One of the DSM’s criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder is “a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation”.
This experience is also referred to as ‘splitting’, and is something I relate to and struggle with massively.
Splitting causes Borderlines to veer between two opposing extremes when it comes to interpersonal relationships, and can also present in how we perceive ourselves. At one time, feelings of intense joy, love and attachment towards a certain person will be evoked. At other times, this will flip to feelings of extreme hate, anger and other negative emotions, as well as an overwhelming urge to reject that same person.
Splitting can be seen as a defence mechanism, triggered by the Borderline’s super sensitive alarm system, detecting even the smallest of threats or reassurances when they arise. However, the tiniest hint from another such as a certain facial expression, or an action like cancelling an arrangement, can lead to such negative affect that it threatens the survival of the relationship. Usually these negative states arise as a result of perceived or imagined abandonment when emotions such as anger, fear, jealousy, envy and sadness are dominating.
Alternatively, when gestures of kindness and attentiveness are exhibited, it can lead to an immense desire for further contact and closeness with the person involved. This commonly leads to feelings of dependency on the person continuing to perform in this way, and attachment to the reality that exists right in that moment with little or no space for leeway.
Unfortunately, it sets up the person being idealised to fail as soon as their ability to keep up this role starts to falter. Inevitably, this ends up disappointing and hurting the Borderline, who’s perception of the person once again flips from “all good” to “all bad”, into a state of devaluation.
Essentially, the significant other becomes trapped in a cycle of perpetrator v.s rescuer in the eyes of the BPD sufferer.
Furthermore, it will feel seemingly impossible to integrate both the “good” and the “bad” aspects of the person within these moments of intense emotion. Because Borderlines experience their thoughts and feelings as so strong and overpowering, it can become especially difficult to see anything beyond the immediacy of an emotional situation, or ‘the wood for the trees’ as such. Therefore, any past evidence to the contrary of the Borderline’s current reality goes out the window, and teleological thinking will occur.
Splitting can be confusing and tiring for those on the receiving end of the relationship with a BPD sufferer. However, struggling with BPD myself, I can honestly say that my personal issues with splitting – namely attachment and rejection related – and how they affect my wellbeing, are some of the most painful experiences I have to endure. Explaining to non-Borderlines or even those on the other side of my splitting tendencies doesn’t do much at all in the way of justifying how painfully shitty the whole process can feel.
For example, today in therapy I became absolutely furious with my therapist because I felt she wasn’t listening to or understanding me. I became incredibly dysregulated, tense, angry, shaken and hurt. I perceived her as being all “bad”, as provoking me on purpose, as messing with my brain, as hating and rejecting me because she wasn’t meeting my immediate needs… I could go on. I stormed out the session, slammed the door, deleted her number off my phone and decided never to talk to her again. I was so angry that I wanted to “punish” her by walking in front of a bus and showing her just how much pain I was in via this (not so) brilliant plan.
Literally a few (8 or so) hours later, we were on the phone (I know her number off by heart, as it so happens), making up. I was expressing my continuing struggle off the back of our session, the pain the relational conflict was causing me, and how badly I wanted to resolve it. I told her how angry and hurt I was after our session earlier on and how I had gotten through the thoughts that I should kill myself using skills. This time around, she was so validating, attentive and gentle. I felt heard and seen and supported; my needs being met exactly as they hadn’t been earlier, but exactly how I needed them to be there and then. By the end of the conversation we were laughing together as I lightened up and even cracked jokes relating to our relationship and my rekindled love for her. I missed the “good” side of her so much and didn’t want to hang up the phone call, end the conversation, or risk losing that connection. I felt so attached again, and joked to her that she has to spend all of the break during DBT skills group with me and nobody else tomorrow to show me she loves me.
Sounds kinda like this experience, and many more similar others.
I remind myself so much of the main character Charlie from the movie ‘Lovesick’ – a shitty but awesome must-watch comedy for all interested in the topic.