This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Psychopathology course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Mental Health.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular class of mental disorders.
The Sex Lives of the Borderline and Narcissist by Derek Minor
It is not uncommon to come across an individual with a personality disorder in your daily life, as nearly one in 10 individuals in the United States qualify for such a diagnosis. One group of personality disorders described as being highly emotional, dramatic in nature, or erratic is the Cluster B personality disorders as found in the DSM-5. Two of the disorders found in this cluster are borderline personality disorder (BPD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). In the United States, the prevalence rate for BPD is approximately 5.9%. For NPD, the prevalence rate is approximately 6.2%. Both of these disorders can be extremely damaging to the development of romantic relationships, and they can be especially damaging in how they affect the sexual behaviors of those with BPD and NPD.
The BPD individual is characterized by emotional lability, interpersonal difficulties, abandonment issues, and problems with impulse control. The individual with NPD is characterized by lacking empathy, feeling the need for admiration from others, having a grandiose sense of self, and trouble developing emotional closeness with others. One thing both of these disorders have in common is unhealthy sexual relationships, but for two very different reasons. As will be explained, those who have BPD engage in maladaptive behaviors resulting in harmful relationship outcomes, and for those with NPD, a lack of emotional closeness results in a lack of long-term relationships.
One prominent characteristic that can manifest in an individual with borderline is sexual impulsivity. This can be especially damming to the development of romantic relationships. For instance, promiscuity is a common feature of the borderline who engages in sex impulsively. Additionally, those with borderline suffer many consequences related to their sexually impulsive behavior which is heightened with a comorbid substance use disorder. Those with BPD tend to have double the number of sexual partners than average, more causal sexual interactions, and have sexual relationships at a younger age. They also tend to experience more high-risk sexual behaviors. They are more likely to be pressured into having sex, raped by someone they do not know or the victim of date rape. Finally, they have higher rates of contracting sexually transmitted diseases than seen by the general population which can be traced back to high-risk sexual behavior including non-use of protection. As can be seen, impulsivity can be very destructive and must be taken seriously due to its profound impact on the individual with BPD.
There are several theories that seek to explain the borderlines sexual behaviors, in addition to difficulties with impulsivity. One symptom common to those with BPD is chronic feelings of emptiness. To counter these feelings, the borderline uses sex as a means to fill that emptiness. Also, sexual abuse is a common factor that many BPD individuals have experienced. Sexual abuse has the tendency to distort one’s ability to understand sexuality and intimacy which may lead the borderline to engage in sexual activities outside the norm. Finally, people with BPD have issues with attachment as they fear being left alone. Having sex is a way to engage with their partner in a way that reinforces a connectedness which reassures the borderline. Therefore, as can be seen, sex is used as a coping method to help the borderline feel more connected with others and feel better about him or herself.
Those with NPD also tend to have a dysfunctional sex life; however, their situation is a little different because their problem is with a lack of emotional intimacy. For the narcissist, sexual partners can be characterized as trophies used to enhance his or her self-esteem and self-worth. For instance, they will look for individuals that will somehow bolster their identity in one way or another. Some would even characterize them as “players.” They feel very little need to have an emotional attachment or commitment with others before engaging in sex. Narcissistic individuals are looking for pleasure instead of searching for some sort of commitment or an emotional connection with another human being.
Ultimately, due to the narcissist’s outlook on romantic relationships, finding a lasting, healthy relationship is difficult if not nearly impossible. They literally place all their stock on individualist rewards they can gain from a relationship such as pleasure and power. The narcissist tends to devalue rewards such as intimacy and emotional closeness needed for a healthy, long term relationship. Due to this, the narcissist makes a very poor romantic partner. For one, it has been found that they are less committed to the relationship. Secondly, they tend to be less faithful when in a romantic relationship. Finally, they tend to be not as close emotionally with their partner when in a romantic relationship. In essence, they place a barrier between themselves and those they have intimate relations with which prevents emotional closeness and the formation of a long term relationship.
Those with personality disorders can be a destructive force ripping through lives of both those with the disorder and the ones they encounter. One common problem for both BPD and NPD is the development of appropriate sexual relationships. The borderline is looking for a sense of intimacy and reassurance that he or she is not alone. However, they look in all the wrong places as their lives are put in danger as they engage in high risk sexual behaviors. The narcissist is also looking for a way to make him or herself feel better. They are looking for pleasure and a way to bolster their self-image by seeking out those who can build them up in power and self-worth. However, they will never find what they are looking for because they are unable to make true emotional connections as they go through life with a barrier firmly placed between themselves and those they encounter. For those with BPD and NPD, their only hope is a qualified therapist and the willingness to self-examine, work hard, and make some difficult changes.