The BDSM community provides an amazing opportunity to have your needs fulfilled and your deepest wishes and fantasies come true. In coming to grips with my past, I've found that there has been a pattern of dating people who I later learned had Borderline Personality Disorder, and that I myself had Codependency. In order to heal, as well as offer others the benefits of my learning, I'm writing a series on the intersection of Borderline and Codependency in the BDSM community.
In the previous post in my series on Borderline and Codependency in the scene, I discussed the relationship pattern with a Borderline partner and a Codependent, how the relationship starts good, and how it begins to break down.
In this post, I'm going to talk about the origins of Codependency and Borderline Personal Disorder as I understand them, how they began and how their origins effect the person that develops. One note before I begin: While this post is gathered from my experience, the experience of people I know, and the literature I've read, I am not a therapist and these posts should not be considered therapeutic advice.
A Traumatic Childhood
A key to understanding BPD and Codependency (as well as other personality disorders not mentioned in this series) is understanding the role of early childhood trauma. Childhood trauma has three components. The first is the traumatic events themselves. This can be explicitly damaging events, such as physical abuse or sexual abuse, or emotional abuse such as shaming, degrading, neglect, forcing the child to be physically affectionate against their will, etc. It's important to note that while we say "traumatic events", I am referring to events explicitly in the plural. A single traumatic event, while tragic, is often not enough to do the kind of psychological damage we're talking about. Instead, the trauma needs to be repeated.
The second component to the development of childhood trauma is the child's resources in handling the traumatic event. These resources (or lack thereof) can come from a variety of sources, from neurological impairments (learning disabilities, ADHD or Autism), to a culture where abuse is normalized (ie spare the rod, spoil the child). Conversely, trauma can be reduced by factor such as a sibling able to help protect the child, a supportive parent or other family member or a supportive peer environment. The resources or lack of resources that a child has in confronting or addressing their abuse plays a large role in their ability to process it.
The third factor in the development of childhood trauma is the prevalence of good role models or others in the child's life to help them process the abuse. That is, can they see and contrast the abusive behavior in front of them against "the norm" or provided the opportunity to process their experiences, or instead will they internalize their experiences.
When these factors are missing in a child's life, the result is a person who is going to end up "with problems". And if the child's experience of the world is already difficult to an existing condition such as a neurological impairment, then these psychological issues can compound.
I have avoided going deeply into the mechanisms involved here, that's because I think they're better explored through professional resources, both in terms of presentation and depth, but in my view the key points to understand about the causes of Borderline and Codependency are toxic shame and the lack of safety.
Shame is a powerful feeling. For those of who you grew up in a Judeo-Christian culture, the story of shame is built into our origin story. Even if you're an Atheist, these values were likely instilled in you. When Adam eats the apple, he becomes aware that he is naked. Oftentimes when that story is told, all the person says is "...that he was naked.", but of course implicit in that is the idea that being naked is bad, that our bodies are implicitly bad or flawed, especially our sexual organs.
Another key factor in understanding shame, especially with people who grew up with a lot of trauma is understanding that the fear associated with the "authentic self". When I was a child, my father would often threaten me that if I didn't do what he wanted that he would "go to my school" and tell all my friends "all of my secrets". I was about seven or eight, and I remember feeling an intense fear that upon hearing my secrets, that my friends would all hate me. I felt vulnerable and exposed.
Similarly, if I acted out in public, my mother would say to me that "Everyone is looking at you and they can see what a terrible person you really are". When I was sixteen, during an argument my mother told me that my high school sweetheart would "learn about the real you" and subsequently leave me. Throughout childhood and since, I've struggled with a sense of shame about "who I am".
Similarly safety is a key factor for a child, and the key to safety for a child is acceptance and love. If the parent does not give the child love, they will die. This isn't a conscious thought on the part of the child, of course, but is instinctual, probably going back millions of years. The child who is loved by their parents gets love, support, food and resources, while the rejected child may simply die. As a result, children have an instinctual need to please their parents.
If their parents are unavailable, unsafe, or unstable, the child must make sense of the world. The child's mind is neurologically primed for learning and psychologically primed for being loved/accepted, so when there is a conflict between the child and the parents, the child usually takes ownership of the bad experience, or at the very least, to tries to make sense of the world.
Codependency and Borderline Traits
I think of Codependency and Borderline Personality Disorder as two sides of the same coin, or cousin species, both stemming from the same origin but then diverging. But because Borderline in particular has so much stigma attached to it, I thought it'd be useful to talk about the similarities in hopes that we can destigmatize the disorder.
Because both Borderlines and Codependents grow up in similar environments, they share many of the same traits. The most key similarity between the two is a deep sense of toxic shame. I use the term "toxic shame" rather than self-esteem because I don't feel that self-esteem covers the complexity of the emotional experience. A person with toxic shame can feel quite competent and even good about themselves in some situations. They may even go weeks, months or years without being triggered, but then a situation or incident can quickly uncover or undo what appears to be years of calm, because underlying both disorders is a sense of unworthiness or sense that they are not good people.
Another common trait between the two is often an issue with addiction or compulsion. I want to be clear here that not all addictive behavior is the same. We normally think of addiction as being chemical, such as alcohol or drugs, but what all forms of addiction have in common is a desire to self-regulate the addict's emotional state. So if video games are a good way to relax, someone can become addicted to video games, or sex, or porn, or even an innocuous activity such as cleaning. Again, it's not the behavior itself that's necessarily the problem, but the way that it's used. Cleaning is not bad, but if every time a life stresser comes in, the person is avoident through cleaning, that's a potential problem.
The third common trait is often (though not always) a high degree of emotional reactivity. Both the Borderline and the Codependent can become very reactive in times of stress. I personally have had to work many years on being less reactive during stressful times. The flip side of this can be the opposite, which is a lack of affect, or "shutting down". People who grew up in households were emotional displays were themselves dangerous may have learned to simply disassociate or shut down during times of stress.
The fourth and final common trait I'll discuss is the need for relationships. This is one of the most difficult ones to admit to oneself, but both Borderlines and Codependents can often feel that they need to be in a relationship. Borderlines will often mirror their partner, taking on their partner's behaviors, speech and even interests, whereas many Codependents will find themselves in the "savior" role, but despite this difference in approach, the underlying symptom is quite similar. This is also why I believe so many Codependents and Borderlines find themselves attracted to each other, through this shared sense of intensity and need. Codependents don't need relationships for their identity per se, but in the more some cases, not being in one can feed into internal narratives of worthlessness, which can in turn lead to other bad feelings.
The Codepdendency / Borderline Divergence
We've already begun understanding the differences between Borderline and Codependency. Ross Rosenberg, in his book The Human Magnet Syndrome talks about Borderline and Codependency as two ends of a spectrum, with Borderlines being self-oriented and Codependents being other-oriented. I believe that much of this probably comes from experiences when the child is young. If they learn to "handle" their parents and find ways of getting their needs met, they become other oriented. If they don't, then the child will turn inward and become self-oriented. Of course neither extreme is healthy.
Since we are talking about the role of these disorders in the role of kink, we should take a moment to show how Codependency in particular can manifest for either in either a sub or a dom role. For a sub, or slave, Codependency may feel very natural. After all, being other oriented means that you will be very attuned to your partner and their needs. While a Borderline may not be the best leader, their sense of drive may be very appealing, and their narcissistic tendencies can feel very natural.
For a Codependent dominant, they may have a strong orientation to the role of caring dominant, of "Daddy" or "Mommie", in "broken wing partners" who seem to be a bit lost and need direction. The line between guide and caretaker can often become blurry. It's also important to remember that for a Codependent dom, they may feel very "at home" with a partner who is needing emotional regulation, as this will in ways mirror their experiences with their family of origin.
One of the biggest differences, though, between Codependents and Borderlines is in the area of emotional maturity. While one can argue that Codependents may also be emotionally stunted, Borderlines are emotionally stunted in a way that is almost incomprehensible to the outside. They are unable to hold two emotions about someone at the same time.
To understand this, think about yourself at five years old. You may have gotten angry at your parents and said something like "I hate you!". In that one moment, it's true. But a moment later, the feeling fades and you contextualized your experiences, them, your feelings for them, and calmed down. A Borderline struggles or finds it impossible to have mixed feelings. Instead, their feelings run black or white, hot or cold. If they love you, they adore everything about you, and if they are upset, then you are the embodiment of evil. Or, if they can't accept that you are bad, then they will turn that anger inward. This black and white emotional response is called "splitting", and it's at the center of both the wonderful and awful parts of being with a Borderline. It's also at the heart of the therapeutic process to help Borderlines, by helping them create strategies to help manage their emotions and eventually be able to hold opposing emotions and views. But that's skipping ahead a bit...
Emotional Regulation and Unskillful Manipulation
One of the aspects of BPD that is confusing is how incredibly manipulative a Borderline can be. They will do things that seem Machiavellian in nature and it can be difficult to separate out BPD from other personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personalty Disorder or even Psychopathic Personality Disorder. A Borderline lie to you, lie about you, use threats of violence or self-violence, use manipulative language, etc. In my experience, my longest running Borderline partner seemed to know just the exact thing to say to me that would hurt the most, and would say it without any pause of hesitation, leading me to question "How can this not be malicious (and abusive)?"
The answer is in understanding that a Borderline is acting as a child might. They will do the thing that is going to be most effective at pushing your buttons and (hopefully) getting what they want. And if not, they will rage- against you or against themselves. They may actually feel a great deal of shame over their previous behavior, over words or actions that they did. In fact, they may find those actions so deeply shameful that just remembering them sends them back into a triggered spiral, leading to downward into another meltdown. I am not justifying the behavior- abusive behavior is abuse for the victim, but I am saying that the origins of the behavior are not as simple as a desire to harm someone or manipulate them because of a lack of empathy.
For the Borderline, they are so overwhelmed by their emotions that they will do anything to stop them. This makes some sense as their emotions are literally torturing them, and they're struggling to find a solution to the pain they're in. Unfortunately for the other person, they are willing to do anything in those moments, which could absolutely mean using physical violence, emotional violence, including saying things that might seem "sacred".
The key for the non-Borderline partner is to understand the distinction between purposeful and malicious. And as I write this, even I struggle with it. The Borderline is doing things that they hope will make them feel better. They may even be right in that their actions do make them feel better in the moment, but in the long term undermine the very safety and security that they seek.
Revising the other side of the BPD/Codependent equation, we can see that in the same way Borderlines were stunted in their emotional growth, that Codependents have gained traits that were at first important, but over time may become maladaptive, mainly in the area of control. This is especially complex when we mix BDSM into the equation, as it can become easy to pathologize what are otherwise normal behaviors. The key is to understand that in these cases it's not the behavior that's necessarily the problem, but the motivation. This is akin to why masochism is fine, but self-harm through sadomasochistic activity is not. Similarly, being dominant is good, but using Dominance with a capital D to address your internal struggles and need for control is not.
So as I've already implied, one the most common Codependent behavior is the need to control. This is an outgrowth of the abuse suffered as a child, where they learned to control their out-of-control parent or caregiver. By excerpting control, they could keep themselves safe, so subsequently feel most safe when in control. Similarly, the need to "fix" or "help" can be a part of this same pattern. In my case, this can feel like a physical compulsion, similar to hunger or thirst, where you feel the need so intensely that it actually comes out as bodily sensation. This can then be followed by a sense of relief when you finally so help.
Conversely, Codependents often feel "used". They feel that others take advantage of them and their hard work, or they may feel that they're the victims. Again, these feelings and behaviors stem from childhood experience. Similarly, they may take things personally. This is fundamentally about understanding and controlling your environment. If everything as a child was about keeping oneself safe through control over your environment, then everything is personal.
Almost paradoxically to the feeling of control, Codependents often engage in people pleasing behaviors- pathologically needing to be liked. This is because being liked or loved as a child may have meant the difference between being cared for or not by the parent or caregiver. Being liked/accepted/loved was therefore the highest order goal. But because as a child this was never entirely attainable, it becomes a lingering fear.
Codependents often feel "unloved" or "unworthy". This is a topic we've revisited before. This is an outgrowth of toxic shame and is common for both the Codependent and the Borderline. In my own life, this feeling can come and go, almost instantly. I may feel entirely normal for hours, days or weeks, followed by a day of deep depression and feelings of despair, hopelessness and inability to be loved.
Lastly, Codependents often feel a responsibility towards people and events that they're not connected to. On the plus side, this is the underlying motivator to why so many Codependents go into fields such as medicine, psychology, teaching and volunteering. On the other hand, the internal void can't be filled through others, it must be addressed inside.
This post was meant to highlight an overview of the origins of both Codependency and Borderline and show how understandable and adaptive behaviors as children turn into maladaptive, destructive patterns as adults. To do this topic justie would require several volumes of books. In the next and last post on this topic, I'll be outlining some resources for getting started in your healing process.