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How Borderline Personality Disorder Can Tear Families Apart

What you can do about it.

Key points

  • People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) may engage in divisive behaviors toward family members, which affects patterns of relating.
  • Patterns that cause conflict among families with BPD include competition and triangulation, in which a third person is brought into an argument.
  • Identifying unhealthy patterns of relating and encouraging cooperation among family members can help strengthen the family structure.
Image by Denis Velicanov from Pixabay
Act before it is too late.
Source: Image by Denis Velicanov from Pixabay

Does your family get together infrequently?

Do some family members avoid family gatherings?

Are family gatherings dominated by conflict and competitive behaviors?

If the answer to any of the above questions is “yes,” then your family may be headed for the breaking point. This is where the structure of the family falls apart and family gatherings essentially disappear. This occurs frequently in families afflicted by borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Borderline personality disorder affects entire families as it compels sufferers to engage in divisive behaviors towards family members when they are frustrated. Very often, patterns of relating develop within the family that cause conflict and alienation among family members. These patterns, if not interrupted, can bring the family to the breaking point, where family members avoid family meetings and activities rather than seeking them out. Once these patterns are identified, family members can take steps to preserve the integrity of the family unit.


Individuals with symptoms of BPD tend to compete with their family members rather than cooperate with them. The disorder encourages them to see most resources as scarce and so they hoard. This includes competing for financial resources, such as inheritance, favor or approval of a parent or authority figure, preferred seating, such as the front seat of a car, etc. They also compete for attention, sometimes in provocative ways. In the example below, Remy, who has symptoms of BPD, competes with her siblings for attention at her mother’s birthday party.

Remy entered the catering hall dressed in revealing clothing and wearing most of her jewelry. She made sure that she was the first one there and appointed herself hostess, even though the event was planned and paid for by her two sisters and brother. She arranged all of the place cards at the tables so that she was sitting with her parents at their table and her siblings were seated at other tables.

When her older sister, Laura, arrived they had the following dialogue:

Laura: Remy, who put the place cards out?

Remy: I did.

Laura: Don’t you think we might all like to sit with mom on her birthday?

Remy: You are with her.

Laura: I mean at the table with her.

Remy: I thought it would be too crowded.

Laura: Who put you in charge? You haven’t even been involved until now.

Remy: I knew you didn’t want me to be involved. You want mom all to yourself.

Laura: You are the one that separated us.

Remy: That’s it. I can’t take this crap from you.

Laura: From me?

Remy: Either you leave right now or I will.

In the above example, Remy competes for the parents’ attention and favor by dressing provocatively, trying to take credit for the affair, and then physically removing her siblings from her mother’s presence. When Laura challenged it, Remy made a dramatic scene by yelling at her sister and then leaving abruptly, thereby continuing to draw attention towards herself and "making it about her." This type of competitive behavior is destructive to the family structure. Another type of competitive behavior that is common in families with BPD and very destructive to the family structure is called triangulation.


This occurs when a third person is brought into an argument or disagreement in order to gang up on the opponent. When this is done in a family context, pitting one family member against another, it is very destructive and drives the family quickly towards the breaking point.

In the following example, Rory, who has symptoms of BPD, is arguing with his mother when he attempts to triangulate his father.

Rory: Mom, would you pick me up at the bus station Sunday morning, please?

Mom: What time are you arriving?

Rory: My bus gets in around 4 AM.

Mom: Why are you getting in so late?

Rory: What difference does that make?

Mom: I just don’t feel safe at the bus station waiting for you at that time of day.

Rory: Mom. It is perfectly safe.

Mom: It is still dark and there won’t be anyone else around.

Rory: If no one is there, nobody can hurt you.

Mom: Can’t you come home later or earlier?

Rory: Dad. What do you think? Is it safe for mom to pick me up at the train at 4?

Rory has now put dad in a no-win situation. If he opines that he thinks it is safe for mom to pick him up, then he betrays his wife by agreeing that she should put herself in a position where she does not feel safe. If he opines that he agrees with his wife, then Rory will feel ganged up on and he will blame dad.

What You Can Do

Since BPD affects the whole family, good outcomes require that the whole family attack the disease. One strategy is to encourage cooperation by not participating in competitive activities. In the case of triangulation, it would be up to Rory’s dad to refuse to compete. Thus, his response to Rory’s asking his opinion about whether the bus stop is safe, he might reply “That is between you and your mother.” Better yet he might say “The issue is not whether or not it is safe, the issue is whether or not your mom feels safe.”

Other competitive situations, like the first vignette about the mother’s birthday celebration, are best approached preemptively. Remy’s behavior should have been anticipated by the siblings, who probably grew up with this, and set everything up the day before. They also should have communicated to her in advance and very specifically. They could have told her “we will all be sitting at the table with mom and dad” or “Laura will greet the guests as they come.” If Remy challenges this at the time of the occasion, she can be reminded that this was agreed to earlier.

Consistent coordination of the family targeted at inhibiting competitive behavior and encouraging cooperative behavior will strengthen the family structure and increase its satisfaction and durability.

More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
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