Loving a Borderline

roller coasterCaring about someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) tosses you on a roller coaster ride from being loved and lauded to abandoned and bashed. Being a borderline (having BPD) is no picnic, either. You live in unbearable psychic pain most of the time and in severe cases on the border between reality and psychosis. Your illness distorts your perceptions causing antagonistic behavior and making the world a perilous place. The pain and terror of abandonment and feeling unwanted can be so great that  suicide feels like a better choice.

If you like drama, excitement, and intensity, enjoy the ride, because things will never be calm. Following a passionate and immediate beginning, expect a stormy relationship that includes accusations and anger, jealousy, bullying, control, and break-ups due to the borderline’s insecurity. Nothing is grey or gradual. For borderlines, things are black and white. They have the quintessential Jekyll and Hyde personality. Fluctuating dramatically between idealizing and devaluing you, they may suddenly and sporadically shift throughout the day. You never know what or whom to expect.

The Drama
Borderlines’ intense, labile emotions elevate you when they’re in good spirits and crush you when they’re not. You’re a prince or a princess, a bastard or a bitch. If you’re on the outs with them, all their bad feelings get projected onto you. They can be vindictive and punish you with words, silence, or other tactics, which feel manipulative and can be very destructive to your self-esteem. Unlike Bi-Polar Disorder, their moods shift quickly and aren’t a departure from their normal self. What you see is their norm.

Their emotions, behavior, and unstable relationships, including work history, reflect a fragile shame-based self-image, often marked by sudden shifts, sometimes to the extent that they feel nonexistent, made worse when they’re alone. Thus, they’re dependent on others and may seek advice frequently, sometimes from several people on the same day, asking the same question. They’re desperate to be loved and cared for, yet are hypervigilant for any real or imagined signs of rejection or abandonment should you, for example, be late, cancel an appointment, or talk to someone they see as competition. For them, trust is always an issue, often leading to distortions of reality and paranoia. You’re seen as either for or against them and must take their side. Don’t dare to defend their enemy or try to justify or explain any slight they claim to have experienced. They may try to bait you into anger, then falsely accuse you of rejecting them, “gaslight you,” (make you doubt reality and your sanity – see the movie), even brainwash you. In their desperation for caring, they can behave in ways that feel like emotional manipulation. Cut-offs of friends and relatives who “betray” them is common.

They react to their profound fears of abandonment with needy and clingy behavior or anger and fury that reflect their own skewed reality and self-image. On the other hand, they equally fear the romantic merger they try to create, because they’re afraid of being dominated or swallowed up by too much intimacy. In a close relationship, they must walk a tightrope to balance the fear of being alone or of being too close. To do so, they try to control with commands or indirect maneuvers, including flattery and seduction, to reel in their partner and use their anger and use rejection to keep him or her at a safe distance. Whereas narcissists enjoy being understood, too much understanding frightens the borderline.

With Codependents
Generally, borderlines are codependent and find another codependent to merge with and to help them. They seek someone to provide stability and to balance their changeable emotionality. Codependents and narcissists who act self-sufficient and control their feelings provide a perfect match. They’re easily seduced by the borderline’s extreme openness, charm, and vulnerability. In addition, the borderline’s passion and intense emotions are enlivening to non-BPD’s, who find being alone depressing or “healthy” people boring. These partners vicariously come alive through the melodrama provided by the borderline.

The borderline may appear to be the more dependent underdog in the relationship, while his or her partner is the steady, needless and caretaking top dog, but in fact, both are codependent on each other. It can be hard for either of them to leave. They each exercise control in different ways. Codependents also yearn for love and fear abandonment. Codependents already have low self-esteem and poor boundaries, so they placate, accommodate, and apologize when attacked in order to maintain the emotional connection in the relationship. They often become caretakers. They do so sometimes to the point of self-sacrifice or enabling.

In the process, they give over more and more control to the borderline and further seal their low self-esteem and the couple’s codependency. Giving in to their partner and giving them control does not make either of them feel more safe, but the opposite. Borderlines need boundaries. Setting a boundary can sometimes snap them out of their delusional thinking. Calling their bluff is also helpful. (See also my blog on manipulation.) Both strategies require that codependents build their self-esteem, learn to be assertive, and derive outside emotional support. The relationship can improve when the partner takes steps to heal their codependency. (See Codependency for Dummies.

Making the Diagnosis
Like all personality disorders, BPD exists on a continuum, from mild to severe. It affects women more than men and about two percent of the U.S. population. BPD is usually diagnosed in young adulthood when there has been a pattern of impulsivity and instability in relationships, self-image, and emotions. They may use alcohol, food, or drugs or other addiction to try to self-medicate their pain, but it only exacerbates it. To diagnose BPD, at least five of the following symptoms must be enduring and present in a variety of areas:

1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
2. Unstable and intense personal relationships, marked by alternating idealization and devaluation.
3. Persistently unstable sense of self.
4. Risky, potentially self-damaging impulsivity in at least two areas (e.g., substance abuse, reckless behavior, sex, spending)
5. Recurrent self-mutilation or suicidal threats or behavior. (This doesn’t qualify for Nos. 1 or 4.) Around 8 to 10 percent actually commit suicide.
6. Mood swings (e.g. depressed, irritable, or anxious) mood, not lasting more than a few days.
7. Chronic feelings of emptiness.
8. Frequent, intense, inappropriate temper or anger.
9. Transient, stress-related paranoid thoughts or severe dissociative symptoms.

Causes and Treatment
The cause of BPD is not clearly known, but often there has been neglect, abandonment, or abuse in childhood and possibly genetic factors. People who have a first-degree relative with BPD are five times more likely to develop BPD themselves. (For more read here.) Research has shown brain changes in the ability to regulate emotions. For more, read here and here. Unlike narcissists who often avoid therapy, borderlines usually welcome it; however, before recent treatment innovations, its effectiveness had been questioned, which led to stigmatization.

Today, BPD is no longer a life sentence. Studies have shown that some people recover on their own, some improve with weekly therapy, and some require hospitalization. Long-term treatment is required for maximum results, with symptom relief increasingly improving. A 10-year study showed substantial remission after ten years. Use of medication and DBT, CBT, schema therapy and some other modalities have proven helpful. Most individuals with BPD have another co-occurring diagnosis, such as addiction and/or depression. Acute symptoms diminish more readily than temperamental ones, such as anger, loneliness, and emptiness and abandonment/dependency issues. Borderlines need structure, and a combination of knowing that they’re cared about plus boundaries that are communicated calmly and firmly. For partners, it’s also important to seek therapy in order to raise your self-esteem, learn to be assertive, and set boundaries. See my blog on “How to Spot Manipulation” and my books and e-workbooks for helpful exercises.
©Darlene Lancer, LMFT 2013

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13 thoughts on “Loving a Borderline

  1. I believe my codependent best friend is on the verge of BPD. She recently got divorced and before it was final rekindled a relationship with her HS boyfriend who is in recovery for drug addiction. After three months together she texts him at least three times/hr and constantly talks about how in love they are all while hiding the relationship from family. Trying to help her avoid another crash, but it is difficult to sit back and watch. Her behavior is scary.

    • Personality Disorders are enduring, so if you friend had one, it would have showed up before the divorce. She may just be a very anxious codependent. It’s great if they both are in recovery, and you can suggest Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or CoDA to support her bf’s program and recovery.

  2. “Cut-offs of friends and relatives who “betray” them is common.” I am the relative that my daughter’s borderline husband has cut off. How do I handle it? I want a relationship with my daughter and 3 grandchildren, but my son-in-law hates everything having to do with me. The only time he is nice to me is if they need money.

    • That is terribly sad. If you talk against your daughter’s husband, she will likely take his side because of threats and manipulation. Stay in touch so if she wants to talk to someone she can. Send cards and holiday gifts, invite the family over, and suggest fun outings with her and the children. Realize he’s mentally ill.

      • Thank you. Do you think that with time, my daughter will realize that he is mentally ill? Or is it more likely that she will ignore the abuse and co-dependency?

  3. Thank you for this. I strongly suspect that my husband has BPD with depression. I’m pretty sure that I have some codependency issues (and some BPD characteristics myself). We’ve been having marriage issues for some time and I finally made an appointment with a marriage counselor for both of us (I’ve been going myself for a year with unsatisfactory results). I’m wondering if I should keep that appointment for both of us or go in myself first to discuss my thoughts with the therapist alone before he joins us? He’s not too keen on going in the first place but has agreed. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.

    • Generally, in couples counseling it’s best to see the counselor together so that you both start off on equal footing. If the therapist suggests it, you can then each can have a solo session, but you’re there to work on the marriage. Also, do not go see your therapist for couples work. It’s a conflict of interest and will be an obstacle for the therapy to be effective. If you’re not making progress with your therapists, discuss this with him or her.

  4. Thanks for this article Darlene! The section called, “With Codependents” is very insightful and accurate for my situation. My spouse of 11 years shows many symptoms consistent with BPD. I got so lost in becoming the caretaker and apologizing/walking on eggshells to keep peace that I sacrificed me, my self esteem, and healthy boundaries. It took me 9 years to get past the projections and recognize something was not right with my spouse it did not matter what I did or how hard I tried the conflicts would not go away. It took another year to strongly sense that my spouse may have BPD. I wish I knew about self-esteem and boundaries 11 years ago.

  5. My husband of 5 years just cheated on me with a woman at his new job (which is a fancy job with fancy travel he is not used to). He was diagnosed with BPD just after he cheated and starts DBT in January. We had been in marriage counseling while he was cheating (at his request) and he hid in the basement during therapy and the cheating despite my efforts. I recognize traits of codependency in myself, after caring for a depressed alcoholic mother all my lifer. My mother, who I loved very much, just died 9 months ago – not a good time to be cheated on. Thank you for all you have written here….while frightening, it is helpful

  6. Dear Darlene, my domestic partner and the father of our 4.5 year old son “diagnosed” me with BPD. A few months ago he bought me a book on the subject of which I read 1/3 and came to the conclusion I don’t have it. Having read your description above I did find some overlapping. Even if I hadn’t had any symptoms in the past, having been subdued to exquisite emotional and mental torture for over half a year by now, an escalating process in which he proved to be inventive beyond imagination, I may have actually developed a condition and I’d love you to assess it as an expert. My current psychiatrist does not believe I have any kind of disorder.

    • Only a professional who interviews the client should make a diagnosis. Sometimes, people with PTSD, mood disorders, or other conditions, including codependency, may act in ways that resemble symptoms of BPD or NPD.

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