Note: Details of the Mike-Elizabeth relationship have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Chaos can have a bewitching allure, particularly when it comes in the form of a whip-smart, dead-sexy woman with ferocious impulses, deep emotional scars and no real sense of self.
For some, it is beyond irresistible.
Think Marilyn Monroe, a sex bomb who cloaked her own psychic wounds in breathy splendor while, privately, teetering on the edge of oblivion. Or consider the complex and glamorous young Glenn Close, when she first walks on screen in Fatal Attraction. Or Angelina Jolie’s fragile and terrifying mental patient in Girl, Interrupted. Or any one of the modern-day pop stars, ingénues and reality TV spawn who live as if they’re always in character, always trawling for companionship, looking for someone to love or blame, because they just can’t find themselves.
“We were turned in on each other and to hell with the rest of the world,” he recalled. “It really felt like she was losing herself to me and I felt the same way. And that’s what made it so hot.”
Psychologically speaking, they could all be diagnosed with shades of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a sort of femme fatale of the new millennium, the very traits of which—a black-white world-view, deep fear of abandonment, passionate mood swings, unstable relationships and devastating vulnerability—can add up to an intoxicating woman-child with a dark side.
Just ask Mike. He was a 27-year-old grad student in San Francisco, happily ensconced in a stable long-distance relationship when he met the ethereal Elizabeth at a party. Their chemistry was immediate. They talked until dawn. Soon, Mike was breaking up with his girlfriend to fall headlong into a passionate affair with Elizabeth. Their sexual trysts were unlike anything he’d experienced—breathless and overwhelming.
“We were turned in on each other and to hell with the rest of the world,” he recalled. “It really felt like she was losing herself to me and I felt the same way. And that’s what made it so hot. …She didn’t seem to inhabit the same world I did. There was just something enchanted about it, something like going back to childhood about it.”
And, borderline experts say, is what makes partners with this particularly disorder so engaging at first. “Successful men who may be obsessional, who tend to suppress emotion, can go for the passion,” presented by a relationship with a borderline, says Frank Yeomans, a BPD expert and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. "They say to themselves, 'She fills an intensity that's missing from my life.'"
Borderline Personality Disorder is defined by the DSM-IV, the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as "a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image and affects, as well as marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts." Frantic attempts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, chronic feelings of emptiness, difficulty controlling anger and transient, stress-related paranoia are other indications of BPD. The standard BPD diagnosis first appeared in the 1980 publication of the DSM-III and was mistakenly diagnosed as bi-polar disorder for years. Today, about 1.6 percent of the U.S. population older than 18 has BPD, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Psychiatrists and other BPD experts are quick to point out that there’s a wide spectrum of behavior characteristic to people who can be diagnosed with the disorder. But they do agree on a few anecdotal traits that fall just outside the definition in the DSM-IV. BPD’s are often bright women, quick-thinkers with a gift for debate. And with the right kind of treatment, they can become accomplished individuals with thriving careers.
However, many are also survivors of child sex abuse and grow up deeply self-conscious, in desperate need for control. Eating disorders are common. Lots of time is spent perfecting their outward appearance.
“Though it hasn't been studied, there is a sense among doctors that many patients tend to be attractive, which can trigger a vicious cycle,” says Peter Freed, assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, who specializes in BPD. “Being beautiful induces the world to treat you like an object, which naturally gives rise to questions about whether you are loveable, which in turn makes you long for confirmation."
This in turn complicates their intense sexual allure, which is ultimately a kind of survival mechanism. "The intensity of her erotic passion can sweep you away, but her motive is double-edged," writes California-based therapist Roger Melton on the borderline personality disorder support site BPDFamily.org. "One side of it comes from the instinctually built-in, turbulent emotionality of her disorder…But the other side of her is driven by an equally instinctually and concentrated need to control you."
“It’s not really about sex,” says Susan Lindau, a Los Angeles-based licensed clinical social worker who treats borderline personality disorder. “It’s much more about having that anchor, that comfort, that definition: ‘I am a person because I have this relationship.’”
Of course, the men who are drawn to women with BPD often have issues of their own. On the surface, the attraction can look like run-of-the-mill infatuation. The fragility of a BPD woman can also plug into a man’s hero complex. Her constant need for reassurance and support can exaggerate an insecure person’s sense of importance. In fact, it’s not uncommon for narcissistic men to gravitate to BPD women, because each disorder serves the other, says Freed.
“The borderline patient's overt vulnerability confirms the narcissist’s power, which typically is his driving concern, even if he rarely talks about it,” he says. “Going out with a borderline can be exhilarating for these men because their partner becomes focused on them, jealously asking, ‘Where were you last night? What did you do?’ On the surface, there's a lot of fighting and friction, but underneath they are being paid much attention, which is intensely reassuring to a narcissistic character. They’re the center of someone's world.” For Mike, Elizabeth’s all-consuming focus was initially compelling. There were no boundaries, emotional or physical. But there was a flip side to Elizabeth’s inviting innocence and sexual abandon. She sometimes cut herself “to feel a bit of pain,” he said. And even the most mundane disagreement could send her into deep despair and inspire vicious attacks.
Ten days after their first sexual encounter, an otherwise benign conversation about the merits of veganism (Elizabeth was vegan, Mike was not) turned into a torrential blowout that left Elizabeth crippled by sobs, disgusted by Mike and declaring an end to their love affair. Mike wasn’t turned off. Indeed, he found himself fumbling for a way to resolve things.
“I spent a few days trying to prove to her I was actually a good person, even though I liked to eat lamb brains,” he said. “Then we had a really passionate makeup ... I was perfect again until the next time I was the devil again. And so it went.”
Mike eventually broke up with Elizabeth. But the experience still haunts him, particularly when his current girlfriend—an argumentative journalist—wants to engage in a friendly debate. “I’m still,” he says, “a little traumatized.”
Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.