When someone we love lives with a mental health condition, it’s natural we want to support them in any way we can. This is true for all mental health conditions, including borderline personality disorder. But when your loved one has borderline personality disorder, it may feel more challenging to support them because of the ways in which this condition impacts your relationship.
Despite its negative and stigmatized reputation, borderline personality disorder is a treatable condition. And people with borderline personality disorder are able to have healthy and happy relationships.
Here are ways that you can support your loved one with borderline personality disorder.
What is borderline personality disorder?
Borderline personality disorder is a common mental health condition that affects around 1.4% of the population (with around 3 in 4 of those people being women).
Some of its most common signs and symptoms include:
- Intense fear of abandonment and frantic efforts to avoid (real and imagined) abandonment
- A pattern of unstable and volatile personal relationships that alternate between idealization and devaluation
- Distorted self-image or a lack of a sense of self
- A pattern of impulsive behaviors like unsafe sex or substance misuse
- Self-harm behaviors
- Suicidal behaviors, thoughts, and threats
- Chronic feelings of emptiness
- Inappropriate and intense angry outbursts that are often followed by feelings of shame
BPD is a type of personality disorder. This means that the signs and symptoms of BPD affect the person’s personality – meaning how they view and think about themselves and the world.
Personality disorders consist of long-lasting patterns of behavior and thinking. Because of their impact on someone’s core personality, BPD and other personality disorders (like antisocial or narcissistic personality disorder) profoundly affect people’s relationships with other people as well as their sense of self.
How does someone with BPD act in a relationship?
The symptoms of BPD revolve greatly around how the person relates to other people. These symptoms often cause them to have intense and volatile relationships – so much so that having these types of relationships is considered a key feature of this personality disorder.
The fear of abandonment, which is a principal symptom of BPD, can cause people with BPD to behave in ways that are fearful, anxious, and “needy” at times. Fear of abandonment may also cause people with BPD to push loved ones away in an attempt to avoid being rejected first.
Relationships in which one or both partners has BPD often happen in cycles. People with BPD have intense emotional highs and lows. This could cause them to idealize their partner (or other people in their lives), then reject or devalue them soon after. This idealization-devaluation cycle is a key feature of relationships with someone who has BPD.
People with BPD also often experience intense emotional or angry outbursts. This anger may contribute to challenges in interpersonal relationships.
This doesn’t mean that someone with BPD can’t have loving and healthy relationships. Every person with BPD experiences it differently, and many people with this disorder have happy and fulfilling lives – especially if they’ve received treatment.
How to help someone with borderline personality disorder
At the same time, many people in a relationship with someone with BPD – whether they’re your romantic partner, parent, work colleague, or friend – find it challenging to navigate. BPD episodes can last anywhere from a few hours to several months. It’s often difficult to know how to support your loved one during these episodes, especially if they’re angry with you.
There are ways to support your loved one with BPD without having to forgo your own emotional needs. Here are 8 tips.
Learn about borderline personality disorder
One of the best things you can do to support your loved one is to learn about borderline personality disorder and how it affects them in their life. There are so many online and printed resources that provide support and education for partners and family members of people with BPD. Any of them can help you understand more about the impact of this condition.
But also make sure to ask your loved one how BPD affects them personally. No two people with BPD are alike, so it’s helpful to get your loved one’s perspective about the disorder. Just make sure that your loved one has accepted their diagnosis before asking them questions.
In addition, learning about the common causes of BPD – such as childhood trauma – may make it easier for you to have empathy for your loved one.
Don’t be judgmental
The stigma against borderline personality remains high, even as the stigma for other mental illnesses (like depression and anxiety) is decreasing. It’s important to keep this in mind and avoid judging your loved one for their behaviors or symptoms.
Remember that your loved one has a mental illness, and this is what causes them to sometimes behave in difficult or even hurtful ways. This doesn’t mean that you need to accept abuse – we’ll get to this later – but judging them for these behaviors, which may not be in their control, is unhelpful.
For example, don’t say things like, “You’re acting so borderline right now.” Instead, try: “I can see BPD is causing you a lot of suffering right now, and I can imagine that’s really painful.”
Don’t take it personal
Your loved one with BPD, especially if they haven’t gone through treatment to learn how to manage symptoms, may lash out at you during an angry outburst. They may suddenly start to devalue you, or even feel like they “hate” you, even immediately after making you feel like they loved you more than anything in the world.
These behaviors can absolutely be hurtful. But it’s important to not take them personally. Remember that you didn’t cause your loved one’s behavior, and you also can’t be responsible for “curing” them of BPD. Their condition is to blame, but they need to decide to receive treatment. Don’t blame yourself for your loved one’s behaviors, and don’t get defensive.
Acknowledge their feelings
One of the key features of BPD is the fear of abandonment. When your loved one’s symptoms are flaring, they could interpret anything you do or say as a perceived sign of abandonment and rejection. This can be frustrating for you, but it’s important to acknowledge and empathize with your loved one’s feelings. This can help them feel safe and calm.
For example, you might say something like, “I hear you. When I came home from work late, you felt like I didn’t love you anymore. And that made you feel scared and angry. I want you to know I do still love you, but I understand why you felt that way.” This can be much more helpful than responding with something like, “Why would you feel abandoned just because I came home a little bit late?”
Setting boundaries is crucial if you are in a relationship with someone who has BPD. That doesn’t mean that setting – and sticking to – boundaries won’t be challenging, or that it will fix every problem in your relationship. But boundaries can help protect both you and your loved one to build a healthy relationship.
Boundaries aren’t ultimatums. For example, “If you don’t stop acting this way, I’m going to leave you,” isn’t an effective boundary, especially when you aren’t prepared to enforce it. This will also likely make your loved one feel even more afraid of abandonment.
Instead, say something like: “I love you, and I want this relationship to work. But I feel really sad and hurt when you call me names. I need us to figure out a solution to this together.”
In addition, don’t be afraid to set a strict boundary against any type of abusive behavior. If your loved one is being physically or emotionally violent, you are allowed to walk away. You might say something like, “I love you and I want to have this conversation, but I don’t like being treated this way. I’m going to leave now, and I hope we can continue the conversation when we’re both feeling calmer.”
Focus on their positive traits
Remember that your loved one isn’t defined by BPD. BPD is a chronic condition that affects every aspect of life, and at times it might feel to you like it’s at the center of your universe. But there are so many other things about your loved one apart from this condition.
What do you love about this person? What are things you like when the relationship is going well? For example, maybe they’re creative, funny, a fierce lover, protective, or highly intelligent.
It can also be helpful to remind your loved one of their own positive traits. One of the core symptoms of BPD is lacking a strong sense of self. When you remind your loved one of the things you love about them, you can help them build their self-esteem.
When your loved one is having a flare-up of BPD symptoms like suicidal or self-harming behaviors, sometimes the best way to help them is by providing distractions. Although they may not work as a long-term solution, healthy distractions can be a great way to help your loved one feel calmer in the moment. It’s even taught as a skill in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a type of psychotherapy that’s been shown to be effective for BPD.
Some healthy distractions that you can engage your loved one in include:
- Going for a walk
- Watching their favorite comedy show
- Doing crafts like origami
- Doing at-home karaoke
- Playing a board game
Encourage them to get treatment
Perhaps the most important way you can help someone with BPD is to encourage them to get treatment. You can’t love BPD away; no matter how supportive you are, that won’t change the fact BPD is a mental health condition requiring treatment.
A professional mental health provider can teach your loved one skills to manage their emotions and improve their relationship skills. Therapy also provides a safe space for people to explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Mental health and trauma treatment at The Center ● A Place of HOPE
If you or your loved one are looking for holistic mental health treatment, then our team at The Center can help. We are a Top 10 rated treatment facility for depression in the U.S., and also offer other specialized mental health treatment programs including anxiety, OCD, and PTSD treatment. We also help people heal from childhood abuse – something many people with BPD have experienced.
Through our Whole Person Care approach, we’ll help your loved one remember and emerge as their true self. Every person is so much bigger than the mental illness they live with. Get in touch with us for more information about admissions and financing.