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Emotional Dysregulation in Partners with Borderline Personality Disorder

If you have a partner with borderline personality disorder (BPD), the phrase “walking on eggshells” likely defines your life. People with BPD struggle to regulate their emotions, even though the emotions they experience are the same as the rest of us.

The difference is in the intensity of how they feel those emotions. Marsha Linehan, PhD, the founder of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), compares those with BPD to third-degree burn victims: “Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.” What might just be a small slight for you might mean off-the-charts upset for your partner.

In the DSM-IV-TR, four of the nine criteria required for a diagnosis of BPD have to do with how the person handles emotions. These include:

  • frantic efforts to avoid real or perceived abandonment
  • intense and quickly changing moods, including irritability and anxiety
  • inappropriate anger or the inability to control anger
  • chronic feelings of emptiness

What does this mean if your partner has BPD?

During “frantic efforts to avoid abandonment,” your partner may constantly seek affection and approval as a way to prove to themselves that you love them and are not going to leave. You may receive multiple phone calls and texts throughout the day, or have to say something specific to your partner when leaving in order to reassure them that you will be back and are not mad at them. Your partner may also act needy so that you will feel that you cannot leave them alone.

The “intense and quickly changing moods” have probably taken you by surprise before, although partners of those with BPD often get skilled at noticing the warning signs that might go undetected by others. Your partner may be laughing with you one minute, but then get offended by something you say, and become angry and full of rage the next minute.

People with BPD take much longer to calm down from their emotions, once triggered, but—interestingly, yet frustratingly for those around them—quickly forget the emotion once they are calm again, and may wonder why you are still mad at them afterwards.

Like the mood swings, “difficulty controlling anger” can make having a partner with BPD a frightening experience. People with BPD often have problems with a lack of impulse control as well, which means anger can turn into violence. Although this is not true for all people with BPD, it does happen.

This is because the brain centers that control logical thinking are overpowered by the emotional centers. At that point, reasoning with the person is nearly impossible, and they may throw objects, punch walls, slam doors, or break windows.

If your partner has “chronic feelings of emptiness,” they may make comments about how no one cares about them, even though they have friends and family who care about them. They may also engage in risky behaviors, such as promiscuous sex, drugs and alcohol, or gambling, in order to attempt to “fill the void.” Other ways people with BPD to try to end feelings of emptiness is to change jobs frequently, shop for things they don’t need, and throw parties to prove they have worth.

If you have a partner with BPD, it is essential that you get support. Individual therapy and support groups will be invaluable, as will learning more about the disorder. Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder by Shari Manning and Stop Walking on Eggshells by Randi Kreger are two great books to read.

Emotional Dysregulation in Partners with Borderline Personality Disorder

Kate Thieda

Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, is a patient advocate for Women's and Children's Services at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. She is a licensed professional counselor associate and a National Certified Counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral and dialectical behavior therapies. Her book, Loving Someone With Anxiety, will be published by New Harbinger in the spring of 2013.

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APA Reference
Thieda, K. (2012). Emotional Dysregulation in Partners with Borderline Personality Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Apr 2012
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