depending on who you speak to you might be told it’s one of the “10 famous psychological experiments that could never happen today,” or one of the “25 most influential psychological experiments in history”. but in 1965, martin seligman and his colleagues used dogs as subjects to test how one might perceive control as part of a research on classical conditioning, or the process by which an animal or human being associates one thing with another. in his experiment, seligman would ring a bell and then give a light shock to a dog. with time, the dog reacted to the shock even before it happened: as soon as the dog heard the bell, he would react as though he’d been shocked. then seligman put two of the dogs into a large crate that was divided down the middle with a low fence. the dogs could see and jump over the fence if they wanted to. the floor on one side of the fence was electrified, but the floor on the other side of the fence wasn’t. seligman put the dogs on the electrified side and administered a light shock. the dogs, contrary to expectation, didn’t jump to the non-shocking side of the fence – they simply laid down as though they’d learned from the first part of the experiment that there was nothing they could do to avoid the shocks. next, seligman tried the second part of his experiment on dogs that had not been through the classical conditioning part of the experiment. the dogs that had not been previously exposed to shocks quickly jumped over the fence to escape the shocks. this proved to seligman that the dogs who laid down and acted helpless had learned that helplessness from the first part of his experiment. seligman described their condition as learned helplessness, or not trying to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught you that you are helpless. the same is true of lovers.
some lovers can train you to think your emotions, your time, and your existence belong to them. they can train you to be happy when they are happy, they can train you to be sad when they are sad, they can train you to be available when they want to be available, they can train you to text when they want to text. there’s nothing wrong with this, but any sign that you may be unavailable results in texts like “i’m sad,” “i feel like crying,” “i feel empty,” “are we ok?” “i fear i’m gonna lose you,” “you can be so insensitive,” “what you just said broke my heart,” “what do you mean you can’t see me, what would you be doing?” for some, living is like standing in a quick sand — they lose balance because the ground beneath their feet constantly changing, consequently, they become scared and defensive. this is what it’s like to have bpd. when you have bpd, almost everything is unstable – behavior, identity, moods, relationships, and thinking. believe me, it’s a frightening and painful way to live. but it’s also frightening and painful to live with as a lover: imagine a relationship with a lover who feels constantly “empty” – no matter what you do or are doing. imagine a relationship with a lover whose emotions shift very quickly, and he/she is constantly experiencing extreme sadness, anger, and anxiety. imagine a relationship with a lover who is constantly afraid that you will abandon him/her. imagine a relationship with a lover who constantly does things he/she knows are dangerous or bad for him/her – binge drinking, doing drugs, flirting with men/women and telling you those men/women “will be silly to take it otherwise.” imagine a relationship with a lover who lashes out or make frantic gestures to keep you close when he/she feels insecure. such relationships are intense – but equally unstable, and they expect you to remain emotionally stable.
there are several symptoms of bdp (some of them already mentioned above), but i will discuss two in detail further: fear of abandonment: lovers with bpd are often terrified of being abandoned or left alone. even something as innocuous as you getting home late from work or travelling can trigger intense fear. this leads to frantic efforts on their part to keep you close. i had a lover who only called me in the evenings when i was on a trip. never once called me in the evening when i was in town. we would text well into the wee hours of the morning, but never one call while i was in town. had another who will start fights a day before or on the day i travel – if we were not traveling together. it got so bad, i would pen down ‘fight’ as i made up a list for each trip. imagine having to watch out for anything that will spark a fight. out of fear of abandonment these two lovers tracked my movements, one even physically blocked me from leaving several times. unfortunately, this behavior resulted in the opposite effect – of driving me away. let’s get one thing straight, i’m not saying i was the perfect lover with these two, or any other lover – on some ‘good’ days you can fry eggs on my tongue. curiously, i am still friends with ‘fire-brigade’ and ‘firestarter’ – they know i call them these names – and we are better friends today, than we were lovers. makes me wonder, is it something to do with being lovers. chronic feelings of emptiness: lovers with bpd often talk about feeling empty, as if there’s a hole or a void inside them. imagine feeling like you’re “nothing” or “nobody,” this is the most uncomfortable feeling ever – one that can drive you to fill the hole with things like drugs, food, sex or escapades that undermine your relationship. believe me, nothing satisfies you when you’re in a permanent state of flux. in this state, some lovers lash out. have you ever been with your lover and without knowing what you said or did, you see their face tense, they go silent and then they snap. i am not talking about just when you went out for dinner alone, i am talking almost always, even when you have family and/or friends around. usually, you find yourself apologizing and watching your words or actions after that. have you ever had a lover (or have one right now) who wouldn’t mind having a shouting bout in a department store with people milling around doing christmas shopping. have you ever been abandoned at your friend’s house, parties, restaurants, shopping malls and weddings … have you ever had a lover who makes you feel your past is happening now – one who makes you think your past, present, and future is one unresolvable traumatic experience for him/her. one who makes you feel your past is the dessert of your daily experience. believe me, it gets to the stage where you start to believe you are a bad lover. no one should ever allow love to hold him/her hostage to someone else’s self-indulgent emotions. no matter what you are feeling or going through, there are effective ways of communicating and relating with your lover, and resolving issues. when i say this, i am aware that the ability to live in permanent peace is something admirable in such animals as sheep – but even sheep fight.
i read recently that though everybody is capable of flying off the handle, the chief difference between (most) men and (most) women is how long they stay angry and how continuously they needle their partner. going back to seligman, i read from his book, “learned optimism,” that, to his detriment, when a man experiences an unpleasant emotion, he “gets over it” very quickly. detrimental because a man doesn’t stay with an unpleasant emotion long enough to analyze his role in creating the situation – consequently, he doesn’t learn from it. women, on the other hand, are more contemplative and, therefore, more likely to get “stuck” in the emotion longer. however, a woman is more likely to focus only on the emotion, never moving past the feeling enough to evaluate her role in creating the situation. more importantly, the male or female approach is likely to result in the same problem recurring/persisting. gladly, seligman highlights three types of happiness lovers can learn from – but that’s material for another instalment. but he does write this about optimists and pessimists, “the defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. the optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. they tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case … such people are unfazed by defeat. confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.” i quote this because the optimist’s approach can help your lover love you better.
love is organic. and for this reason, the way a lover views the negative events that happen to him/her can have an impact on whether he/she feels helpless or not. let’s look at an example: imagine that you just broke up with your lover. there are several reasons you can attribute for this: ‘i’m stupid.’ ‘i didn’t love her/him enough.’ ‘love is hard.’ each of these reasons can be seen as a different type of attribution. an attribution is the factor a person blames for anything (positive or negative) that happens to him/her. here i am going to focus on the types of attributions that cause learned helplessness – the others will be discussed in subsequent posts. the attributions most likely to cause learned helplessness are internal, external (global), and stable. an internal attribution gives the cause of an event as something to do with you, as a person, as opposed to something external. for example, if you believe your relationship failed because you’re stupid, that’s an internal attribution. if you believe your relationship failed because love is hard – that’s an external attribution. because you are blaming love, an amorphous phenomenon that is beyond your control for your failure. stable attribution is derives from internal attribution, but it is one that doesn’t change over time or across situations. for example, if you believe you failed at love because you’re stupid that’s a stable attribution. the fact that you’re stupid won’t change depending on who you fall in love with. now, compare that to believing that you failed because you didn’t love enough. that’s not a stable attribution because next time you can change that and love more. i believe that the difference between the way a man and a woman processes situations is the reason we belong together – if you are open-minded enough to accept that your partner is better than you at some things, and you are willing to learn from it, then it is my hope women, without becoming less contemplative, will get better at “getting over” situations, and men, oh well, will get better at learning from situations – and together bring borderline to center stage.