What is Borderline Personality Disorder and how does it affect my relationship?
If you’re suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) you will usually experience your life as challenging, and your romantic relationships as intense, conflicted and not very stable.
The effects of BPD can have a huge impact on your relationship. It can be painful and extremely difficult for you and your partner to work out how to be close, as you can have a longing for intimacy and – at the same time – a concern about being dependent and being rejected1.
The thought process can be something like, “I want to be close but getting close feels risky, even dangerous”, so you can desperately want and ask for attention, and the next minute, feel like your partner is being too intrusive.
This mix of fear about closeness and lack of closeness can be very confusing and painful for your partner, as he/she is left feeling as though he/she doesn’t know how to please you and doesn’t know how to get it right for you.
Do I, or does my partner have Borderline Personality Disorder?
Labels and diagnosis can be tricky and should always be tentative, when doing your own research. Sometimes, though, it can be helpful to have something to hang onto to know why you or your partner may be having mood swings and finding it difficult to cope when triggered in your relationship.
We all suffer from having trouble regulating emotions at times; however, if you know that this has been ongoing for you or your partner, it might be helpful to know more about this label and understand how you can improve the way you react to your partner if you suffer from BPD, or how to respond effectively if you think your partner may have traits of BPD.
Borderline personality disorder symptoms vary from person to person, but here are the common symptoms:
- Having an unstable sense of self (how you feel about yourself can vary enormously)
- Feeling isolated and empty
- Intense, highly changeable moods that can last for a few hours or several days
- Strong feelings of anxiety, worry and depression
- Recurring suicidal thoughts or behaviours
- Impulsive, risky, self-destructive and dangerous behaviours, including reckless driving, drug or alcohol abuse and having unsafe sex
- A difficulty feeling empathy for others
- Difficulty controlling anger and temper towards people
- Extremes between idealising and devaluing those you are close to
- A persistent fear of being abandoned and rejected, including extreme emotional reactions to real and perceived abandonment
- A history of unstable relationships that can change drastically from intense love and idealization to intense hate
- Career plans, goals and aspirations that continually change
Many people experience one or more of these symptoms regularly, but a person with Borderline personality disorder will experience many of the symptoms consistently throughout adulthood.7
Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder
While the causes are not yet clear, research suggests that genetic factors and adverse life events seem to interact and lead to BPD. Those with BPD talk about experiencing many negative events (eg, trauma, neglect) during childhood3. They typically experience primal fears such as rejection and abandonment.
Many of the behaviours of BPD overlap with individuals who, as children, experience caregivers as both a source of safety and a source of violation, and therefore as adults, develop a fearful-avoidant attachment style leaving them cautious of close relationships. As Sue Johnson2 explains, such individuals have experienced being left in an impossible, paradoxical position and are now still caught in the mode of “Come here, I so need you – but go away, I can’t trust you.”
A threat to love and safety
As humans, we all need to feel a sense of love and safety. When we sense a threat, we automatically shift into a mode of protection. In one sense, we can all be manipulative – it’s in our nature to make things better for ourselves in order to survive. For someone with BDP that sense of threat can be triggered very easily and what has often been labelled as manipulation can be seen as a desperate attempt to cope with painful feelings or to get their needs met – without the aim of harming others4. As one individual with BDP expressed, “My days and thoughts are not consumed by plans of how to push which button in whom. My actions are about survival and preserving my identity; they are not some pre-planned sporting activity”4.
So much of the criteria for BPD fits with the dynamics of a couple where one or both individuals have experienced negative rearing environments as a child, with unpredictable outbursts of anger and demands for attention, while at the same time feeling smothered, as well as a profound sense of being unlovable.
It’s understandable that growing up in an environment where your primary caregiver represented both safety and fear, would then make it extremely difficult as an adult to learn to trust and rely on an intimate partner. All of us have a window of tolerance – the range where we can think and feel at the same time –when under stress; however, for individuals with BPD that window of how much stress can be tolerated, without becoming reactive, is lot smaller, as they are easily triggered.
What it feels like to be a partner
For your partner it can be very confusing to know what has caused your distress and how best to respond, often feeling blindsided by your reactions.
If you have BPD you will often resort to a range of behaviours to protect yourself like verbal abuse, perceived manipulation, and shutting down, all of which can shatter trust and intimacy within your relationship.
Your partner can then begin to feel unsafe, and no longer confident his or her deep feelings and innermost thoughts will be treated with love, concern and care. He or she will often walk on eggshells and hold back for fear of triggering you.
And if you swing between trying to cling to the relationship and then threatening to break up4, this puts further stress on your partner and strain on your relationship.
What to do if your relationship might be affected by BPD
While getting a diagnosis might seem like the best option, and there are times when it can certainly be helpful in order to obtain appropriate treatment, we should never rush to put a label on someone. It’s important to take into consideration the individual’s life, and to care for and support them in the best way possible.
When someone says that they or their partner suffers from BDP (whether they have certain traits or have been diagnosed) the most important factor to keep in mind is that it is potentially scary for them to be in close relationships, just like it can be as scary for anyone to not have their relationship.
As one individual diagnosed with BDP said, “When I was diagnosed, I think for me it gave me a sense of hope that I would get better. Unfortunately for me I shared my diagnosis with my ex and then everything went downhill from there because then everything that had been negative in our relationship was my fault.”5 Rather than get hung up on the diagnosis per se, it is useful to understand that in any relationship, both people bear responsibility for the way things are. When there are problems in relationships, both people need to work on them together.
How Couples Counselling can help
Finding the balance between closeness and distance tends to be tricky in most relationships; however, it can be extremely hard when someone with BDP interprets their partner’s signals differently than they intended, to know how to respond to their partner’s (potentially over-the-top) reactions.
While we can all have moments of emotional outbursts, it can be helpful to identify when these are happening and work with a professional to help regulate your emotions and learn to respond rather than react, as reactions, aimed at protecting can unfortunately hinder closeness.
It can be very confusing and hard to know how to respond for most people when these moments of disconnection happen in relationships.
In couples therapy we can show you how to co-regulate with each other by identifying what triggers lead you to conflict and distance, how you are being perceived by each other, what your partner is truly longing for, and how you can appropriately meet each other’s needs.
Couples therapy can help couples to slow down and listen and understand their own feelings and needs, as well as the feelings and needs of their partner. With support and more understanding, partners can reduce the tension and fear in the relationship and build more safety and closeness together.
In addition to couples therapy, there are a number of well-established approaches to treatment of BDP, including Dialectal Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Trauma-Informed Stabilization Treatment and Schema Therapy.
DBT was developed by Dr Marsha Linehan who experienced her own struggle with BPD, and is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy that relates a person’s thinking to their behaviour.
There are four main skills taught in DBT6, including core mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. The self- soothing focus of DBT has intuitive appeal for sufferers and therapists alike.
Whether you opt for couples counselling or an individual therapist, BPD is considered very treatable, and with consistent treatment can help you live a happy life and enjoy a healthier more emotionally balanced relationship.
7Borderline personality disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. (December, 2017).
2Johnson,S. (2009). Attachment Theory and Emotionally Focused Therapy for Individuals and Couples, Perfect Partners. In Obegi, J. & Berant,E. (Eds.) Attachment Theory and Research in Clinical Work with Adults. (pp. 410-433). Guilford Press. http://www.creatingconnections.nl/assets/files/Sue%20Johnson%20ObegiCh16.pdf.
3Leichsenring, F., Leibing, E., Kruse, J., New, A. & Leweke, F. Borderline personality disorder. www.thelancet.com Vol 377 January 1, 2011.
4Mason, T., & Kreger, R. (2010). Stop walking on eggshells, Taking your life back when someone you care about has borderline personality disorder. New Harbinger Publications.
5Ratner, R. (Director), Troemel, P., Sandieh, S., Gabrosek, A. & Ratner,R. (Producers). (2019). Borderline (a film). [Video recording]. Studio Comma. https://borderlinethefilm.com.
6Salters-Pedneault, K. Romantic Relationships Involving People With BPD. Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/understanding-romantic-bpd-relationships-425217