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Emotional communication in the family of origin of women with borderline personality disorder

Ellen M Prairie, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In recent years, research of borderline personality disorder (BPD) has intensified and a specialized treatment, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, has been developed by Marsha Linehan to treat this disorder. Proponents of the biosocial theory, the foundation for this treatment model, contend that BPD is the result of a series of transactions over time between the individual's biological disposition and his or her “invalidating environment.” This theory is based on clinical experience and has not been studied. The present study provides an in depth examination of the life experiences in the family of origin of individuals with the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and compared their experiences to those of individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) in order to elucidate the patterns of emotional communication in the families of individuals with BPD. Drawing on the biosocial theory of BPD described by Linehan (1993a, 1993b) this study explores the social underpinnings of the development of borderline personality disorder in order to increase awareness of the social factors contributing to its development. Ten women (six diagnosed with BPD and four diagnosed with MDD) were recruited from a private not-for-profit community mental health clinic to participate in the study. Participants were interviewed using the Meta-emotion Interview, a semi-structured interview developed by Katz and Gottman (1986) which explores the philosophy toward emotions in each individual's family of origin during childhood and in the present day. Using the concepts of meta-emotion and meta-emotion philosophy (Gottman, Katz, & Hooven, 1996; Katz, Wilson, & Gottman, 1999) interviews were coded to identify themes to describe experiences in the family of origin of each participant as well as her approach toward emotions in the present day. Experiences of borderline women were compared to those of women with major depressive disorder. Women in both groups described experiences in their family of origin representative of Gottman's description of emotion dismissing families. However, borderline women more commonly described parents who were punitive and physically abusive in response to the expression of emotions. These experiences of borderline women are consistent with what Linehan terms the “invalidating environment.” In contrast to the depressed women, the borderline women appear to perpetuate their experiences in childhood by dismissing their own emotions in adulthood.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Prairie, Ellen M, "Emotional communication in the family of origin of women with borderline personality disorder" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3136766.