Understanding Relationship Challenges and Conflict if Your Partner Has BPD
Some of the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) include challenges in relationships
Psychologist Dr Tom Bichard offers information to those whose loved one shows traits of or has a diagnosis of BPD
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We always risk pigeonholing when we categorise individuals. This creates stereotypes and unfairly generalises people. The usefulness of any categorising can be just as important to consider as its truthfulness.
Being flexible and open-minded to oneself and others is particularly important when supporting someone with traits of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), itself a diagnostic category.
Markers of BPD include emotional lability (feelings being very intense and changing rapidly) and instability in relationships. This article mainly focuses on the latter and aims to provide basic supportive information for those who are in a relationship or friendship with someone who has a diagnosis of, or who shows symptoms related to, BPD. Given the issues with categorisation, please keep in mind that your experience may well differ from what is discussed below.
Fundamentally, I believe BPD comes from a place of internal pain following interpersonal conflicts past and present. Other people, therefore, can act as a trigger for intense feelings and will consequently get caught in the crossfire. Intense feelings can make it more likely that a person with BPD will view others in terms of exclusively good or bad, struggling sometimes to find the middle ground. Healthy relationships often depend on our ability to hold an open-mindedness, a willingness to be unsure and accept ambiguity: to not assume, to not mind-read or expect mind-reading. The grey areas rather than the black-and-white. Seeing most others as within a spectrum between good and bad, rather than either-or.
Despite the origins of BPD being in the past, the 'bad guy' can get found in the present – perhaps in yourself as a friend or partner – and this may or may not relate to how bad you have been (or at least intended to be). Instead, or in addition, people from the past who may well have been bad or neglectful are brought into the present.
Indeed, a lot has historically gone wrong for the person with BPD and it could well be true that someone should feel bad. Someone is guilty, surely. It's just that it may feel a little too far removed from the present reality with you. You may actually be someone quite thoughtful and caring on the whole, most of the time. Enough of the time.
All people make mistakes and get things wrong. And naturally you have your own life, so your attention might sometimes be limited. You could have been too busy to respond to the person. You may be unsure of what feeling of theirs to respond to. Perhaps their feelings seem to change day-to-day, suddenly. If you receive a torrent, what part of the communication of their thoughts and feelings do you focus on? If you express a response in a certain way, will it be misinterpreted? Perhaps it can be tiring. Would you be selfish to say, or would the person be retraumatised, if you communicate that this is too much? That I do want to keep going, but that it is a lot for us to handle at the moment. But this moment may pass and we can carry on learning how to be with each other. I'm not planning to go anywhere but I have feelings too. I do make mistakes, but I am often being backed into a corner and unfairly constructed as a bad guy.
If you are reading this article, perhaps you are not yet another bad or toxic person. Perhaps you are trying to understand and support, whilst at times feeling on a rollercoaster and treading on eggshells.
Indeed, some of your feelings here do give you a glimpse into some of their internal world. When you do bring your feelings to the person, this needs to be done carefully. There may be a sense of not wanting to spoil the good moments by talking about the challenging side of the relationship, but it may be important to do this when things are calm and feelings are not overwhelming.
Though predisposition factors may play a part, I believe that BPD is not a mere chemical imbalance as if a fluke of nature. As suggested, I regard it as predominantly coming from sustained traumas that people have been through in significant relationships with significant other people. Please don't expect them to immediately see you as anything different. Understandably a new person could feel quite a risk to take. Initially they may need to test you. If you appear to get something wrong, it may well be jumped on and perhaps fixated on as if proof of something. Given what has happened before in some of their relationships – where they have not been well supported or worse – the stakes are too high.
However, you do need balance and to make reasonable guesses as to when to engage and when to step back and let the other person cool down using their own means. This may be anything from techniques to calm the body to distraction or therapeutic support. This may take the form of simple ‘grounding exercises’ that one can do alone or something more structured and routine such as a yoga class or massage. Psychotherapy may well be key.
And what about for yourself? Aside from the emotional challenges of being with someone who experiences intense feelings, are you feeling compelled to rescue? Are your difficulties getting lost amongst theirs, and should that happen?
If your relationship is well-framed, structured, boundaried and supported from enough inside and outside sources, it will have the best chances of thriving. Of course, there are no easy answers as to how you can best support your loved one. To some extent only the person themselves, as well as you and others in close proximity can know how. Another trait of BPD is an instability in sense of self coupled with an occasional feeling of emptiness. To tell the person quite explicitly who they are to you, even in basic terms, may be quite powerful. This may be what they mean to you or in descriptions of their good traits. The Myers-Briggs personality indicator can be useful to show someone where they can sit along a spectrum of different personalities – not necessarily extreme or rigid, nor one necessarily better than the other. When calm, a good question to ask could be what is important for/to you? An answer may well be useful but the act of being asked and of thinking about this has value too.
I hope that they are getting good therapy which both genuinely supports and challenges them, which they are able to stick to. A therapist who occupies the grey areas professionally and helps them to navigate a therapeutic space.
As implied, please keep in mind that there are obvious problems with blaming all the relationship issues on the other person's condition, diagnoses or ways-of-being. Supporting someone with traits or diagnoses of BPD can involve encouraging them to own a portion of their feelings as belonging to themselves and to their own history. However, this is not about making them question their sanity or you avoiding owning up to your shortcomings, which also may need to be specifically named. Most importantly, the good within the relationship and the good sides of both of you – as a duo but without being too enmeshed – can be something therapeutic and well rooted in the present.
Dr Tom Bichard is a verified Welldoing psychologist in London and online