Please Note: The ideas contained in this FAQ are the opinions of the writer and are communicated without reference to supporting documentation in most cases. Other inspiration and influence for the writing came through consultation with other mental health professionals but the writer “Peter Quintano” is also fully qualified in DBT making him qualified to talk about the things discussed in this article.
Anyone who has been in a relationship will attest to the fact that there are emotional challenges that are part of being in a relationship, regardless of whether or not anyone in the relationship struggles with mental health issues. Just as much as we can enjoy another person, we can also become extremely frustrated and hurt in the process of learning how to live and work together. The emotions experienced in relationships don’t just take care of themselves… they are either attended to carefully and constructively or dismissed, invalidated, and ignored.
When someone in a relationship also struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), the emotional challenges of being in that relationship can be much more extreme, ongoing, and harder to manage. Since the emotional experience of BPD sometimes manifests itself in more obvious or extreme ways (e.g., yelling or crying during times of stress), partners of those with BPD might be prone to ask themselves if they can “take the heat” of being in the relationship. It can, after all, be difficult to respond skillfully to intense BPD emotions, including all the associated verbals and behaviours.
When I meet with couples in therapy and one of them is working through Borderline Personality Disorder, I often pose questions such as…. “How much emotional responsibility are you willing to take individually?” and “How much emotional support are you willing to offer one another?” I believe these are highly relevant questions for all humans to ask when emotions or emotional work are involved in what they are doing. However, the gravity of these questions can take some time to sink in, especially when the intensity of BPD emotions is yet to be fully appreciated. So again I ask… how much emotional work are you willing to do to keep a relationship going?
The very common but sad reality for many people struggling with Borderline Personality Disorder is that both they and their partners are not yet willing to do enough emotional work to make for a better life situation. Since people with BPD regularly have intense emotional experiences, this means there is a need for regular processing of emotions in order to remain functional. That being said, it can be a serious problem when there is an insufficient willingness to take the time for emotions. A natural consequence of this scenario is that the person with BPD ineffectively fights harder and harder to be understood, and this in turn results in more dramatic life situations and partners being less and less willing to be emotionally supportive or even remain together… a vicious circle indeed and valid reason for fears of abandonment.
There truly is lots of emotional work to be done to manage BPD, and likewise, to manage being in a relationship with someone with BPD and so it makes sense to inquire how much emotional work the individual with BPD will commit to taking responsibility for and how much emotional support can be expected from a partner. Coming from a more individualistic type of culture myself (Canada), I tend to look at the bulk of the emotional responsibility as being on the individual, with a small percentage of support/responsibility hopefully available through the partner (e.g., 80% individual, 20% partner). This responsibility ratio could be considered differently, perhaps depending on cultural factors and couple dynamics.
However, if these types of considerations for emotional responsibility are not openly discussed or taken seriously, then too much demand for emotional assistance can be put on a partner. This is why people will often give up on relationships they are in with those who suffer with BPD – the demand for emotional assistance goes beyond what the partner can handle. On the other hand, many non-BPD partners can also be so ill-equipped at being emotionally supportive to someone with BPD that most of their interaction attempts turn toxic, even when their intention is to be helpful.
The “trick” for better management of BPD symptoms is to learn strategies for better emotional regulation, whether this happens through communication adjustments between partners (e.g., using more validation) or improvements to internal skills used by the suffering person (e.g., mindfulness, breathing). It is always possible to practice and develop skills – both individually and as a couple – to better regulate emotions, although it does take time to practice and consistent/daily effort that can sometimes seem like “too much” on top of all the other standard demands of life.
In the process of learning more about BPD, both those who suffer with BPD and their partners need to decide what they are willing to do to make for a healthier situation. It is fine to desire caring and compassion from others when you have BPD, but do consider carefully how much effort to regulate emotions is being directed inwards versus having expectations/demands for support from others. The expectations on a partner are going too far if it includes 24/7 emotional support, or being on the receiving end of unresolved trauma that has nothing to do with the partner. Another point here is that partners are not therapists, nor does it make sense for them to be expected have the same expertise as a therapist.
When you have BPD, I believe taking as much individual responsibility as possible is important because that is usually what’s required in the world as it is, meaning that partners are usually very limited in what they can do to help, and likewise experience difficulty investing their energy into learning about mental health when they themselves don’t suffer in the same way.
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