Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a mental health disorder in which people have difficulties with relationships and mood regulation.1 Being in a romantic relationship with someone with BPD can be difficult because of how their mental health affects how they perceive and act in relationships. People with BPD may struggle with fears of abandonment, ineffective ways of getting their needs met, and seeing things as black-and-white.
What Is BPD?
Borderline personality disorder is a chronic mental health disorder that primarily affects how individuals act in relationships. When a person has BPD, they experience instability in their personal relationships, intense/unpredictable emotions, impulsivity, and unstable/poor self-image.2, 3
BPD & Relationships
Loving someone with BPD may at times feel rocky, unpredictable, and difficult. It’s also important to understand borderline personality disorder relationship cycles. There may be cycles of adoration when they make you their favorite person, and then frustration, or drastic actions in an attempt to prevent the relationship from ending.
The person with BPD struggles to effectively navigate the uncertainty that occurs in relationships. It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of BPD in order to manage the relationship difficulties, as well as to help generate empathy for the person with BPD. Additionally, recognizing that an individual has BPD may open the door for the person to receive borderline personality disorder treatment.
How Does BPD Affect Romantic Relationships?
BPD relationships tend to have more difficulties and less stability. Researchers found that couples that included a partner with BPD characterized the relationship as higher conflict and more negative than relationships that did not.4 Specific concerns may include fears of abandonment, black-and-white thinking, mood swings, suicidality, and sensitivity.
Here are nine ways that borderline personality disorder can affect a relationship:
1. Fears of Abandonment
A person with BPD may exhibit abandonment issues, whether the fear is grounded in reality or not. This may cause the individual to take drastic actions, such as threatening self-harm or suicide to prevent the partner from leaving. The fear and concern the person is experiencing may not be based on reality, which can be confusing to the partner.
2. Unrealistic Expectations
You may have difficulty relating to your BPD partner partly because their perception of events will more than likely look a lot different than yours. In turn, they may hold faulty assumptions about how the relationship and a partner “should” be, which can surface when unreasonable demands and expectations are placed on you. Consequently, this can leave you feeling frustrated, emotionally drained, and like no matter what you do it’s ever enough.3
3. Black-and-White Thinking
A key symptom is BPD splitting where the individual sees things in black-and-white. For example, the individual with BPD may see their partner as all good or all bad. This can lead them to alternate between extreme adoration and hatred within the relationship.
For the person in the relationship, this can be disconcerting, confusing, and frustrating. The switch from one way of thinking to another may be quick and unexpected, contributing to a greater sense of distrust and instability in the relationship.
4. Mood Instability
Individuals with BPD are likely to have mood instability, including highs and lows and quick changes of mood.4 For the partner, this may create an unpredictable atmosphere, especially when it is hard to understand why the mood changes so quickly. Mood changes may be based on things that seem imperceptible to the partner of the person with BPD.
5. Heightened Suicidality & Self-Harm
Many individuals with BPD experience chronic urges to engage in self-harm with or without suicidal ideation. For the partner, this can be scary and stressful. It’s important to remember that you cannot control the person with BPD and you are not responsible for their actions. If your partner threatens suicide, immediately seek professional assistance. It may be helpful for you to seek support of your own, too.
6. Sex & Intimacy
A review of current research on people with BPD and sexual behaviors found two main themes: that individuals with BPD may take part in riskier, more impulsive sexual behaviors (for example, not using condoms) or have higher rates of sexual victimization.5
Past experiences of sexual victimization have a high likelihood to be traumatic, which may cause reactivity to sexual experiences. If you partner has experienced sexual assault or other victimization, continue to encourage them to seek professional support.
7. High Levels of Sensitivity
People with BPD may have high levels of sensitivity to the emotions of those around them. This hypersensitivity may make your partner highly attuned to your emotions, even when you are not intending to directly and openly communicate them. You may need to continue to work on your communication skills to effectively handle your partner’s questions and concerns about your own feelings.
8. No Such Thing as a “Little” Argument
A simple argument will hardly ever feel small or inconsequential to your BPD partner. These can trigger their fear of abandonment and rejection, causing the BPD person to have an emotional meltdown where they may lash out, blow up in a fit of rage, or even self-harm.3
Keep in mind that this will likely recur, so being emotionally understanding of your partner’s BPD can help. Additionally, setting fair fighting rules can assist you both in keeping these discussions civilized and hopefully productive. While it’s important to support your BPD partner and try to improve the relationship, remember that any unhealthy and abusive type of communication is unacceptable.3
9. Ineffective Ways of Meeting Needs
An additional way that BPD relationships may differ from others is that the partner with BPD may be perceived as manipulative due to trying to meet their needs in ineffective ways. For example, if a partner with BPD feels that they’re not getting the attention and care they need, they may act out or even threaten to end the relationship as a form of emotional manipulation.
For the other partner in the relationship, this can be tremendously frustrating. Work with your partner and their therapist to encourage them to identify and communicate their needs in effective ways that support the partnership.
Why Understanding BPD Is Important For Partners
As a partner, it is important for you to understand BPD so that you can provide support, recognize the symptoms, and not take responsibility for your significant other’s actions. Knowledge of the causes and symptoms of BPD will also help you maintain empathy during difficult moments.
It is important to understand that your partner’s behavior is related to a mental health disorder. There are also many books on this topic that may provide you with additional information and support.
Starting a Relationship
In the early stages, there are things to know about dating someone with borderline personality disorder. They may idolize and adore their new partner. This is part of the black-and-white thinking that people with BPD engage in. This period of the relationship may be exciting and pleasurable. The partner’s strong experience of moods may also be exciting and enlivening. Over time, however, this may become more difficult to manage.
Do BPD Relationships Last?
The symptoms of BPD can make romantic relationships difficult. When a person with BPD enters treatment and has recovered, they’re more likely to marry than their unrecovered counterparts.6 When the symptoms of BPD are more severe, there’s an association with marital distress.4 These findings highlight the importance of quality treatment for individuals with BPD to reduce relationship distress.
It is possible to have a long and successful relationship with BPD, however the best outcomes will be associated with partners that seek long-term and effective treatment.
5 Tips For Loving Someone With BPD
Being in a relationship with someone with BPD can certainly be difficult due to the symptoms of mood instability, poor self-image, self-harming behaviors or urges, and fears of abandonment. They are struggling and may have behaviors that make the relationship arduous.
Here are five tips to navigate a romantic relationship with someone with BPD:
In BPD relationships, the impacts of lack of communication include significant stress. Practice clearly communicating how you feel, your needs, and what you’ll tolerate. These clear expectations will help someone with BPD to manage their uncertainty and potential fear. Strong communication is the foundation for any healthy relationship and may help to ease day-to-day difficulties within the partnership.
2. Learn More About BPD
The more you know about your partner’s BPD symptoms and the unique ways they present for them, the easier it will be for you to understand and empathize with your partner. Being able to recognize BPD patterns will help you understand your partner beyond their diagnosis.
3. Set Boundaries
It’s important to know how to set healthy boundaries when dealing with BPD in relationships. The first type would be “emotional boundaries,” which means not allowing the other person’s moods and actions to overly influence your mood. You may at times need to allow the other person to have their intense moods and actions without taking them personally. Working on emotional boundaries takes time and may require professional help.
Additionally, you may need to set boundaries around what you are willing to tolerate. Consider if there are certain actions that the other may take that are deal breakers, such as violence. Communicate these boundaries clearly and hold fast to them.
4. Support Your Partner’s Treatment Plan
Seeking professional mental health treatment is key to BPD management and recovery. It is important to support your partner in that treatment. When they are ready, encourage them to find a therapist skilled in treating borderline personality disorder. Continue to encourage them to engage in treatment as long as is necessary.
In some scenarios, it may be helpful to communicate with your partner’s therapist. If you think this may be useful, talk to your partner to assess if they are comfortable with this, and then also consult with the therapist to determine if this is a part of their treatment plan.
5. Seek Your Own Therapist
The best way to love someone is to do so from a place of grounding and your own self-confidence. Working on yourself with a therapist and getting support from them when you run into issues with your partner can be paramount to maintaining a loving and supportive relationship.
When BPD Relationships End
There may come a time where you choose to end the relationship. It is OK to put your own needs first and encourage your significant other to pursue greater healing. Remember that you are not solely responsible for your partner’s well-being.
Your partner may deeply struggle with the end of the relationship, and it may trigger suicidal ideation or self-harm urges/actions. Continue to encourage your partner to seek professional help, using crisis resources when needed.
When & How Therapy or Couples Counseling Can Help
You may benefit from your own therapy to assist you in coping with stress or worry related to your partner’s mental health concerns. Consider finding a therapist who specializes in BPD or in relationship issues.
Couples therapy may be an additional option. To assess this, consult with your partner’s therapist and, if applicable, your own therapist to determine if finding a couples counselor is recommended for your situation.
Types of Therapy For BPD
There are many options for treating BPD. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is the gold standard.7 Besides DBT, therapists may recommend a variety of other treatments, including but not limited to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), schema-focused therapy, or mentalization-based therapy (MBT).7
How to Find a Therapist
If you’ve decided that it’s time to seek help from a therapist, start your search in an online therapist directory. Doing this allows you to narrow your search by location, cost, and expertise.
Final Thoughts on BPD Relationships
A romantic relationship with someone with BPD can be difficult. Encourage your partner to seek treatment, and work with them and their therapist to determine the best ways to support them. For long-term success, maintain your own boundaries and care for your own mental health.
For Further Reading
- Books on BPD
- Find Crisis Resources in Your Country
- BorderlinerNotes: A YouTube channel dedicated to BPD and other personality disorders.
- I Hate You — Don’t Leave Me – Understanding the Borderline Personality
- Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder
- National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder