Development and Psychopathology

Special Issue: Developmental Psychopathology Approaches to Borderline Personality Disorder

The implications of attachment theory and research for understanding borderline personality disorder

a1 Pennsylvania State University and Weill Medical College of Cornell University

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Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a highly prevalent, chronic, and debilitating psychiatric problem characterized by a pattern of chaotic and self-defeating interpersonal relationships, emotional lability, poor impulse control, angry outbursts, frequent suicidality, and self-mutilation. Recently, psychopathology researchers and theorists have begun to understand fundamental aspects of BPD such as unstable, intense interpersonal relationships, feelings of emptiness, bursts of rage, chronic fears of abandonment and intolerance for aloneness, and lack of a stable sense of self as stemming from impairments in the underlying attachment organization. These investigators have noted that the impulsivity, affective lability, and self-damaging actions that are the hallmark of borderline personality occur in an interpersonal context and are often precipitated by real or imagined events in relationships. This article reviews attachment theory and research as a means of providing a developmental psychopathology perspective on BPD. Following a brief review of Bowlby's theory of attachment, and an overview of the evidence with respect to the major claims of attachment theory, I discuss individual differences, the evidence that these differences are rooted in patterns of interaction with caregivers, and how these patterns have important implications for evolving adaptations and development. Following this discussion, I present recent work linking attachment theory and BPD, focusing on the implications for understanding the etiology and treatment of BPD. In conclusion, I address some of the salient issues that point to the direction for future research efforts.

c1 Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Kenneth N. Levy, Department of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University, 240 Moore Building, University Park, PA 16802; E-mail: