If you have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) we would like to help you think about what that might mean for you in the context of living with or having lived with an abusive man.
We are finding the diagnosis of BPD being widely applied to women who have experienced abuse. What is meant by this diagnosis? Psychology Today’s definition includes the following: “People with BPD have emotions that can quickly spiral out of control, leading to intense states of anxiety, tension, and, anger. Moreover, turbulent emotional states are often at the center of stormy relationships with friends, family members, and romantic partners.”
This definition could easily be describing a woman in an abusive relationship. That is, a woman experiencing intense emotions and a “stormy relationship”. What some helping professionals view, as symptoms of mental illness might be better understood as impacts from abuse. A woman living with a man who demonstrates the turbulent behaviour of the Cycle of Abuse will herself display constantly changing emotions. Furthermore, from the outside a woman might be blamed for the “stormy” nature of her relationship when it is the man, in fact, causing the conflict and explosions.
There is some interesting research to back up our caution and concern when it comes to this label being used to diagnosis women who have experienced abuse. The first is that 75% of people who are diagnosed with BPD are female. The second is that 60-90% of people diagnosed with BPD were abused either in childhood or by their partners.
Maybe a question you could ask yourself is, do you think you would suffer from BPD if you had not experienced any abuse in your childhood or as an adult? If you would answer “no” to this question, then maybe a better way to understand your “symptoms” is to understand them as normal impacts and reactions to having been abused.
A third concern we have is that it has been widely noted that some helping professionals use the diagnosis of BPD to label women who challenge them or make them uncomfortable. Because of the negative implications that seem to come with this diagnosis, namely, that “borderline women” are “difficult”, often women with this diagnosis become more marginalized as service providers prefer not to work with them. For all these reasons, we are not sure this diagnosis helps women. What you need most is to be believed, supported and affirmed. You can ask yourself if this diagnosis helps you to get the kind of support you need.
Having expressed our concern about this diagnosis we also want to say that maybe you have found this diagnosis helpful. Maybe it has opened up doors to medical help and support. We are not trying to take away anything that might be helpful to you; we are trying to offer a broader way to understand your experience, which includes your experiences of abuse. We also do not want to rule out the possibility that your diagnosis of BPD pre-dates the abuse you have experienced. In this cases, we would invite you consider how the abuse has likely exacerbated your psychological distress.