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Letter to the Editor   |    
Etiology of Borderline Personality Disorder
JUDITH P. SALZMAN, ED.D.
Am J Psychiatry 1998;155:1626aa-1626.
View Author and Article Information
Watertown, Mass.

Letters to the Editor

To the Editor: I agree with Mary C. Zanarini, Ed.D., and her colleagues R6715511CHDCEGDI that borderline personality disorder will ultimately be understood as an illness with a multifactorial etiology. In our own work, cited by Zanarini and elaborated in a series of reports R6715511CHDBIAHCR6715511CHDBEDIG, we have similarly emphasized that childhood sexual abuse is neither necessary nor sufficient for the development of borderline personality disorder but that the patient with this diagnosis has almost invariably emerged from an environment characterized by disordered attachments and histories of affective illness in one or more close relatives.

Earlier studies by Zanarini et al. R6715511CHDDDGFG and others R6715511CHDCEFGDR6715511CHDDFAIB support this etiological perspective. Still others R6715511CHDDEIFIR6715511CHDCDGIH further note that a history of sexual abuse, along with a cluster of severely self-destructive behaviors, most accurately characterizes those borderline patients who require hospitalization. Therefore, it is not surprising that for the majority (61.5%) of "severely impaired" inpatients in the study of Zanarini et al. R6715511CHDCEGDI, childhood sexual abuse would emerge as a predisposing factor in their illness. Unfortunately, the authors make no comment on the skewed nature of their study group and its possible relation to this finding.

Eagle R6715511CHDCFEFF has issued a general warning regarding the use of this class of restrospective data to establish the etiology of borderline personality disorder. Following Eagle’s logic, if researchers were to sample only hospitalized borderline patients, "they would likely develop an etiological theory seriously distorting and exaggerating the nature and strength of the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and adult personality disorder" (p. 134). Such distortion, if unquestioned, can have serious consequences for both research and clinical practice.

Zanarini and colleagues themselves call for a more complex, nuanced understanding of borderline personality disorder. In the absence of prospective developmental studies, a next step might be a careful comparison between predisposing factors in "severely impaired" inpatients like those in the Zanarini group and an equally large sample of outpatients who carry a borderline diagnosis but have not needed hospitalization. Such a comparison would help clarify those factors common to the majority of individuals suffering from borderline personality disorder, and would document the extent to which sexual abuse may be correlated with symptom severity, as opposed to diagnosis per se.

Zanarini MC, Williams AA, Lewis RE, Reich BR, Vera SC, Marion MF, Levin A, Yong L, Frankenburg FR: Reported pathological childhood experiences associated with the development of borderline personality disorder. Am J Psychiatry  1997; 154:1101–1106
[PubMed]
 
Salzman JP, Salzman C, Wolfson AN, Albanese M, Looper J, Ostacher M, Schwartz J, Chinman G, Land W, Miyawaki E: Association between borderline personality structure and history of childhood abuse in adult volunteers. Compr Psychiatry  1993; 34:254–257
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Salzman JP, Salzman C, Wolfson AN: Relationship of childhood abuse and maternal attachment to the development of borderline personality disorder, in The Role of Sexual Abuse in the Etiology of Borderline Personality Disorder. Edited by Zanarini MC. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Press, 1997, pp 71–92
 
Salzman JP: Ambivalent attachment in female adolescents: association with affective instability and eating disorders. Int J Eat Disord  1997; 21:251–259
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Zanarini MC, Gunderson JG, Marino MF, Schwartz EO, Frankenburg FR: Childhood experiences of borderline patients. Compr Psychiatry  1989; 30:18–25
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Ludolph PS, Westen D, Misle B, Jackson A, Wixom J, Wiss FC: The borderline diagnosis in adolescents: symptoms and developmental history. Am J Psychiatry  1990; 147:470–476
[PubMed]
 
Melges FT, Swartz MS: Oscillations of attachment in borderline personality disorder. Am J Psychiatry  1989; 146:1115–1120
[PubMed]
 
Paris J, Frank H: Perceptions of parental bonding in borderline patients. Am J Psychiatry  1989; 146:1498–1499
[PubMed]
 
Westen D, Ludolph P, Misle B, Ruffins S, Block J: Physical and sexual abuse in adolescent girls with borderline personality disorder. Am J Orthopsychiatry  1990; 60:55–66
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Briere J, Zaidi LY: Sexual abuse histories and sequlae in female psychiatric emergency room patients. Am J Psychiatry  1989; 146:1602–1606
[PubMed]
 
Shearer SL, Peters CP, Quaytman MS, Ogden RF: Frequency and correlates of childhood sexual and physical abuse histories in adult female borderline inpatients. Am J Psychiatry  1990; 147:214–216
[PubMed]
 
Links PS, Boiago I, Huxley G, Steiner M, Mitton J: Sexual abuse and biparental failure as etiological models in borderline personality disorder, in Family Environment and Borderline Personality Disorder. Edited by Links PS. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Press, 1990, pp 105–120
 
Gunderson JG, Kolb JE, Austin V: The diagnostic interview for borderline patients. Am J Psychiatry 1981;138:896–90
 
Gunderson JG, Sabo AN: The phenomenological and conceptual interface between borderline personality disorder and PTSD. Am J Psychiatry  1993; 150:19–27
[PubMed]
 
Eagle M: The developmental perspectives of attachment and psychoanalytic theory, in Attachment Theory: Social, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives. Edited by Goldberg S, Muir R, Kerr J. Hillsdale, NJ, Analytic Press, 1995, pp 123–150
 
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References

Zanarini MC, Williams AA, Lewis RE, Reich BR, Vera SC, Marion MF, Levin A, Yong L, Frankenburg FR: Reported pathological childhood experiences associated with the development of borderline personality disorder. Am J Psychiatry  1997; 154:1101–1106
[PubMed]
 
Salzman JP, Salzman C, Wolfson AN, Albanese M, Looper J, Ostacher M, Schwartz J, Chinman G, Land W, Miyawaki E: Association between borderline personality structure and history of childhood abuse in adult volunteers. Compr Psychiatry  1993; 34:254–257
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Salzman JP, Salzman C, Wolfson AN: Relationship of childhood abuse and maternal attachment to the development of borderline personality disorder, in The Role of Sexual Abuse in the Etiology of Borderline Personality Disorder. Edited by Zanarini MC. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Press, 1997, pp 71–92
 
Salzman JP: Ambivalent attachment in female adolescents: association with affective instability and eating disorders. Int J Eat Disord  1997; 21:251–259
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Zanarini MC, Gunderson JG, Marino MF, Schwartz EO, Frankenburg FR: Childhood experiences of borderline patients. Compr Psychiatry  1989; 30:18–25
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Ludolph PS, Westen D, Misle B, Jackson A, Wixom J, Wiss FC: The borderline diagnosis in adolescents: symptoms and developmental history. Am J Psychiatry  1990; 147:470–476
[PubMed]
 
Melges FT, Swartz MS: Oscillations of attachment in borderline personality disorder. Am J Psychiatry  1989; 146:1115–1120
[PubMed]
 
Paris J, Frank H: Perceptions of parental bonding in borderline patients. Am J Psychiatry  1989; 146:1498–1499
[PubMed]
 
Westen D, Ludolph P, Misle B, Ruffins S, Block J: Physical and sexual abuse in adolescent girls with borderline personality disorder. Am J Orthopsychiatry  1990; 60:55–66
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Briere J, Zaidi LY: Sexual abuse histories and sequlae in female psychiatric emergency room patients. Am J Psychiatry  1989; 146:1602–1606
[PubMed]
 
Shearer SL, Peters CP, Quaytman MS, Ogden RF: Frequency and correlates of childhood sexual and physical abuse histories in adult female borderline inpatients. Am J Psychiatry  1990; 147:214–216
[PubMed]
 
Links PS, Boiago I, Huxley G, Steiner M, Mitton J: Sexual abuse and biparental failure as etiological models in borderline personality disorder, in Family Environment and Borderline Personality Disorder. Edited by Links PS. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Press, 1990, pp 105–120
 
Gunderson JG, Kolb JE, Austin V: The diagnostic interview for borderline patients. Am J Psychiatry 1981;138:896–90
 
Gunderson JG, Sabo AN: The phenomenological and conceptual interface between borderline personality disorder and PTSD. Am J Psychiatry  1993; 150:19–27
[PubMed]
 
Eagle M: The developmental perspectives of attachment and psychoanalytic theory, in Attachment Theory: Social, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives. Edited by Goldberg S, Muir R, Kerr J. Hillsdale, NJ, Analytic Press, 1995, pp 123–150
 
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