Can a Relationship with a Narcissistic or Borderline Wife or Girlfriend Change your Personality?
Dear Dr. Tara,
Today, after 23 years in an abusive relationship with a woman suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder, I find myself at a crossroads; leave now or live the rest of my life in misery. Sounds easy, but I, for the life of me cannot find the strength and courage to make the right decision, even though I clearly know what it is.
I have been in this abusive relationship for so long, I am no longer able to discern reality or normalcy. I live in such an evil, chaotic environment, that I can’t think straight. Thanks to you and your website, I finally have the answers to the unknowns that have haunted me for 20 years. Knowledge is power and you have given me the power I need.
I asked my parents to read the blogs as well to assist with their understanding, as they may be involved in some capacity with the process of my leaving. After reading your response, my Mother ask if I would write to you and request your opinion related to the transformation of one’s personality and behavior when they are exposed to an abusive partner for as long as I have been.
She says that when I was young, I was extremely independent and resisted anyone who tried to control me. I was my own person and thought for myself. Although I was a good kid for the most part, I apparently gave the authority figures in my life difficulties. Is such a drastic personality transformation common, and how does it happen?
You’re welcome. Asking your parents to read information about what you’re going through, whether it’s my blog or other resources, is smart and adaptive. Unless you’ve experienced what these women are like firsthand, it can be very difficult to describe it to others. Oftentimes, you’re met with disbelief and/or people think you’re the crazy one.
It’s also a good way to prepare your parents. Many women with Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder traits begin vicious smear campaigns when you end the relationship. For example, she might:
- Contact your family and friends without compunction to tell outrageous lies about you.
- Make false abuse claims.
- Tell people you’re “losing your mind” or “having a mid-life crisis” or pathologize you by claiming you have a personality disorder.
- Contact your place of work and make wild accusations to try to get you fired.
She’s right, of course. You must be crazy if you don’t want to take her abuse anymore. These women would actually be funny if they didn’t cause so much damage—I find it helpful to find the humor in these situations where ever and whenever you can—Giving your parents’ a head’s up on what they can potentially expect will save you a lot of stress later.
As for your mother’s question, it’s not at all unusual for a person’s personality to change when exposed to prolonged repetitive emotional and/or physical abuse. Abuse is a violation of trust and a betrayal that has profound effects on an individual.
Staying in a relationship after the first abusive episode, opens the floodgates for more abuse. You telegraph that her abusive behavior is ok because she didn’t experience any negative consequences (e.g., ending the relationship) for treating you poorly. Many men minimize or rationalize the first incident by telling themselves she was “having a bad day,” that she’s “emotional,” and/or the BPD/NPD apologizes with a ready made excuse for her bad behavior.
Please note: These women rarely accept responsibility for anything they do. They only feign remorse if they’re afraid you’re going to leave and/or they’re trying to manipulate you into doing something. When someone’s truly sorry, they do everything in their power not to hurt you again. Expressing anger at her behavior will get you nowhere. In fact, she’ll use it against you to portray herself as the victim and you as the bad guy.
Once you decide to stay in the relationship and tolerate the abuse, a NPD/BPD woman slowly begins to:
- Undermine your confidence.
- Confuse what you know to be fair and true.
- Destroy your self-esteem and self-worth.
- Brainwash you into believing that you don’t deserve better.
- Erode your ability to take action in your life.
You begin to doubt yourself, question your sanity, feel powerless, and develop what’s called “learned helplessness.” This explains how a person who was once independent can become scared, confused and dependent.
It’s sort of like what happens to a prisoner at a POW camp. A BPD/NPD woman basically brainwashes you into believing that she’s a saint, that she puts up with you, that she’s the victim and you’re the bad guy. If you receive these messages on an endless loop, eventually, you’re going to start to believe it.
Also, her rages, tantrums, verbal attacks, mood swings, blowing hot and cold with her affection, and tear-filled, “poor me” dramas are so convincing, you begin to wonder if maybe you are a jerk. This is projection and projective identification.
A BPD/NPD woman projects the wretched feelings she has about herself, but will never consciously admit to you or anyone else (including herself), and pins them on you. When she says, “You’re angry and unloving,” she’s actually describing herself. This is called projection.
Projective identification is when a BPD/NPD woman takes her crazy, internal garbage and self-loathing and manipulates you into feeling what she feels. For instance, when she goads you into losing your temper—it’s because she’s the one who wants to explode. So you feel her inner rage for her and she gets the added bonus of playing the victim/martyr after she baits you into blowing your stack.
Or, she shuts you off sexually, avoids intimacy, and shows you no warmth so that you feel abandoned. If you seek comfort elsewhere, she can paint you as the bad guy for having an affair—never mind that she starved you of love and affection.
She’ll also blame you for her frigidity by saying that “maybe” she would have wanted to have sex with you more often if you weren’t so—fill in the blank—”angry, hostile, distant, spent too much time at work (to support her, mind you), or were ‘nicer’ to her.” She makes you feel like the sexual deviant, pathologizing you for the very natural desire for emotional and sexual intimacy. In reality, she’s the one who can’t handle intimacy and has seriously warped sexuality issues. Projection, projection, projection.
Wow, I’ve gone on quite a tangent. To summarize, yes, it’s possible to undergo a significant personality change when in an emotionally abusive relationship. However, it’s also possible to recover who you once were prior to this relationship. You’re still that person.
The strong, independent part of you had to go into hiding because a BPD/NPD woman can’t tolerate strength and independence in others—it means they’re not in control. So they break your spirit to control you and establish their distorted view of themselves and reality. It’s like being under a spell. You’ve broken the spell. You can put yourself back together, Jim.
Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Shrink4Men Counseling, Coaching and Consulting Services
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides confidential, fee-for-service, counseling, consultation and coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.
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- Relationship Roller Coaster Ride: The Cycle of Abuse
- Traumatic Love: Is your Borderline Or Narcissistic Wife or Girlfriend Making You Sick?
Sensitive men by retrogoddess73 on flickr.