What You Need to Know When Dating Someone With Borderline Personality Disorder
Paddy is in love. Nine months into their relationship, he and his girlfriend have moved past the early days of butterflies and uncertainty and have begun developing a true bond, the kind that begins to take hold when you become familiar with each other, learn each other’s rhythms, and begin to truly see each other. “There have been times where I have been so infatuated and so blissfully happy that I felt like running away with her,” he says. “We spoke of the perfect wedding, of names for our children – we dared to dream.”
As tends to happen, however, their dreams were interrupted by reality and, in Paddy’s case, that reality includes his girlfriend’s Borderline Personality Disorder. “To say that this relationship has been a roller coaster would be an understatement. There are times [when our relationship] has plummeted to the depths whereby we were both ready to give up.” Between the periods of elation and bliss come what Paddy calls “bad phases.” “Sometimes among the arguments, the fits of anger and rage, the distrust, the paranoia, the mood swings, it seems like my girlfriend is a completely different person.” In the worst of times, he likens dating someone with Borderline Personality Disorder to having a relationship with someone who has dementia. “Sometimes they look into their parent’s eyes and they see a spark. A flicker of joy and recognition. The person they knew and love is still there, somewhere deep down inside. Those moments are what the person longs for.”
Still, to Paddy, it is worth it. “I try to see the light,” he says, and he believes that one day his girlfriend will overcome her BPD. “It’s hard being in a relationship with someone who suffers from BPD. But it is nowhere near as hard as being the one with BPD. My girlfriend is not a burden, her BPD is.”
Paddy’s story isn’t a fairytale romance. For most, it may hold little that feels inspirational. But if you’re dating someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, it is probably at once familiar and remarkable; the deep stigma attached to BPD—and specifically having relationships with someone who has BPD—makes stories of intact relationships all too rare. Hearing someone else share your struggles and negotiate the realities of the illness can be both comforting and illuminating. But successfully dating someone with BPD requires more than knowing it is possible or receiving validation that it can be hard—it requires understanding exactly how the illness affects someone’s perception of themselves and their interactions with partners.
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Passion and Fear
Borderline Personality Disorder is a chronic and complex mental health disorder marked by instability, and interpersonal relationships are often the stage on which this instability plays out. Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who treats patients with BPD, explains:
People with borderline feel empty, and they are always trying to fight off what they perceive as rejection and abandonment, so they see abandonment and rejection where it doesn’t necessarily exist. They’re so afraid of being alone, abandoned, or left, or people breaking up with them, that they sense it where it doesn’t exist and they need tons of reassurance.
Often, this emptiness and intense fear of abandonment are the result of early childhood trauma and the absence of secure, healthy attachments in the vital formative years. Paradoxically, the overwhelming fear manifests in behaviors that deeply disrupt the relationship and pushes partners away rather than pulls them closer, resulting in a stormy and tumultuous dynamic that typically emerges in the early days of dating.
When they are in relationships they get very intensely involved way too quickly. [People] tend to really like [people with BPD] at first, because they are very intense, and very passionate. But then what comes along with it, a couple of weeks later, is: “Why didn’t you call me back immediately?” “Are you out with somebody else?” So [people with BPD] get attached very quickly, give [the relationship] their all, but then get disappointed very quickly. They start out thinking, “I love this guy, he’s the greatest,” but if he does a minor thing that disappoints them, they get deeply disturbed. Everything is done with passion, but it goes from being very happy and passionate to very disappointed and rageful.
For Karla, a 29-year old woman recently diagnosed with BPD, Dr. Greenberg’s description is right on point. “When I feel as though someone is secretly attacking me, I will get on the defense, become overly emotional, moody, and dramatic, and perhaps will call them out on it. In reality, [they] may have just not been aware whatsoever,” she says. Prior to her diagnosis, her boyfriend, Thomas, used to blame himself for her hot and cold behavior. “Many of her mood swings (which of course I can now link and identify with her BPD) before the diagnosis were difficult for me to understand,” he says. “I assumed it was something to do with me being difficult for her to be with.” When Karla was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, however, things began making sense, and as Thomas began learning more about the disorder, he began to reconceptualize his own role in their relationship; many of their conflicts weren’t about him, but about Karla’s struggle to deal with an intense internal struggle that affected not only her understanding of herself, but her ability to interact with other people.
Distorted Perceptions, Damaging Patterns
When you’re dating someone with BPD, it is vital to recognize that their assumptions about your relationship are often very different than your own, and this can profoundly color the way they relate to you. Although each person has their own unique experience, these are some common thought patterns people with BPD tend to have:
I must be loved by all the important people in my life at all times or else I am worthless.
Nobody cares about me as much as I care about them, so I always lose everyone I care about—despite the desperate things I try to do to stop them from leaving me.
If someone treats me badly, then I become bad.
When I am alone, I become nobody and nothing.
I can’t stand the frustration that I feel when I need something from someone and I can’t get it. I’ve got to do something to make it go away.
These thoughts may be completely at odds with your own perception of your partner, but it is imperative to understand that for them, they are very real, and can drive them toward extreme and seemingly irrational behavior. Navigating through this emotional minefield can be difficult and painful for both of you, but knowing that their thoughts and behaviors are the product of intensely powerful perceptional distortions deeply rooted in their mental health disorder, rather than a reflection of your own shortcomings, can bring some comfort. For Thomas, educating himself about BPD helped him move from self-blame to empathy and compassion:
There are a lot of nuances, complexities, and lines to be read through with BPD, but mostly I see Borderline Personality Disorder as an illness about pain, fear, and struggling to cope with all of that. It’s almost like a wounded animal, as I see it. But the common conception is just [that they are] crazy, which is an extraordinarily damaging misconception to those who suffer from it. They aren’t crazy, they’re hurting.
For relationships to have a chance of succeeding, this is a critical piece: people with BPD aren’t acting with malice or being difficult, but acting on their own internal logic with limited emotional resources.
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The Possibility of Healing
Unfortunately, the misconceptions surrounding Borderline Personality Disorder often lead people to assume relationships with those who suffer from the condition are doomed to fail. In part, this is spurred by the myth that BPD is untreatable, a false but prevalent belief that can too often remove hope. In reality, with the right treatment, many people with BPD can learn to manage their symptoms, and a substantial number achieve remission to the point where they no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for the illness. By integrating specialized BPD therapies like Dialectical Behavior Therapy with other evidence-based clinical and holistic therapies within the context of a comprehensive treatment plan, it is possible to disrupt the emotional and behavioral instability of BPD and establish inner tranquility.
Along with individual and group therapies, couples therapy is often an integral part of healing from BPD, as individuals and as a team. With the guidance of an experienced therapist who understands the unique challenges presented by BPD, you can create strategies for supporting your partner and yourself while nurturing and fortifying your relationship. As Dr. Greenberg says: “I’ve seen a lot of [people with BPD] get so much better, I love working with borderlines. Because their emotion is all there, and acting that way is all they know, and then when you show them an easier way to be, and to act, they see how much easier life can be. Absolutely. There’s hope.”
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people living with Borderline Personality Disorder as well as co-occurring substance addiction and process addictions. Contact us for more information about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward healing.