Surviving a Break-up when Your Partner has Borderline Personality

R. Skip Johnson

Few things are more intoxicating than a partner who is brimming with infatuation, or more inexplicable than to watch this same person become resentful and start disengaging for no apparent reason. In a relationship with a person suffering with the traits of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) these extreme highs and lows are commonplace.

In the most troubled of relationships, it is not unusual for a “BPD” partner to abandon the relationship or do something so hurtful that you cannot continue. Your partner may emotionally discard you or become abusive and leave you to feel confused and broken-hearted. Or you may have invested yourself in the relationship and all the latest communication and relationship tools and now feel the relationship has continued to erode and you have no more to give. So they leave you - or you break up – or one of you finally decides not to reconcile, yet again. If any of this sounds like your relationship, please read on.

Disengaging from this type of intense relationship can be difficult. Rationally, you most likely understand that leaving is the healthiest thing you can do now, yet your emotional attachment is undeniable. You find yourself hopelessly trapped by your own desires to rekindle a relationship that you know isn't healthy, and in fact, may not even be available to you.

Often we obsess and ruminate over what our “BPD” partner might be doing or feeling, or who they might be seeing. We wonder if they ever really loved us and how we could have been so easily discarded. Our emotions range from hurt, to disbelief, to anger.

This guide explores the struggles of breaking away from this type of relationship and offers suggestions on how you can make it easier on yourself and your partner.

Breaking Up Was Never this Hard

Is this because you partner was so special?

Sure they are special and this is a very significant loss for you - but the depth of your struggles has a lot more to do with the complexity of the relationship bond than the person.

In some important way this relationship saved or rejuvenated you. The way your “BPD” partner hung on to your every word, looked at you with admiring eyes and wanted you, filled an empty void deep inside of you.

Your “BPD” partner may have been insecure and needy and their problems inspired your sympathy and determination to resolve and feel exceptional, heroic, valuable.

As a result, you were willing to tolerate behavior beyond what you've known to be acceptable. You’ve felt certain that “BPD” partner depended on you and that they would never leave. However challenging, you were committed to see it through.

Unknown to you, your BPD partner was also on a complex journey that started long before the relationship began. You were their “knight in shining armor”, you were their hope and the answer to disappointments that they have struggled with most of their life.

Together, this made for an incredibly “loaded” relationship bond between the two of you.

Ten Beliefs That Can Get You Stuck

Breaking up with a “BPD” partner is often difficult because we do not have a valid understanding of the disorder or our part in the “loaded” relationship bond. As a result we often misinterpret our partners' actions and some of our own. Many of us struggle with some of the following false beliefs.

1) Belief that this person holds the key to your happiness

We often believe that our “BPD” partner is the master of our joy and the keeper of our sorrow. You may feel that they have touched the very depths of your soul. As hard as this is to believe right now, your perspective on this is likely a bit off. Idealization is a powerful “drug” – and it came along at a time in your life when you were very receptive to it. In time, you will come to realize that your partner’s idealization of you, no matter how sincere, was a courting ritual and an overstatement of the real emotions at the time. You were special – but not that special. You will also come to realize that a lot of your elation was due to your own receptivity and openness and your hopes. You will also come to realize that someone coming out of an extended intense and traumatic relationship is often depressed and can not see things clearly. You may feel anxious, confused, and you may be ruminating about your BPD partner. All of this distorts your perception of reality. You may even be indulging in substance abuse to cope.

2) Belief that your BPD partner feels the same way that you feel

If you believe that your BPD partner was experiencing the relationship in the same way that you were or that they are feeling the same way you do right now, don’t count on it. This will only serve to confuse you and make it harder to understand what is really happening. When any relationship breaks down, it’s often because the partners are on a different “page” – but much more so when your partner suffers with borderline personality disorder traits. Unknown to you, there were likely significant periods of shame, fear, disappointment, resentment, and anger rising from below the surface during the entire relationship. What you have seen lately is not new - rather it’s a culmination of feelings that have been brewing in the relationship.

3) Belief that the relationship problems are caused by some circumstance or by you

You concede that there are problems, and you have pledged to do your part to resolve them. Because there have been periods of extreme openness, honesty, humanity and thoughtfulness during the relationship, and even during the break-ups, your “BPD” partner’s concerns are very credible in your eyes. But your “BPD” partner also has the rather unique ability to distort facts, details, and play on your insecurities to a point where fabrications are believable to you. It’s a complex defense mechanism, a type of denial, and a common characteristic of the disorder. As a result, both of you come to believe that you are the sole problem; that you are inadequate; that you need to change; even that you deserve to be punished or left behind. This is largely why you have accepted punishing behaviors; why you try to make amends and try to please; why you feel responsible. But the problems aren’t all your fault and you can't solve this by changing. The problems are not all of your partner’s fault either. This is about a complex and incredibly “loaded” relationship bond between the two of you.

4) Belief that love can prevail

Once these relationships seriously rupture, they are harder to repair than most – many wounds that existed before the relationship have been opened. Of course you have a lot invested in this relationship and your partner has been an integral part of your dreams and hopes - but there are greater forces at play now. For you, significant emotional wounds have been inflicted upon an already wounded soul. To revitalize your end of the relationship, you would need to recover from your wounds and emerge as an informed and loving caretaker – it’s not a simple journey. You need compassion and validation to heal - something your partner most likely won’t understand – and you can’t provide for yourself right now. For your partner, there are longstanding and painful fears, trust issues, and resentments that have been triggered. Your partner is coping by blaming much of it on you. For your partner to revitalize their end of the relationship, they would need to understand and face their wounds and emerge very self-aware and mindful. This is likely an even greater challenge than you face.

5) Belief that things will return to "the way they used to be"

BPD mood swings and past break-up / make-up cycles may have you conditioned to think that, even after a bad period, that you can return to the idealization stage (that you cherish) and the “dream come true” (that your partner holds dear), this is not realistic thinking. Idealization built on “dream come true” fairytale beliefs is not the hallmark of relationship maturity and stability - it is the hallmark of a very fragile, unstable relationship. As natural relationship realities that develop over time clash with the dream, the relationship starts breaking down. Rather than growing and strengthening over time, the relationship erodes over time. The most realistic representation of your relationship is not what you once had – it is what has been developing over time.

6) Clinging to the words that were said

We often cling to the positive words and promises that were voiced and ignore or minimize the negative actions. “But she said she would love me forever”. Many wonderful and expressive things may have been said during the course of the relationship, but people suffering with BPD traits are dreamers, they can be fickle, and they over-express emotions like young children – often with little thought for long term implications. You must let go of the words. It may break your heart to do so. But the fact is, the actions - all of them - are the truth.

7) Belief that if you say it louder you will be heard

We often feel that if we explain our point better, put it in writing, say it louder, or find the right words ... we will be heard. People with BPD hear and read just fine. Everything that we have said has been physically heard. The issue is more about listening and engaging. When the relationship breaks down and emotions are flared, the ability to listen and engage diminishes greatly on all sides. And if we try to compensate by being more insistent it often just drives the interaction further into unhealthy territory. We may be seen as aggressive. We may be seen as weak and clingy. We may be seen as having poor boundaries and inviting selfish treatment. We may be offering ourselves up for punishment. It may be denial, it may be the inability to get past what they feel and want to say, or it may even be payback. This is one of the most difficult aspects of breaking up - there is no closure.

8) Belief that absence makes the heart grow fonder

We often think that by holding back or depriving our “BPD” partner of “our love” – that they will “see the light”. We base this on all the times our partner expressed how special we were and how incredible the relationship was. Absence may make the heart grow fonder when a relationship is healthy – but this is often not the case when the relationship is breaking down. People with BPD traits often have "object permanence" issues – “out of sight is out of mind”. They may feel, after two weeks of separation, the same way you would feel after six. Distancing can also trigger all kinds of abandonment and trust issues for the “BPD” partner (as described in #4). Absence generally makes the heart grow colder.

9) Belief that you need to stay to help them.

You might want to stay to help your partner. You might want to disclose to them that they have borderline personality disorder and help them get into therapy. Maybe you want to help in other ways while still maintaining a “friendship”. The fact is, we are no longer in a position to be the caretaker and support person for our “BPD” partner – no matter how well intentioned. Understand that we have become the trigger for our partner’s bad feelings and bad behavior. Sure, we do not deliberately cause these feelings, but your presence is now triggering them. This is a complex defense mechanism that is often seen with borderline personality disorder when a relationship sours. It’s roots emanate from the deep core wounds associated with the disorder. We can’t begin to answer to this. We also need to question our own motives and your expectations for wanting to help. Is this kindness or a type of “well intentioned” manipulation on your part - an attempt to change them to better serve the relationship as opposed to addressing the lifelong wounds from which they suffer? More importantly, what does this suggest about our own survival instincts – we’re injured, in ways we may not even fully grasp, and it’s important to attend to our own wounds before we attempt to help anyone else. You are damaged. Right now, your primary responsibility really needs to be to yourself – your own emotional survival. If your partner tries to lean on you, it’s a greater kindness that you step away. Difficult, no doubt, but more responsible.

10) Belief that they have seen the light

Your partner may suddenly be on their best behavior or appearing very needy and trying to entice you back into the relationship. You, hoping that they are finally seeing things your way or really needing you, may venture back in – or you may struggle mightily to stay away. What is this all about? Well, at the end of any relationship there can be a series of breakups and make-ups – disengaging is often a process, not an event. However when this process becomes protracted, it becomes toxic. At the end of a “BPD” relationship, this can happen. The emotional needs that fueled the relationship bond initially, are now fueling a convoluted disengagement as one or both partners struggle against their deep enmeshment with the other and their internal conflicts about the break up. Either partner may go to extremes to reunite - even use the threat of suicide to get attention and evoke sympathies. Make no mistake about what is happening. Don’t be lulled into believing that the relationship is surviving or going through a phase. At this point, there are no rules. There are no clear loyalties. Each successive breakup increases the dysfunction of relationship and the dysfunction of the partners individually - and opens the door for very hurtful things to happen.

Please join our member discussions on this topic here: 1 Belief that this person holds the key to your happiness 2 Belief that your BPD partner feels the same way that you feel 3 Belief that the relationship problems are caused by you or some circumstance 4 Belief that love can prevail 5 Belief that things will return to "the way they used to be 6 Clinging to the words that were said 7 Belief that if you say it louder you will be heard 8 Belief that absence makes the heart grow fonder 9 Belief that you need to stay to help them 10 Belief that they have seen the light


Last modified: 
January 04, 2021