Note: The following article is meant to examine the ways in which powerful negative emotions can combine to form certain personality traits and how that can impact sexuality. It is not meant to pathologize or demonize anyone who struggles with any of these difficulties, but merely to illustrate how problematic emotions can create chronic relational and sexual disturbances. As a therapist, I always take a strengths-based approach, and focus on how the individual can resolve their difficult emotions, rather than what is wrong with them.
In previous articles, I described how emotions impact and wreak havoc on sexual expression. In the next series of articles, I will go into a little bit greater detail on how these various emotions can come together into very specific and defined characterological patterns and how these personality types can come through sexually. In this particular piece, I will focus on the borderline personality (BPD).
Borderline personality is marked by intense emotional swings, a distinct pattern of relational volatility, splitting behavior (which means seeing someone as either all good or all evil), and an absolute inability to take any responsibility for or have any insight into one’s behavior. The DSM lists nine distinct criteria, of which someone needs qualify for at least five in order to be diagnosed with BPD. I don’t adhere very closely to a purely medically diagnostic model, so rather than get lost in psychiatric diagnoses, I want to focus instead on what emotions someone who is borderline struggles with and how these get played out in the treatment room as well as in interpersonal relationship and sexual expression.
First and foremost, borderline individuals come across as extremely intense. That does not mean that all intense people are borderline, but merely that it is something that I pay closer attention to when I observe it. I think what differentiates borderline intensity from someone who is intense because they are very focused on a task or project is a kind of anger lying underneath the intensity. Sometimes the anger feels very overt and palpable. So, there is a great well of anger that is part of the borderline’s internal experience.
Another common emotion that borderlines experience is fear. This fear is also very intense and often is focused on the threat of abandonment. Most (perhaps all) individuals with some form of personality disorder have had difficult childhoods, with some form of neglect, abandonment, or abuse in the picture. Research indicates that borderline individuals tend to have more of an anxious/ambivalent attachment style (see this article for a more detailed explanation of attachment). Individuals with anxious/ambivalent attachment tend to have a history of inconsistent parenting, which of course is subjective, but the point is that they are used to experiencing various forms of perceived abandonment in their early lives. These folks becomes adults with a Preoccupied adult attachment style, which is marked by obsessive behavior within their relationships. Think of Fatal Attraction as an extreme example.
So let’s take a look at how all this plays out. Borderlines enter relationships already terrified of experiencing rejection and abandonment. As a result, they look to hook the other person in and gain a sense of control over that person so as to ease their fears of losing him/her. This kind of “hooking in” can take the form of portraying oneself as a victim in order to evoke empathy and guilt. Often, the hooking in happens through sex. It may be a stereotype, but research suggests that most borderlines are female. And it may also be a stereotype that borderlines are highly sexual and “great in bed,” but my experience working with both borderlines and people in relationships with borderlines holds that these stereotypes often exist for a reason. For the sake of generalities, I will focus on the female borderline dynamic in the rest of this article. Male borderlines do exist of course, but for the sake of explication, I will just focus on one type of dynamic to portray the borderline’s internal world.
Often, a borderline woman may present herself as submissive, compliant, and up for anything sexually. She may find out exactly what her partner wants and do everything to fulfill his fantasies. This feels fantastic for the individual getting all his sexual needs met, but this sexual compliance is not about pleasure, but about control. By turning this guy’s life upside down with mind-blowing sex, she feels that she has achieved a sense of control, that he is ensnared by her and won’t leave. This is the crux of the matter. Borderlines crave control to alleviate their anxieties about abandonment.
Let’s move now to the anger component. No one wants to live their entire life in fear. It feels passive, hopeless and victimized. Often other emotions, such as anger are used to mask or defend against more vulnerable feelings like fear and so are used to help the person feel more in control and empowered. This is exactly what happens internally for the borderline. When their fears of abandonment are most provoked, they often flip to anger, turning their rage on the horrible individual who is threatening them with abandonment. In this way, the presentation of the borderline is very volatile. She can go from meek and submissive (fear), putting her lover on a pedestal one moment, to blind rage and abuse the next. In this way, the borderline turns hot and cold, moving from a feeling of temporary stability to fear then anger in a moment’s notice.
Let’s take one last look at how BPD can look like from a sexual standpoint. Borderlines can be very impulsive sexually. They can also present as highly sexual and often as sexually submissive, especially in the beginning. They have a history of volatile and short-lived relationships and often may juggle a number of sexual relationships at once in order to not “put too many eggs in one basket.” They may also be prone to sexual dysfunctions, such as vaginismus or pain syndromes like dyspareunia because the toxic emotions of fear and anger prevent them from relaxing into the sexual experience. When working with someone struggling with borderline, it is imperative that they learn to notice and observe their internal emotions and external impulses and initially, learn to tolerate them rather than react. In time, once they have learned to better manage their emotions, we can then focus on working through these emotions so that they feel less intense. It is long-term work, but for the motivated client, it can prove to be very rewarding and fulfilling.