How to make a Borderline Relationship work

Therapies for couples can be a demanding affair all on their own; for the therapist it is frequently like walking on eggshells between empathy and neutrality among the wishes of both partners and the struggle not to be made into an ally in a bad triangle. If one of the two partners is borderliner as well, as a therapist I then feel as if I am dealing with a relationship powder keg ready to explode at the smallest wrong move.

In its classification of psychological disorders the borderline syndrome belongs to the group of personality disorders. Basically it affects the entire identity of those concerned and also seriously impacts their social relationships. Maybe the disturbance’s most important indicator – by the way the diagnosis is anything but undisputed – is a distinctly unstable, insecure self-image. This primarily results in an underlying feeling overshadowing the entire life of those affected: Fear. Fear of not being worth of loving, fear of the emptiness inside, fear of being betrayed or deserted by people who are close, fear to be exposed as an “unworthy” person, which is how the borderliner sees him/herself deeply inside. It is probably easy to emphasize how this underlying feeling of fear leads to a form of permanent stress that is difficult to bear. It frequently gives vent to mood swings, states of severe depression or excitation. Those who have ever experienced the temper tantrum of a real borderliner are probably never going to forget it because the impulse- and affect control of these people is extremely unstable and tends to snap in stress situations. (Ever saw the movie “Fatal Attraction” with Glenn Close? That gives you a pretty good idea . . .) It is not ill will – for borderliners a small mishap, a glance perceived as unfriendly or even conveying hard feelings is sufficient to abandon their emotional equilibrium in a way and with a vehemence that others have a problem understanding.
Aside from their emotional instability, self destructive behavior is a frequent borderline indicator: deliberate self-mutilation (so called “cutters” using blades), para-suicidal behavior patterns – excessive drug- or alcohol consumption, suicidal like high risk driving, dangerous sexual contacts or binge eating belong to that category, as well. Many borderliners explain their actions with their need to once again feel themselves, because they got lost in a values- and goals chaos and don’t even know who they are, any longer. Others report chronic feelings of emptiness and boredom they are trying to cope with in this way. Because many borderline disorders result from traumatic childhood- or youth experiences, as for instance sexual abuse or severe neglect still others use these actions to desperately struggle against san inundation of traumatic memories and suicidal impulses.. Looking at it from this point of view, these self-destructive behavior patterns are really lifesaving measures: still better I cut into my arms instead of killing myself in order to provide an outlet for my desperation and become re-grounded. . .

The social relationships of borderline patients – and especially their partnerships – are obviously also a non-stop roller coaster ride: since those concerned continuously alternate between their partner’s overwhelming idolization and equally strong debasement (he/she is either the world’s best partner or a total asshole) it is incredibly difficult for them to maintain lasting relationships. During arguments the borderliner often loses control of his/her behavior resorting to insults, which the partner can barely tolerate. Frequently short term paranoid- or skewed perceptions of reality also play a role: In those situations the partner who has no idea what he/she has done to deserve them, out of a clear blue sky is heaped with accusations of infidelity or other transgressions. The more he/she attempts to defend him/herself, the more the borderliner persists in his/her belief and finally the situation escalates to the point when the other partner knows no other way but to become aggressive him/herself or leave the house slamming the doors – for the borderliner naturally only more “proof” that his/her suspicions had been correct all along . . .

Now you are probably thinking, “Who in the world would put up with a relationship like that?!” I totally agree, that is obviously a fascinating question. At the latest after their borderline partner‘s second totally inappropriate blowup most people would probably tap their forehead and get the heck out of dodge. Still, many borderline patients live, and not just in short lived relationships! A very interesting book I recently discovered for myself, intensively deals with the personality of people who – and often repeatedly – fall in love with borderliners and even stay with them for good: “When loving hurts” (so far only available in German, sorry!). The author is Manuela Rösel, psychologist and pedagogue in Berlin who has lots of experience with borderline-patients. Among others, she identified the following characteristics their partners have in common:

  • a disposition for altruistic surrender combined with the compulsion to make others happy at their own expense
  • an inability to recognize their own needs
  • exaggerated indulgence
  • perfectionism and extreme commitment (associated with the idea that “love must be earned”), the inability to make mistakes or to fail
  • the inability to set clear boundaries and to defend them
  • the conviction that nothing one does on one’s own is good enough
  • exaggerated sense of responsibility and conscientiousness extending as far as the helper-syndrome (“I must save him/her from him/herself”).
The insidiousness of all these characteristics ensuring that the borderliner and his/her partner fit together like hand in glove in their needs and characteristics lies in the fact that all of this supports the continuation of borderline-disorder’s instead of counteracting it. A conflict-capable partner with a sound sense of self-esteem, firmly confronting him/her who would be able to handle the threat of emotional blackmail and the withdrawal of love, would be much more beneficial to the borderline patient. He/her would give him/her an opportunity to learn new and more constructive behavior patterns that would then also positively impact his/her other social relationships. In addition to an incredible level of emotional stability such a partner must also command a high emphatically active ability to communicate. So as not to be entrapped to reacting to the triggers of the temper tantrum, as for instance not getting involved in the justification drama à la “I know you are cheating me!” – “no, I am not!” – “yes, I know you are!” ad infinitum, he/she must be able to look at the underlying causes and respond on the meta level: “Is it possible that you feel very sad/angry/helpless right now? Tell me how I can help you to feel better.”
A hard row to hoe! And without a question damn difficult to keep up in everyday life. Every partner of a borderline must rigorously ask him/herself whether he/she is willing and able to permanently deal with this very special situation without hurting him/herself or his/her partner. Figuring out whether a relationship with a borderliner has a future – or not - and to face the appropriate consequences is going to take lots of emphatic perception. I believe it makes lots of sense to intensely deal with the subject in case one finds oneself in a relationship with a borderliner. If one simply severs it and looks for a new partner, it is entirely possible that one ends up with the next borderliner – the same way in which many women with somnambulistic certainty pick one alcoholic after the other. Therefore for a partner of a borderliner it is a good idea to ask him/herself: What is it that attracts me to this specific model? Why haven’t I already beaten a retreat? Which characteristics/experiences/convictions within myself led to the fact that we became a pair and stayed together for so long? And maybe even seek therapeutic support in order to change old habits ...