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Borderline Personality Disorder and Relationship Violence

Exploring how outbursts, paranoia and fear of abandonment may be dangerous.

Key points

  • Fear of abandonment, stress-related paranoia and angry outbursts are symptoms of borderline personality disorder.
  • Those symptoms might be manifest as controlling behaviour, coercion or violence in romantic relationships, or vulnerability to being controlled.
  • A meta-analysis of 207 studies found a correlation between borderline personality disorder and intimate partner violence.
  • Studies suggest that the disorder is a risk factor among perpetrators of relationship violence, and also among victims.

Research suggests that borderline personality disorder correlates with intimate partner violence [1]-[5]. This might be because of a comorbidity between borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder, or because some aspects of a person’s case history (factors that explain why someone is the way they are) are common when comparing borderline personality disorder and domestic violence e.g., aspects of their childhood [1] It is important to understand the symptoms of borderline personality disorder and understand how they might be manifest as physical or psychological violence in romantic relationships, or as vulnerability to coercive control or aggression by a partner.

Borderline personality disorder and domestic violence

One study (though the sample was just 103) found that 27% of those arrested for domestic violence had borderline personality disorder,[2] and a systematic review of 29 studies found that the disorder is a risk factor for relationship violence [3]. There is a lot of evidence showing a correlation between borderline personality disorder and intimate partner violence, and a meta-analysis of 207 studies found evidence of that correlation - noting that the disorder is positively correlated with both being a victim of intimate partner violence and a perpetrator. [4] A quick search of Google Scholar using the search terms "borderline personality disorder" and "intimate partner violence" reveals 6,740 search results [5] because the issue is one which many researchers have published about.

Correlation is not causation

That said, it is important to remember that a correlation between two variables does not demonstrate causation, and so correlation evidence does not mean that borderline personality disorder causes people to engage in or be victims to relationship violence. It is possible that people with borderline personality disorder have variables which are indirectly connected with the violence or vulnerability e.g., social factors, economic factors, childhood experiences of family violence, or comorbidities with other disorders.[1] Other types of mental health problems are also correlated with intimate partner violence, e.g. antisocial personality disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder [4] therefore the correlation is not unique to borderline personality disorder.

Symptoms of borderline personality disorder and violence or coercion in relationships

Remember that people with the disorder are at risk of being victims as well as perpetrators [4] therefore the symptoms can be manifest in a variety of ways. It is also important to remember that the vast majority of individuals with this disorder are not and will not become violent.

People with borderline personality disorder tend to frantically avoid real or imagined abandonment by people close to them. They might become controlling towards their romantic partner by monitoring their whereabouts, preventing them from socialising with other people, managing their own finances, and controlling what they wear in fear of being abandoned. That can be defined as coercive control, a form of domestic violence that involves psychological dominance over a romantic partner that degrades them, violating their freedom and mental health. Alternatively, fears of being abandoned might make someone with the disorder vulnerable to being controlled by a partner in those sorts of ways, making them feel compelled to stay even after violence or aggression has occurred.

A person with borderline personality disorder tends to alternate between extremes of idealising someone else and devaluing them. Cases of domestic violence can often start with a person being very charming, putting someone on a pedestal, and being complementary. However, when their romantic partner does not comply with them or when they do something “wrong,” the person can switch to devaluing them by saying insulting things, looking down on them and treating them badly. Likewise, people with borderline personality disorder might, because of idealising their partner, be vulnerable to exploitation by that partner through coercive control or domestic violence because the idealisation can mask their partner's evils.

People with borderline personality disorder tend to be impulsive and display emotional disturbances due to having a mood that is highly reactive towards other people or events. They tend to be disproportionately angry about things and they tend to find it very difficult to control their anger. In romantic relationships, that might be manifest in unpredictable outbursts of anger towards their romantic partner because of something they said, did, or indeed something unrelated to the partner such as something that happened at work or in a shop. That might be manifest as shouting, slamming doors, hitting things or swearing. Their partner might live in fear of angering them, creating an environment of disempowerment and fears about physical safety. In some cases, the angry outbursts might be manifest as physical violence towards their partner, as previous research suggests. Concurrently, having the disorder might make someone unaware that their partner's fits of anger, shouting or aggression are not okay, perhaps making them more willing to stay in a violent relationship.

People with borderline personality disorder tend to become paranoid in times of stress, or to become dissociated from reality. This might be manifest as increasing their controlling behaviour towards a romantic spouse in times of stressful life events or work-related stress, because of feeling more paranoid. It might result in a romantic partner wondering about why the person becomes more suspicious and distrustful of them in some times more than others. Likewise, someone with the disorder might be vulnerable to exploitation to a partner who plays mind games with them as part of psychological or physical violence in the relationship by manipulating stress-related paranoia.

Don’t excuse violence or coercion

Remember that correlation is not causation. The root causes of intimate partner violence might be, not borderline personality disorder itself, but harmful attitudes that people have about violence or control in relationships. For victims, studies showing a correlation between the disorder and being at risk of intimate partner violence might be because perpetrators exploit their vulnerabilities and make them feel unable to leave because of being dependent on them (e.g., financially or because of fear) or because they idealise them. Remember that no victim is to blame for domestic violence and therefore perpetrators have full accountability for their actions.

Therapy can help

Do not try to diagnose someone you suspect of having borderline personality disorder because they need to seek help from a qualified therapist so that they can get an appropriate review, diagnosis and treatment. Do not assume that someone with the disorder is a perpetrator or victim of relationship violence because many of the studies on the topic are likely to have limited samples (e.g., people arrested or charged with violence, rather than the general population of people with the disorder).

Likewise, if you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, remember that the victim is never to blame. If a victim has borderline personality disorder, support from family, friends and a therapist can help them recognise that no violence is okay, and to be aware of when their partner might be exploiting vulnerabilities caused by their symptoms.


[1] Sansone RA, Sansone LA. Borderline personality and criminality. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2009;6(10):16-20.

[2] Stuart, G. L., Moore, T. M., Gordon, K. C., Ramsey, S. E., & Kahler, C. W. (2006). Psychopathology in women arrested for domestic violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 21(3), 376-389.…

[3] Jackson, M. A., Sippel, L. M., Mota, N., Whalen, D., & Schumacher, J. A. (2015). Borderline personality disorder and related constructs as risk factors for intimate partner violence perpetration. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 24, 95–106.

[4] Spencer, C., Mallory, A. B., Cafferky, B. M., Kimmes, J. G., Beck, A. R., & Stith, S. M. (2019). Mental health factors and intimate partner violence perpetration and victimization: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Violence, 9(1), 1–17.


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