Relationships are hard, but when your significant other has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), managing a healthy relationship can feel impossible.
BPD can be extremely difficult for both people in the relationship due to misunderstandings and communication issues, which happen frequently.
As a result, relationships involving people with BPD have a tendency to be short-lived despite good intentions from both parties. People with BPD often experience intense feelings of emptiness and fear of rejection. This can lead to arguments, breakups, and sometimes physical violence.
There isn’t one simple answer as to why BPD relationships typically struggle, but understanding the dynamics is a helpful start.
But first, let’s dive into some data.
What Is The Average Length of a BPD Relationship?
A 2014 study found that the average length of a marriage or cohabitating relationship for people with BPD is around 7.3 years.
But here’s the thing – the average length of a marriage that ends in divorce in the United States is around eight years, so, not a drastic difference.
For people who don’t get married, the average length of a BPD relationship is significantly shorter – around 2.5 years.
On the one hand, the data paints a fairly bleak picture of the longevity of BPD relationships. On the other, the numbers don’t look good for anyone. The United States experiences a fairly high divorce rate, around 50%, although this rate varies greatly depending on the state.
Understanding that we’re all doing a collectively lousy job in the relationship department, it’s important to note the unique challenges that BPD relationships experience.
Why does Borderline Personality Disorder affect relationships so intensely?
BPD relationships are inherently challenging because at least one of the partners has difficulty with emotional regulation, unstable moods, impulse control, and extreme fear of abandonment.
To understand BPD more fully, let’s examine some Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).
- A repetitive pattern of unstable relationships;
- Fear of abandonment and subsequent paranoia;
- Negative self-image – struggles with a sense of identity and sense of self;
- Consistent feelings of worthlessness and sadness;
- Mood swings and extreme outbursts, and an inability to regulate emotions;
- Impulsive behaviors and reckless habits;
- Self-injury, destructive behavior, and suicide ideation.
Healthy relationships require trust, compromise, consideration, and consistency. Equally important are healthy boundaries and mutual respect for each other’s space. None of these comes easily for a person with BPD.
The BPD Relationship Cycle
Although unstable romantic relationships characterize BPD, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a pattern to the overall relationship cycle.
It’s common in relationships with BPD people to see a continuing series of highs and lows. The highs are marked by all the good and positive things you want from a partner. And then the inevitable decline as their fear of abandonment and low sense of self-worth pre-empts the explosive lows.
This is not unlike what happens in a trauma-bonded relationship cycle with a narcissist.
BPD relationships tend to follow a pattern that can be tracked as follows:
In the beginning stages of the relationship, the BPD person sees you as perfect. They tend to fall in love quickly, displaying intense and passionate emotions within a short period (i.e., love bombing). They are likely to focus on you and want that in return. This stage may seem ordinary, for the most part – except that it generally happens ‘too fast.’
It’s worth noting that the honeymoon phase in relationships with someone with BPD may not last. It is normal to see a shift from intense idealization to devaluation and negativity, known as “splitting.” This kind of behavior is a hallmark of BPD.
Anxiety and paranoia:
After the initial euphoria has worn off, BPD people become overwhelmed by their sense of self-worthlessness. This translates into not being good enough and fearing abandonment or rejection by you.
This can look like obsessive and clingy behavior, needing to know where you are all the time, and being upset by changes.
Those suffering from BPD may also have paranoid tendencies and feel irrationally suspicious or scared. This can seriously damage relationships, leading to arguments or miscommunication caused by the person’s paranoia about their partner and the relationship.
Devaluation is the process of viewing someone or something as inferior or unworthy. It’s a defense mechanism.
During the devaluation phase of a BPD relationship, individuals with BPD may view their partner and the relationship negatively. This period is usually marked by intense anger, resentment, or hatred toward them. They may see their partner as flawed or imperfect and want to end the relationship.
Again, it goes back to splitting.
People with BPD struggle to see a middle ground. They frequently exist on either end of extremes. Things are either good or bad. They’re either idealizing the relationship or devaluing it. This is also known as black-and-white thinking.
If your BPD partner feels challenged, threatened, or at risk of abandonment, they can quickly switch from idealization to devaluation.
This is not your fault. Every relationship has rough spots. People disagree, plans change, or they become busy. But normal ebbs and flows of life feel cataclysmic to people with BPD. It’s why they react how they do.
As a means of pre-empting their perceived rejection, the BPD person may push you away, threaten break-up, or even end the relationship.
Intense arguments, fighting, emotional manipulation, and accusations of your lack of care often precede this. Their insecurity prompts them to distance themselves intentionally, yet they cling to you emotionally.
This creates a terrible tug-and-pull for both partners.
After a breakup or temporary split, people with BPD will often wait for you to reach out to them to rekindle the relationship.
They aim for you to “seek them out” to validate their worth, but during this time, they are likely to spiral into depression and sadness.
This would be the ideal time for reflection and communication, things that are challenging for people with untreated BPD.
Rekindling or ending the relationship:
If the relationship doesn’t end here, and you reach out to them again, they will feel energized by you wanting them again. The cycle starts over.
This means you are once again idealized, showered with love and affection, and the honeymoon stage of the relationship starts all over.
The pattern repeats ad infinitum or at least until you participate in individual and/or couples therapy to help break the cycle.
You don’t have to figure this out on your own.
Specific Challenges of Being in a BPD Relationship:
There are many challenges when you’re in a relationship with a BPD person, not the least of which is the emotional rollercoaster you’ll find yourself on.
You may feel confused, worried, or guilty after a cycle of ups and downs. This has the unfortunate effect of making you wonder if something is wrong with you.
The effects of Borderline Personality Disorder are not limited to romantic relationships.
Friendships are affected, too, making it hard for some people with BPD to build a strong social circle.
Having a relationship with someone who has BPD can be difficult. Since their perception of reality is often distorted, you’ll frequently find yourself in the position of having to constantly explain and provide evidence for why you aren’t rejecting them. This makes you feel like you’re walking on eggshells.
They are likely to see betrayals or abandonment where that isn’t even the case. Unexpected change of plans? They will think you want to get rid of them.
What’s more, the highly emotional and risky behavior seen in people with BPD can make you fearful that making one wrong move could cause them to self-harm or contemplate suicide.
Even if you no longer want to be in a relationship with them (justly so), you may be manipulated into keeping the relationship going longer than you wanted to.
What factors affect the length of a BPD relationship?
The main factors that impact the length of a relationship with a BPD person are whether they have been diagnosed with a mental health condition and whether they are being treated.
People with undiscovered BPD may experience short-lived relationships because there is no grasp of the situation from either side nor are there any treatments to help keep the relationship strong.
Secondly, studies have found that people with BPD tend to have high comorbidity with other mental health issues. This also impacts their ability to function and conduct meaningful relationships.
Those with no support system are less likely to experience healthy relationships. On the other hand, people who have strong support networks – like family, friends, or a support group – are more equipped to manage the difficulties that come with BPD and their relationships.
Can I make my relationship with a BPD person work?
Evidence suggests that BPD can improve and even resolve over time. Studies indicate that up to 92% of BPD patients no longer show signs of the disorder after 27 years.
The seriousness of this situation shows the need for therapeutic guidance and openness to make a relationship work. But that won’t happen immediately.
It’s worth noting that specific therapies and medication can help. While there isn’t a particular drug that treats BPD, some medications mitigate peripheral issues such as depression and mood swings.
Mood stabilizers and therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have proven effective in dealing with extreme lows, negative thoughts, and erratic moods. Evidence also demonstrates that when you treat depression, the intensity of attachment issues eases up, too.
This means there is hope. Relationships with a BPD person can work, provided they are willing and committed to getting the help they need.
You can work on clear, straightforward communication, compromise, and taking the time to attend counseling.
Support, knowledge, and learning coping skills are essential to both parties.
Resources to help you understand your BPD partner:
I realize I’ve painted a potentially grim picture in this article. This is not to say your BPD relationship is inherently doomed.
As I just stated, if you have a partner who is actively seeking treatment and you’re both willing to navigate this rocky landscape together, there is a chance you can beat the odds.
Part of the process likely involves self-educating. In that spirit, here are some books to add to your reading list that will help you understand BPD better:
- “I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality” by Jerold J. Kreisman, M.D. and Hal Straus
- “The Buddha and the Borderline: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder through Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Buddhism, and Online Dating” by Kiera Van Gelder
- “The Borderline Personality Disorder Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Living with BPD” by Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., and Kim Gratz, Ph.D.
- “Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder” by Paul T. Mason, M.S., and Randi Kreger
- “The Borderline Personality Disorder Workbook: An Integrative Program to Promote Recovery” by Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., and Kim Gratz, Ph.D.
If you’re interested in the abbreviated version, I recommend the Blinkist app. It does a phenomenal job of condensing large texts to their core messages. A truly great time-saver!
And perhaps most importantly, take care of yourself.
I don’t know if your BPD relationship can work out, but I do know that your needs are important, too. Being in a relationship with someone who struggles with challenging problems is hard.
My husband stuck it out, but he did not have to, and if I could go back in time and tell him anything, it would be to take care of himself, too.
Your emotional needs and well-being are important. If you’re in a relationship with someone who struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder, consider talking to a therapist or joining a support group. Your happiness is important.
Whatever happens, you will be okay.