Connecting With Others

Francine sat across from her psychiatrist with her arms wrapped around herself, rocking back and forth as she cried. “You’ve got to give me something to stop this,” she moaned.

“Stop what, Francine?” her doctor asked.

“Stop the way I feel when people don’t love me back!” she half-shouted.

“Who do you feel doesn’t love you back?” he asked.

“Everyone! Anyone. Nobody ever loves me as much as I love them, and it’s killing me.”

Francine’s words may have sounded hyperbolic, but she had long since been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and an estimated 10 percent of people with BPD commit suicide. These suicides have multiple variables but the studies repeatedly suggest that people with BPD share something in common when it comes to relationships—they experience what is known as insecure attachment. This is not to suggest that relationships are necessarily the reasons people commit suicide, but it’s important to examine how they impact BPD functioning.

Insecure Attachment Styles

Psychologists have noted three distinct insecure attachment styles—unresolved, preoccupied and fearful. As Erica Djossa has written, “Our attachment style is influenced by our thoughts of self and thoughts of others.” Styles of attachment reveal how people relate to the closest people in their lives, family members or, most often, romantic partners. It is believed that these styles mimic relationship patterns formed in early childhood, but this isn’t always the case. It is also believed that these insecure styles can develop in response to unhappy or unfulfilling attachments from childhood. So, for example, a child may have had a cold, aloof mother who gave little in the way of warmth, affection or validation and as an adult, she is not only unable to regulate her emotions (BPD), but finds herself feeling very needy in relation to those closest to her, always needing their affection, attention and affirmation of love and desirability.

People with unresolved attachments experienced abuse in childhood—physical, emotional, sexual or a combination. As a result, they may become victims in exploitive relationships, or they may become abusers themselves.

People with preoccupied style had early attachments to a primary caregiver whose nurturing was inconsistent. As a result, they become highly sensitive to whether their partner feels emotionally available “enough” for them. They may become suspicious and engage in snooping or stalking behaviors.

Those individuals with anxious or fearful attachment style are generally negative about themselves and negative about others. They fear being rejected and generally avoid entering relationships, but once they do, they tend to become dependent. These individuals may have had parents who were insensitive or enmeshing.

Attachment and BPD

There are many theories as to the cause of BPD but no one knows exactly what creates it. It’s most strongly believed that genes, in combination with environment, play the biggest factor in its development. It’s important to understand that not all individuals who have BPD come from dysfunctional families; many had parents who were loving and supportive. Still, insecure attachment seems to be a primary feature of BPD.

Because this is the case, it may be important to those who exhibit insecure attachment to begin to examine how they can begin to move from an insecure style to a secure way of connecting to others. This isn’t done overnight and even people who are considered “mentally healthy” may struggle to grow with the process. In the case of Francine, she was looking outside of herself for emotional soothing and validation in ways she eventually learned she could find in herself. We become stronger and more self-reliant as we discover ways to self-sooth and emotionally self-regulate, and we discover that bringing this stronger self into our relationships often results in less chaos and more security—something from which nearly everyone could benefit.