Table of Contents
Partners with BPD are not bad people. They are often criticized, marginalized and stigmatized, but the truth is that they deserve love and understanding like anyone else.
BPD, or borderline personality disorder, is a psychological diagnosis that indicates a person has difficulty regulating their emotions. The emotional state of a person with BPD fluctuates between calm and angry, happy and sad, loving and cold, and empathetic and apathetic. How they think, feel, and act can change at any time. Their intense emotions can be triggered by any event, no matter how insignificant it may seem at first glance.
But maybe being with someone with BPD is not all bad. Many people with borderline personality disorder are intuitive, empathetic, passionate, spontaneous, resilient, creative, curious, intense, intelligent, and courageous. When not triggered, they can love deeply and commit to their partner and family.
In this article, we will look at the full spectrum of what it means to be in a relationship with someone with BPD – not just the often-discussed downsides but the joyful side as well. Please note though, that this is not a ‘scientific’ article, and it does not apply to everyone with BPD. If your partner is abusive, it is still important to summon healthy anger and set some boundaries or maintain distance.
“People with BPD are like people with third degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.”
Potential Advantages to Having a Partner with BPD
Unfortunately, the misconceptions and stigma attached to BPD often dominates. If you have a partner with BPD and only look at the negative and are too influenced by what the world and the internet say, you may miss the life-giving, intensely intimate and joyful facets of being with them. If you shift your focus from the negative to the potential positive qualities your partner with BPD have, you will appreciate your lover as who they are a lot more.
Below are how your partner’s highly sensitive, empathic, and intuitive qualities can be transformed into positive aspects of being in a relationship with them.
They understand your pain
Someone with BPD understands the feelings of hurt, loneliness, and emotional pain better than most. Contrary to a common misconception, most people with BPD do not lack empathy. In fact, the opposite is true, where they have ‘too much’ empathy. When their empathic nature is not managed or regulated, they could be constantly overwhelmed to the point of burnout. Although they are triggered momentarily, they may seem to focus only on themselves; they are not oblivious to the feelings of those around them. Many people with BPD have a gifted ability to detect unspoken emotions. Your partner can seem to read your mind, even if you have not explicitly expressed how you are feeling. In an empirical study, thirty individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and twenty-five individuals without BPD were shown partial images of people’s faces, specifically the eyes (Fertuck, 2009). The BPD group scored much better than the non-BPD group in correctly identifying the expressions on the faces, indicating heightened sensitivity to the mental states of others. They know you are upset about something, even if you try to hide or deny it. The combination of sharp intuition and deep empathy allows your partner with BPD to build a robust and intimate connection with you, and they can even help you become more aware of your feelings.
Addressing problems head on
Although this may be due to their anxious attachment and intolerance of uncertainty, some people with BPD are very motivated to work on the relationship and resolve any issues. When conflicts arise, they will not just let things drop but want to get to the bottom of the problem. This can be stressful for people with avoidance tendencies. The advantage, however, is that you are also challenged to address challenges in your relationship head-on, communicate effectively, and not fall into passivity or conflict avoidance.
Many people with borderline personality disorder are creative and expressive (Although empirical research has not been able to support this link, anecdotally, many have found a strong link between creativity and BPD)(Leutgeb et al., 2016). They may have a strong interest in the arts, be attracted to creative professions, or have other creative talents. Many people with BPD can use creativity to cope with emotional pain and turmoil. For them, creativity can be a source of strength and self-identity. Your partner’s presence can inspire you to pursue your creative interests or express yourself. Best of all, your partner will bring the same intense creativity to your relationship and keep monotony away. Be prepared to receive affection through thoughtful gestures and creative expressions.
They can be deeply empathic and caring parents.
While some people with BPD pass on the intergenerational trauma they suffered (Stepps et al., 2012), many have vowed to do the opposite. Since your partner has experienced a vicarious childhood, they will work hard to ensure that history does not repeat itself with your children. They can potentially be incredibly competent in turning their pain into a parenting gift if they are willing to work on themselves and heal through therapy and personal development. In the healthiest scenario, they will do their best to support your child’s needs and give them the warmth they were once deprived of. They may be more insecure than other parents, but they can be very responsive to their children’s needs. In addition, your partner will likely prioritize your child’s individuality, emotions, and ambition over typical societal expectations. Suppose they are artistic and creative and know what it’s like to go against conventional wisdom and tradition. In that case, your partner will likely support your child’s desire to pursue artistic interests and make congruent career choices.
Loyal and committed
Because many people with BPD have difficulty regulating their emotions, they tend to have chaotic and intense relationships. However, despite their challenges, people with BPD often have a lot of love to give. Yes, some partners with BPD may be disloyal, mainly if they act impulsively when emotionally dysregulated. But most of the time, if they feel safe and loved in a committed relationship, they will appreciate the haven they have been looking for all their lives. Once your partner is committed, they will be devoted to you and do whatever they can to make things work.
Your partner with BPD may be more robust than you think
Someone with a borderline personality disorder is often thought of as having a mental illness that makes people weak and unable to deal with life’s challenges. However, some people with borderline personality disorder are incredibly strong and resilient (Paris et al., 2014). They can cope with life’s challenges and traumatic experiences in ways most people cannot. When you think about their horrific childhood traumas, you will be amazed at their strengths. The paradox is that while they often have strong reactions to seemingly trivial everyday life events, they may be unusually calm when life-changing events occur. Therefore, when life-shattering events happen, they may be in the best position to offer support to their loved ones. People with BPD have proven in their own lives that even the most traumatic events cannot completely take over your life. They can be a great source of support for others because they know what it’s like to be a survivor.
Spontaneous and fun
The most memorable moments we experience are usually unrehearsed. More than others, your partner with BPD may be especially good at delighting you with spontaneous adventures and surprises.
Many people with BPD enjoy being with others and making them laugh. Their high energy and spontaneous nature make being with them a great pleasure. The downside is that they can be impulsive and take too many risks. But if they can healthily channel their bold nature and bring it into the relationship, it can lead to exciting and memorable experiences.
People with BPD strongly desire a deep connection with those around them. This is partly because of their fear of abandonment but because they simply love people and crave deep connections. As a result, people with BPD tend to be very passionate partners. They are often tender and loving and go to great lengths to optimize their relationships.
Your partner with BPD may shower you with compliments, affection, and attention. This can be a welcome change if, in previous relationships, you had felt alone or neglected. On a deeper level, they can form the most profound and meaningful bonds with the people they care about.
People in a relationship with a person with BPD often find that they slowly become more emotionally expressive. You may also find it easier to share your feelings and discuss complex topics because your partner with BPD models these abilities.
First, we’re highly sensitive to emotional stimuli (meaning we experience social dynamics, the environment, and our own inner states with an acuteness similar to having exposed nerve endings). Second, we respond more intensely and much more quickly, than other people. And third, we don’t ‘come down’ from our emotions for a long time. One the nerves have been touched, the sensations keep peaking. Shock waves of emotion that might pass through others in minutes keep cresting in us for hours, sometimes days.”
The Struggles of Having a Partner with BPD
The above is not to downplay the difficulties you may encounter. Indeed, BPD is a debilitating mental illness.
Relationships are stressful even in the best circumstances and require both partners’ patience, consideration, and understanding. When you have a partner with BPD who is unpredictable and often pushes the emotional envelope, the challenges can affect you so much that it affects your life and work.
The qualities that make your partner with BPD a joy can make you feel confused and distressed. The intensity, creativity, and deep capacity to love may have attracted you, but your BPD partner’s hypersensitivity makes the relationship volatile.
Your partner with BPD may have a “black and white” thinking style that makes them idolize you one moment and demonize you the next. Any decision you make that contradicts their expectations or fails to include them can trigger their deepest fears of abandonment and rejection. In the heat of the moment, your partner with BPD may do and say things they later regret. You may feel like you are constantly torn between being criticised and being begged for forgiveness.
Relationships need space to be healthy. Everyone should maintain their individuality even if they love the other person deeply, but a partner with BPD often cannot give others much space. Your partner may hyper-analyze everything you do and say. Even the smallest gestures you make or do not make can trigger an outburst. Trying to have a realistic discussion to resolve a conflict with your partner with BPD can set off an emotional tornado that lasts for days. Them vacillating between extremes and unpredictable mood swings can leave you feeling out of control.
Unfortunately, because of their unstable childhood or emotionally unavailable parents, your partner with BPD is prone to a pervasive fear of abandonment and rejection, even when everything is going well. They may constantly look for signs that you are unhappy with them, even if the fear is unfounded. Your partner with BPD may be violent, make dramatic statements, and behave recklessly. Their insecurity makes them obsessive and causes them to demand extra attention and intimacy. They may also be very possessive and uncomfortable when you spend time with others.
When you are with a partner with BPD, you may feel like you can not do anything right. Unconsciously, your partner may expect you to fill the void of love that was withheld from them as a child. Occasional lapses in attention you can give them can trigger the worst conflict. You may feel that everything you say or do is twisted and used against you. They may not acknowledge their true feelings and unjustifiably blame or unconsciously guilt-trip you.
It may be helpful to understand that your partner’s instability is often due not only to trauma but also to an unregulated empathy that makes them vulnerable to being influenced by the energies around them – both positive and negative. As a highly sensitive person and empath, your partner is like an emotional sponge that soaks up all the negativity around them. The more they feel and absorb, the more they tend to exhibit the negative aspects of BPD. So one way to improve the relationship is to encourage them to take very good care of themselves, to pay attention to nuanced changes in their state of mind, do things that nurture them, and build a healthy emotional foundation. Knowing how they usually feel, they can learn to be aware when they pick up on feelings that are not theirs, and this can help them regulate their emotions.
You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.
How to Make it Work When BPD is Between You?
If you are in a relationship with someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), you may struggle to cope. Perhaps to start, think of BPD as something that is ‘between you,’ rather than thinking of BPD as something that defines your partner.
BPD can be difficult to live with, and it can often be hard to know what to do to help your partner. Here are some tips for coping with a partner with BPD:
Knowing if your partner has BPD might be the first step to learning how to cope as a couple. Although a label often comes with a stigma, it can be a useful tool that leads to the right information and treatment. If your partner is yet to be diagnosed, here are some signs that they may have BPD.
· Frequent mood swings; they may seem joyful and excited at one point but are soon followed by sudden bouts of sadness/anger.
· Being loving one moment and critical the next.
· Prone to being suspicious of you as a partner.
· You are often made to feel guilty for your choice of words or behaviour.
· They have a history of reckless behaviour such as unsafe sex, drug misuse, or excessive spending.
· They have made suicide threats and engaged in self-harm.
A formal diagnosis can be made by a specialist in personality disorders, usually a psychologist or psychiatrist. Seeking treatment for managing your partner’s BPD can help save your relationship. Many psychotherapy treatments for BPD focus on realigning the person’s thinking patterns and helping them manage their emotions. But the most powerful kind of healing work would be to help them recover from their attachment wounds and learn to relate to another person in a healthy, stable and assertive manner.
Learn about BPD
The more you know about the disorder, the better equipped you will be to deal with it. There are many great books and websites out there that can teach you about BPD and how to best deal with it. Try not to go on forums or random internet sources. Fueled by anger, many of these ‘echo chambers’ simply reinforce stigma and myths about BPD and are not helpful in the long run.
It can be challenging to set boundaries in a relationship with a partner with BPD. They may overstep your boundaries or even cross them without realizing it. You need to be firm and consistent when setting boundaries, or they probably will not take your requests seriously. Here are some tips on how to effectively set boundaries in a relationship with someone who has BPD:
– Make sure your boundaries are realistic and achievable.
– Communicate your needs clearly. This means saying what you are willing to do and what you are not willing to do and sticking to them.
– Explain the boundary to the person with BPD in a friendly, clear, and concise way. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements.
– Try not to take their mood swings personally. People with BPD can go from one extreme emotion to another very quickly, and it is not always easy to understand their feelings. Do not get caught up in trying to reason with them or understand the logic of their emotions. Instead of blaming them for breaking promises or overstepping your boundaries, just calmly restore them, even if you have to do it repeatedly.
Do not devalue them
A BPD partner’s thoughts and fears may seem surprising and illogical, but something that does not make sense on the surface usually has deep roots and historical trauma. Telling them they are irrational or that their feelings are unfounded usually fuels the fire even more.
Rather than trying to reason with their feelings, try to validate them. This can be difficult if you disagree with the premises or do not understand the reasons behind their feelings. But you do not have to understand them to validate them. You can simply describe what you see and affirm that what they feel is what they feel. You do not have to engage in a debate about the cause or consequences of their feelings – at least not in the heat of the moment. (Also see this post on Loving Someone with BPD)
Being empathetic to your BPD partner’s feelings and thoughts will help them feel seen and heard, which can de-escalate their crisis. In other words: If your partner is emotional, try to listen instead of expressing your opinion. This would calm them down faster. The other, healthier conversations can be had later, and they will be more receptive.
Joint therapy sessions
You can attend your BPD partner’s therapy sessions over time if they are okay with the idea and the therapist recommends it. Couples therapy can be even better because it does not make your partner with BPD the scapegoat for the “problems.” Good couples therapy will help you communicate and understand each other better. Strengthening your bond will also translate into your BPD partner developing healthier relationships with others in their life.
Take very, very good care of yourself
The road to coping with BPD is an arduous one. As you both heal from your relationship wounds, taking time for your physical and emotional well-being is perfectly okay. Continue to do activities that make you happy and meet other people, and make sure you feel resourceful and well enough to support your partner with BPD on their journey. Make sure you do not get looped into a co-dependent relationship because of their neediness or demands on you. You do not need to feel guilty for assertively setting boundaries because such an act is not punitive but is something good for both of you.
At the same time, try not to rely on the hope that your partner will one day drastically change or become who you want them to be. They are who they are, with all their flaws and glories. Of course, you would find some aspects of their illness difficult, but as a whole, it should be congruent to your values that you want to be with this person. If you do not feel the person you are with is ‘good enough,’ it might be better to take a step back and re-evaluate the relationship. You ought to be honest with yourself, rather than staying in the relationship and resenting them, passively punishing them or forcing them to change overnight. You both deserve to feel loved and accepted in the relationship, and that is not something that can be forced.
Being with a partner with BPD is a unique journey with its peaks and valleys. Whilst most literature and internet sources focus on the negatives, there are merits to these relationships.
If you are in a relationship with a partner with BPD, do your best to be patient and understanding, seek help if you feel overwhelmed, but don’t go beyond your limit and end up in a mutually-destructive loop.
People with BPD are still people, and they deserve love, understanding, and being with someone who also wants to be with them.
“Some of our fiercest battles are fought and won in silence.”
Carver, Deborah Daniels. (1997) Medscape Psychiatry & Mental Health eJournal. 2(5), retrieved at https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/430852_2
Fertuck, E. A., Jekal, A., Song, I., Wyman, B., Morris, M. C., Wilson, S. T., … & Stanley, B. (2009). Enhanced ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ in borderline personality disorder compared to healthy controls. Psychological medicine, 39(12), 1979-1988.
Leutgeb, V., Ille, R., Wabnegger, A., Schienle, A., Schöggl, H., Weber, B., … & Fink, A. (2016). Creativity and borderline personality disorder: evidence from a voxel-based morphometry study. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 21(3), 242-255.
Napolitano, L. A., & McKay, D. (2007). Dichotomous thinking in borderline personality disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 31(6), 717-726.
Paris, J., Perlin, J., Laporte, L., Fitzpatrick, M., & DeStefano, J. (2014). Exploring resilience and borderline personality disorder: A qualitative study of pairs of sisters. Personality and mental health, 8(3), 199-208.
Stepp, S. D., Whalen, D. J., Pilkonis, P. A., Hipwell, A. E., & Levine, M. D. (2012). Children of mothers with borderline personality disorder: identifying parenting behaviors as potential targets for intervention. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 3(1), 76.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.