Dating can be hard to navigate, even when things are going well. But when the person you’re dating at first seems like the love of a lifetime, deeply passionate and emotional, and then flips a switch, you might find yourself hurt and confused. This can quickly start taking a toll on you and those around you.
Why is this person acting this way? They seem to have two sides, and you’re never sure which you’ll be getting one day to the next. But you like them and want to make your relationship work. If this sounds familiar, that person might have borderline personality disorder, also known as BPD. Here’s what you need to know before deciding if you want to continue dating them.
What is borderline personality disorder?
Borderline personality disorder, also known as BPD, is characterized by extreme mood swings, a variable sense of identity, and reactive behaviors. Individuals who have borderline personality disorder can experience intense emotions and take impulsive actions. As a result, they tend to experience turbulent relationships. It’s estimated 1.4 percent of the population suffers from borderline personality disorder, and nearly 75 percent of those diagnosed with the personality disorder are women.
Only a licensed professional can diagnose borderline personality disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are nine diagnostic criteria for a BPD diagnosis. They include:
- Desperate attempts to avoid abandonment, whether legitimate or imagined
- A pattern of unstable relationships that alternate between idealization and devaluation
- An unstable sense of self
- Impulsive behaviors in at least two of the following categories: substance abuse, reckless driving, reckless spending, binge eating, sexual activity
- Repeated threats of self-harm and suicidal behavior
- Extreme mood swings
- Chronic feelings of emptiness
- Intense anger
- Dissociative feelings, or disconnecting from your sense of identity or body
Not every person with borderline personality disorder will exhibit all of these behaviors. Behaviors may also come and go depending on the triggers, making a clinical diagnosis difficult.
The good news is you don’t need a mental health professional to tell you something’s wrong in your relationship. However, if you suspect the person you’re dating has borderline personality disorder, they’re probably engaging in enough behaviors to give you pause. Which means it’s time to ask yourself whether you want to stay with this person or end the relationship.
There are numerous misconceptions surrounding borderline personality disorder.
There’s a stereotype that those with borderline personality disorder are bad people or abusive. While this can be the case, it isn’t always. Borderline personality disorder is a mental illness, and people who suffer from it can be, and often are, kindhearted and loving.
While the origin of borderline personality disorder is not fully known or understood, experts speculate it arises from a combination of genetic, environmental, and cognitive factors. There’s no gene linked to borderline personality disorder, but close family members have an increased risk of developing borderline personality disorder.
Childhood trauma, such as sexual or physical abuse and neglect from parents, can also put individuals at an increased risk of developing borderline personality disorder. Furthermore, there may be a neurological factor involved in borderline personality disorder, as sufferers lack the ability to regulate their emotions, a task performed by parts of the brain.
Another common misconception is that borderline personality disorder is permanent. Although BPD is a personality disorder, it’s treatable; those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and treated can go into remission and no longer exhibit the symptoms that would lead to a clinical diagnosis in the first place.
According to Virginia Gilbert, a Los Angeles-based therapist specializing in high-conflict divorce, intimate partner betrayal, and love addiction, “Many people believe that borderline personality disorder is an intractable disorder. But that’s more true of narcissistic personality disorder.”
The reason? “People with NPD, says Gilbert, “tend to make other people miserable, while people with BPD make themselves miserable.”
Gilbert goes on to say that “often, as they age, those with BPD get tired of weathering drama and gain enough self-awareness to realize the chaos is of their own making. Once they gain the motivation to change, they can apply the energy formerly reserved for chaos to personal growth.”
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) can facilitate this outcome. Unlike traditional talk therapy, which is more about processing feelings, Gilbert explains that DBT is a mix of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness.
DBT targets the thought processes and behaviors common to a person with borderline personality disorder. The treatment works to change such patterns while also addressing their underlying causes. In addition, Gilbert says 12-step programs can be helpful because of the structure they provide.
So what does all of this mean? Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible to enter into a healthy long-term relationship with someone who has borderline personality disorder, and while challenging, it can be worthwhile and rewarding.
Borderline personality disorder can impact relationships.
Those with borderline personality disorder are typically involved in many short-term relationships. According to Gilbert, “They’re highly emotionally reactive and have difficulty setting appropriate boundaries, so partners often feel they’re walking on eggshells and become preoccupied with trying to manage the individual’s feelings for them to prevent outbursts.”
These relationships end because the person’s behaviors become too much for the other person to handle. “Relationships with an untreated BPD individual can feel exhausting, a never-ending process of putting out fires,” says Gilbert.
Sometimes those with BPD are aware of how their symptoms can be destructive to relationships. This understanding can cause the partner with BPD to leave a relationship out of fear their partner will leave them first.
“People with BPD,” says Gilbert, “typically have suffered attachment trauma in their early years, and they recreate the experience of insecure attachment in later relationships. They crave closeness but have difficulty tolerating it, leading to the ‘I hate you, don’t leave’ phenomenon.”
Still, a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder doesn’t need to be the death knell for all relationships — present or future. As discussed earlier, with proper treatment and a strong support system, including a devoted partner, individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder can work to change the mental processes that cause them to engage in harmful behaviors. But there’s no guarantee of success.
What’s the best way to break up with a partner who has borderline personality disorder?
A major motivating factor for individuals with BPD is an intense fear of abandonment, whether real or perceived. Understandably, someone with borderline personality disorder might consider a breakup abandonment. This perception can evoke explosive emotional reactions from them. Those reactions can be both self-destructive as well as directed toward the person initiating the breakup.
Your instinct might be to respond similarly. However, reacting will generally only bring about more pain, prolong the breakup, and encourage more negative behavior.
Gilbert’s advice is to be “gentle, yet firm.” She says, “Don’t get defensive and over-explain your decision to leave; make it simple. And don’t lay blame on them since that will invite more drama. Instead, say that it hasn’t been possible to have a healthy, stable connection, and you’re ending the relationship, so both of you have the opportunity to find what you want.”
Gilbert advises limiting interactions during the breakup, keeping any necessary communications concise and free of emotion. If your ex becomes angry or reactive, don’t give them the attention they seek. Instead, set firm limits to the amount of communication between you both. Go “no contact” if you have to.
“Going ‘no contact,'” Gilbert says, “will keep you from getting seduced by promises of change and reuniting. Make the breakup for good.”
Dating someone with borderline personality disorder can potentially affect child custody if you’re divorced.
If you do decide to date (or continue dating) someone who has borderline personality disorder, keep in mind that if they’re not in remission, their behaviors can create an unhealthy environment for not only you but also your children. In addition, depending on how much of an upheaval this person creates in your household, it could potentially threaten the existing child custody arrangement you have with your ex.
According to Elise Buie, a family lawyer and guardian ad litem from Seattle, the all-or-nothing thinking typical of those with BPD can wreak havoc on your life and the lives of everyone around you. “Either you’re with them or against them, and if they turn on you, beware. They’ll seek to destroy you and your family at all cost.”
Buie goes on to say that “such all or nothing vindictive thinking does not bode well in an already stressful, child custody situation.”
As for moms and dads engaged in healthy co-parenting? Not even they, says Buie, will be immune to the firestorm that can come from a spouse dating a person with BPD. “When a parent believes their child is in harm’s way due to the presence of an outsider in their child’s life, they’ll usually do everything in their power to keep their child away from that person. That could involve going to court to keep the other parent away.”
Buie suggests parents ask themselves whether “dating this person is worth jeopardizing the time you have with your child and their wellbeing.” More often than not, Buie says, it isn’t.
One last word…
Everyone has a threshold for what they’re willing to bear in a relationship, and it’s important to understand yours. A relationship is supposed to enhance the quality of your life. If it’s not, there’s no shame in walking away to find one that does. The best way to care for someone else is first to demonstrate that you care for yourself.
More from Better:
- Dating and Fitness: How Tackling Pandemic Weight Gain Can Improve Your Love Life in Unexpected Ways
- 9 Tell-Tale Signs You’re Dating a Narcissist
- How to Protect Your Home from Wildfires: Home Hardening, Retrofits and Getting Wildfire Ready
Cassie Zampa-Keim is a nationally known matchmaker, relationship coach, and online dating strategist based in Marin County, C.A. For more than three decades, Cassie has helped thousands of clients find satisfying relationships and love. Cassie has been happily married to her husband, Mike, for over 20 years. Together they share two daughters, Kaylie (20) and Lauren (17), a son, Evan (13), one dog, a bunny, and lots of laughs.