How to Handle a Relationship With Someone Who Has Borderline Personality Disorder
People who live with borderline personality disorder (BPD) have a hard time regulating their emotions, which can be very intense, and handling stress. This can lead them to lash out at the people in their lives. As a result, they often have turbulent relationships that are as hard for the other people in them as BPD is for the person living with it. If you live with someone who has BPD, this isn’t news to you, but you may feel be at a loss about how to do anything about it.
Daniel S. Lobel, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in supporting the loved ones of people with BPD, has advice on how to help yourself, your partner, and your relationship get to a healthier place.
Learn About Borderline Personality Disorder
Living with borderline personality disorder — or living with someone who has it — can be isolating. People with BPD and the people who live with them often feel totally alone. Education is critical, especially when it comes to the behaviors that come with the condition.
People with BPD tend to lash out and attack the person who doesn’t have it, Lobel says. “So people who are with people who have BPD end up feeling bad about themselves.”
Learning about how BPD causes this helps people who don’t have it understand that it isn’t them. Lobel suggests these sites to learn more about borderline personality disorder and find support:
Take Care of Yourself First
Before you do anything else, “you have to stop the person from hurting you in order to make progress in the relationship,” Lobel says. Trying to help them when you’re being treated poorly — being yelled at, living with passive aggressive behavior — isn’t safe for you and isn’t likely to help your partner.
Instead, he says, the first step is setting a boundary about your well-being. He suggests telling your partner, “I can’t be with you unless I am well, and in order for me to be well, I have to stop you from hurting me.”
If your partner says they can’t stop, they’ll likely need professional help before you can make any progress. The goal in this step, Lobel says, is to let your partner know, “you have to stop abusing me or we have nowhere to go.”
Set — and Stick With — Boundaries
“People with BPD try to get other people to do for them what they should be doing for themselves,” Lobel says. And often they succeed, because the other person just wants to stop the yelling, so they give in.
Instead, tell your partner, “I will not participate in things that are unhealthy.” That might mean insisting they don’t use drugs or alcohol in the house, or not joining in if they do. It could mean leaving if your partner is yelling at you or belittling you.
Enforce Emotional Boundaries, Too
People with borderline personality disorder often bring the people near them into their emotions.
“They think, ‘If I’m angry, you need to be angry too,’ so they will create a circumstance that makes the other person angry,” Lobel says.
If you can spot these trends, it will go a long way toward stopping this co-dependent cycle.
Lobel suggests telling your partner, “You’re angry. I understand. I don’t need to be angry to understand that you’re angry. We can talk about your anger, but you can’t yell at me or be abusive.”
If they can’t stop the behavior, you can tell them “You have to handle this on your own.”
Replace Unhealthy Connection With Healthy Connection
Fighting with or defending yourself from a partner who’s treating you badly saps your interest and ability to do enjoyable things with them. That makes it harder to connect.
Lobel says making a change, like walking away when they’re treating you badly, frees up time and emotional space for you to have positive interactions, like watching a movie or taking a walk together. These are more positive ways of showing love.
“Consistency is so important,” Lobel says, “because people with BPD test boundaries. If you set a limit, they may see what ways they can push or encroach on the limit.” If the pattern between you has been to let boundaries be stretched or broken over a long time, it won’t change overnight.
“You can’t just change up the boundary one day and expect them to comply,” he says. “In the short-term they will test it more.” That means things are likely to get worse before they get better.
“But if you can get past that part, and if you are very consistent,” Lobel says, “they will start to accept your boundaries.” They won’t stop testing your limits, but they will do it less and less.
Support Your Partner’s Treatment
There’s no medication that specifically treats borderline personality disorder. But there are therapies, like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which is the go-to treatment. “Trying to get them into a DBT program is very helpful,” Lobel says, because it teaches people with BPD healthier ways to respond and interact. You’ll want to find a therapist who’s has experience working with DBT and with people who have borderline personality disorder.
Let your loved one know DBT can help anyone, not just folks with BPD, because it “helps people communicate and increase their tolerance for stress.”
Provide recognition when they make progress. “Compliment and comment on any positive changes and behaviors you notice,” Lobel says.
Know When You Need to Protect Yourself
“The ultimate boundary in a relationship with someone who has BPD, is telling them, ‘I just can’t stay,’” Lobel says. How do you know when it’s time to draw that line? Here are a few things to watch out for.
- Physical violence. Nobody should stay in a relationship where there’s continued physical violence, Lobel says. “Someone will get hurt, the police will be involved, nothing good can come from that.”
- Too many boundaries. When there are so many topics or kinds of interactions you need to avoid to prevent your partner from lashing out, you’ve removed most of the sources of potential communication, intimacy, and connection.
- Your partner is unwilling to make changes. “If the person insists, ‘there is nothing wrong with me, it’s all you,’ that’s a red flag, and you probably have to pack your bags,” Lobel says.
- Your mood is consistently bad. “Are you walking around miserable all the time?” Lobel asks. “If you feel crappy about this relationship all day, every day, you gotta go.”
Know When to Protect Your Partner
One symptoms of BPD is self-harm, like cutting, or suicidal gestures such as overdose. If you see your partner injuring themselves, call 911.