Individuals with borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder may marry or enter into intimate relationships with each other, more than statistically likely, it seems. Although today treatment for BPD (especially in the form of dialectic behavior therapy), can be extremely effective, not everyone gets treatment, and may not be aware of why they are attracted to people with NPD.
We asked Dr. Aaron Kipnis, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, why he thinks this pairing occurs.
Welcome Dr. Kipnis. Can you help us understand the underlying attraction between people with borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder and explain what needs are being met?
It’s curious. People with cluster B personality disorders can make it challenging for other people to be around them. Interactions and relationship with them can be pretty frustrating because they are usually very self- involved with little empathy for others. As a result, their lives can be lonely.
Because people with BPD and NPD lack much insight into their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, it is often hard for them fully understand why others repeatedly abandon them. But, people with Borderline Personality and Narcissistic Personality Disorders can find one another attractive and may actually forge more stable relationships with one another, at times, than they can with people without personality disorders.
First of all, it is important for us to understand that these personalities exist along a spectrum. At their worst, they are diagnosable disorders—mental illnesses—but milder forms exist as traits or tendencies. There are people whose personality does not fully rise to diagnostic criteria but who have similar life challenges as a result of having BPD or NPD traits. These include a much larger number of people than those categorized by the DSM-5. Personality disorder is not like tuberculosis, for which there is a simple medical test. BPD and NPD are disorders of degrees.
BPD is generally characterized by: problems with regulating emotions and thoughts; impulsive and reckless behavior, and unstable relationships with other people.
NPD is generally characterized by: self-centeredness, lack of empathy, and an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
So, on one hand you have person with a very fragmented sense of self who tends to be emotionally volatile. Imagine them like artesian wells—always over-flowing from emotional pressures in their depths, which are driving their affects upward and outward, with no containment structure at the surface.
On the other hand, you have a person who is oftentimes emotionally numb—profoundly empty inside, like a very deep, dark well from which it takes a great deal of effort for anyone to lift even a few drops of feeling—an emotional desert.
Well, all that water flowing out of the borderline’s well feels wonderful to the arid inner world of the narcissist. And because the NPD desert is so dry, the person with BPD seldom floods it the way it would a person with normal limits of absorption. So, the person with an overflowing well, the one with BP Disorder or traits, does not have to feel anxious about causing floods.
It does not feel good for the person with NPD to be numb inside, so all that feeling the person with BPD provides is like nourishment for the person with NPD—it allows him (or her) to feel “something”—someone else’s intense affect. And the NPD provides safety and stability for the BPD.
If the person with BPD is a woman, she can’t blow her NPD man away or flood him the way she has all the more “sensitive” men in her life. He allows her to feel more secure and contained. BP Disordered people are often desperately dependent and their dependency can make NP Disordered people feel very important, which is necessary to them.
How did you first notice this type of pairing?
I had a graduate student years ago that was an admitted, self-diagnosed person with NPD. He did his graduate research with me on his disorder. Some years later I ran into him and asked him how he was doing. He told me he was very well, with a full practice of clients who were mostly people with BPD.
This is somewhat unheard of—in fact, I was shocked, initially. We advise our therapists in training not to take on more than one or two clients with BPD in their practice because they can be so overwhelming to work with. Clients with BPD might over-idealize their therapist then vehemently demean them—sometimes in the same session. There may be the potentially unnerving suicidality and phone calls at all hours. But my former student had about thirty clients with BPD! He was enjoying the work and most important, his colleagues at the clinic felt his clients were benefiting from their work with him.
Some therapists say people with personality disorders just can’t be helped so they won’t have to feel so ineffectual for not being able to help them. But my former student, unlike the majority of therapists, was able to tolerate their intense and erratic affects by virtue of his thick-skinned NPD. In fact, he actually enjoyed being with them. And his clients’ felt safe and contained because they could not freak him out, push him away or get abandoned by him.
Think about the opening scene in the wonderful film, What about Bob, where his most recent, fully unnerved therapist is quitting and referring Bob (Bill Murry) to a new therapist (Richard Dryfus). Bob is actually more of a multi-phobic (fictional) person but also displays that clingy, boundary violating, borderline quality that drives some people, particularly his narcissistic therapists, nuts.
More with Dr. Kipnis soon.
Dr. Aaron Kipnis is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Santa Monica, California. Since 1997, he has been a full-time psychology professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara County. Dr. Kipnis has written five books, many book chapters and articles, a produced play and an award winning documentary film. His most recent book is: The Midas Complex: How Money Drives Us Crazy and What We Can Do About It. He has been an expert witness in court proceedings and a consultant to educational, mental health, corporate, and governmental organizations. He is often featured on national news media, as a keynote speaker for professional conferences, and periodically offers his Midas Complex workshops around the country. He lives in Topanga Canyon, California with his wife and two children. For more information or to contact please visit: http://www.aaronkipnis.com.
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Last reviewed: 25 Mar 2014