The world can be an unfriendly place, and defense mechanisms are how we survive. If you have a partner with a personality disorder, the way they use defense mechanisms can be confusing, frustrating, and crazy-making. You may continuously be taken by surprise when something that seems logical to you is twisted into something else that puts your partner into a rage.
As a result, you yourself likely use defense mechanisms in order to survive and try to maintain some harmony in the relationship.
Here are some of the common problems that play out in relationships where one person has a personality disorder:
- Splitting: One moment, you are perfect and can do no wrong; the next, you are being screamed at, ducking thrown objects, and rescuing items from being destroyed. People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) in particular struggle with the “gray” areas of situations, meaning that they tend to think in all-or-nothing terms. This then leads to either you and your behavior being “all good” or “all bad.” The famous book about BPD, titled I Hate You–Don’t Leave Me by Jerold J. Kreisman and Hal Straus, depicts another example of splitting. As the partner, it can be scary to wonder when the next turn is going to come, and what will trigger it.
- Walking on eggshells: This is actually part of another book title that is related to having a family member with BPD, Stop Walking on Eggshells, written by Randi Kreger. As the partner of someone with a personality disorder, this is a defense mechanism you might employ in order to ward off attacks. The problem is that you are being inauthentic and compromising your own needs, wants, and values in favor of attempting to keep your partner happy. That behavior is not an ingredient for a healthy relationship.
- Confusing facts with feelings: Healthy people attribute what they are feeling to the facts: “I am feeling happy because it is a warm, sunny day”…”I feel proud because my child completed a community service project”…”I feel sad because my friend was sick and couldn’t go to lunch with me.” People with personality disorders sometimes twist the facts to fit the feelings. This can look like: “She cancelled lunch because she hates me”…”He only got that award because he’s the football coach’s son”…”I lost the job promotion because they don’t like my hair.”
- Projection–My feelings are really your feelings: Feelings can be painful, and when they are, we generally look for a quick fix to get rid of them. People with personality disorders often choose the option of projecting them onto someone else, therefore making you the bad guy. For example, you may have had a bad day at work and come home grumpy. Your partner may accuse you of “hating” them, when in reality, your mood has nothing to do with them. Another example is when someone with a personality disorder believes your intentions are sinister when they are not, such as believing you were flirting with the waitress when all you were doing was asking for a refill of your drink.
- It is always your fault: People with personality disorders thrive on finding the faults in others. Your partner may be irrationally upset about situations that are real or imagined (such as in the examples above). If you try to defend yourself or get upset, your partner may accuse you of being overly sensitive, or unable to tolerate criticism. It is a no-win situation…well, for you, at least. When the crisis is resolved, your partner may wonder why you are still upset.