People sometimes ask us if they should stay with a partner who has Borderline Personality Disorder. They tell us that their loved one can flip from wonderful to horrible in a split second. They wonder whether they should keep working on the relationship or abandon ship.
We tell those asking this question that people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) indeed engage in a wide variety of behaviors and states of mind. Not surprisingly, people who care about those who have BPD often ask which of these various states represent the “real” person–the difficult states or the endearing ones? In order to answer that question, let’s first take a look at some of the disagreeable states as well as what may cause them. Then we’ll review the positive behaviors and the causes for those. We’ll conclude by filling you in on which ones reflect the “true” person at the core. And most importantly, we’ll give you a few issues that may help guide you in making this difficult relationship decision.
Negative Behaviors and States of Mind
People with BPD often inflict harm on those they love (sometimes quite intentionally; other times without conscious intent at all). They can say and do things that are perceived as astonishingly hurtful. Furthermore, people with BPD often fail to understand appropriate limits and boundaries of those they care about. Thus, a man with BPD might attempt to control his partner by demanding that she cut herself off from her family because they don’t “like him.”
In addition, those with BPD often criticize their partners for not “doing enough or earning enough” for them or their family. They may burst into rage, anger, or impulsive actions with seemingly little provocation. Often their partners who don’t have BPD find that their self-esteem suffers and they begin to question their own sanity, thinking that their partner is right–they really aren’t doing enough or they’re doing things the wrong way.
What causes such distressing, yet inappropriate behaviors in those with BPD? All too often, people with BPD completely fail to understand the nature of their behavior and how it affects those they care about. In addition, people with BPD typically have deep seated fears and insecurities that drive them to their impulsive, destructive behaviors. In other words, although their behaviors can seem quite dreadful, their fears and failure to understand other people’s perspectives lead them to act poorly. For example, if they fear abandonment, they may respond to their partners’ unexpected late arrival as proof positive that their partner is planning to leave them for someone else. Their fear then turns to rage.
Positive Behaviors and States of Mind
On the other hand, people with BPD quite often appear to be some of the most wonderful people you’ve ever known. They will go out of their way to demonstrate caring and concern. They praise their partners’ appearance, send unusually thoughtful gifts, offer backrubs, and run errands just to please their partners.
What causes these delightful behaviors? Often it’s because of the same fears and insecurities that drive dreadful behaviors. For example, fear of abandonment will cause them to work very hard at being utterly irresistible. At times like these, their partners often report feeling on top of the world and adored in ways they have never felt before or since.
Which is the Real Person?
When people ask this question, they’re really hoping that the answer is the wonderful, endearing side of their partner. Unfortunately, the real answer is “both.” Yes, those with BPD are often caring, considerate, and kind. No question about it. On the other hand, if they have exhibited negative, atrocious behaviors over and over again, that’s part of their “real” self as well.
Making the Decision to Stay or Go
Thus, the decision to remain in the relationship or not is complicated. We have some questions and issues for you to consider in making this decision next:
1. If you have no idea whether your partner has BPD or not (and most people wouldn’t know), see a therapist for guidance and consider reading our book Borderline Personality Disorder For Dummies.
2. Don’t stay if you’re expecting the negative behaviors to disappear. They won’t go away on their own. Sometimes people with BPD manage to control their outbursts for a couple of weeks or even a few months, but they always return unless the person has worked very hard in therapy and made good, solid progress over time. Successful therapy for BPD typically takes one or more years of treatment at least once or twice each week–and usually includes both group and individual work.
3. If you’re staying because you have low self-esteem and find the praise and caring addictively irresistible, you’ll probably need therapy for yourself in order to develop confidence in your ability to take care of yourself.
4. Although family and friends aren’t exactly always right, they usually have your best interests at heart and often can see your situation more objectively than you can. If everyone in your world is advising you that you’re in a self destructive relationship, at the very least we strongly recommend you listen to them and see a therapist (for yourself only) for guidance in figuring it out. For that matter, if you find yourself lying to family and friends about the relationship, know that something is wrong.
5. You may wish to consider remaining in the relationship if the negative behaviors are quite infrequent, not too intense, and have been showing clear signs of improvement over a period of months or years. Don’t trust temporary changes of less than a few months. But those with BPD do change and they do improve. Improvements are far more likely if the person has been working hard in their own, individual as well as group therapy for quite a while.