How Borderline Personality Disorder Impacts Relationships

black and white masks on stairs

Ben learns he is not allowed to take personal calls during business hours at his new job at a strict government agency. His supervisor gives him an emergency number so family members can reach him when absolutely necessary.

The news immediately fills him with dread. Ben’s daughter, Lisa, has borderline personality disorder. She calls him a few times a week, often while he’s at work. A supportive and understanding father, Ben was happy to chat with her at his old office where there were no limitations on phone calls.

Now he has to inform his daughter that their mid-week check ins will need to be less frequent and occur only in the evening. With noticeable reluctance, he provides the emergency number to Lisa.

The next day Lisa dials the number during Ben’s lunch break. Before picking up, Ben already knows who it is and what is going on. Lisa is fine. There is no crisis.

Ben tries to suppress the frustration in his voice, but Lisa can hear how upset he is. She simply wanted to make sure he would pick up if she was in trouble. She doesn’t get what the big deal is.

Ben is frustrated. He shouts. He is already wilting under the glare from a supervisor.

Lisa snaps. The love she has for her father is no longer on her mind, as if it it had never existed at all. Intense indignation takes its place. She screams. Threatens to harm herself, makes him feel guilty for long-past wrongs.

She hangs up. The dial tone ringing in Ben’s ears, he panics about what she might do next.

Lisa’s relationship with her father is actually one of the healthier ones she has. Nonetheless, she is still struggling to manage the symptoms of a difficult, often misunderstood mental health condition, often characterized by an inability to control anger.

Ben and Lisa’s story illustrates a few aspects of how borderline personality disorder [BPD] tends to impact relationships. Even for those closest to a BPD sufferer, it can be difficult to remain compassionate and patient in the face of such volatile behavior. By learning more about the condition and watching out for common relational dilemmas, both sufferers and their loved ones can take steps toward building healthier bonds.

Testing Boundaries

People with borderline personality disorder tend to have trouble understanding and respecting boundaries. Like Lisa, they often push limits. Psychologist Daniel S. Lobel, Ph.D. and author of “When Your Daughter Has BPD,” mentioned some common examples he encountered in his work:

  • Borrowing clothing from family members and roommates without asking
  • Taking cash from wallets of family members
  • Not respecting boundaries around sleep
  • Asking about intimate details that are not appropriate to discuss

Because those afflicted with the mental illness often do not instinctively grasp social restrictions, loved ones need to establish detailed boundaries and enforce them without exception. Even when family members and romantic partners of people with BPD are tired and tempted to yield to a request that violates a rule, they need to be resolute. One successful breach of boundaries can lead to the idea that sufferers can get whatever they want by being persistent, according to Lobel.

The Desire for Codependency

Most people naturally want a level of independence and autonomy in their relationships. Borderline personality disorder, however, fosters codependency, a situation where one person in a relationship relies on the other for the vast majority of their needs and desires. People with BPD often derive their sense of worth from how much other people are serving them, Lobel said. It is easy for sufferers to conflate self-reliance with abandonment.

“One of the primary beliefs within BPD is, ‘I, alone, am not worthy,’” said therapist Melissa O’Neill, Director of Program Development at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.

This line of thinking can contribute to a pattern of short, intense romantic relationships that often become toxic. It is common for romantic partners to have little education on borderline personality disorder. This lack of awareness makes them less likely to be considerate and able to handle stressful behavior. Ironically, people with BPD often seek relationships to cope with the pain of their symptoms.

Splitting: Love or Hate, Black or White

Those who live with BPD have a predisposition for a mindset called “splitting” where they fluctuate between viewing people as either entirely good or evil. Rather than experiencing shades of grey, sufferers perceive relationships as black or white.

In her article for The Mighty, Sarah Cooper, who had recently been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, described her experience with splitting.

“I can get consumed in my anger toward people,” she wrote. “All my memories with that person become tainted, bad and wrong. Just thinking of them fills me up with anger.”

The opposite reaction can occur as well. Borderline personality disorder can cause people to feel unbridled love or infatuation, to regard someone as an infallible savior. This dichotomous nature can make maintaining relationships exhausting.

Assuming Malicious Intent

Borderline personality disorder often makes the afflicted feel as if everyone is trying to hurt them. Benign actions and words can seem like insults and threats. These assumptions of hostility can make people with BPD shift rapidly from pleasant to aggressive, said therapist Dr. Wyatt Fisher. What appears to be the intention to punish and be cruel might actually be a defensive reaction that originated from fear.

High Likelihood of Past Relational Trauma

Abuse and neglect during childhood are common contributors to the development of borderline personality disorder. Most sufferers have traumatic relationships before they are diagnosed with BPD.

“While not everyone who experiences relational trauma develops BPD, all people I have known or worked with who have had BPD have also had relational trauma,” said therapist Jenev Caddell.

Because the people who were supposed to care for them inflicted great pain, it can be challenging for victims of childhood abuse to build healthy relationships. BPD exacerbates this problem.

Self-Harming/Suicidal Behavior and Threats

Borderline personality disorder increases the likelihood of using self-harming behavior to cope with emotional pain. Those living with BPD are more likely to threaten suicide when they are angry with friends, family members, and romantic partners.

How People Can Cope

If you have borderline personality disorder, consider a range of mental health treatments, including dialectical behavior therapy and mindfulness. BPD is more difficult to treat than most other mental illnesses, so be patient with yourself.

For those who are close with BPD sufferers, remember that it is an illness. Acknowledge the pain and suffering those with BPD endure every day. Set strict boundaries and do not waver. If someone with BPD hurts you, know that they most likely did not intend to. Even when the relationship becomes horribly stressful, try to be kind and compassionate.

Published by

Joseph Rauch

Staff Writer at Talkspace