leave. Abandonment can become a self-fulfilling prophecy due to the cycle detailed below.

The Borderline relationship cycle follows these stages:

  • Idealization - It is not uncommon for persons with BPD or such tendencies to put a new love interest on a pedestal, allowing emotions to tell them after the first date that they have found their “soulmate”—the only person around whom they finally feel understood and safe. BPDs identify and enmesh with a “favorite person.” They will fully disclose their traumatic past and their insecurities, wholly entrusting themselves to the partner before a basis of trust has been built. Love-bombing and sex-bombing in the early stages of the relationship will create an intoxicating bond that mutes any real-life concerns. The couple spend weeks together—mostly in bed—before moving in together in very short order.

  • Obsessive Clinging - The unstable or void self-identity of the BPD-affected person causes them to feel they need to be with, or be the center of attention of, their partner at all times. There will be texts or calls every hour, even if they know the partner is at work or with family or otherwise busy. Longing for that enmeshment that will fill them up, the BPD can hardly let a day go by without physical contact. Since it feels good to be needed and desired, this can at first pull in the partner even closer, with the partner taking on the hero/rescuer role in an unwritten contract that they will always be there for the borderline person, eschewing all other obligations. (This is a setup for later disappointment, given that such an unreasonable expectation is unsustainable.)

  • Devaluation - Having quickly bonded with a person to give them identity and make their life complete, the BPD sufferer just as quickly devalues a partner who has other interests and loyalties—even innocent and unavoidable commitments like work obligations, family relationships, friendships, memberships, or hobbies that do not involve the BPD  person. The BPD-influenced person wants their Favorite Person all to themselves. There will be protests against even the most reasonable expenditure of time or attention elsewhere. There will be insults and subtle jabs at the partner’s worth, skills, or competence that make them needed elsewhere. There will be criticisms of the partner’s family, friends, job, and interests. Dichotomous ultimatums will be given by which the partner must choose the borderline-affected person over other people or interests. Choosing something else will bring an intense emotional reaction filled with accusations of unfaithfulness, complete with an unintentionally-fabricated story to back it up, which the BPD person will regard as absolutely true, unsatisfied by any argument or proof to the contrary. Loyalty anywhere else, including differentiation of self, is considered disloyalty to them; it is seen as rejection or abandonment.

  • Escalation - Still early in the cycle, a push-pull dynamic begins in what feels like a Jekyll and Hyde switching of personalities. It is experienced by the partner as a confusing game of “Come here, go away.”  In Attachment theory, this is called a Disorganized Attachment Style; an anxious pursuit of one’s partner in a way that ultimately pushes them away, or an anxious clinging to one’s partner, followed by distrust, and an avoidant distancing from one’s partner, followed by reengagement. And… repeat.
    Practically, what does this look like? Something will happen that will feel to the BPD-influenced person like criticism, de-prioritization, a sign of unfaithfulness, rejection, or a precursor to abandonment. It could be something as benign as the person going to work, or stopping by their mother’s house, or getting together with old friends, a scheduling conflict, not texting back quickly enough, talking to someone of the opposite sex, having to work late, or engaging in a solo hobby. Whatever the trigger, it will be interpreted by the BPD-affected partner as choosing against them; it will be “evidence” of a plan to abandon them. In response, they may flood their partner with texts, show up at their workplace, make accusatory calls to friends, family members, or work associates. They may “retaliate” by withdrawing, ghosting, engage in risky behavior, withhold sex, threaten self-harm, threaten break-up, actually break up, or kick out their partner. Underlying these increasingly escalated behaviors the borderline-affected person is subconsciously conducting a damaging “loyalty test” to see how much effort the partner will put into keeping them. That is, will the partner put up with these things—a sign of their love—or abandon them. It’s a damaging test that sabotages the relationship, mistreating it until the partner appropriately withdraws, confirming in the borderline’s mind that the partner wasn’t faithfully there for them after all, justifying in their mind the fear of abandonment. A partner’s legitimate self-defense or attempt to explain himself or herself will fall on deaf ears; the BPD-affected person will have lost touch with reality, possibly dissociating. Nothing can be said or done at the moment to deescalate them or to talk them out of their misperceptions.

  • Repair - When the borderline-affected person eventually comes down from escalated emotion, they may hold their partner responsible for their escalation and want an apology and a promise of change. Or, they may recognize that their behavior had been over-the-top and they will be filled with shame, regret and remorse. They may apologize, but the apology will likely carry a request for grace due to her wounds, or a want for comfort or even rescue. The partner may respond with declarations of renewed commitment and promises to forgo triggering behavior. The BPD-affected person will likewise—in a non-emotional state-of-mind—promise more measured behavior in the future. The reunion will likely be sealed with sexual intimacy, which in the borderline’s mind equals love, and there will be a temporary restoration of idealization.

  • Responsibility - The partner takes inappropriate responsibility for things that trigger the BPD-affected person. They will try to keep them happy; to satisfy their needs, to avoid saying or doing anything that would upset them, walking on eggshells lest they say or do anything (including benign things), that would trigger the BPD-influenced person’s insecurities. This is impossible, of course. There will be another suspicion, another misinterpretation, another delusional story that the borderline-person adamantly believes is true and won’t be convinced otherwise, no matter the evidence. Because of their inability to separate fact from feeling that something is true, they will voice ultimatums with a threat for non-compliance. If the partner is a male, these relentless challenges to his integrity and demands for his compliance rob him of respect and begin to strip away his manhood. He’ll become defeated, convinced that she’ll never let him remain her knight in shining armor, but will eventually always thrown him under the horse.
    It is in such occurrences that the etymology of "borderline" can be seen. When first coined, the condition was understood to "border" Freud's psychoanalytic categories of psychosis and neurosis. Psychosis, describing difficulty in perceiving what is real (think hallucinations and delusions), and neurosis characterized by unwarranted—often persistent—hyper-vigilance, now called “anxiety.”

  • Repeat - The above pattern gets recycled. Temporary stability may be reached, but something will again trigger intense, emotional reactions and unreasonable behaviors. At this point, the partner may reconsider the relationship and decide to leave. Or, the partner may be “addicted” to the BPD, or their lives are too intertwined (such as with children), or the partner may not leave due to fear the BPD will harm themself. The cycle will therefore repeat itself throughout the relationship, or the relationship will end and the pattern will repeat with a new love interest.

    Ideally, however, the BPD-affected person will get help from a DBT-trained therapist, a DBT group—or better—both. Ideally, the partner will also get help to establish and maintain boundaries against abuse. And ideally, the marriage will get its own counselor to establish a new mutually protective pattern against the BPD tendencies.

To further explain the above cycle, understand that the person suffering from borderline personality disorder or tendencies typically lacks an internal identity. They don’t know who they are. Having no direction, interests or goals of their own, they completely adopt the pursuits, interests, passions and lifestyle of the now-boyfriend or girlfriend, enmeshing with their partner’s identity. As stated above, the new love-interest becomes their "favorite person"—practically the only person with whom they are relating or doing anything.

This is not sustainable. For one thing, it is difficult for the borderlined person to maintain a passion for something for which they lack real passion. They therefore begin to pull away from the partner’s interest, and also want the partner to reduce commitment to outside interests in order to be more attentive to them.

Enmeshment replaces a healthy rhythm of time-together-and-time-apart, which every couple must have. People need time on their own (especially introverts) and time to pursue solo interests. Couples need time to miss each other. Lacking this balance, the BPD partner’s relentless need for prioritization and togetherness becomes suffocating.

Because of the BPD-affected person’s desire for near-total attention, they will eventually erupt in protest when not given it. This will present as a shift from Anxious “pull” to Avoidant “push” that will be sudden and unexpected by the partner. It will be triggered by something minor or even benign, like the partner attending an office party or getting together with old friends. The borderline-affected person will misinterpret these incidents, reading into them nefarious intent, de-prioritization, criticism, rejection or unfaithfulness, igniting the fear of abandoment.

As mentioned, the borderline-affected person is a "big feeler." While emotions are a good thing, pointing to something of importance, emotions are poor decision-makers. They are part of decision making, but must be regulated by wisdom, such that chosen behavior is wise and constructive in the long run. To do or say whatever we feel like doing or saying is rarely wise, it typically will be destructive life and relationships, in the long run. Most of us, therefore, slow down our reactions to emotions; we rein them in, knowing they can mislead us. We keep ourselves in check until we can make wise, relationally effective decisions based on verified facts.

Persons suffering from borderline personality disorder or its tendencies don't do this. They let emotions drive. In their mind, what they feel is real. If they feel it, it is fact. The story they are telling themselves is the way it is; they won't be talked out of it. That phone call they overheard with a coworker of the opposite sex wasn't just kind, it was flirtatious! Their reaction will be defensive and immediate. “Admit it! You’re having an affair, you cheating scum! How long has this been going on!?! Have you slept together? Were you ever going to tell me? When were you planning to leave me!?! You know what, save yourself the trouble. I’m outta here! Don’t call me. Don’t follow me. You’ll never see me again.”

Most partners will try to defend themselves; to explain it’s not that way; that there is an innocent explanation. But in a heightened emotional state, the borderline person is incapable of hearing another point of view, much less accepting it. This is the time for the partner to stop talking and erect a self-protective boundary against the BPD-flooded partner’s verbal or possibly physical or otherwise destructive abuse. The partner should stop trying to reason, and instead reassure their partner of their love and commitment, and that they are not leaving them. This might sound something like, “I love you. I'm committed to you. I have eyes for no one but you. I'm not going to be ________ (yelled at, cussed at, called names, hit…), so I’m going to be run some errands. I’ll be back in an hour.” Give him or her a kiss on the forehead, or a hug if it feels safe and if allowed (which it may not be). Then leave. And very importantly, come back when you said you would, lest the experiment in trust be deemed a failure, and the fear of abandonment seem justified.

There are no guarantees, but such boundaries padded with assurances are likely to calm the borderline person over time. There is a greater chance of success if this plan is agreed to in advance, including the agreement that phone calls and texts will not be responded to during this break from each other. With repetition, this will become the new, healthier pattern.

If, while away, the borderline-influenced person destroys property, or makes calls to the partner’s workplace, friends, family members or to the police to make accusations or spread misinformation, there must be proportionate consequences. These consequences must be consistently imposed. For instance, they must replace or repair the damaged property or the police will be called. Or they must call back those they contacted and set the record straight, or you’ll move out. If these consequences are too severe, decide what is proportionate and enforceable. Then do it. If you voice a boundary, enforce it. Every time. And in the course of it, reassure the BPD-affected individual of your desire to be with them. Assure them that you do not desire to end the relationship, but that you won’t put up with abuse.

Following these unpleasant disruptions—and despite their earlier declarations that they never want to see you again—the borderlined partner will initiate contact, seeking restoration. This is the Anxious “pull” part of the push-pull pattern. They may offer a minimal apology. Or not. They may act as if nothing happened, or that it was no big deal. They may seek to restore the relationship through sexual intimacy. And then there will be a return to normal until the next incident that is interpreted as criticism, de-prioritization, rejection, or abandonment.

Interspersed in the above cycle, one can expect other BPD behaviors, such as splitting  (dichotomous, black and white idealization or devaluation of a person), depression lasting days or weeks, emotional volatility, dissociation, pleading, public scenes, lying, love-bombing, substance abuse, risky behavior, reckless spending, sexual acting out, self-injury, suicidal threats, and suicide attempts. These are all attempts to feel better by following emotional impulses into behavior that actually makes things worse.

Treatment

The good news is that BPD is treatable. Persons with borderline tendencies need therapeutic help managing their emotions, thoughts, and actions. In psychological terms, treatment hope is grounded in neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt and change in response to new experiences. People are wounded in relationships and healed in relationships. People can learn new ways of dealing with their feelings, thoughts, impulses, responses and behavior. As BPD sufferers gain corrective experiences in which people are consistently there for them and do not harm, lie to, cheat on, nor abandon them, the hair-trigger amygdala can begin to relax.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is the go-to therapy for Borderline tendencies. DBT teaches mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and relationship effectiveness. The borderline relationship cycle can stop when the couple becomes aware that their fight is not with each other, but is a shared fight against this cycle. With Dialectical Behavioral Therapy to help the borderline person, with protective strategies for the partner, and with an agreed-upon plan by which the couple agrees to manage the episodes, a new, healthy pattern can replace the old cycle. With DBT tools, misinterpretations and temptations to destructive impulses can become recognized early, distrusted, slowed down, yielded to self-control, and subjected to wise analysis. The old, insecurity-rooted, emotionally-driven push-and-pull cycle can thus be tamed, and a pattern of wise, relationally protective choices emerge.

(See this recommended video on Borderline Relationship Cycle)

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The Narcissistic Relationship Cycle

Background

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is also a Cluster B personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). While narcissism has two manifestations—grandiose cf. vulnerable (a.k.a. overt cf. covert)—it is best known for its grandiose form, which underlies the following definition in the DSM-5:

“a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood, and present, in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five or more of the following symptoms:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).

  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

  3. Believes that he or she is "special" and unique, and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high status people (or institutions).

  4. Requires excessive admiration.

  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).

  6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes a vantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).

  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.

  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.

  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

As with all personality disorders, narcissism is not intentional, despite the tone of much of the literature out there, which describes narcissistic “tactics,” narcissists are not intentionally plotting their behavior as if they were perfectly capable of being empathic, caring, altruistic and other-centered, but choose otherwise. Narcissists have impaired insight; they are not self-aware.

It is also important to note that, as with all personality disorders, narcissism exists along a spectrum from showing a few traits to fully qualifying for Narcissist Personality Disorder.

As to pathology, the narcissist may have developed narcissistic tendencies through childhood neglect. Perhaps they had a narcissistic parent, or an unavailable parent, or an abusive parent, or endured other forms of childhood abusive or neglect. Or the child may have experienced an imbalance of relationship-building attention and achievement-oriented reward; of nurture versus discipline. They may have been rewarded for putting self-interest above others; somehow the lesson was learned that the world is there for your exploitation; relationships are utilitarian; people are valued for the benefit they provide you.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula operates a clinical practice specializing in personality disorders, including narcissism. She articulates the following sub-types of narcissism.

Grandiose Narcissists:

Grandiose (or Overt) Narcissists share some things in common with psychopaths. Both exploit people; they take advantage of people; they lie, cheat, and manipulate systems to their advantage. A key difference is that sociopaths are not bothered by what they do; they have no conscience. The narcissist at least at times feels badly about what he’s “had to do” to reach desired ends. This self-centered, even mean edge to a narcissist is unsettling, yet somehow alluring in its confidence; they are hard to ignore. They can be charming, charismatic, and intoxicatingly successful. They are often the top dog in an organization. They might be celebrities; people who seem to have it all, from stylish clothes to expensive cars to “trophy” wives, husbands, girlfriends or boyfriends (maybe more than one of the above).

Vulnerable Narcissists:

The Vulnerable (or Covert) Narcissist is less obvious than the braggadocious grandiose narcissist. These attention-seekers take the “Woe is me” approach reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh's friend, “Eye-ore.” Feeling that the world owes them, but has overlooked them; they seem sad, their resentment is palpable, and they are prone to depression. While critical of others, they are hyper-sensitive to criticism. They might be the “failure to launch” critic who sends out scathing online-reviews on just about anything. They appear to be at home with being on the outside, about which they will complain, but then not accept or act on help that will advance them. They appear stuck in an identity of not being understood nor appreciated by the world, even though they could have and should have been somebody.

Social Narcissists:

The Social Narcissist can confuse us because they're known for helping. They may be knee-deep in humanitarian causes, disaster assistance, animal rescue, disease eradication, etc., perhaps even flying all over the world on relief missions. The thing is, you’ll know it! No good deed will go unpublicized. There will be plenty of selfies and postings online. You’ll see pictures of them at ground-breakings—golden shovel in-hand—in front of a project that may one day bear their name. Despite this wonderful philanthropic image, however, they are mean to their families, jerks toward underlings in the organization, and exploitative or abusive toward people who lack power. The outside observer thinks they’re wonderful, but family and coworkers experience the non-empathic, entitled, self-centered attention-seeking narcissist under the public image.

Benign Narcissists:

In keeping with the analogy often made of a narcissistic to a child, the benign narcissist  is like a teenager. They are not necessarily mean, just immature and superficial. They enjoy the spotlight, like to strut their stuff, and want a fancy car to ride around in. Life is about pursuing the signs of success and getting what they want, unaware and unconcerned for others.

Common Narcissistic Themes:

Common to all these subtypes, there is an internal insecurity; a lack of core identity that looks to the world’s feedback to tell them who they are. Thus the constant search for “narcissistic supply” and validation-seeking. Narcissistic supply includes praise, applause, gratitude, ingratiation, promotion, profit, indebtedness, or some other form of exaltation or self-benefit. Narcissistic supply is sought to salve insecurity (an insecurity that masquerades as confidence in the case of Grandiose Narcissism and self-depreciation in the case of Vulnerable Narcissism).

But narcissism is like an empty bucket riddled with holes. There will never be enough “supply.” Being in relationship with a narcissist is to forever be the supplier, but never supplied (unless tending to someone else’s needs serves the narcissist’s purpose or improves their image). Lacking empathy, they are missing the component of altruistic care (love) that creates a mutual bond, with partners unconditionally “there for each other” through thick and thin. Relationships for the narcissist are instead conditional, superficial, for the sake of appearances, or to ward off boredom. People are therefore not so much people, as they are utilitarian props for manipulation, control, and exploitation to meet the narcissist’s ends.

Self is at the center of a narcissist’s world. Of course, to be fair, self is never far from anyone’s consciousness; it’s a matter of survival. And who doesn’t like a little attention along the way? So, it is helpful to understand that narcissism exists on that spectrum. At the extreme, there is Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the DSM-described condition detailed above, and there are lesser degrees of manifestation, all the way down to what would be considered “normal” in a culture context. That is, there is a difference between “normal narcissism” in Hollywood compared to narcissism in an Amish community.

The further along the spectrum, the more difficult are relationships, as focus upon self lessens focus upon others. This is problematic because love in its pure form is about the other… considering the other, caring about the other without self-benefit, protecting the other, serving the other, looking out for the other, building up the other, being faithful and even sacrificing for the other. Love attends to another; narcissism attends to self.

Narcissism in Relationships:

From the beginning of a relationship, a narcissist will be attention-seeking. The grandiose narcissist will dress to call attention to himself or herself, will drive something that makes an impression, will display trophies, mount plaques in visible places, and list their titles. They will have the outward appearance of success (or if young, the potential for success), appearing to be the “dream guy” or “dream girl.” They will probably having some sort of following. But those followers are not people so much as they are an audience, a cheering section, a fan club, groupies, loyalists, foot soldiers who advance their leader.

Within the attraction stage of a relationship, the narcissist will likely engage in “love bombing.” This is the showering of attention and the display of romantic gestures. It may include expensive gifts, destination experiences, poems, flowers, and relished attention. Not that these are bad or wrong; many dating relationships begin this way. The difference is that these acts of “love” are (consciously or unconsciously) façades, entrapments designed only to win the object of attention, at which time such acts will abruptly cease or even get thrown into reverse abusive behavior.

During this attraction stage, the narcissist may show up as the "hero" for the one they are wooing. This act of heroism appears to be altruism, maybe even love. It is brave. It is sacrificial. It costs them. it is heroic. They may sell something of value to support a cause important to the one being courted; they may get hurt or literally donate a kidney. From the outside, it looks loving, and for many people it would be. But for the narcissist, it is a means to narcissistic supply. It is an avenue by which to receive accolades, applause, admiration, gratitude, and maybe even indebtedness. In a romantic relationship, it may seal the deal, convincing a girlfriend or boyfriend to tie the knot.

Once married, the one-sidedness of the relationship continues, and becomes increasingly apparent. The spouse—and eventually the family—become aware that narcissistic mom or dad always needs to look good; must always make an impression upon others; must at some point take center stage. Social interactions are stages. The wardrobe and the props had better be right for the occasion or there will be hell to pay. Don’t embarrass them! At some point, if not at every point, the narcissist will draw attention to themselves. It may be by dropping a name, or unveiling a skill needed by the group, or providing information that no one else seems to know; they’ll pick up the tab or sacrifice something of value for the good of the group. It is all designed to secure narcissistic supply.

The narcissist’s family learns that it isn’t worth it to call them out on their self-serving behavior. Not that anyone likes to be challenged, but  secure people can listen to an observation without defensiveness. Mature people can take an offense non-defensively; they can hear a complaint and admit their mistakes. But the narcissist is neither secure nor mature. Like a child, they’ll get angry, deny, project, blame-shift, sulk, or explode (outside of public view, of course).

If these responses disrupt a romantic relationship, cutting off the narcissist’s supply of love, admiration, stroking, and support, then "love bombing" (gifts, gestures, long heart-felt apology letters, song dedications…) may again ensue in order to win back the offended partner. Everyone loves attention, gifts and affection; these can be a wonderful part of healthy romantic relationships. But, again, what makes love bombing unhealthy by comparison is that it is not actual love, but a manipulative lure back into utilitarian servitude, control and emotional (or other) abuse. The loving affection and kindnesses will then abruptly cease until the partner again erects a boundary or separates. Then the love-bombing will resume. In-between, there will be no true remorse, attunement, atonement. And without lasting repentance, the cycle wil repeat.

Overall, a relationship with a narcissist runs hot and cold, cycling through idealization and devaluation, often ending in dismissal. This hot and cold vacillation is confusing because the “hot” feels so good; seeming to hold promise for a loving, close relationship. But the cold feels so rejecting, causing one to walk on eggshells lest an innocent word or occurrence trigger the narcissist’s insecurities. The relationship seems an unending attempt to make the narcissist whole, awaiting the narcissist’s reciprocation… which is a day that never comes. It is a one-way relationship in which the partner’s unconditional love, support, acceptance, admiration and adoration are expected, while the narcissist gives conditional love, invalidation, manipulation, control, disregard, unfaithfulness, use, abuse, and perhaps threats to discard. This final threat may be realized if the narcissist decides they could “do better”—perhaps winning a “trophy spouse.” Or, if the current partner has begun to erect boundaries and stopped cooperating with abuse, the narcissist may simply find someone more compliant.

There are more specific manifestations of narcissism that deserve being named one by one:

Along with the overall pattern above, a partner of a narcissist will also experience dishonesty. Narcissists will lie to get what they want. They will lie to cover up entitled behavior they recognize was wrong. They will lie to protect their image. They will deny wrongdoing, even allowing someone else to take the fall for their actions. These and other forms of lying stem from a narcissist’s inability to accept responsibility or to look bad.

Gaslighting is also something partners of narcissists are sure to experience, as well as its near-relative “crazy-making.” Named after the 1938 play, Gas Light (and the later 1944 Ingrid Bergman film, Gaslight), gaslighting takes such forms as denying having said something that the narcissist definitely said, or meaning by it something other than it clearly meant, or denying that he or she did something that they actually did (and which the partner may have witnessed or be able to prove). It may also manifest as blaming the partner for feeling negative emotions in response to words or behavior that would make anyone feel such negative emotions. In the play and in the film, these mind-games were designed to cause the self-serving narcissist’s partner to question her judgment and even her sanity. This can surely result. (Note: Gaslighting is sometimes referred to as someone else “questioning your reality.” While it is gaslighting to invalidate another’s feelings or experience, it is not gaslighting for two people to have different experiences of the same event, and have different feelings about it. That is guaranteed in a disagreement over a past event. The opportunity is for each to feel heard, to be understood, and to experience empathy over how they experienced the event, validation of their differing feelings, and support of the different things important to them.)

If a partner catches onto the above forms of invalidation, manipulation, control or abuse—whether conscious tactics or not—he or she must erect boundaries of self-protection. Erecting boundaries does not mean withholding healthy levels of spousal support and affirmation. It means, for example, not accepting gaslighting, but having validating discussions of one another’s experience, feelings, and values inherent to an incident. It means the partner making clear what they will will or will not do in concert with the narcissist’s plans—and then standing firm. It means following through with logical, proportionate consequences to lies and entitled misbehavior. It means walking away when being belittled, cursed, or otherwise verbally, physically, or emotionally abused. A boundary is not control of another person, it is self-control; it is self-determination when another is trying to manipulate, control or determine your behavior or the course of your life. Boundaries need to be clear, resolute, and maintained despite the displeasure and childlike tantrums of the narcissist.

The narcissist's’ response to boundaries may include angry denials, criticism, victim-shaming, dismissal, deflection, blame-shifting, rejection, or even putting an end to the relationship. In the workplace, such an “upstart employee” might be fired for refusing to go along with an unethical plan. In a partnership, the narcissist may move to dissolve it; in a business arrangement, a contract might be voided. Narcissists do not accept responsibility and they do not apologize. The story they will tell of any relationship’s dissolution will lack humility and self-confession; it will be distorted at least, if not outright fabricated, painting themselves as the victim. They may project motives onto others that were their own, and shift blame concerning things they caused. Once the relationship is dissolved, the grandiose narcissist will demonstrate no concern for the well-being of those left behind, unless it serves his or her purpose or if to do so makes them look good.

Relationships and Vulnerable Narcissism

The above relationship pattern is most characteristic of Grandiose Narcissism. Vulnerable/Covert Narcissism has many of the same above characteristics, but the tactics are covert, undercover, unseen. The means of manipulation, control, and of seeking narcissistic supply are in some cases different, but the self-focus is the same.

Like the Grandiose, the Vulnerable narcissist sees himself or herself as special and entitled to recognition, elevation and exceptions. The problem  is that the vulnerable narcissist does not experience the world mirroring back to him or her their specialness in the way the grandiose often does. It may be that they lack outward beauty or stature or degrees, achievements, position or profits consistent with their internal self-image. They therefore learn to seek validation not by showing off, but by receding.

Feeling overlooked or under-appreciated, the covert narcissist may withdraw and self-depreciate, hoping to invoke invitations to come forward and take their rightful place. He or she might enlist sympathy by voicing woundedness (emotional or physical), or call out from a position of need in order to solicit help or rescue. Or they may by other means  invoke sympathy, encouragement, accolades, or assistance from others. While grandiose narcissists may present as bullies, vulnerable narcissists present as victims. They don't brag; they sulk. Underneath their quiet humility they silently (or privately) judge the stupidity or ineptitude of those who have a position or notoriety that they envy; they’re sure they could do better, though they will probably have some reason for turning down the opportunity to do so.

For partners, however, this one-sided neediness for upbuilding gets old. It is never time for them to be built up, never the partner’s time to shine or their turn to be fueled, as the vulnerable narcissist’s hole-riddled bucket doesn’t retain its supply. And because of the vulnerable narcissist’s low internal self-esteem, the partner isn’t allowed to have too high an esteem. If a partner has too much confidence, the narcissist will step in to “bring them down a notch.” Confusingly, once depreciated, the Vulnerable Narcissist will then step back in as their biggest fan—gaslighting, claiming that an earlier depreciating remark they made was misunderstood; that they were only trying to help by pointing out something the partner needs to know for their own good. Again, we’re not talking about the rare invited constructive criticism that is far outweighed by supportive affirmation, but a pervasive pattern of always needing to be seen as superior.

As noted earlier, narcissists have impaired insight. As far as they’re concerned, they’re just “being them.” It feels normal. They think anyone would think, feel and act the same way in their shoes. As noted earlier, based on a combination of temperament, formative and later experiences, and perhaps trauma, this schema served them in the past. It was protective; it may have been a means to getting attention; it might have been a way to receive comfort; it may have resulted in support. Somehow or another it worked, so it became normative for functioning in relationships.

But this pattern is exhausting for a partner. Since narcissists can’t accept fault—or only briefly so, before inserting a “But…” which blames someone else—the partner begins to think that the relationship problems are solely their own. Partners can begin to question their perceptions or even their sanity as the narcissist rewrites past events to exonerate themselves and blame the partner. This is the essence of gaslighting. A relationship with a narcissist is imbalanced; there is little to no reciprocation. There is no listening. It’s about them. A reciprocal caring relationship characterized by each partner caring about, listening to, looking out for, lifting up and serving one another is not present. The partner thus eventually runs out of fuel and withdraws out of sheer exhaustion.

If you recognize narcissistic characteristics in your marriage or relationship, the above can be discouraging. You may be tempted to leave, and that may be the best option. But, if you can’t or don’t want to leave, there are steps that can be taken to create a more healthy relationship.

Step one is to change your expectations. Don’t expect a narcissistic partner to just “stop it.” They can learn better listening skills, but they will never be an empath. They can learn to be considerate, but altruistic selflessness will be outside their reach. Accept and validate changes and improvements you see along the way; positive reinforcement is a proven means to behavioral change, including from narcissistic defaults.

Secondly, once you recognize the above unhealthy relationship dynamics, stop being complicit in them. Don’t cooperate with manipulation, control, diminishment, abuse and blame-shifting. Maintain truth in the face of gaslighting; enforce consequences to lies and unethical behavior. Erect appropriate boundaries so that your life is not sullied by their lack of ethics. Resist and reject self-centeredness, modeling and insisting upon a  relationship of reciprocal other-focused love.

Step one is for one or both parties to recognize relational ill-health and to change their part in it—whether as instigator or codependent. Step two is the insistence upon relational health (boundaries) as a mutual commitment. If a narcissist is able to change, it will probably be as a result of spiritual transformation, such as occurs in addiction recovery. When we admit our weaknesses, we find God’s strength to change (2 Corinthians 12:10b). A new relationship can emerge as self-centeredness yields to mutual other-centered consideration and  support of one another, and defense of the marital bond.

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The Borderline with Narcissist 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.”

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 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.

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.

(Source:  https://www.courtneyhamlin.com/the-space-between/2018/02/19/the-narcissist-borderline-attachment)

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. 

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Doug Burford


Dr. Burford is trained in the Gottman method and specializes in relationship counsel, both premarital and marital. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, he has served churches in both the Presbyterian and Alliance traditions, and has contributed to Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul. Dr. Burford has been married for over 35 years and is a father and grandfather.

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