How Do You Love Someone With Borderline Personality Disorder?
Unstable interpersonal relationships are a hallmark of borderline personality disorder. So how do you love someone with borderline personality disorder in a way that honors both them and yourself? Often, it starts with acknowledging the realness of BPD, making room for yourself in the relationship, and putting an end to rescuer-rescuee dynamics. It’s important to remember, however, that you cannot heal your loved one’s BPD. Instead, encouraging high-quality treatment is essential.
Loving someone with borderline personality disorder isn’t easy. Watching your loved one struggle with deep inner turmoil, negotiating a fluctuating sense of identity, and experiencing such profound rawness of emotion can be painful. Often, even everyday interactions can be laden with potential hazards. The emotional volatility inherent to the illness can leave you feeling disoriented, never knowing where you stand or what will happen next. Even in placid moments, you may experience underlying anxiety about when the other shoe will drop. Will she misread my tone? Will he take this as a sign of rejection? Will today be a fight?
Whether you are a family member, friend, or partner to someone with borderline personality disorder, maintaining a healthy relationship can be challenging. In fact, there may be moments when you wonder if you want to maintain a relationship. In order to foster a strong bond, it’s important to know how to love someone with borderline personality disorder in a way that nurtures both of you.
Acknowledge the Realness of BPD
People who have borderline personality disorder (BPD) are not simply being difficult. They are not maliciously trying to hurt you. The symptoms of borderline personality disorder arise from deep psychological distress compounded by a lack of emotional resources to cope with overwhelming emotions. Sometimes, the roots of that distress are located in early experiences of trauma, which disrupt the ability to form secure attachments and a cohesive sense of self. But BPD isn’t always rooted in trauma; BPD can arise without an identifiable origin story. It’s important to remember that, regardless of whether there is trauma present, the feelings your loved one is experiencing are very real to them—even if they appear irrational to you.
Of course, having a relationship with someone who has feelings that don’t have a basis in your own reality can be very difficult. You may feel as if you are speaking past your loved one, or that your words and acts are not registering in the way you intend. In fact, that is exactly what is happening. In order to have a healthy relationship, you must learn to cope with this disconnect between realities. The best way to do that isn’t to try to convince them that they are wrong; in fact, doing so will likely make them feel attacked, and they will likely respond by pushing you away. Instead, learn how to validate their feelings and acknowledge the realness of their experiences.
Validation is a core ingredient to loving someone with borderline personality disorder. So what exactly does it entail? “Validation requires that you reflect back what the other person is feeling, even if you do not feel the same way or do not agree with what s/he is feeling,” explains Sheryl Bruce, a counselor at Friends for Mental Health. For example, if your loved one is upset because they think you are rejecting them, say, “I see that you feel hurt because you thought I was rejecting you, that must feel terrible.” To do this requires patience and self-restraint; it can be difficult to not jump in and try to convince them that you weren’t rejecting them in the first place. But it’s vital to understand that they have already experienced it as rejection, regardless of your intent. In a way, they are in the midst of grieving a loss that feels every bit as real to them as if you had indeed rejected them. By allowing them to feel their feelings and bearing witness to their pain without judgment, you are showing them love while avoiding a fruitless conflict.
At the same time, don’t attribute all of your loved one’s feelings to borderline personality disorder. Having BPD doesn’t mean that someone can’t have legitimate grievances or that their feelings are always driven by dysfunction. Acknowledge the full humanity of your loved one, reflect on what they are telling you, and admit mistakes if you make them.
Make Room for Yourself
Often, the person with borderline personality disorder can become the central focal point in a relationship and it can feel as if there is little room left for you. Make sure that you are an active participant in your relationship. Express your own feelings, needs, and thoughts. Share your stories, your struggles, and your joys; after all, while your loved one may struggle with BPD, they also love, value, and want to know you. An authentic relationship can only happen when both participants contribute to create a meaningful social bond. Allow yourself and your loved one the opportunity to do that.
At the same time, don’t be afraid to set boundaries and communicate those boundaries calmly and clearly. Boundaries may initially be taken as a sign of rejection and trigger your loved one’s fear of abandonment, but they are essential to ensuring your relationship remains healthy and gives you both guidelines for what is appropriate and what isn’t. Don’t be surprised if your loved one tests your boundaries in an effort to reassure themselves of your affection; this is normal and is driven by deeply felt fears. Over time, however, chances are that your loved one will realize that boundaries and love can co-exist and that having limits doesn’t mean you have abandoned them.
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In the popular imagination, people with borderline personality disorder can sometimes be perceived as fragile creatures who are unable to care for themselves. “The misconception is that borderlines are nonfunctioning people, but borderlines tend to be very smart, intellectual people,” says Maureen McKeon, a clinical social worker with extensive experiencing treating people with BPD. “A lot of the time they’re actually very high-functioning.” Unfortunately, even very intelligent people can fall into rescuer-rescuee dynamics when borderline personality disorder enters the picture.
The emotional vulnerability of people with BPD can make it easy to believe that they need rescuing, especially in moments of perceived crisis. You may jump into the role out of love, out of fear, or both. In turn, your loved one may come to see your rescuing as proof of your love, temporarily quelling their fear of abandonment while growing more and more dependent on you. Meanwhile, you may begin to gain your sense of identity and worth from your role as the rescuer; it can feel good to be needed.
This dynamic, while it may seem comforting for a time, is ultimately destructive for both of you, in part because getting your validation, worth, and proof of love from rescuing or being rescued means there must always be something to be rescued from. In this case, that thing is borderline personality disorder. When the symptomatology of an illness becomes the site at which love is expressed and received, there is little motivation for healing. In fact, in this dysfunctional dynamic healing itself can seem like a threat; what if your loved one doesn’t need you anymore?
Resist the urge to rescue to avoid falling into damaging relationship patterns that can hinder recovery, fuel helplessness, and lead to resentment on both sides. Recognize in your loved one’s abilities and help them realize their own potential rather than taking on their challenges for them. Let them know that you support them and believe in them. Help them take steps to become more self-sufficient, not less.
Of course, this does not mean ignoring legitimate crises. If you believe your loved one is in danger of hurting themselves, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-800-273-8255) immediately.
Encourage High-Quality Treatment
An essential part of loving someone with borderline personality disorder is realizing that you cannot fix them. You can have a close, loving, meaningful relationship with them and provide invaluable support, but you cannot heal their illness. What you can do is help them connect with high-quality treatment options.
While it was once believed that borderline personality disorder was inherently untreatable, we now know that to be untrue. Today, skilled clinicians use a range of therapeutic modalities, including DBT and trauma-focused therapies, to help clients find lasting relief from BPD symptoms and restore emotional and behavioral harmony. Often, residential treatment programs are the best option for people struggling with BPD, as it allows them to participate in a broad spectrum of therapies tailored to their unique needs. Additionally, the residential setting encourages the rapid establishment of trusting therapeutic alliances that are so critical in the treatment of BPD. Surrounded by compassionate clinicians and peers, your loved one can develop meaningful coping skills and practice them in a safe, supportive environment.
Of course, a critical part of healing from borderline personality disorder is creating stronger, more stable interpersonal relationships with loved ones. High-quality residential treatment programs offer family and couples therapy to guide you and your loved one through a shared recovery process. With the help of experienced clinicians, you can explore how you can support your loved one, identify any unhealthy relationship dynamics, and create a strong foundation for moving forward. Together, you can forge a deeper bond and a healthier, more fulfilling relationship.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.