ERP 274: How Increasing Relationship Love & Health Can Impact Borderline Personality Disorder – An Interview With Gabrielle Usatynski

By Posted in - Podcast June 29th, 2021 0 Comments

Borderline personality disorders make things appear as black and white with no integration between the two. It manifests as rejecting the love and support from a partner, the very thing that a person with this disorder actually needs in the first place. 

Gabrielle Usatynski, a licensed professional counselor and relationship expert, explains that borderline personality disorders cause radical misperceptions which cause confusion in relationship. Displaying compassion plays a central role in healing the very source of the trauma to result in more loving and fulfilling relationships. 

Gabrielle is the host of the new TV show “Iconic Couples of History” and the Founder of the Power Couples Institute. She has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Counseling Today, and Women’s Health. She has an upcoming book entitled “The Power Couple Formula” due for release later this year.

In this Episode 

  • 06:51 Personality disorders impair the way we look at our identity and the identity of others. This has a significant impact on displays of empathy and intimacy in relationship.
  • 13:15 “Splitting” in personality disorders means a person cannot integrate opposing thoughts and only sees things as one or another. There is a lack of integration between the two, something which normally develops very early in life.
  • 18:57 There is a nurture aspect to borderline personality disorders which is attributed to trauma, abuse, and/or neglect. Any sabotage to a growing person’s self-activation will manifest in relationships well into adulthood.
  • 26:46 Borderline personality disorder affects the socio-emotional capacity to separate raw emotions and physiological experiences. It is a lack of neural integration that results in poor reality testing.
  • 35:08 Clinicians can easily misdiagnose borderline personality disorders. There is a need for partners to display love and compassion to address the root trauma that is causing so much disconnect in relationship.
  • 41:01 Borderline personalities sabotage the very thing they need the most, which is the love and security they receive from their partners. 
  • 44:53 How to care for a partner with borderline personality disorder.
  • 51:34 Having a third party observe the dynamics of a relationship and attempt to fix the system can create profound changes in the individuals. 
  • 53:42 Couples with a shared mission, an organized principle between them, give a reason to hold in the relationship through the good and bad times.
  • 56:35 Get in touch with Gabrielle. 

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Trust in the expertise of a trained professional. Couples therapy is highly recommended to sort through the complexities of borderline personality disorder. 
  • Remember that people change. Therapy can create a relationship that is based on principles of equality, empathy, fairness, affection, and gratitude.
  • The relationship has a direct impact on the self. Addressing this dynamic between individuals, when done right, can usher in the necessary changes needed by a borderline personality disorder to experience a relationship rooted in love.
  • Think about the kind of relationship you want to have. Having a mission statement as a couple, an overarching “why,” guides your behavior within the relationship.


Power Couples Education website

The Power Couple Formula book website

Power Couples Counseling

Power Couples Education YouTube Channel

ERP: 180: What If I Think My Partner Has a Personality Disorder? An Interview with Gabrielle Usatynski

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins






Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 


Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Gabrielle, thank you for joining us today.

It’s my pleasure. I’m really excited to talk to you about this stuff.

No kidding. I know you joined us a while back talking about narcissism and the personality disorder, personality features and what to consider. I’ll make sure to put that link on today’s show notes so people can have access to that.

Today, we are looking at borderline personality. I am just interested if we can take a step back looking at personality disorders in general. People listening to The Empowered Relationship Podcast are really specifically looking at relationship and how could we be looking at personality disorder as it relates to intimate relationship.

I know that there is a significant amount of people that are in relationship that are looking at how to navigate challenges and improve the quality of their relationship. And then, there are people who are dating that aren’t yet deeply committed in this long-term partnership or even marriage so they’re still contemplating, “Is this person right?” I do think that there are some things to really consider that could be different on either end.

So, help us with personality disorder relationship. What would you be wanting us to know to just give us a ground here?

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think a good place to start is just a general orientation to what is a personality disorder, not even borderline personality disorder, in particular, but just what is a personality disorder, because we hear that word so often thrown around in our culture, on YouTube, and social media. And really, we don’t often get sort of a good idea of what we’re even really talking about. That can lead to a lot of stigmas in and of itself.

What we mean by personality disorder as a whole, because there’s a bunch of different personality disorders, is that there is a fundamental distortion in the sense of self and also in the sense of other people.

“And so, it’s a sense of fundamental impairment in the way we look at our own identity and the way we look at the identity of others.”

What that does, is it has a very significant impact both on the person as an individual in terms of their self-esteem, their self-direction in life, and just their overall functioning, we’ll talk more about that, but it also has a huge impact on their interpersonal functioning.

As it says in the current version of borderline personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5, DSM-5, it talks specifically about the impact on empathy and intimacy. This is actually the first time that we’ve had a definition of borderline personality disorder that is the sanctioned definition of what that is in the field of psychology that specifically calls out the impact of personality disorders on empathy and intimacy, which obviously relates directly to a person’s ability to be in an intimate relationship.

Just as an aside, it’s a huge thing that the impact of personality disorders on relationships is now much more clearly recognized and that we can start to look at that. Because for a long time, we were only looking at behaviors but not so much in terms of the interpersonal impact. I think it’s a huge step forward for us as clinicians to be able to help people with how these personality disorders can negatively impact relationships and what to do about it.

Exactly. As you said, if someone’s searching the web or they’re kind of battling or grappling with some conflict in relationship or difficulty in trying to like, lay person assess almost. It can be easy to, like you said, even put a label and stigmatize it and then even pathologize, which is probably counter to what you would suggest. Help me with that, what you see with people around.

I’ve had this happen, Gabrielle, where people will come into a session and they’re in the beginning and they’ve got all this stuff that they’ve gotten off the web and they’re convinced and they’re looking for validation that their partner has this. They’ve already diagnosed each other, so to speak.

Right. Well, I want to get into talking about that in terms of how people can mistype themselves, how people can mistype their partner, and how to really know accurately what’s going on with a partner or with yourself, right? Because this can be a problem with how people see themselves as well, not just their partner, and a lot of misinformation around what this is. So, I think perhaps the best way to tackle that question would be actually to just talk a little bit about what borderline personality disorder actually is.

Yes. Can I actually wonder with you just really quickly because where that question was coming from is if we just put a label and we’re looking just at behavior, we’re probably missing a large part of the fuller constitution.

You’re talking about this inner working the inside of self and also the perception of other. I think this is honestly, everybody in relationship to some degree or another is managing this. What they perceive on the outside of the other, and what they’re showing on the outside that may be very different than what’s going on the inside.

And so, when we can access the inner layers, there is a deeper understanding and possibly even a way to relate differently that supports those inside mechanisms. So, that’s kind of where that question came from as you’re talking about the DSM-5 and how that is a useful tool for clinicians to have a language around, what are we looking at? How are we addressing this? And also, looking at people who don’t have that training are grappling with the same thing around like, “This is how I’m experiencing it. How do I do this?” Not just behavior. There’s a lot around it.

Right. Right. Exactly. Yeah. I mean, that’s beautifully put. I do think that understanding more the inner life is a really critical ingredient there.

Let’s pause on that because you want to help us get the frame. I guess I just was wondering if that related to what you were talking about with how we’ve come, with how we’re viewing personality disorder.

What specifically? You mean the inner experience?


Yeah. So, I do think that there is definitely more emphasis on that in our current diagnostic criteria for personality disorders in general and for borderline than there was. I mean, there’s a whole history to this if we look at the development, right? Yeah. But yay that we’re really starting to prioritize people’s inner experience of themselves, and then what they do in relation to their partner, right?

Essentially, what we’re dealing with is we’re dealing with a lot of splitting. Splitting is something that people do tend to associate with borderline personality disorder. But in fact, all of the personality disorders use splitting as a defense, you could say, as a coping strategy.

It tends to have been most directly connected with borderline but we actually see it with all the disorders. Let me just say a little bit about that because I think it’ll be really clarifying in terms of what this sort of distinguishing factor is between someone with a personality disorder versus somebody who’s just insecure. Okay?

Well, let me start with sort of the normal development here. What happens in the course of maturation as we move through infancy, childhood, children start out with this kind of split in terms of how they experience their parents.

So, like, “Mommy, I’ve got a wet diaper. I cry.” Mommy was a little delayed in coming. Bad Mommy. Right? But this time now, mommy’s rocking me and feeding me. That means my experience of mommy is of good mommy. Right? Children don’t kind of put those two versions of mommy together in their mind into one mommy, who is sometimes good, sometimes bad, but it’s the same mommy. But as children grow, they develop that ability to integrate both of those experiences of the parent into a whole.

That’s a necessary accomplishment that we need as adults, right? Because let’s say we’re in an intimate relationship and our partner’s having a bad day and they’re not treating us or they’re being a little bit cranky or whatever. We need to be able to remember in that moment, “Oh, he’s having a bad day but I know he loves me.” Right? “This is just this thing he has going on at work.” But fundamentally, I’m still in contact with the part of him that’s loving, where I have good memories of us together. And so, it kind of allows me to, in a certain way, it gives me a level of resilience in relationship to just weather the ups and downs of everyday life and how it affects us. Right?

“The problem with personality disorders in general, but I’d say borderline in particular, is that we don’t ever develop that ability to hold both sides of another person. And also, both sides of ourselves.”

We tend to see these incredible kinds of vacillation between, “Oh, I love you. You’re so wonderful. In fact, you’re like the best person in the world.” And then another day, “You did something to upset me and now I hate you. I can’t stand you. I never loved you.”

And so, it’s this black and white kind of thing, which is the result of this lack of integration. Right? This natural process of integration that should happen over the course of development. Really, by the time we’re three years old. So, very very early. Right? There’s a really good reason why that doesn’t happen but I’m going to pause in terms of like, what gets in the way of that. But I’m going to pause here just because I don’t want to go on too long without hearing from you.

No, it’s great. I was like, “What interferes?”

Oh, okay. Okay. Well, I can talk about that. Yeah. I think there are a number of factors. And, you know, I am a big fan of the psychoanalysts and always have been. And of course, the psychoanalysts starting with Freud were the ones who originally really kind of developed the idea of a personality disorder. That started to see that there were these fundamental problems of a certain kind. But one of the things that they looked at was that there were experiences that happened.

Actually, let me back up. What I was going to say about the psychoanalytic tradition is that’s, you know, one of my favorite people who comes out of that tradition, James Masterson says that there are three things that influence a person’s personality formation, and those are nature, nurture, and fate.

I like that, because, I think that just seems to make logical sense that there are things that happen to us genetically that we come into this world with congenitally, which would be the nature part of it, right. The thing with borderline personality disorder is that we don’t actually really know what that is. And there’s been a lot of research into this over the last, you know, probably 15 years. Not just about personality disorders but attachment in general, how we bond with people, and really trying to find, is there a genetic component to this? The jury’s still out on that. Is there a certain neurotransmitter? Is there some sort of thing? We just haven’t found that yet. So, the nature part is not that clear.

Then nurture part is much more clear. I think we have a much better sense of what happens developmentally in early childhood that would account for personality disorders and how that’s different from what would produce insecure attachment in a person. And so, what we know with what produces borderline personality disorder is that there is usually a trauma and abuse and/or neglect that is going on in an early childhood relationship but it is of a specific type.

“At a certain age, (…) a baby is starting to become their own person. (…) With borderline personality disorder, there’s some kind of rupture that happens between the mother and the child, where the mother is (…) not that crazy about the baby becoming their own person.”

So, what happens is, at a certain age, very early, 15 to 22 months in general, a baby is starting to become their own person. They’re starting to walk and move away from the primary caregiver, the parent, usually the mother but not always, and explore the world and develop themselves in a certain way, discover things that they’re interested in, go after things in the environment that are interesting to them and so forth.

And so, with borderline, in particular, there’s some kind of rupture that happens between the mother and the child at that critical stage, where the mother is essentially, to put it mildly, not that crazy about the baby becoming their own person. These are usually parents who like to keep the child close because it makes them feel well taken care of in a certain way. So, it’s a way that the child is being used to take care of the emotions of a parent.

“I like it when you’re cute and small and close to me.” says mom. “Because that makes me feel good. It makes me feel calmer or better. But as soon as you start to become your own person, I start to feel very insecure.” And so, I’m going to do things to you that are in some way going to sabotage your natural movement toward what we call self-activation, activating your sense of your real self. Going out there getting what you want. I’m going to sabotage you. And depending on the severity of the disorder, it could be everything from sort of subtly sabotaging you in some way to very, very severe trauma and abuse.

Examples of what I might talk about is, every time you try and go after that rattle on the floor, you know, every time you walk over and try and get that thing that you’re looking for, I start crying as a parent. The baby sees the mother crying and suddenly they abandon what they have to do and they go back and try to calm the mother. Right? But it could also be that every time you try to become who you are and try something new and go make a friend at the playground, I take you home and I beat you. Right? So, this is a way that the child is not able to engage in developing what we call their individuate gifts, their uniqueness, what makes them a person.

There’s insufficient support or just overt obstacles that a parent is putting in the way of that child. And so, what happens is it creates a kind of depression in the child. We call that the abandonment depression. Because every time that child tries to put themselves out there, they feel like the rug is being pulled out from under them. There is no support. They feel horrible about themselves. And they actually start to feel what we know, very specific things they feel.

And so, we have to fast forward to adulthood here for a moment and look at what happens, how this impacts intimate relationships, because what this means is that every time you expect something from me or you want me to comfort you, you know, if we’re in a relationship, right? And let’s say that you lost your job and you’re just down. I need to step into that role of taking care of you, ministering to you, relieving you, right? All of the things that we see in a securely attached relationship. I can’t do that because that starts to trigger my own feeling of abandonment. Like, “Who’s going to do that for me? If I do that for you, who’s going to do that for me?”

We know that caregiving is an essential expression in long lasting satisfying intimate relationships. Adult intimate relationships involve the caregiving system. Both partners need to be able to take turns caring for each other and being cared for by the other person, supporting each other and being supported by the other person. If nobody ever did that for you or you got punished every time you tried to become your own person, what do you think you’re going to do to your intimate partner every time they’re trying to become who they are or every time they turn towards you for help?

“Adult intimate relationships involve the caregiving system. (…) If nobody ever did that for you or you got punished every time you tried to become your own person, what do you think you’re going to do to your intimate partner every time they’re trying to become who they are or every time they turn towards you for help?”

Well, just even in the nervous system, what gets activated. Even the choices that you make, right? And when you’re talking about this fast forward, I’m really aware of the repetition and accumulation. It’s hard to emphasize how profound this impact is because we’re talking about chronic traumas that are repetitive and habituated, and this sense of like you said, the lack of safety and potentially injury and trauma that would be incurred through this reaching of self and flexing those muscles and incredibly hard to access, right? It would be a whole different world. And to be able to even imagine that, one, and then two, to be able to access it is tremendous.

Yes. You’re pointing to a really important thing when you’re talking about sort of this world that’s hard to access internally, because in a certain way, that is really the defining differential between somebody just having insecure attachment versus a personality disorder. You might do something that upsets me. Let’s say you’re sarcastic to me one day. If I’m just an ordinary person without a personality disorder, that’s going to upset me. But if I’m somebody with a personality disorder, in that moment that you do something upsetting to me, you become my mother, or you become the person who treated me badly in that moment.

You mentioned the distortion, right? The sense of orientation is very skewed because as you said, if someone’s having that insecure attachment, there’s going to be a whole arousal in the physiology and the nervous. I mean, it’s also activating and the person is going to experience a lot of reaction but there’s still some ability to understand what’s at play. But you’re talking about a level of perception before that is so skewed based on these traumas. Is that right?

Yes. Yes. What you’re pointing to there really is the neurobiological sort of correlation to what we’re talking about, right? Because when you get into an argument with your partner, we know that this activates the deeper brain, right? We are activating the limbic brain and the reptilian brain and these older, deeper brain structures that are all about protecting us from threat. And so, that’s true for all people that we will feel threatened in our intimate relationship anytime our partner does something that we find threatening.

All people regardless of whether you have a personality disorder or not fall victim to this phenomenon because it’s just part of having a brain. It’s part of having a mammalian brain, and that we are highly sensitive to threat because we had to always be scanning the environment to see if there was anything that could kill us. And that’s the same part of the brain that gets activated in our intimate relationships when we feel threatened. So, that’s true for everybody, right?

Everybody loses it. Everybody gets triggered, so to speak, and all of that, but really the difference with personality disorders is there’s just far less ability to step back from that experience of being triggered even after the fact, when everyone’s calmed down, and say, “You know what? I know you’re not my mother. It just got me. You just got me. That really reminded me of what she used to do to me.”

That’s the observing function of the brain, right. That’s the neocortex, the big cauliflower shaped part of the brain that has the ability to reflect on these deeper, more animalistic experiences of trigger and emotion that we have. And go, “You know, I know that that’s how that felt but I know that that’s not really who you are.” Right?

People with personality disorders, tend to have a much less active neocortex that has that in terms of the specific reflective function. I’m not saying they’re not intellectually brilliant and they don’t have great executive functioning, they might have all of those things. But we’re really talking about social emotional capacities here. We’re talking about that ability to kind of manage and mitigate those raw kinds of emotions and physiological experiences that arise. So, it’s a lack of neural integration, you can say.

That probably relates very closely to what you were talking about around identifying with the difficulty with empathy and interpersonal relating.

Yes. Yes. Very much so. Right? The psychoanalysts really before we had neuroscience, they had a more psychological understanding of these deficits. And, you know, again, we don’t want to pathologize people. We don’t want to make people with personality disorders bad, although it’s extremely easy to do that and that’s what our culture does. Right?

I find it’s just more helpful to look at these issues more in the context of a spectrum where everyone is sort of on a spectrum somewhere. Because the fact of the matter is, as Dr. Stan Tatkin says, we all have things that our brains do well and things that our brains don’t do well. Right? And it’s just that in the case of personality disorders, there tends to be a higher number of things that the person’s brain doesn’t do well and that create more distress unless they are properly treated and addressed. Right? But just from a psychoanalytic perspective, when it comes to personality disorders and borderline is included in that, we’re talking about things like not really being able to… what they call poor reality testing. It’s a difficulty in kind of perceiving what’s happening in a way that’s actually based in reality.

Now, I know we all do that, obviously. But with personality disorders, this can look incredibly extreme. Incredibly extreme. Because of that loss of connection to, “I know that you’re not really that person who hurt me.” Right? So, I’m trying to give you an example of like, how divorced from reality people can become when they’re dealing with personality disorder. Would that be helpful to give sort of just try and give like a general example? Composite example. This is not any particular client I had, but just sort of the overall feeling.

So, let’s say like, we go to a party. We’re in therapy. We went to this party, and I’m telling you that at the party, you told me that you wanted me to make out with your best friend’s wife. And you sat there and watched while I made out with your best friend’s wife. Okay? Because that’s what you wanted me to do. Okay?

And then, in investigating that and talking about it further with the person who said that, the partner who said that and the other partner, it turns out that that actually never happened. And this person who accused the other partner of doing that, confirms this never happened. “Actually, you know, what? That’s actually not what happened at all. It was consensual. We all decided together that we were going to have this group sexual experience because this is a big thing now. Polyamory is a big thing. Group sex is on a lot of people’s minds. A lot of couples are making decisions to open up their relationship, bring in other people, experiment having sexual experiences with other couples, and so forth.” Right?

Somebody says, “Yeah, you forced me to do that. I had nothing to do with it. I never agreed to do that.” But in discussing it further, you find out, “Actually, no. That’s not true. This was totally agreed to. There was nothing that was coerced and so forth.”

I’m trying to give you an example of how totally skewed something can be. It’s not a small misunderstanding or a small misperception. It’s a radical misperception. Right? So, that’s a good example, an extreme example of poor reality testing, where someone is just like… It’s kind of just turning you on your head. Like, “What?” You know? Okay.

Yeah. And I mean, again, I love the description of the spectrum because I do understand research helps us that even the average person remembers incorrectly or perceives inaccurately, when they’re heightened or threatened, like you said, and this is a very different experience, and that the whole reality is skewed.

Right. Yeah.

I mean, again, I feel like we could do a whole summit with you, Gabrielle. The wealth of knowledge is profound. I’m so uncaptured. Can I just say for myself, as you talk about those early years and the sabotage or potentially even abuse, like my heart and the compassion, and also, as I put my mind into a listener’s space, where they’re potentially in relationship with someone who has a personality disorder or borderline, that there can be a lot of compassion once there’s an understanding around what this individual experience, but as you said, there’s so much splitting and distortion.

My suspicion is that, a, they don’t even have access to all the trauma and then the understanding, so the compassion is limited because potentially it’s not visible. Right? Because that’s the deeper inside, very vulnerable, that’s not always visible. And then secondly, if the person has some inkling of it and is compassionate, there’s a limit around, “Well, how do I interact with the deficit that we’re talking about with empathy and interpersonal?” Like, how does someone manage? Like, if I’m confronting these conflicts, or these accusations, or these behaviors that I want to feel healthy and safe in relationship with you.

Right. There’s something for me that I feel I want to get across on this call because I think it’s so important, which is sort of like a pre-question to the questions that you’re asking right now, which is that people very often mistype themselves and their partner. Really understanding the nature of the problem when it comes to social emotional problems in relationship when it comes to mental health of individuals is actually a very complex sophisticated domain that requires clinical training, even with clinical training, to accurately assess what is going on is extremely challenging.

“Any clinician who doesn’t recognize how hard it really is to accurately identify the problem that a couple is having isn’t in touch with the scope of the endeavour.”

And the thing is, even clinicians very often misdiagnose borderline personality disorder, specifically. It gets mistaken for bipolar disorder a lot. It gets mistaken for dissociative identity disorder a lot. It gets mapped on to women way more than it does men. It has a sort of a cultural stigma that this is a female disorder. And so, a lot of clinicians turn off their radar for it when they’re working with a male client. Because it involves so much emotionality, we tend to associate emotionality with women because culturally, men are not supported in being emotional, right. So, men tend to get lumped into having anger management problems, impulse control problems. Women, oh, it’s borderline personality disorder. Okay? I’m trying to give you examples of some of the obstacles that come up even for clinicians when really trying to understand what’s going on.

Here’s the thing. A very common scenario that happens in couples therapy is that couples come in, and this is often a gendered scenario so I’m just going to present it that way, is that the female is being viewed by the male partner as having borderline personality disorder. I mean, I have to be honest, I’ve never seen a couple where the woman came in saying, “I believe my husband has borderline personality disorder.” But the other way around, all the time.

So, the couple is coming in, the man is convinced, and I’m talking about heterosexual couples but this could also apply to non-heterosexual couples, we’re just going to talk about heterosexual for the sake of convenience here, where the man is saying, “I’m convinced that my wife meets all the criteria for borderline. She’s so irrational. She gets upset at the smallest thing. She’s calling me all the time at work and is just acting like a crazy person. She’s crying all the time, and so on and so forth.” Right?

And what we see when we start to investigate that relationship is that this woman is being deeply neglected by her husband. Her husband sleeps in his own wing of the house. He’s on the road most of the time. And when he is home, he is critical of her. He’s a name caller. He is devaluing her. But none of that is seen beyond the surface because all of that happens behind closed doors and he looks as cool as a cucumber on the outside.

But she, on the other hand, is the one who’s totally over the top emotional, starts crying at the drop of a hat in a therapist office. Clearly unreasonable, right? So, this perception that you’ve got this crazy person here with this other person who’s totally got it together, is absolutely false. And that is usually false. And the reason is because we know that developmentally, people tend to choose partners who are at a similar sort of developmental level psychologically than they are. We don’t tend to pick somebody who is so much more sort of psychologically developed than we are. We tend to be more sort of close to each other than not, you know. And so, part of what we need to look at is, are there any legitimate claims to what this person who… The partner is saying this person has borderline personality disorder. Okay. But they have concerns about what their partner is doing. And the first order of business is to look at, is there any legitimacy to that? Because the thing with borderlines is that they’re not out of touch. Even though I talked about poor reality testing, on another level, they see things with incredible accuracy but they problem is, they’re hypersensitive to it. So, you were sarcastic to me and now you’re the biggest ogre in the world. Okay, but you are still sarcastic to me. That’s still a problem. And so, we need to deal with those things first at face value. Take all of those threats off the table. Get this partner of the borderline person to start behaving in a loving way toward their partner, move toward their partner, do nice things for their partner. And at that point, we can actually start to go after the borderline personality disorder.

We can’t even really address that if the person with borderline has legitimate concerns about how they’re being treated in the relationship. They’re being neglected. They’re being emotionally abused. We’ve got to deal with that.

Gabrielle, I love you’re emphasizing. This is so important. In my experience, just again, couples across the board will come in and they’re often consciously or even unconsciously or subconsciously really looking for validation that like, “I’m right. You’re the jerk.”

I know we’re talking about something different when we’re talking about personality disorder but the same kind of quality is there, the pathologizing, “You’re wrong.” or the pointing fingers. And if we can really work with the dynamic creating that safety, creating that loving kindness but also the stability where we’re really able to reveal more of those insides of vulnerability and having that connection, then it becomes so much more visible to work with.

Where do you go? Where do you go in your mind? Where do you go emotionally? And then, there’s the safety to really look at that and then that becomes so much more visible and then perhaps even safe to even explore and treat or work with.

Beautiful. Yeah. Because what happens, we know what’s going to happen when we have this partner. Here, let me also say.

“Borderlines often pair with people who are on the narcissistic spectrum who either have narcissistic personality disorder, or they have narcissistic traits, or at the very least they’re avoidantly attached.”

We have this kind of common pairing, where you have one person, the avoidant/narcissist/person with narcissistic traits tends to be on the distancer type of character, distancing. Needs their personal space, experiences a high level of interpersonal stress so they tend to keep to themselves, not invest in the relationship. And then, there’s this borderline person who is on the anxious attachment spectrum because borderlines are anxiously attached.

The hypersensitivities.

Yes, right. Borderline is, you could say from an attachment perspective, it’s an extreme version of anxious attachment. Narcissistic personality disorder is an extreme version of avoidant attachment. So, you have this person who is the pursuer, who needs the contact, who needs reassurance, da-da-da. So, perfect storm. This is a perfect storm.

When we start to actually move this avoidant person toward the borderline partner and get them to do nice things for them, what this borderline person is going to do is they’re going to try and bite their head off. They’re going to try and kill them. They’re going to spit in their face, fight back, or if they’re slightly more high functioning, they might say, “I don’t deserve this.” Okay? “I don’t deserve this love.” But that would be a higher functioning character. The point is, they’re going to try to reject. In some way, they’re going to try and sabotage that love. Remember that conversation about how they were sabotaged as children?

“They’re going to try and sabotage the very thing that they need the most, which is the love and security from their partner.”

That’s the point, clinically, where we can start to confront this borderline person as to why they would do that. And this was Masterson’s great invention. Why would you throw away the very thing that you need the most? You’re here because you say you want to create a loving intimate relationship, and yet when it’s sitting right here on your doorstep, you crap all over it. Why?

So, what we’re doing there is we are getting them to do the work around holding up what Masterson called juxtaposing two contrasting sides of an issue. So, you’re saying you want this love, but then when it’s here, you destroy it. Right? That’s the borderline conflict, right? But how can we possibly even look at that until the love is forthcoming? We can’t even deal with that, right? Because for most couples, the borderline has a point. We are not being treated well. So, how can you blame them for being upset? You see?

Right. No. Precisely, this is such an important illustration of how complex and important and even critical it is to get the right support, the trained eye, to be able to assist in what you’re describing.

I guess, to share two questions. If we can kind of unpack some of maybe what is in the neighborhood of borderline, you’ve given us a lot of examples around I love you, I hate you, some of the things but if there’s anything else you want to say around how to recognize that there might be something in the neighborhood going on.

And then secondly, if someone’s dating, because I just did an episode a while back about, resistant doing this topic, but how do you know when your relationship is over, right? The people that invest in work with me are typically in a long-term relationship or married or have children or have a life. There’s a lot at stake. I very rarely am seeing people that are dating that aren’t engaged or aren’t deeply committed. So, if someone’s dating and they’re recognizing, because what you’re asking for is a deeper level of commitment, of work, of investing. I’m just curious again to that question I asked a while ago in this interview with you around, if someone’s noticing the dynamic and it feeling really challenging, perhaps having compassion on one side, but then also really, like, I don’t know how to create health in the system by myself. I guess I’m curious. What do you advise around how to navigate this?

Are you talking about somebody who already decided they want to be with this person? Or are you saying how can you identify if somebody might have borderline personality disorder when you’re dating? Or I guess, maybe if you could… I’m sorry. I’m not quite getting the… Or maybe you’re asking all those questions.

I realize we haven’t really listed the borderline features. So, there’s that. And then the second part of that is, is there… And maybe commitment level doesn’t really matter that much because if somebody is invested in the person, then they might want to explore how to do the dynamics differently and get support from you to impact that. But I guess I was curious, is there any place that you would advise, like help somebody to take care of themselves that might be in relationship to someone who has a borderline personality? I mean, would you always recommend getting support to deepen in the health and the system of that relationship?

Well, as I’m saying, if you’re in love with somebody and you suspect that this person has borderline personality disorder, I would suggest the first thing to do is to go to couples therapy with somebody who is trained, who understands personality disorders, and specifically how to work with them in couples’ therapy.

I would have a third party, meaning the therapist, observe the relationship in real time because the starting point for dealing with borderline is, is this couple taking excellent care of each other? Are you taking excellent care of your partner who you think has borderline personality disorder? Usually, the answer even from the person is no. Even they’ll say, “You know, I wouldn’t say it’s excellent.”

Right. Because people typically react to each other. You were a jerk, and I’m now happy and stymie and going to, like, yeah.

Well, then that’s sort of implying that the borderline is the one starting that, but it’s not necessarily true. And that’s the problem is passive aggressiveness in the other partner, can be very difficult to see on the surface because a lot of these behaviors are subversive and they’re more subtle than what’s going on with the borderline. So, all of that has to be examined by a professional who can say, “Look, what just happened here.”

Gabrielle, there’s never really always a beginning and an end. I do want to say like, my model is like, really that infinity just how we’re reacting to each other.

Exactly. Right. So, in other words, we’re addressing the system because it takes two to tango, both people are playing a role, right? Now, if we’ve been through all of that, and we’ve really looked at that, and we’ve really gotten this partner to do something loving for this other partner, right. And what we see is that this partner is continuing to act out, continuing to call, you know, all day continuing to act in destructive ways, lying to the partner, engaging in self-injurious behaviors, self-harming behaviors, suicide attempts, stealing, all kinds of self-harm, right. And this is out of control behavior, then, you know, we have to look at more intensive forms of treatment.

I’m not trying to say that couples therapy is the be all and end all for dealing with borderline personalities. They are far from it. But I am saying that a lot of these relationship dynamics, when we get them sorted out, this borderline person doesn’t look so borderline anymore. And it’s really important to know that people change, and they will no longer meet the diagnosis even if they did once we sort out the relationship. And we help this couple create a relationship that’s based on principles like equality, like empathy, like fairness, and lots and lots of affection every day, lots of gratitude, praise for each other every day, dealing with each other’s distress. All of these things that we know from the research couples need to be able to do in order for their nervous systems to calm down and for them to be relaxed with each other and engage in a loving mutualistic relationship. So that has to be, as far as I’m concerned, paramount.

There’s plenty of research to support couples therapy as a way of dealing with borderline personality disorder. So that would be for me first order of business. But if you’re still dealing with issues, there are times that somebody will need a certain kind of intensive treatment. And that can be, sometimes that is intensive outpatient treatment where they’re attending a program for a number of weeks in a psychiatric type of hospital where they’re in group therapy, they might be an individual therapy, there are check ins every day. So, individual treatment could be important with really, really out of control types of behavior, right.

I would wonder, Gabrielle, too that with this secure functioning relationship and this relaxed comfort of being able to care for each other in this reciprocity that it would make that individual work much more supported and doable even, that resilience of having that relationship that support some of those inner self perceptions and outer that you really confront some of that, would you say?

One hundred percent. And there are times that those things can work incredibly well together. Because we can’t take people out of the systems in which they reside, polish them up, and then expect that they’re going to function like that in their system because we are part of the systems and the systems are us. We are so much more a derivative. The self is so much more a derivative of the system. The relationship is really what’s primary. That’s how I look at it.

Yes. I’m curious. I know how much research there is. Even as you talk about attachment when we can earn a secure attachment in adulthood, that that can actually have such a healing impact on our working model internally. Do you feel that that’s also true that the system, the health of the couple, and the functioning can actually support the healing for the individual that might have traits of borderline? I mean, I’m not saying they don’t need treatment but do you find that being healing?

Yes. That is so much a part of how I think about these things. There is so much support for that. As I said, people can meet the criteria for borderline personality disorder. Go in to couples’ therapy. If therapy has been done appropriately, the person is no longer meeting the criteria. So, we see how the relationship has a direct impact on the self. We tend to undervalue the fact of that because we are such an individual centric society. We’re so focused on individual development, individual striving. It’s all very focused on the self. Our culture has been going in the wrong direction with that for a very long time.

I know. Even my question as I’m reflecting, as I ask my question and were talking my question became less relevant. Right? Because I was asking, well, if I’m putting myself in the position of a listener who’s wondering about a significant other that has personality disorder, and how they might be compassionate, and also, how do they take care of themselves, right? And you’re saying, if we really look at the system and the functioning, and if there’s love and there’s being in love with someone, that there’s that draw, can we address the system and cannot be the focus and the health around that in the search to take care of itself?

Yes. Yes, that’s right. You can do things with the system that you actually are much harder to do with the individuals within the system. You can talk to the whole system and reflect how you guys are not taking care of each other. You could talk to people about their behavior in a way that is a lot more difficult when you’re just talking to one person because they’re more likely to take it personally. So, yeah.

When you have the third party, trained like yourself and myself with couples, I would not say I’m an expert by any means. I mean, look, I have a masters and a PhD and I understand personality disorder, I understand the functionality, but I would nowhere near say that I am an expert or even I would refer out. So, I would say the average clinician does not get a ton of training in personality and how to treat unless you really have geared your work towards that.

And the work around couple dynamic and the experiential when you have that third party, I think that you have an impact to change the system even when you are talking to one person and the significant other is witness to that and the work that’s happening that’s changing the system experientially. Yeah, there’s so much here.

Okay, Gabrielle. I know we can wrap for hours. I love what you have to offer. I know I had you on the show before but I just continue to feel so much in support of what you’re doing and your outlook and your methodology. Is there anything else you want to say about borderline personality and relationship? I know we’ve scratched the surface. And then, I want to transition to how do people get in touch with you and what you’re up to?

Sure. Okay. I think one of the very most important things to think about, regardless of what stage you’re at, whether you’re just dating, starting out dating, or even thinking about dating, or you’ve been married for 25 years and you think your partner might have a borderline personality disorder, is about the kind of relationship that you want to have.

What kind of relationship do you want to have? (If you’re single.) And if you’re not single and you’re in a relationship, what kind of relationship do we want to have? Across time, in order for systems in general to function at a high level, they need to have some kind of organizing principle that guides their behavior in the system. If you look at all of the religious traditions, the monastic systems, all had moral codes. You could say, we’re not so crazy about the idea of moral code these days but if you look at high functioning business organizations, they all have some sort of motto or some kind of mission statement. Right?

Steve Covey, who talks about the family mission statement. Couples need a mission statement. They need a why. Dave Logan in his book, Tribal Leadership. Why? Why be an organization? And that’s a question that if you don’t answer that as a couple, then you are invariably going to run into problems. Because whether we’re borderline or not, some days we wake up and we feel lots of love for our partner, and we feel like just being the most generous, loving person in the world. And other days we wake up and, you know, not so much. You’re just kind of pissing me off. I’m in a bad mood. I don’t really feel like being loving today. So, why should I?

“It doesn’t make sense for people to be in a relationship unless it is seriously improving the quality of their lives in some way.”

And so, relationships have to be about holding each other in, that we have a reason that we agree to. This is what we’re going to do for each other at the worst of times, not just when we feel like it. And so, if you have that orientation, you can be as crazy as you might think you are, but you’re still being held accountable for your behavior just like the rest of us. And if you can’t roll with that, then the relationship is done. Because when people break the rules too many times, the relationship simply will not stand.

Yes. Beautiful! I love it. Okay. Gabrielle, how do people get in contact with you? What are you up to? What are you offering?

Yeah. Well, I have my clinical practice in Colorado but I have a number of other things going on. I’m writing a book right now. It’s going to be out at the end of this year. It’s called, The Power Couple Formula. People can go to and sign up to get weekly relationship advice for free delivered to your inbox and just to stay connected until the book comes out.

They can go to, which is my educational business for lay people, for the general public. And I have a YouTube channel. Power Couples Education is the name of it. So, you can go visit that as well.

Yeah, I’ve got my Institute for Training, the training of therapists, which is the Power Couples Institute. That would be more for clinicians. So, those are lots of ways to get in touch with me.

I actually know I have several clinicians that listen to the show. And so, I hope that if people are resonating with what you’re offering, whether or not it’s to continue their professional training or to assist in their coupled dynamic and just the wealth of information you have to share, I will make sure to have these links that you’re mentioning right now on today’s show notes so that’s all accessible. Your book, your group, your forum, and your education. It sounds like you also do coaching as well. It’s just tremendous.

Actually, unfortunately, I don’t do coaching.

Oh, you don’t do coaching. You do the therapy.

Therapy online with people who are within the state of Colorado. I forgot to mention. One other important thing is that I just got signed to my own TV show about relationships. Yeah.


Yes, thank you. It’s a Canadian television company but it will be available on Amazon Prime when it’s ready. It is about couples, power couples across history. Yeah, we’re taking a deep dive into looking at famous and infamous relationships of couples over time, you know, everything from Anthony and Cleopatra to the Obamas and everything in between kind of thing. Did their relationship work? If so, why? Why not? What are the principles at play there? And what modern couples can take away from that. So, I’m very excited about that as well.

Oh, wow. Keep us posted. I’d love to support the show and watch it myself.

Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s really been a pleasure speaking with you today.

Thank you for joining us.

Signing Off

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Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication.

Stop the criticism loop, learn new ways to communicate
and strengthen the connection with your partner.


Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching