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People, untreated, with Borderline Personality Disorder, cannot be emotionally intimate, in any relationship type, consistently, congruently, or age-appropriately.

What is healthy emotional intimacy?

Healthy emotional intimacy requires mutuality and reciprocity. It also requires the emotional intelligence and maturity to be able to flow between closeness and distance emotionally while still feeling the same toward someone and knowing that they feel the same way about you – object constancy. To be emotionally intimate in any relationship type with another person requires that you know yourself and that you can trust yourself. Boundaries are important too.

Emotional intimacy involves candid, authentic sharing of thoughts and feelings. It involves being able to tell each other your deepest fears, dreams, disappointments, and most complicated emotions, as well as feeling seen and understood when you do. A respectful, caring, empathic sharing of mutual vulnerability wherein two people share emotional safety together that each person has from within themselves.

10 Core Reasons people with BPD Lack of Emotional Intimacy

  1. Lack of stable sense of self (lost self)
  2. Fear of abandonment
  3. Lack of trust
  4. Poor communication and inability to be vulnerable vs defended
  5. Secrets and Lies (defense mechanisms)
  6. Unconscious repetition compulsions resulting from repressed emotions
  7. No Object Constancy – Inability to attach
  8. No “self” “other” reference – no boundary between self and other
  9. Learned helplessness along with dependency and neediness
  10. Arrested emotional development – no separation/individuation

More explanation of the 10 core reasons above coming very soon in a Video or Podcast episode. Please check back.

Not only do people with BPD fear intimacy, they really aren’t capable of any form of consistent intimacy. To be able to be intimate or emotionally close to someone requires being able to tolerate distance. Borderlines cannot tolerate the ebb and flow – the moving in and out – between closeness (intimacy) and distance. Intimacy, or being close emotionally, leaves the borderline stressed often with the fear of engulfment. Any shift in closeness, even a slight shift, is perceived or feared as abandonment and/or rejection.

BPD and intimacy are not compatible. Those with BPD do crave to be close to someone and usually that is driven by very child-like emotional neediness that revolves around borderlines trying to meet their needs through others and trying to get some sense of “self” through “other” to validate their own existence – have it mirrored back.

Intimacy is one aspect of adult age-appropriate relating that very much highlights the borderline’s arrested emotional development and inability to maintain age-appropriate and situationally-appropriate relating in any consistent way. Often those with BPD will generate emotional chaos and conflict to create space, distance “other” in search of some temporary relief to engulfment fears which then quickly leaves the borderline feeling as if they have been or about to be abandoned. It’s a classic no-win situation for the borderline and then of course by extension for the non borderline.

Borderlines have not worked through or completed the early childhood developmental phase of separation/individuation. Attempts at intimacy for the borderline can’t help but lead to “I-hate-you, don’t-leave-me” and to “get-away-closer” emotional chaos – the traditional borderline push/pull which has its origins in the approach/avoid conflict that is caused by arrested emotional development before or by the age of two years and that means people later diagnosed with BPD did not get through the early childhood stage of development of the rapprochement phase of separation/individuation.

Rapprochement in the theory of separation-individuation of Hungarian-born U.S. child psychoanalyst Margaret Schönberger Mahler (1897–1985), a subphase, after about 18 months of age, in which the child makes active approaches to the mother. This contrasts with the preceding subphase in which the child struggles with the first efforts of psychological individuation from the mother.

People diagnosed with BPD have not successfully emotionally grown through this phase of early childhood development. So, rather than cordial and cooperative relations with others they have conflictual, confused, and highly emotionally defensive reactions to the approach-avoidance conflict of trying to be close (fear of engulfment) normal distance (for example, time a part due to work, or school, or other activities) that triggers fear of abandonment due to lack of object constancy.

When people with BPD feel too close they need to push away (often not in conscious awareness) and when they feel any distance they feel abandoned.

Borderline fear of intimacy, on the one hand, is as strong as borderline need, and desire for intimacy or for the kind of closeness that gives them an “other” to live through is on the other hand.

Borderline Personality Disorder and intimacy are not compatible in any consistent, age-appropriate or lasting way. Attempts to manage the emotional dysregulation of attempting to be close to and with someone (until and unless a borderline gets into serious therapy and gets on the road to recovery) is lost to the the primary defense mechanism of splitting.

© A.J. Mahari September 2009 with additions October 17, 2021 – All rights reserved.

BPD Lack of Emotional Intimacy