Article Review

By Karen E. Engebretsen Psy.D., LLC.


 Borderline Personality Organization Dissociation and Willingness to Use Force in Intimate Relationships

 By Sheree Dukes Conrad and Rachael Stevens Morrow



This article starts by presenting a stark, chilling statistical reality: In 1992, twenty-eight percent of female homicide victims were murdered by their husbands, former husbands or boyfriends compared to 3 percent of male homicide victims murdered by their wives or lovers.


There is no reason to believe this relationship has changed significantly in subsequent years.


With that number as a backdrop, the study outlined in this article hypothesized that men who score high on a measure of borderline personality organization (BPO) would be more likely to use force in intimate conflict than men who scored low on BPO. The stimuli for the former group was media portrayal of abandonment. The triggering mechanism for the second group was exposure to violent media. In both instances the media selected was news reports that were graphic and narrative driven.


In the past, the causes of intimate violence have been studied by the U.S. Department of Justice, among others. These studies have explored biological causes, such as temporal lobe epilepsy. Other studies have probed a range of social causes and socio-cultural determinants.


Conrad and Morrow used specificity as a method for analyzing violence in intimate settings. They note that previous studies omit the batterer’s selection of a target and the secrecy surrounding the incidence of violence.


This study’s hypothesis was based on testing the link between current stressors and personality. The authors’ analysis then explored those factors may play a significant role in determining  the use of force in a intimate conflict.


Conrad and Morrow further suggested that  men who score high on BPO would be more likely than other men to express a willingness to resort to violence in intimate conflict. Additionally, this tendency would be heightened by the presence of abandonment threats in their environment. These threats would be pivotal in causing dissociated or altered states where the subjects would resort to a disproportionate level of violence.


This cluster of hypotheses was built upon earlier work  that tied BPO to domestic violence and theorized  that abuse insecurity in early childhood led to heightened levels of insecurity and anger in intimate adult relationships.


In 1985, Oldham showed that high BPO scores were significantly correlated to chronic anger, jealousy and trauma symptoms.


In analyzing this study’s methods and conclusions, it is valuable to keep a working definition of dissociation in mind: a disruption in the usually integrative functions of consciousness, memory, identity or perception.


The authors cited a range of recent studies to bolster their argument. For example, individuals who dissociate in response to overwhelming trauma will continue to use chronic dissociation to deal with less severe situations (van der Kolk & van der Hart, 1989). Conrad and Morrow also reviewed the data supporting chronic dissociation of adult survivors of childhood physical and sexual abuse.


As mentioned, stimulus material was gathered from news reports on ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS. The measuring tool used in this study was Willingness-to-react-violently scale, a version of the Conflicts Tactics Scale (CTS).


The authors also included a trauma history of the subjects of the study to provide a comprehensive bed of data for their study.


A range of strong correlations emerged following analysis of the study data that confirmed the hypotheses that tied BPO, dissociation, and willingness to respond violently in an intimate conflict.


So, men who are high in BPO, such as  those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, report higher incidences of childhood abuse than those who score low on BPO.


The study further concludes that high borderlines who were exposed to abandonment news also scored  higher on state dissociation than those in the control group. 


One aspect of the original hypothesis that was not supported was the notion that high borderlines would dissociate in response to abandonment news and, in this dissociative state, would be more likely to access rage  that triggers violent behavior.


Finally, this study also supports the idea that there are multiple pathways to the use of force, including the imitation of media violence without dissociation.


What is left unresolved are questions around  the psychological basis for battering. First, the role of anger in battering and second, the how and why dissociation mediates violent behavior when subjects are confronted with abandonment but not violent responses to other forms of media mayhem.

 Copyright © 2000-2015. Karen E. Engebretsen, PsyD, LLC. All rights reserved.