Personality Disorders

How to Deal with People with Borderline Personality Disorder



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It has taken me longer to write this than I had expected. I was in a relationship with a BPD for nearly ten years. Although I loved this person, I hated the relationship. It was a psychological hell. Once I understood what was going on (and you should know it took nearly eight years to figure it out), I still loved her, and didn't "blame" her. I didn't hate her, but I had to decide whether or not I could stay in that relationship both for the sake of my own mental health and that of our child. Ultimately I chose to get out and that, although difficult, was best for both our child and myself.

There are many expressions of BPD. I know I can only speak to the one I experienced. I thought I could write about it easily, but it brings up many memories and conflicts I had hoped I had successfully suppressed by now.

Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD as it is often called, is a complex disorder. Disorders are diagnosed according to the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version 4). They are not just arbitrarily done. DSM IV lays out nine criteria for BPD, of which a patient must meet at least 5 to be diagnosed with BPD.

My former partner easily met seven, and was marginal on the remaining two. In other words, she was a full-blown BPD.

Most people connote BPD with "cutting" (e.g.: slashing forearms with razor blades or knives as a sign of distress, or private relief), as "popularized" in the movie "Girl, Interrupted".

Although cutting happens, it is not universal. Not everyone does it. Cutting, if it does occur, is the least of it. It is a very obvious indicator, but just a small aspect of the disorder. My partner did not cut, but she did nearly everything else. One of the nine criteria is "Self-destructive behavior". Yes, that can be cutting, but it can be any number of other things, from financially-destructive, to emotionally-destructive, to health-destructive. Invariably, relationship destructive.

For a variety of reasons, naivety being part of it, and not recognizing it was a disorder, I didn't get out of the relationship when I should have. In the beginning, I argued back, taking her word that I was the problem, and it being the first really long-term relationship I had been in (she had been in others) I assumed it was me. What did I know?

Eventually I realized I could never match the depth of her anger, or ever fill her emotional needs.

It was many years before I had confided with someone who also had experienced a BPD in her life. She introduced me to a book, "Stop Walking on Eggshells" (Mason/Kreger), about Borderline Personality Disorder. I started reading the book. At chapter two I was thinking, "this is not it", but by chapter three (I think entitled "Chaos") it nailed my life to a "T". This was the hell I was living.

My partner and I had both seen a psychologist for relationship counseling at her suggestion, I thought we were way past rescue at which she finally stormed out in the fourth session after insulting both of us (she had insulted the psychologist on the previous three visits as well). After she left, the psychologist turned to me and said that my partner had some major psychological problems. I sadly replied, "I know". I asked about BPD and the book I had been reading, and she indicated it was a most appropriate book. I don't know if she could legally do a diagnosis, because of the nature of the consultation, but it was clearly a diagnosis, albeit unofficial. No psychologist I spoke to after disagreed after hearing various examples of her behavior. I finally started working with a psychologist who worked with people with BPD in an effort to understand what was going on, and how to deal with it, and if I could help "fix" it, and what was ultimately best for myself and my son's mental health.

As much as you may love someone with BPD, if it's an "optional" relationship (meaning, they're not a relative, but someone you choose to be involved with) you have to think hard about its impact on your own personal mental health. A full-blown BPD is a major psychological handful. As one psychologist I consulted noted, she'd rather deal with ten schizophrenics than one BPD. The reason is that the schizophrenics know something is wrong and want to fix it, but the BPD can't accept that something else might be wrong with them, and often reject all diagnosis and efforts to treat them.

What is it like living with someone with BPD? I can only speak to my own experience, and I know there are a variety of "flavors" of BPD, but I can at least tell you what I went through. Unless I cite a specific source, I will not claim this writing pertains to all BPDs.

The foundation for BPD is usually set in childhood. In my case, my partner lived in a climate where her parents were emotionally detached and uninvolved. As with most dysfunctional families, the dysfunction is not limited to a single generation. My partner's mother was a child of an alcoholic - an abusive one, if I recall correctly, and so her mother didn't learn the skills to care for others. Much of this transferred to my partner. Mainly the emotional detachment.

The key to understanding a BPD such as mine is their lack of self-esteem. You will hear about "fear of abandonment", which is true, but it all comes down to little to no self-esteem. I personally don't like abandonment, but my self-esteem is such that I can handle it, with difficulty perhaps, but handle it nonetheless. For my partner, though, abandonment was yet another confirmation of her feeling of worthlessness. The ultimate confirmation, in her eyes.

Everything my BPD did had to have the effect of not making her at fault. She felt so awful that any problem could not be, in her eyes, the result of her actions. She couldn't accept that she was faulty. This is not ego, this is protection of what little was left. Everything had to be someone else's fault.

There were no nuances. Everything was black or white. You were on her good list or her bad list. Few people, once on the bad list, could jump back to the good list. I've thought hard about this, and how it fits in. I think putting someone on the "bad" list made it easier for her to dismiss any criticisms that person had. Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly, the closer someone came to the "truth" about her, the quicker they ended up on the bad list. The less threatening someone was to "expose" any problem she might have, the more likely they'd be on the good list. As an example, doctors trying to resolve her physical ailments, or psychologists trying to resolve her psychological issues, were suddenly moved to the bad list they didn't know what they were talking about, they were incompetent, whatever. Their only real transgression was that they were astute enough to see through her and get too close to the truth. On the other hand, everything her astrologer (yes, an astrologer) said was God's Honest Truth. It makes no sense to "normal" people, but if you look at it from the lens of self-preservation, it all fits in.

I could write a whole book on this, and maybe someday I will, but to keep this reasonable I'll try to just touch on some other traits with some examples and give an interpretation to what was really going on.

Revisionist history if I remembered something where she was wrong, she'd recall it in a different way. Anything to keep her from being "wrong", which would be too painful. I finally got to where I wrote down incidents immediately after they happened, because I got to where I didn't trust my judgment or memory later on, because she was so totally sure it happened the way she remembered it. Writing stuff down is for your own personal sanity, your own personal reality check. You'll never win an argument I got to where I stopped trying. At the end, I just wanted to make sure I was still sane.

Sense of entitlement because of all the awful things that happened to her in her life, she was entitled to whatever she wanted, and the hell with the finances or whatever. In fact, complaining that something could not be afforded was an affront to her esteem, thus making her even more entitled to whatever she wanted.

Controlling the emotional climate the whole household revolved around her mood. This, presumably, is not unlike living with an active, abusive, alcoholic parent. If she was in a good mood, great. If she was in a nasty mood everyone would watch out and tiptoe around. That's why the book "Stop Walking on Eggshells" particularly enticed me, because simply the title itself described what we were doing in our household.

Validation of feelings this took a while to figure out. Basically anything that questioned her at all invalidated her feelings. I believe she got this from talking to a counselor. It was right, and she hung her hat on it, so to speak, but it reached ridiculous levels. As an example: we were calling a photographer for a family portrait or something, which she wanted. She made the call, we were both at the table. She asked a bunch of questions about cost, available appointments, print sizes, etc. I passed her a note that said "ask him about turnaround time" (meaning, how long from the session until we get the prints). That's all I did. Not only did she not ask, but when she hung up she was absolutely furious. It escalated to where she threatened to leave us and never see the children again (knowing that children are important to me, she felt this would hurt me to have it happen). I asked how she could not see her children, and her response was that to do so would remind her of me and how much I hurt her.

Note a couple of things from this example. First, it started with a simple question "ask him what the turnaround time would be". To me, it was just a reasonable question to ask a photographer. To her, though, I was invalidating her judgment and, in her mind, insinuating that she didn't know enough to interview a photographer for an appointment. To me, I thought I was working with my partner and that was the only question I interjected but to her, it was a statement of how little she thought I trusted her abilities.

Double standards this came up way more times that I care to remember. I won't even bring up examples, just that she thought I should act in a certain way usually favorable to her, because she deserved it and she should be excused from the same responsibility because of how hard everything was or how betrayed she was, or what sacrifices she had made, so the same rules didn't apply to her because she deserved an exemption.

The word "betrayal" brings up a series of memories too. As mentioned, everything is viewed in black and white. People were either with her or against her. Someone who didn't quite do what she wanted "betrayed" her, "kicked her when she was down", and so forth. In an odd way, it was reassuring for her, because it helped explain why things happened to her the way they did.

Out of 100 conversations, 99% of them were not real conversations. Maybe less than that. Maybe less than 1 in 1000. Rarely, very rarely, could I have a conversation where she looked at the situation and admitted something was wrong and her behavior was off. Those conversations were very few and far between. All the rest, when confronted with her behavior, were a series of explanations and excuses and justifications about why she was right and everyone else was wrong.

So, at her core, she knew on some level she had a problem and something was wrong. It was too painful to admit, though. The number of conversations where it could be honestly discussed could be counted on your fingers alone.

Ultimately, living with someone with BPD is a psychological hell. I learned to mentally detach, and refuse to get drawn into bizarre arguments, but even that made it worse my detachment meant (to her) that I was invalidating her feelings, and she got even more angry. Unfortunately, I don't have the capacity to sustain the level of anger that she does, nor any interest in spending my life fighting and arguing. We eventually split.

The danger is for children. If you are living with a BPD and there are children involved, get them out. This may not be easy it helps to document as much as you can and make arrangements to keep them safe if things come to a head. You may think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. As things escalated with my partner, she threatened harm to our child. I took him and left. I think in the long run she would not harm him, but in the heat of the moment, if it would make a point of how much I "hurt" her in her eyes I have no idea, but I couldn't risk it, and certainly he didn't need to be exposed to it. On multiple occasions, her arguments with me took precedence over our child. I even remember one occasion, near the end, where she was arguing with me and our son, who was only 5, was scared by her voice, and wanted to be comforted, and she complained how rude it was that he interrupted. I went to comfort him and she was furious and threatened to call 911 if I didn't finish the conversation. The grounds for calling 911? Mental abuse. Abuse of her, by my comforting our son instead of putting her first and continuing the argument.

So, living with a BPD is like being in an alternate universe. If you understand how they are perceiving things, it makes it easier to keep your sanity, but it doesn't make the situation easier you can just handle it that much more deftly. If children are involved, you have to get them out. You are not a saint for living with a BPD. You may be for trying, but ultimately you only go through life once. How you choose to spend it is up to you. Most BPDs make no effort to correct the situation. If they did, and you worked with them to help them get better, that'd be another thing, but if they insist on living in their BPD world, and you want to go along with it, don't expect any change. You're not helping them you're probably enabling them and you're not living your life either.

At my partner's core, there was a sweet person that I would see occasionally, but anger and distrust dominated her life. I loved the sweet person, but I only saw the sweet person rarely. The rest of the time I saw anger, distrust, accusations, double-standards, revisionist history, and more.

It is not easy. If you are in a relationship with a BPD, particularly a full-blown one, you're in for a ride. What you may not know is that you can get off the ride. Mine threatened basically a "scorched earth" policy if I left. I left anyway. There were repercussions, but ultimately she sunk herself in court. The sense of relief is great. If you're in it, and choose to be in it, at least for the moment, try to understand where she is coming from. You won't be able to "fix" her, but you might be able to preserve your sanity.

Final note although I refer to BPDs as "she", it does occur in males as well. If I recall correctly, 80% are female. Perhaps males are under-diagnosed. I have talked to friends in relationships with males who exhibit BPD behavior. Understand, too, that BPDs are at a much higher risk of suicide than "normal" people. Not unsurprising, given that lack of self-esteem is the underlying problem. Finally, since this all originates in childhood, it is very hard to "fix". There are no medications. Anti-depressants might help, but they are hard to prescribe because, again, that's an indicator that something might be wrong with the BPD. They might do more good for you than for her.

There are group therapy sessions for BPDs, but you need a BPD who wants to be helped and frankly, I'm not convinced that a BPD who wants help is truly a BPD. They may certainly have issues and need help, but BPDs I've known can't accept it because it becomes a judgment on them.

It is not a pretty situation.

More about this author: Tab Julius

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