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Borderline Personality Disorder and Social Isolation

When your loved one separates you from your friends, family, and associates.

Key points

  • Fear of abandonment compels some individuals with symptoms of BPD to isolate those they love socially.
  • Triangulation is a common mechanism used to separate loved ones from their social network.
  • Speaking to your loved one's emotions rather than trying to quiet them behaviorally is likely to produce the best outcome.
Image by Gracini Studios from Pixabay
Image by Gracini Studios from Pixabay

Most individuals who suffer from symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) suffer from significant fear of abandonment. This often causes them to be clingy and possessive in intimate relationships.

It may also cause them to isolate the people they love by persistently discouraging other relationships—and capitulation can lead to total isolation and result in unhealthy levels of dependency. Healthy intimate relationships, by contrast, are supportive and supported by friends and relatives of both partners.

Individuals with symptoms of BPD may see the friends, relatives, and associates of those they love as a threat to the security of the relationship. Rather than trying to assimilate themselves into friend groups or families of their loved ones, they compete with them. They triangulate with others or try to pit two against one in order to eliminate the outsider. This generally takes one of the following two forms, which may occur simultaneously.

Triangulating Competitiveness

Triangulation occurs when your loved one with symptoms of BPD challenges your efforts to spend time with someone else, often by accusing you of choosing or putting others ahead of your loved one. This is demonstrated in the following example.*

Jim: Eva, I'm going for a run with my friend Greg. I'll be back in an hour.

Eva: Sure, go out with Greg. I'm sure anything's better than staying here with me.

Jim: Do you want to go running with me?

Eva: You know I don’t run.

Jim: That’s why I'm going with Greg.

Eva: Enjoy your run. And enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Jim: I'll be back in an hour.

Eva: Don’t hurry. You'd obviously rather be with Greg than me.

Jim is troubled by the thought that Eva feels slighted or rejected by his running with Greg. He contemplates giving up running with Greg or giving up running altogether in order to restore Eva’s level of comfort with the relationship. Yet if he takes this approach, he will soon find that he must give up most or all of his relationships and activities as Eva finds them threatening.

Triangulating Disloyalty

This form of triangulation is more personal. This occurs when your loved one finds fault with other individuals you have relationships with and then accuses you of disloyalty or betrayal when you spend time with them. This is illustrated in the following dialogue.*

Jim: I'm going to have some pizza delivered when my brother comes over. What kind would you like?

Eva: Didn’t your brother just come over?

Jim: It was three months ago, but I like to see him as often as I can.

Eva: I find him offensive. Why does he have to come over?

Jim: Why do you find Brian offensive?

Eva: He's too loud and opinionated, and I don’t like the way he looks at me.

Jim: How does he look at you?

Eva: With disgust.

Jim: He's not disgusted with you.

Eva: You don’t see it because you focus on yourself.

Jim: Maybe Brian and I should just go out for pizza.

Eva: Or why don’t you just stab me in the back?

Jim: You don’t want me to see my brother anymore?

Eva: Forget it. Do what you want. Anyone can hurt me, and you take them out for pizza. I get it.

In the above dialogue, Eva triangulates Jim and his brother. Jim feels torn by wanting to be with his brother, and Eva feels betrayed. He wonders if he must give up his relationship with his brother in order for Eva to feel comfortable being with him.

In both interactions above, Eva triangulates Jim with someone he is close to. He feels that he cannot satisfy Eva unless he isolates himself from his social network. If he allows himself to be socially isolated, he will likely build resentment towards her while experiencing a substantial sense of loss as he dismisses those in his life that make him feel loved and stable. Ultimately the resentment is destructive to the relationship with Eva, and he will lose everything.

Speaking to Eva’s Emotions

Trying to convince Eva that his other relationships do not threaten or weaken his feelings for her will likely make her feel invalidated, and she will likely respond defensively. Jim’s best option is to speak to Eva’s emotions directly rather than trying to quell them behaviorally. This is ideally done in a three-step process.

  1. Validate Eva’s emotions.
  2. Address her emotions.
  3. Offer reassurance.

In the first example, Jim might have responded as follows:

Jim: I understand that you want to feel special to me, and I'm really happy that you feel that way because I feel the same about you. After my run, I'll shower and take you to your favorite place for a romantic lunch. There's nobody I'd rather spend my time with than you.

In the second example, Jim might have responded as follows:

Jim: I'm sorry that my brother has made you feel uncomfortable. I'll make sure that I'm attentive while he's around, and I will address with him anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. I'll do whatever's necessary to ensure that you and Brian feel comfortable with each other.

Jim might have to repeat this message to her in multiple situations before she accepts that Jim will try everything he can to make her comfortable with his other relationships but that he will not abandon his other relationships. He can also take the opportunity to express his feelings about how important it is to him that she gets along with others in his life.

Eva will eventually have to accept Jim with his other relationships, or she will leave. If she does, then both Jim and Eva will have an opportunity to find someone more compatible with this dimension of social isolation vs. social integration.

*Examples are constructed from aspects of different transactions involving different individuals.

More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
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