If your partner is living with borderline personality disorder, and you’re not, you may be curious about how to overcome obstacles together.
When you love someone who lives with a mental health condition like borderline personality disorder, it can present scenarios you may not be used to.
If you spoke French and your partner spoke Italian, would you insist they only speak your language? Probably not.
A healthy relationship may involve meeting each other in the middle.
Together, you can work through challenges.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) isn’t a personal choice. It’s a mental health condition, and it can be managed.
Can a person with borderline personality disorder feel love? Absolutely! They may just have a hard time expressing it or establishing some stability in their relationships.
Many of the core symptoms of BPD are things that most people can resonate with to some degree, says Mallory Frayn, a clinical psychologist in Montreal, Canada.
“It’s just that the frequency and intensity of these symptoms exist on a spectrum from more interfering to less interfering,” she says.
Someone with BPD will experience these symptoms intensely and persistently and in many situations.
But empathy and patience can make all the difference.
“This involves being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand why they might be thinking or feeling what they are,” she explains. “If you can tap into an aspect of your own experience where you have felt similarly, it can help.”
Symptoms of borderline personality disorder
Only a mental health professional can accurately diagnose BPD.
In sum, for this diagnosis to be reached, someone must persistently display five or more of these symptoms across most situations:
- significant efforts to avoid abandonment at all costs
- tendency to see others as black or white (the best vs. the worst)
- pattern of unstable relationships
- tendency to behave in “intense” ways
- changing habits, interests, and identity
- potentially self-damaging impulsivity, like substance use, overspending, or reckless driving
- long-standing feelings of emptiness
- emotional instability or frequent changes in mood
- hard time controlling anger
- symptoms of dissociation or paranoid thoughts
You and your partner may have learned different approaches to love, which can present unique learning opportunities for the two of you.
Keeping in mind that some of your partner’s behaviors aren’t a personal choice, but instead a symptom, may help you keep things in perspective.
It’s highly advisable that you also focus on your emotional needs, mental health, and personal safety. Their willingness to work on managing their symptoms isn’t up to you.
Professional support can help, but it’s important that the person makes the decision to seek help.
Where you ‘stand’ may shift
When you’re dating someone with BPD, there are times when you may go from being the hero to being the villain in their eyes.
This is called “splitting,” a symptom where you’re perceived as either all good or all bad. It’s sometimes a reaction to emotional pain. To manage it, they may need to make you the “bad guy” for a while.
Your partner may even take the extra step and ask for a break.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care about you. They may be having a hard time putting emotions into words, or they may be fearing you leave, so it feels easier to end the relationship before you do.
You may find it helpful to give them space to cool down and request that you revisit the conversation at a later time, to get clarity on where you truly stand.
Reassurance may be necessary
You may find that your partner needs more reassurance than you do.
Your partner may spend a lot of time looking for clues about how you truly feel, like analyzing text messages, ruminating over conversations, or testing you.
You may be asked to provide extra reassurance through your words, actions, or physical affection.
When it feels natural, it’s a good idea to openly express how you feel as often as you can.
Reactions may need an explanation
Sometimes those who live with BPD can hyper-read the room.
One challenge with this, though, is that they may sense something in your facial expressions or tone of voice that you don’t necessarily feel or that may not be associated with them.
For example, your partner may think you look bored and conclude you’re not happy with them. You may actually be adding up the tip for the bill in your head.
Know that your partner may ask you to clarify your facial expressions, tone of voice, or messages often to make sure that you’re understanding each other.
You may also face some misunderstandings, so it’s a good idea to avoid getting defensive when your partner misreads you. Clarification and reassurance will go a long way when dating someone with borderline personality.
Goals may shift and change
It may be difficult for your partner to work at a job where they feel challenged, criticized, or rejected. In fact,
Knowing this ahead of time can help the two of you prepare for the future. You may want to discuss a savings account or a backup plan, so you’re aligned when it comes to finances.
Social media may be a presence
The same study found that some people may abruptly cut off others, like unfriending or blocking them. Try not to take it personally if your partner does this to you in the heat of the moment.
Also, if you feel like you’re competing with your partner’s phone, ask for what you need. For example, request to eat dinner just the two of you, sans screens.
You may also find that expressing your appreciation in social media may make them feel more secure in the relationship. If this is something that feels OK with you, try posting photos together or adding romantic comments to what they post.
There are some ways you can strengthen your partnership by working together on a few strategies.
Listen to understand
You fell in love with this person for a reason. Even during difficult moments, remember what that is, says Lynn Zakeri, a licensed clinical social worker in Skokie, Illinois.
“Learn. Educate yourself. But most importantly, be a good listener,” she says. Think about what your partner is trying to tell you, underneath their emotions and behaviors, she adds. Ask yourself, what are their intentions?
“If you meet them where they are, versus trying to change them to meet you where you are, you will be able to progress easier together,” says Zakeri. “Validate and acknowledge, even if you don’t agree.”
You may also want to consider expressing your needs to be listened to and encouraging your partner to double-check before assuming how you feel.
What this sounds like:
“I hear you saying that when I showed up late, you thought I didn’t love you anymore. Let me tell you how I feel.”
Improve your communication skills
Effective communication takes work, but it’s the glue that holds your relationship together. You may find it useful to:
- write down what you want to say and ask your partner to do the same
- take deep breaths before you speak
- focus on one problem at a time
- keep open body language
- use “I” statements
Also, don’t be afraid to slow things down. “When we respond automatically to emotions, we tend to do and say things that we could later regret,” says Frayn. “If you feel like things are starting to get heated between you and your partner, take a ‘time out’ and come back once you’ve both cooled off a bit.”
What this sounds like:
“I need to walk around the block and calm down. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to keep talking about this. I just need to chill. Let’s resume in X minutes.”
Enlist the help of a couple’s therapist
Couples therapy can create a safe and neutral space to express your feelings and concerns, says Amber Weiss, a licensed psychotherapist in New York City.
“A couple’s therapist can guide you by asking the right questions and help both parties feel understood and heard,” she says. “The therapist can mediate, educate, and support you as you work towards a more balanced and healthy relationship.”
What this sounds like
“I’m not going anywhere. Let’s work on this as a team. Can we try couple’s therapy?”
Navigating a relationship when one of you has BPD, and the other does not, can be challenging at times.
However, this isn’t an impossible task, says Weiss. “By utilizing different forms of support such as a therapist, educational resources, and patience, you may be able to work together to achieve a happy medium in the relationship.”
“BPD will be a part of your life,” she adds, “but it doesn’t have to take over the relationship.”