How to Navigate Your Partner’s Borderline Personality

When Tim and Wendy first met, they hit it off incredibly well. Tim said looking at Wendy felt like looking at a female version of himself – she loved all the same things he loved, and even shared the same aversions. She was passionate and talented and had a rapier wit that Tim admired, and the couple fell fast and hard.

It was about six months before the veneer of Perfect Wendy started to crack, and a very different Wendy began to show through. The changes began with an incredible jealousy and an absolute certainty that Tim would cheat. But Tim had no designs on messing around; he was a loyal guy.

Wendy’s jealous rages became more intense as the relationship developed, but after each fall-out, she’d feel incredibly ashamed and certain that Tim was going to leave her. She would apologize desperately for having disbelieved him and would beg him not to go. Through those months, Tim remained consistent and strong; he wasn’t going anywhere and just wanted his loving girlfriend – soon to be his bride – to meet him in the middle.

The stress of wedding planning seemed to be especially intense for Wendy, although Tim knew it could be rough for many brides. She was thrilled and excited one minute, then torn the next, utterly unable to make time-dependent decisions. There were a lot of tears and some yelling, too, but the day of the ceremony seemed to bring a new period of peace. This was the Wendy that Tim had been waiting for – a calm, relaxed woman who didn’t fear her place in the world. This was the Wendy he’d first met.

Sometimes small things would upset her, but he could live with these temporary distresses. Tim became an expert at walking very softly; he never knew what might set Wendy off. She could be so easily hurt, and so easily angered. It was as though her window of tolerance was open only a crack. She was frequently agitated, anxious and prickly, then tearful, then raging. Then the whole process would simply start over again. One minute it felt like Tim could do no wrong in Wendy’s eyes; the next minute, he was the devil incarnate.

Wendy had been fired from her fourth job and was feeling suicidal by the time Tim convinced her they needed therapy. Always in the past she had resisted, thinking he intended to get her there and drop her off, but now, Wendy was in so much pain she was finally willing to do anything. Tim couldn’t be sure how long her willingness would last, but he made the call. Maybe a couple’s therapist could give him some tools for dealing with his relationship, and maybe even convince Wendy she needed her own.

Does Your Partner Have BPD?

If you’ve found yourself reading this article, it’s likely because you already have some knowledge, some background information into borderline personality disorder (BPD) and how it can be disabling for individuals and for their relationships. Here are the symptoms your partner is likely to experience:

  • An extreme sensitivity to real or imagined abandonment or rejection. Even so, she/he may be harshly critical of loved ones
  • Tumultuous and chaotic interpersonal relationships with partners, family members and in the workplace
  • Frequent emotional outbursts, such as anger and outrage, sometimes in the form of verbal or physical abuse or acts of revenge
  • A tendency to “split” self and others by viewing people as alternately “good,” or “bad.” This kind of black and white thinking allows a person with BPD to idealize someone (including self) one day, then completely devalue him/her the next
  • Tendency to act out self-destructively in order to fend off chronic feelings of emptiness, such as with promiscuous sex, alcohol and drugs, reckless driving, shoplifting, compulsive spending, compulsive or restrictive eating, or other self injurious behavior (such as cutting or burning)

You Are Not Alone

For partners of people with BPD, the problem can feel overwhelming. People on the outside rarely see the truth about what it is like for you and may misperceive what you’re going through as a “relationship problem.” There is some truth to this, but only because BPD manifests most significantly in a person’s interpersonal relationships.

Interacting with a BPD loved one can create a lot of fear, obligation and guilt and a distinct sensation that you are “walking on eggshells.” In order to break free of this dynamic, you may need help too. It can be quite refreshing to know that there are thousands of people out there just like you, all dealing with a BPD loved one and troubling over whether their own beliefs and behaviors are beneficial or detrimental to the mental well-being of the one they love. There are multiple books for partners, such as Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder: How to Keep Out-of-Control Emotions from Destroying Your Relationship by Shari Y. Manning, Ph.D., and Marsha M. Linehan, Ph.D.

There are also websites and online forums for partners and family members of suffers, such as author and advocate Randi Kreger’s online community Welcome to Oz, for BPD family members and loved ones. Connecting with others in a supportive environment can be a positive way to begin to make changes.

It is most important, however, that you begin to get the therapeutic support you may need. Seeking an individual therapist or support group has proven essential for many loved ones of sufferers – in learning how to disengage from violent or emotional outbursts; learning how to handle threats of harm without becoming complicit; and learning how to begin to break the codependent cycle that so often becomes a pattern in BPD relationships. Get the help you need, not just on behalf of your loved one, but also for you.