Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Borderline Personality Family Dynamics: The Parents, Part I

In my post of 2/6/11, Dysfunctional Family Roles, Part I: The Spoiler, I opined that the basic problem in the "borderline" family (one that produces offspring with borderline personality disorder [BPD]) is that the parents in such families see the role of being parents as the end all and be all of human existence, but all the while, deep down, they either frequently hate being a parent or see their parent role as being an impediment to their personal fulfillment.

I also explained how the person with BPD develops the Spoiler role in response to the double messages that this emotional conflict leads such parents to give off to their children.

It's all well and good to try to understand the behavior of the individual with BPD in terms of a response to parental problems, but that just kicks the question of an explanation for the disorder back a generation. In order to fully understand BPD, we have to ask, "What on earth makes these parents so damn neurotic that they compulsively have children and then covertly resent them?" 

If the parents are not patients themselves, the only way for a therapist to get to the bottom of this is by helping the patient with BPD to construct a special type of family genogram.  A genogram is sort of an emotional family tree, and is a mainstay of the type of family systems therapy designed by family therapy pioneer Murray Bowen.

Murray Bowen
Using historical figures and geneology records as illustrations, the book Genograms: Assessment and Intervention by Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson describes how genograms can be constructed .

Monica McGoldrick

The genograms described by Bowen therapists are, in my mind, incomplete.  They concentrate on which relatives were overinvolved or underinvolved with which other relatives, and whether these relationships were hostile or friendly.  IMO, this leave out an awful lot of important information.  Two individuals may easily have a hostile and enmeshed relationships with each other over one area of functioning, say work or love, and yet still be very distant, friendly and uninvolved with each other over a different area of functioning. 

In other words, these genograms omit the content of the family squabbles.  When the content is added to the genogram, one can then look for the historical experiences of the family that may have created the picture that is taking place in the present.

While I have indeed seen the parents of adult children who exhibit BPD in therapy and traced their genograms, I have also coached patients with the disorder themselves to construct their family's genogram.  We try to go back as far as we can to figure out what family experiences led to the parents' conflicts.  Sometimes the story goes back more than three generations and we may lose the historical scent, so to speak, in that no one alive knows what happened way back whenever.  Usually, however, certain patterns come to the fore.

In Part I of this post, I will describe the one most common major issue, and the resultant behavior patterns, that I have discovered leads individuals within a family to develop a severe conflict over the parenting role.  In Part II, I will describe some other ones.

All of these issues may seem very common everywhere, and indeed they are.  Most families that face them do not produce emotional conflicts significant enough to create BPD pathology.  Rather, the issues in families that do have been magnified signficantly by an interacting tableau of historical events impacting the family and the individual proclivities of each and every family member and descendent. 

I will not describe the details of the magnification process here, but a full explanation can be found in my book, A Family Systems Approach to Individual Psychotherapy.

The most common cause of conflicts over the parenting role stems from cultural rules regarding gender role functioning.  Over the last century the opportunities open to women to explore their interests and ambitions have gradually expanded, and having a lot of children certainly put a damper on their ability to do this.  If a woman came from a family where the women were very bright and had a natural proclivity for being ambitious career-wise, this would often create difficulties for them since they lived in a male-dominated culture that was at best unfriendly to female career ambitions. 

To demonstrate how this might play out in a hypothetical family, I often discuss the evolving role of women in the United States since World War II. During the war, when all the men went off to fight, women in the United States entered the workforce in large numbers for the first time - in order to build the airplanes and tanks.  This phenomenon was known as "Rosie the Riveter." 

Some women found the experience of a career exhilerating, but when the war ended, they had to go back to just being wives and mothers once again.  The US govenment even made propaganda films thanking the women for their important work, but then encouraging them to go home and get barefoot and pregnant once again.  I have seen some of them; by today's standards they are positively jaw dropping. But effective. The Rosies did what they were told, and that is why we had the baby boom.

Rosie the Riveter
The daughters of this generation came of age in the sixties, when the women's liberation had started in earnest.  Women were more and more torn between the earlier gender role requirements and the new cultural opportunities expectations, and some women (as well as some men) did not make the transition very smoothly at all - for a variety of reasons.  One common reason: the Rosie the Riveters, having had a taste of the career world, would vicarioulsy live through the career aspirations of their daughters, but at the same time be extremely frightened by them.

Having children could easily bring the whole craziness to a head for some families.  Even today, parents feel very guilty about not spending as much time with their children as they would like, and they are often criticized at every turn by their own parents as well as the Phyllis Schlafly's of the world.  (Phyllis Schlafly was a career woman who made a career out of bashing career women).

Phyllis Sclafly
In doing genograms, one can often see just how far a family's operating rules lag behind the current cultural norms .  In anthropology, this problem is called cultural lag.  The cultural progression in Western nations, which is mimicked within certain families, was thus:  First, women really could not have careers at all.  Then, they could have careers, but only when they were single.  Then - and here is where many families with BPD members are stuck - they could only have careers when they had not yet had children.  Then, they could have careers even if married with children, but they had to give priority to the husband's career.  Last, both men and women were entitled to the same freedom.

Gender role confusion and conflict can, given the right combination of ingredients, create a nasty intrapsychic conflict over the very act of procreating. 

In Part II of this post, I will look at the rest of the historical factors and patterns that can create such a conflict: Deaths and illnesses, financial reverses, religious demands, parent-child role reversals, being the eldest child in a traditional family, and having children to "save the marriage."


  1. So if you have borderline personality disorder you actualy pass it on to your kids thats kinda scary can that be stoped or is it more genetic none of my family have bpd but other mental health problems that includes my mam.

  2. You say "...the parents in such families see the role of being parents as the end-all and be-all of human existence, but all the while, deep down, they either frequently hate being a parent or see their parent role as being an impediment to their personal fulfillment."

    Wow! That was my mother! She kept telling me how important it was to have kids and pass on your genes and all that, but it was clear through my entire childhood that while she loved the idea of being a parent, she wasn't happy at all with the reality. She even had a phrase she liked to tell me: "We are not a child-oriented family; we are an adult-oriented family," which I think reflected this ambivalence. (As an adult, I've come to wonder why there had to be a dichotomy; why couldn't we be a family-oriented family?)

    I've never had any children, first because I was truly miserable as a child and was afraid of producing a kid who felt like me since I didn't understand the source of my misery, and partly because my mother seemed to hate the day-to-day reality of parenthood (and my father didn't seem to enjoy it much more).

    It's so cool to see someone actually put what I observed into words.

    Sorry to keep pestering you! But this site is really eye-opening.

    1. Just found this site but see you wrote way back, 2-17-12. I too had a miserable childhood but had 3 children & adopted 2 more. I never let my dysfunctional mom take care of my kids & all my 5 turned out exceptional. Was afraid her mental illness would affect my kids. All of them are educated & now married with kids. We can decide our future. You decided yours & I mine. We both made the right decision for us. Bottom line, our upbringing can be a mess but we can change it if we want to.