Not All Emotional Abusers Are Narcissists

It is popular to make emotional abuse synonymous with narcissism, but is it?



  • Many, but not all, emotional abusers have a personality disorder.
  • Borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder are frequently linked to emotional abuse.
  • Some relationships can even become mutually abusive if someone with a borderline personality disorder pushes their partner to their limit.

I began a discussion about the connection between emotional abuse, narcissism, and borderline personality disorder in a previous post. In the next two posts, I will define and describe these two personality disorders, illustrate how each is manifested and how each is experienced as emotional abuse by their partner. I will also provide questionnaires to help you determine whether your partner may have one of these two disorders.

First, let’s define personality disorder. According to the DSM-V, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by mental health professionals to help determine psychological diagnoses, a personality disorder is an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible (unlikely to change), is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment in interpersonal relationships.

In addition to an inability to have successful relationships, those with a personality disorder suffer from disturbances in self-image, their ways of perceiving themselves and others, the appropriateness of their range of emotion, and difficulties with impulse control. While other personality disorders and mental illnesses can cause a person to become emotionally abusive at times, they are not characterized by emotional abuse, as are borderline personality disorder (BPD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).


Are You Being Abused by Someone With Borderline Personality Disorder?

Please note that the majority of those suffering from borderline personality disorder are women, and the majority of those with narcissistic personality disorder are men. There has been much speculation as to why this is, including the idea that males in almost every culture are discouraged from expressing their emotions openly (with the exception of anger) and are severely stigmatized when they act in any way that can be construed as victim behavior. Therefore, most males are more likely to hold in their emotions and build up strong defensive walls to protect themselves from getting hurt by others. This defensive wall is characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder.

Females, on the other hand, are given permission to express their more vulnerable feelings, such as pain and fear, but are discouraged from expressing anger. They are more likely to turn their anger in on themselves and suffer from low self-esteem, overwhelming shame, and depression as a result. These three symptoms are characteristic of those who suffer from a borderline personality disorder. In this post, I will primarily use “she” when discussing borderline individuals and “he” when discussing narcissistic individuals. This doesn’t mean there are no male borderlines or female narcissists, however. In fact, in recent years, professionals are finding they are encountering more and more male borderline and female narcissistic clients.

Over the course of a relationship, the most typical pattern that emerges is that a borderline individual will “fall in love” very quickly and will push for instant intimacy. She may seem to have few, if any, boundaries—insisting on seeing her lover every day, sharing her deepest darkest secrets, even pushing to marry or live together right away. But once she has captured her partner’s heart and received some kind of commitment from him, a typical borderline individual may suddenly become distant, critical, or have second thoughts about the relationship. She may stop wanting to have sex, saying that she feels they had sex too early and didn’t get to know one another in other ways. She may suddenly become suspicious of her partner, accusing him of using her or of being unfaithful. She may begin to find fault in everything he does and question whether she really loves him. This distancing behavior may even verge on paranoia. She may begin to listen in on her partner’s phone calls, check on his background, or question past lovers.

This behavior on the part of the person suffering from BPD may cause her partner to question the relationship, or it may make him so angry that he distances from her. When this occurs, she will suddenly feel the other fear—the fear of abandonment—and she will become needy, clingy, and “instantly intimate” once again. For some partners, this vacillation may be merely perplexing, but for many, it is extremely upsetting. And in some cases, it will cause the partner to want to end the relationship. When this occurs, there will no doubt be a very dramatic scene in which the borderline individual may beg for him to stay, threaten to kill herself if he doesn’t, or even threaten to kill him if he tries to leave her.

Even though many of the typical behaviors of a person suffering from BPD are clearly emotionally abusive (e.g., constant chaos, constant criticism, unreasonable expectations), often the relationship becomes mutually abusive because the borderline partner pushes her partner to his limit, and he ends up acting out in frustration and anger. This kind of vacillating behavior is very difficult for most people to cope with, and few come away from the situation without losing their temper or resorting to abusive tactics themselves.

Questionnaire—Does Your Partner Suffer From Borderline Personality Disorder?

The following questions, adapted from Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger, will help you determine whether your partner suffers from a borderline personality disorder or has strong borderline traits.

1. Has your partner caused you a great deal of emotional pain and distress?

2. Have you come to feel that anything you say or do could potentially be twisted and used against you?

3. Does your partner often put you in a no-win situation?

4. Does your partner often blame you for things that aren’t your fault?

5. Are you criticized and blamed for everything wrong in the relationship or everything that is wrong in your partner’s life, even when it makes no logical sense?

6. Do you find yourself concealing what you think or feel because you are afraid of your partner’s reaction or because it doesn’t seem worth the hurt feelings or the terrible fight that will undoubtedly follow?

7. Are you the focus of intense, violent, and irrational rages, alternating with periods when your partner acts normal and loving? Do others have a difficult time believing you when you explain that this is going on?

8. Do you often feel manipulated, controlled, or lied to by your partner? Do you feel like you are the victim of emotional blackmail?

9. Do you feel like your partner sees you as either all good or all bad, with nothing in between? Does there seem to be no rational reason for the switch in his or her perception of you?

10. Does your partner often push you away when you are feeling close?

11. Are you afraid to ask for things in the relationship because you will be accused of being too demanding or told there is something wrong with you?

12. Does your partner tell you that your needs are not important or act in ways that indicate that this is how she or he feels?

13. Does your partner frequently denigrate or deny your point of view?

14. Do you feel you can never do anything right or that his or her expectations are constantly changing?

15. Are you frequently accused of doing things you didn’t do or saying things you didn’t say? Do you feel misunderstood a great deal of the time, and when you attempt to explain, does your partner not believe you?

16. Does your partner frequently criticize you or put you down?

17. When you try to leave the relationship, does your partner try to prevent you from leaving by any means possible (e.g., declarations of love, promises to change or get help, implicit or explicit threats of suicide or homicide)?

18. Do you have a hard time planning activities (social engagements, vacations) because of your partner’s moodiness, impulsiveness, or unpredictability? Do you make excuses for her behavior or try to convince yourself that everything is OK?

If you answered “yes” to many of these questions, your partner likely has traits associated with a borderline personality disorder.

In the next post, I will provide a questionnaire to help you determine whether your abusive partner has narcissistic tendencies or can be diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder.


Engel, Beverly (2020). Escaping Emotional Abuse: Healing the Shame You Don’t Deserve. New York, NY: Citadel Press.

Mason, Paul and Kreger, Randy (2020). Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.