Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) seems to be one of the most challenging disorders for mental health professionals. One reason is because individuals with BPD struggle with maintaining healthy, equal, and emotionally stable relationships. Relational challenges don’t just happen with family members, friends, or loved ones. Relational challenges happen in the client-therapist, student-teacher, or employee-employer relationship. In fact, research suggests that almost all relationships are challenged (in some way) by the disorder.
This article will discuss 7 relational challenges that I have noticed in counseling some individuals with BPD.
Last week I discussed 8 major signs of BPD and I was shocked to see how many comments and emails I received on my personal website about this topic. Little did I know, even as a therapist treating some clients with BPD, a lot of people are looking for ways to explain why someone they love and care about is struggling with life. It can be almost physically painful to watch the emotional turmoil and chaos that someone with BPD can cause in their life. It isn’t as if the individual with BPD can always see the complexity of their personality and behavior. Sometimes they are completely blinded to how they relate to others or interact in relationships.
Many of my adolescent clients fail to recognize the mistakes they make in all of their relationships and why so many of the people they know want nothing to do with them. In some cases it can take months if not years for the individual with BPD to finally catch on to the fact that they are the common denominator in their failed relationships.
When I counsel teens and have a suspicion of BPD traits I look for repeated patterns in their relationships. Some of the things I have found to be true for some people (primarily teens or those with more than one diagnosis) with BPD include:
- Repeated attempts to control, manipulate, or dominate in relationships: When I meet with a client with BPD and notice a pattern of using another person, manipulating them, or guilt-tripping them, I point it out immediately. One of the things individuals with BPD tend to do is make others feel responsible for their relational and emotional challenges, whether they intend to do this or not. For many of my adolescent clients with BPD traits, they don’t intentionally seek to make others feel responsible for their emotional chaos. However, some adolescents (especially those with antisocial or sociopathic traits) will blame others and attempt to scapegoat.
- Relationships that begin and end quickly: One common trait in individuals with BPD is the need to be wanted, loved, or cared for. We all have a desire to be wanted, loved, cared for, or desired. But we certainly do not desire this at such an intense level that we would do almost anything to get it. An individual with BPD may find themselves prostituting or engaging in a similar behavior to feel wanted. In most cases, individuals with BPD find unhealthy relationships to engage in which tend to begin very quickly. They are also often doomed for disaster or failure. Marriage rarely occurs in these relationships and fidelity is nonexistent.
- Overly attached, enmeshed, or codependent relationships: It is often very easy to become emotionally and psychologically attached to another person, especially if the person is loving and trustworthy. However, enmeshment or codependency occurs when two individuals engage in dysfunctional behaviors but have a very difficult time thinking on their own, having their own emotions, making important decisions for themselves in the relationship, or walking away from unhealthy behaviors or patterns such as abuse. Two people become “fused” together in all of their ways and emotions. It is a twisted relational pattern full of emotional chaos.
- Extreme or intense reactions to perceived “slights” or abandonment: Intense reactions to perceived slights or abandonment may occur without the knowledge of the other person. For example, an individual with BPD may feel abandoned or disrespected by someone they care about and instead of talking to the person about it, they will pout over it, hold it against that person, or avoid that person for as long as they deem necessary to “get their point across.” It is dysfunctional to say the least. If the other person knows nothing about your emotions or thoughts, how can they fix it?
- Sexual promiscuity and multiple partners: I once counseled a 35 year old woman who lived her life to drink, smoke marijuana, party, and sleep around. Despite our therapy occurring 1-2x a week and my explanation for her behaviors, she continued on a road of self-destruction. She knew she was living a risky life, that she was hurting everyone around her, and that she was destroying herself. But that wasn’t enough for her. She would come to sessions disheveled and always appeared rushed. I could see at the end of each session her internal desire for more “chaos.” She knew she wasn’t going to improve herself so to “spare me” she would say “I’m going to mess up again. I thought you may want to know ahead of time.”
- Lack of identity and pursuit of identity through relationships: Some individuals with BPD are like young children trying to live in an adult world. They don’t have the emotional intelligence to change their behaviors and sometimes they lack awareness of how they affect others. They also lack an identity which causes them to search for themselves in all the wrong places. Their search for an identity is almost like a craving. It must happen in order to calm the craving.
- Repeated incidents of infidelity: Truthfulness and honesty is difficult for some people with BPD. It is almost as if the person doesn’t want to be “seen” or “understood” completely because that “understanding” would lead others to finally see every ounce of their empty, chaotic, and confused heart and mind. When I started out as a therapist 9 years ago, I thought I could just do simple therapy with someone who had BPD. But as I developed, I realized that I was being lied to and manipulated (intentionally and sometimes unintentionally). I didn’t know that I had to put up firm boundaries and stick to them. I didn’t know I had to rewire the relational patterns of the therapeutic relationship over and over gain. And I failed to realize that I wasn’t the only person the individual lied to.
What has been your experience with this topic?
For my audio blog on this topic which includes discussion of one of my most challenging clients, visit my website anchoredinknowledge.com.
I wish you well