Caring about someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) tosses you on a roller coaster ride from being loved and lauded to abandoned and bashed. 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 romance, expect a stormy relationship that includes accusations and anger, jealousy, bullying, control, and break-ups due to the insecurity of the person with BPD. Nothing is grey or gradual.
For people with BPD, 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.
People with BPD have intense, labile emotions. They 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), 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 a person with BPD.
Generally, people with BPD 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.
People with BPD 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 person with BPD 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 safer, but the opposite.
People with BPD need boundaries. Setting a boundary can sometimes snap them out of their delusional thinking. Calling their bluff is also helpful. (See 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.
BPD patients are highly responsive to the feelings of others, but studies show that their empathy is impaired when it comes to identifying and describing feelings and taking the perspective of others.
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 37-69% more likely to develop BPD themselves. If they had a parent with BPD, they likely experienced both genetic and environmental causes. (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, people with BPD 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. The 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, emptiness, and abandonment/dependency issues. People with BPD need structure and a combination of knowing that they’re cared about plus boundaries that are communicated calmly and firmly. Learn to be assertive, and set boundaries. Get How to Speak Your Mind- Become Assertive and Set Limits (and webinar: Be Assertive) For partners, it’s also important to seek therapy in order to raise your self-esteem. Get How to Raise Your Self-Esteem. See my blog on “How to Spot Manipulation” and my books and e-workbooks for helpful exercises.
©Darlene Lancer, LMFT 2013
Distel MA, Trull TJ, Derom CA, Thiery EW, Grimmer MA, Martin NG, Willemsen G, Boomsma DI. Heritability of borderline personality disorder features is similar across three countries. Psychol Med. 2008;38(9):1219–1229
Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder by Darlene Lancer, MFT, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Monica, CA, and author of Codependency for Dummies
I have bpd, and take medication, and the shame that emerged when i started taking those meds made itself known. I am also a codependent who tries to save drug addicts because it makes me feel like what i have been through has a reason. I recently helped a friend get into rehab. It feels good to see others come out of darkness. But reading about codependency i see how easily i could be hurt, especially with bpd. People make us out to be such monsters. Its sad.
Yes, focus on DBT therapy for the BPD, and you can also attend CoDA.org meetings. Working with my books can be helpful too.
Spot on! Phenomenal read! She will always have my love, but I don’t have the patience to be in that toxic, abusive relationship anymore.
Absolutely fantastic however, you rock.
Thansks for this article! What I’ve come to realize with myself is that I have a sense of over responsibility for others. So I was attracted to fixing people because well, that was my job. Managing the moods of others was a necessary coping mechanism when I was growing up. My mother was somewhat erratic and when she was in a bad mood, she would displace onto myself and/or my brother. So I needed to help others to keep safe, if that makes sense. Hence why I was attracted to people with BPD.
Thank you so much for clearly describing BPD . This helps me to understand and make sense of my husband’s behavior, that I took the blame for, for almost 40 years. I also see that I have been the codependent and have not been able to separate because of it. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.
Start a serious program of recovery and therapy. Join CoDA.org meetings.
Will a girl w borderline be okay w her boyfriend having a girl best friend?
I think I’m married to someone with borderline personality disorder. Partner has deep abandonment and jealousy issues. Tells me I make them feel this or that, or make them do something, when actually it is their own decision that thing needs to happen. I have no control over all the things they decide need to be done. When I choose not to do them, I am told I am not being cooperative. When I am asked to do things, there really is no choice, only the appearance of choice with a demand hiding behind it. Not sure if that makes sense. I feel as though I’ve lost myself. I’m not sure if I’m bpd too, or npd, or just hide to protect myself.
Living with someone with a personality disorder can skew your reality and sense of self after years of verbal and emotional abuse. Join CoDA.org, get counseling, and learn to be assertive, set boundaries, and say no. You both NEED to have boundaries, and it will be a challenge to set them, which is why you need support.
I feel husband has BPD- he does the classic from amazing, loving relationships to I hate you and dont ever want to look at your face-making sure they all turn enemies-manipulating, character assassinating. He will even refuse to acknowledge he even has BPD or even believe there is a such a thing. Help
I have bdp but I am not sure if its a problem yet… I am a master manipulator, superficially charming and alluring, narcissistic, and can change my mind instantly. I balance idealising my partner with tearing him down to keep him close… enough. I don’t think my issue is in recognising I have a problem but in actually enjoying manipulating, controlling and emotionally toying with other. I genuinely enjoy it, and feel nothing for anyone unless it benefits me. The only negative thing I have felt is the feeling of emptiness. People bore me as they’re too easily within my wrath. Any recommendations?
If you think you’re a narcissist, it will take a commitment and effort to change, but it doesn’t sound like you’re ready. You can read my book on Conquering Shame. You’ll understand the emptiness and what you can do about it.
I need to be able to coparent with my daughters father but he has bpd and I am codependent. Is it possible to cparent with our issues and personality types? how do I help him and myself?
That’s a good question but not easily answered. It depends on how he parented before, whether he endangers the children, their ages, your custody-visitation agreement, communication and relationship. Bottom line is that you need to be assertive and have clear, firm boundaries. Read my book and webinar on assertiveness, go to CoDA, and get a therapist and good lawyer to support you through this difficult time.
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.
“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 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.
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.
Good for you. You may want to find out how you succumbed for so long; likely the seeds are in your childhood.
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.