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Golomb, A. Ludolph, P. Westen, D. Block, M.J. Maurer, P. Wiss, F.C. (1994). Maternal Empathy, Family Chaos, and the Etiology of Borderline Personality Disorder. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 42:525-548.

(1994). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 42:525-548

Maternal Empathy, Family Chaos, and the Etiology of Borderline Personality Disorder

Anath Golomb, Ph.D., Pamela Ludolph, Ph.D., Drew Westen, Ph.D., M. Judith Block, Ph.D., Pattrice Maurer and F. Charles Wiss, Ph.D.


Psychoanalytic writers have traced the etiology of borderline personality disorder (BPD) to be a preoedipal disturbance in the mother-child relationship. Despite the prevalence of theories focusing on the role of mothering in the development of BPD, few empirical studies have tested the hypothesis that borderlines were the recipients of unempathic mothering. The current preliminary study compared 13 mothers of borderline adolescents with 13 mothers of normal adolescents. This study found that mothers of borderlines tended to conceive of their children egocentrically, as need-gratifying objects, rather than as individuals with distinct and evolving personalities. This study also found that the mothers of borderlines reported raising their daughters in extremely chaotic families struggling to cope with multiple hardships, including divorce and financial worries. The stressful environmental circumstances reported by the mothers likely affected the borderline daughters directly as well as the mothers' ability to parent effectively and empathically. The results of this study suggest that, as predicted by psychoanalytic theory, a problematic mother-child relationship may play a significant role in the genesis of borderline pathology; however, the life circumstances that contextualize the mother-child relationship also need to be considered when accounting for the etiology of BPD.

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