Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental disorder that affects the way you perceive yourself and others. Those with BPD can have difficulty regulating their emotions, face issues with self image, and experience a pattern of unstable relationships. At the core of the disorder is an intense fear of abandonment, which can make romantic relationships particularly difficult. It is estimated 1.6% of the general population has BPD, and if you are in a relationship with someone who has—or you suspect may have—BPD, it’s important to educate yourself about the disorder, for the benefit of your relationship. But don’t get ahead of yourself…
First, you need a diagnosis
You may recognize aspects of BPD from their portrayal in popular media, and the benefits of diagnosis have even played out publicly via headlines in recent years. Actor Pete Davidson has famously been vocal about his struggles with BPD, and has said he feared his diagnosis would prevent him from having a healthy relationship with his one-time fiancée Ariana Grande. Ultimately, though, putting a name to his experiences was helpful to him: “I got diagnosed with BPD a few years ago,” Davidson later said in an interview published in Variety, “and I was always just so confused all the time, and just thought something was wrong and didn’t know how to deal with it… then when someone finally tells you, the weight of the world feels lifted off your shoulders. You feel so much better”.
While a diagnosis can definitely be helpful to someone who has BPD, it’s important to not attempt to diagnose someone yourself. Dr. Lawrence Tucker, a Newport Beach therapist, recommends approaching someone gently, when they are in a stable mood, and suggesting they see a professional—but without mentioning BPD specifically. “Just tell them their behavior is worrisome to you because you love them and want them to be happy,” Tucker advises. “Offer your support every step of the way.”
It’s crucial to recognize that many people may attach a great deal of of stigma to mental health issues. Some might not yet be willing to admit they have a problem. Everyone’s mental health journey moves at its own pace, and it’s essential to be mindful of that. The most important thing you can do for your partner is to be patient, and remain conscious of the fact that it can take time for them to be ready to accept help.
When a loved one is ready to seek help
There is no “cure” for BPD, but the disorder is treatable—lifestyle changes like therapy and taking medications can help alleviate symptoms. The road looks different for every person, but with the right treatment and support, many people with BPD can and do find better ways to function, and their relationships can become more stable and rewarding as a result. Keep in mind that your partner’s decision to seek treatment will impact you, too, and that you need to be supportive of their efforts. If you don’t think you can do that, it may be time to reevaluate your relationship.
A therapist who specializes in helping those who have BPD is essential. The most effective therapy for BPD is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), so look for a therapist who can support that. (Our guide on how to find a therapist is here.)
Cath, a 24-year-old who was diagnosed with BPD in 2020, recalls, “I always had emotional instability and reacted to things in a much more intense way as compared to my counterparts…so that’s what prompted me to go out and try to get a diagnosis.” After diagnosis and treatment, things improved. “I’m extremely self aware and on a rational level understand that I’m overreacting to things,” Cath said. “I just can’t always control the emotional part of my brain. Things that help me cope are being with [my partner]…or taking deep breaths to relieve my anxiety.”
Encourage, understand, and appreciate your loved one with BPD
According to Cath, “The best way to show support is to be understanding and empathetic, and offer reassurance and validation when [they] express feeling a certain way, no matter how weird it might seem to a neurotypical person.” Someone with BPD may often feel unappreciated in relationships. The best way to combat this is by showing your partner you love and appreciate them in the way they will best receive it.
Research the signs and symptoms of BPD and be prepared to support your partner with however they manifest. A person with BPD typically experiences “black-and-white thinking,” meaning they might think in absolutes—going from adoring you to being furious with you in moments. However, even when someone with BPD is expressing they “hate” you, they are likely also experiencing a real fear that you will abandon them.
This imbalance can make relationships quite volatile, so it’s important to offer comfort and reassurance as you are able to. It may be helpful, during moments of conflict, to remind your partner that you understand they are feeling overwhelmed, and that you will not leave them and will continue to support them.
Understand that it is not your partner’s fault. No one wants to be ruled by their emotions, and it can be challenging to manage symptoms, especially at first. When they do experience a flare up, remember they they aren’t truly in control of their actions. Neuropsychiatric research has found evidence of common structural brain abnormalities in those suffering with BPD—meaning there are biological factors impacting their behavior. You wouldn’t blame a loved one for having cancer, so you shouldn’t blame a loved one for having a mental illness.
Find a support group
BPD is a lifelong condition, but the right treatment and support can help those with the disorder form more stable and rewarding relationships. For your part, remember that in order to provide the best support to others, your health matters too. Take care of yourself. There are many support groups for those struggling in relationships with someone who has BPD. To begin searching for support groups for family members, contact the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).