NARCISSISTIC BORDERLINE COUPLES: IMPLICATIONS FOR MEDIATION
Joan Lachkar, Ph.D.
This paper was presented at AFCC's Winter Conference on December 13, 1985 in San Diego, California. Joan Lachkar, Ph.D. is in private practice in Westwood, California.
Suddenly my head begins to spin. I feel dizzy and confused. My head keeps going round and round. In front of me sits a married couple; they go on and on in circles, going nowhere. A feeling of despair overwhelms me as I think to myself, This couple needs to be in therapy. I then realize l am the therapist.
In an earlier contribution, I have entitled them as the "Narcissistic/Borderline Couple" (Lachkar, 1984,1985). Although implied, I do not know of anyone who has put them together as a common unit. The efforts here are to abstract the main ideas from these previous works and apply them to (1) describe their behaviors, psychodynamics, and pathological interactions (the bond/dance between them), and indicate their danger signs by suggesting specific clues for court officials and mediators to recognize, (2) to describe their diagnostic differences and symptomology, and (3) suggest a treatment procedure.
I. Description of Their Behaviors: Psychodynamics, Pathological Interactions (the Bond/Dance Between Them), Clues and Warning Signs for Mediators)
I have tentatively diagnosed these individuals within a particular relationship as the "Narcissistic/Borderline Couple," and have attempted to describe their qualitative differences (1984,1985). Many authors have noted difficulty and endless confusion in diagnosing and differentiating between them (Kohut, 1977,1971; Kernberg, 1975; Grotstein, 1980,1981,1 983; Masterson, 1981, et al.). Part of the confusion is that it is not clear whether they are truly narcissistic or borderline, whether they merely exhibit a certain vulnerability toward these disorders, or if certain individuals tend to bring out narcissistic/borderline defenses in the other when they are together and under particular circumstances. In addition, certain "states" and "traits" may tend to vacillate back and forth so that it is hard to tell at times which partner is the borderline and which is the narcissist. Nevertheless, the effort here is to seek out what it is that bonds/binds and attracts such individuals together and describe the basic characteristics so that court-connected officials, mediators, counselors and other personnel can readily recognize and safeguard against their danger signs.
The first thing I look for are interactions which are like a dance–on-going, circular, and never-ending (The DOLOOP)–to see what it is that perpetuates their conflict. Next, I ask myself what is the most pervasive feature or the most dominant trait of each partner. The borderline tends to be dominated mostly by abandonment fears, and the narcissistic person, by fear of the loss of specialness or appreciation. The borderline is the one who searches for those to bond with. When the promise of that bond is threatened, the borderline responds with blame and attack defenses. Any reminder or hint of abandonment or separation may arouse the need to "get back/get even," to "teach the other a lesson." The narcissist is the one who most often tends to withdraw, fears a loss of specialness, easily becomes injured or outraged by another when not properly mirrored or understood, and often has an exaggerated sense of entitlement. The narcissist seeks out others to confirm his feelings of entitlement. This need for mirroring seems to be the main clue that the person may be more inclined 'toward narcissistic organization. These differences may be explained in the following way: visitation rights, custody or child support payments may be withheld or battled by the narcissist out of exaggerated entitlement fantasies, feeling their children are more inclined to need them more than the other; whereas the borderline desires to withhold/battle in order to "get even" or "teach the other a lesson" (blame/attack mechanisms).
One may ask at this point what it is that bonds/binds or attracts such individuals together. It appears that two narcissists or two borderlines would never "make it" together or "do the dance," because of their dynamics and defenses. But together, these oppositional types seem to maintain a bond. I see each as the perfect counterpart for the other. For instance, the borderline holds to the fantasy that if he/she were better the other would meet his/her needs. The borderline's lack of impulse-control and the tendency to criticize and attack tends to cause the narcissist to withdraw. The withdrawal brings out the borderline's fears of abandonment and separateness which leads to more anxiety and attacks. In such a dyadic relationship, the narcissist is continually faced with his/her limitations threatening the image of perfection, beauty, entitlement, grandiosity, etc., and the struggle to turn to others in the external world for validation/confirmation or approval. This withdrawal evokes profound anxiety in the borderline. The borderline, feeling threatened upon the potential loss of the narcissist, then attempts to win the narcissist back at any cost. The inclination of the borderline to subjugate self (be an "as if" personality) leads him/her to again reenact or play the role of the perfect mirroring self object for the narcissist and holds to the promise that he/she will improve ("do better"). The narcissist then returns in light of this promise; however, the promise is impossible to keep due to the lack of impulse control in the borderline and the feelings of emptiness that are provoked by this pretense. Thus the cycle starts all over again.
Applying these complex aspects to such relationships, one can readily see how court systems can become perplexed and preoccupied with trying to understand how to deal with such on-going circular type dynamics. Even when apart, separated, or divorced, such couples maintain a tie or connection which never seems to reach a resolution. The most striking feature is the unconscious desire to bond or connect to the other. Needless to say, even when it appears they want nothing more to do with one another, there still is a desire to fuse/merge with the other in a dependent, parasitic manner. (This clinging kind of dependency differs from a healthy dependency or symbiosis). For the borderline, the desire to remain bonded or connected becomes a more pervasive force than life itself. To attack/blame stirs up highly charged feelings and emotions and provides a false sense of relatedness or connectedness (often a revival of an earlier loss). For the borderline, it is preferable to stir up highly charged feelings, even at the expense of others, rather than face up to an empty, impoverished internal world. In unspoken language, the borderline communicates his/her disappointment with an archaic empty mother, projecting onto the narcissistic partner (the fantasized mother capable of making up for all the early losses); through blaming and attacking mechanisms, they express disappointment that the other has failed in providing a "holding environment" (Winnecott, 1958) and in being the all-encompassing available mother preoccupied with her "child/husband." The fantasy of this connection or merging provides the wish for a "holding" or safe, protective environment. When this potential "holding environment" is threatened (as in divorce), an intense fear, and the desire to "get back" or retaliate, dominate. At this point, they will often sacrifice themselves or their children at any cost. This explains the puzzling dilemma of court officials to understand why children are often placed in the middle of arguments, are deprived, made to be "gobetweens," "little adults," play the role of mediators, "saviors/messiahs," etc. (Lachkar, 1983,1984).
For the narcissist there is a different experience and the need to bond/connect is more likely to be with those who offer the promise to admire, confirm, reaffirm, and appreciate the grandiose self. They bond with others who can, for instance, sympathize/empathize with the "bad" borderline daddy/husband who mistrusted them, thus giving further justification to their already distorted grandiose entitlement needs. Strangely enough, the narcissist usually returns in the hope of the borderline's renewed promises, often to end up again with, "Look, there you go again."
It is important to recognize that in spite of the pain, these behaviors are not done on purpose; rather they are a replay or reenactment of early primitive infantile longings, yearnings and wishes expressing their current personal scenario that through repeating painful experiences over and over they will have a new, happy ending. Unfortunately, couples who rely heavily upon magical thinking and repetitive behaviors never learn from experience (Bion 1959, 1962, 1967; Lachkar, 1983, 1984, 1985) because conflict is not resolved through repetition.
With these ideas in mind, one clue important for court officials to pay attention to is the realization that these couples are not looking for a cure; in fact, quite ironically, they prefer to dwell in pain. They do not seek advice, and even when they appear to listen and be responsive, they often reject advice, distort the court's recommendation, manipulate truth, and resort back into their painful delusional systems and familiar behaviors through the blaming/withdrawing configurations rather than facing up to the responsibilities through the recognition of limitations in self and other. Another important danger sign to be aware of is the circular, never-ending patterns of behavior. When one gets a sense of these behaviors occurring it is an indication that deeper psychopathologies are involved and more intensive, long-term treatment with psychologists who are specifically trained in self-psychology and other psychoanalytic modalities (see Treatment Procedures) may be required.
II. Diagnostic Differences
I wish to describe diagnostically the differences between narcissistic and borderline behaviors (states and traits) so that we may better understand why simple court ruling may become manipulated, misunderstood, and distorted. The earlier paper describes this process in more detail, but for purposes of simplification I take the liberty here of abstracting the basic elements so as to provide some understanding of their collective psychopathologies and ;psychodynamics and to note their differences.
We ask ourselves what it is within the personality of these particular individuals which limits them to cope with the real aspects of their relationship and the real world that must carry on and function in a mature way. Why are court orders pertaining to child support or joint custody agreements so difficult to follow? Why are orders which generally have been mutually decided and agreed upon by the couple and by proficient, caring court mediators and counselors distorted? It may be that often they could have some valid reasons why specific court instructions are not followed, but I often find more deeply rooted resistances. I have come to understand that these kinds of individuals resort to some form of magical thinking or a "couple myth" which utilizes infantile/primitive behaviors, believing that to express their rage and hurt feelings will resolve their personal issues. On the contrary, resorting to these behaviors distorts the mind and the ability to think clearly and rationally, and thus disables the person to follow through with the court's suggestions.
It has been stated that the narcissist is dominated by a need for specialness and appreciation, has a need to preserve a special relationship with another who he fantasizes will provide him with narcissistic gratification. While the borderline is preoccupied with proving his "existence," the narcissist is involved with proving he has s "special sense of existence." The narcissist is often feeling short-changed, let down and unfulfilled by the borderline spouse. Narcissists seemingly have a distorted or a pseudo sense of entitlement (as in feeling more entitled, as in withholding visitation rights), and seek out others who can mirror their grandiosity and reaffirm their "entitlement" needs. For the narcissist, this is preferable to facing up to his/her real self and its personal limitations and defects.
A sensitive observer can immediately pick up a qualitative difference between these two types. Often they are subtle nuances, but generally the indications of a narcissist are a lack of warmth, empathy, and consideration for the other; need for perfection and personal fulfillment; and inability to love and care for others. They have often had experiences as children of a maternal object who offered some promise of fulfilling early normal narcissistic needs, but then during separation became traumatized by the child's sense of separateness and by mother's withdrawal. Usually such a mother is deficient in appreciating the child's separate unique personal growth and development, and separation becomes traumatized by mother's withdrawal or inability to come through in the role of a mirroring parent; thereby the child becomes developmentally arrested. They continue to seek out others whom they fantasize will provide them with appreciation and recognition; however, no one in reality can fulfill their grandiose needs, namely because their sense of self has not been adequately developed and they therefore are continually left to rely on others to evaluate their accomplishments. Growth cannot occur and behaviors remain circular because of their narcissistic defenses (isolation, grandiosity, entitlement). Thinking becomes distorted, for when one is "grandiose" or feels "overly entitled," there is a tendency to distort thinking as in following court orders. As these behaviors perpetuate growth within, the self cannot develop as a separate structure and thus remains in its infantile state.
Whereas the narcissist once had a special relationship with mother, the borderline never did. The borderline does not know what it is like to bond, to feel connected, and often does not feel deserving or even entitled, yet knows there is a missing link somewhere and tries desperately to achieve a feeling of attachment. For the narcissist there at least was the mother who was able to mirror the child for a time and there was a mutuality of self-involvement; however, because of some disruption, the child was left longing for a rejoining for that special relationship. This kind of a person is always wanting others to appreciate him and understand him, and usually takes more than what was agreed upon as an indication of their unique personality traits.
The borderline, on the other hand, has had a different experience and has a different response to injury and personal feelings of being let down. Often they develop a false self, tend to want to please others, and subjugate themselves, and many have affixed "as if" personalities to themselves. Woody Alien in the film Zelig, is a good illustration of this type of personality disorder. Unlike the narcissist, they do not seek out others to be the special child, but rather to attach themselves to others in a hapless dependency to prove they are deserving and to prove they do exist. Any hint of a physical or emotional separation, such as a vacation or trial separation, a lie or betrayal, can be a reminder of the mother who has emotionally/physically abandoned her child. The borderline may learn that any differing thought or opposing idea is tantamount to rejection or betrayal, and therefore proof that he does not exist. It is puzzling to courts that, for instance, a wealthy borderline father/husband may deprive his children of child support or fail to provide medical payments, especially when it is so easy for him simply to pay. In light of the dynamics considered here, one can begin to recognize that stirring up the rage and anger in the narcissistic wife/mother (who failed in providing a safe, protective holding environment or in the attempt to provide adequate bonding) is receiving retaliatory messages. For this kind of a person, arguments are preferable than complying, which might mean coming to terms with emptiness or nothingness. From this person's subjective viewpoint, paying child support may even mean that he may lose out on an opportunity to connect with his wife and may then be cast aside. The refusal to do so may stir up highly charged feelings, offering such an individual a false sense of aliveness and sense of belonging or being needed.
In short, both would rather invest time and energy blaming/attacking or running away rather than taking charge of their lives. Letting go, coming to terms with reality, may mean facing up to their own limitations in themselves and the other. Frequently, one would rather prove the other partner wrong indefinitely, even at the expense of depriving their children visitation rights, fair time with both parents, child support, etc., via distorting/manipulating court orders, than to recognize their own personality deficits. For the borderline, developing a sense of self may mean giving up the idea that the narcissistic partner is the only one who can validate them. It may mean learning something about developing normal dependency relationships and recognizing that parasitic relationships do not lead to real bonding and growth. For the narcissist it may mean learning how to evaluate their own accomplishments without needing constant validation/confirmation from others, and to rely more on their own thinking such as in realizing that they may not be as entitled as they imagine. A mother who is married to an alcoholic may be forced to believe that children need contact with him and that this contact has equal value to provide for the children's emotional needs. Giving up grandiosity may enable her to recognize that a child needs contact even with such a father.
Separating oneself from these infantile interactions usually requires long-term treatment with empathic intuitive therapists who are willing to throw themselves into the couple interaction and show a willingness to perform some of the self object functions. It is within this kind of environment that such individuals have an opportunity to come to terms realistically with their limitations, express real hurt feelings, face up to fears, emptiness and risk, do some reality testing/confrontation, and so forth. The next section suggests treatment plan.
III. Treatment Procedure
From my clinical experience and from cases I have reviewed from the conciliation court, I have come to believe that these individuals seem to repeat and obsessively reenact earlier painful events over and over as an expression of the unconscious wish that somehow through repetition there will be a new ending to their saga. There is a deep wish to join/rejoin with an all-encompassing mother capable of empathy, reverie, containment and perfect mirroring. There is a collective wish that someone from the outside will rescue the couple from their pain and will "see," "hear," "share," and even "feel" their pain and save them from calamity. (This often explains why children are thrown in the middle as the fantasied rescuers [Lachkar, 1984, 85]).
Dr. Bienenfeld in the following article illustrates in her case study how she fed both parents with empathic responses and offered them an opportunity to share their painful experiences. In the child stealing case, although she had very brief contact with the mother and only telephone contact with the father, she shows a willingness to throw herself into their emotional orbit. Even though it is rather unusual for a mediator or a therapist to reach out and contact clients/patients, it seems that in this unique situation it was appropriate for Dr. Bienenfeld to do so. Thus, she was able to fulfill the role of the empathic, caring role model capable of mirroring/containment but still willing to set boundaries and provide a safe protective environment.
Dr. Bienenfeld was not acting in the role of psychotherapist, and it may not be appropriate for mediators who see couples only a few times to respond in this way, and yet her behavior certainly offers us a good illustration of how that certain therapeutic interventions can be of utmost significance especially when interacting with a couple such as this. All too often, therapists/mediators are either too fearful to confront and deal with such highly charged issues, or they get lost in the couple's circular type behaviors. In most cases, the "savior/messiah" never comes. In this instance the therapist is often the last messianic hope.
Let me continue by presenting a treatment plan which I have outlined in an earlier article (1984), and then follow up with a brief clinical illustration of a couple I have been treating engaged in on-going circular behaviors.
(1) The therapist must see the couple together before transition into individual therapy in order to form a safe bond and to caution not to move into individual work only when the couple is ready. (Too early separation can constitute a "rapprochement crisis.")
(2) Be aware that the couple interaction may diminish individuality, and safeguard against this through provision or boundaries/limitations and through assuring each of entitlement to his/her own subjective experience.
(3) Be aware that each experiences anxiety differently (narcissists, specialness/appreciation versus borderline, fragmentation/abandonment).
(4) The therapeutic alliance (bonding) between therapist and patient/client with the partner must take place with the member who is predominantly narcissistic; otherwise the narcissist, who has the tendency to flight and flee, can pose a serious threat to treatment (narcissistic defense of withdrawal and isolation).
(5) Apply knowledge of group formation to view these couples as a "a basic assumption group." (Lachkar, 1984)