What Does it Take to Be in a Relationship

R. Skip Johnson

What Can a Family Member Do?

Family support plays an extremely critical role in the recovery from any mental health condition. Studies have shown that the single most important predictor of recovery for a patient in treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder, is trusted and supportive family member. Short of having an emotional crisis, it is generally a family's careful and delicate coaching over time that will bring someone into treatment. And most individuals that have recovered from borderline personality disorder will cite a family member who was their "rock" and who stood by them as they went through treatment.

At BPDFamily.com we have tools to guide family members in assuming this caretaker role; little is intuitive and family members are warned not to jump in before they understand what they are doing. Interventions, for example, are not a good idea. 

Family members with a weak emotional constitution are generally not well suited for this role.  Ex-romantic partners and casual acquaintances are are also not well-suited for this role. The caretaker must be well trusted and without questionable motives.

Below is an introductory list of do's and don'ts for caretakers.

Strength: It takes a great deal of strength and emotional stability to be in a BP relationship and not be emotionally injured by it.  A person in a weak emotional state, who feels wounded/abused, or depressed is likely to be consumed by the relationship, confused by the intense rages and idealization, and finding their self worth in decline.  If you chose this path, you've got to be very strong and very balanced.

Realistic Expectations: A person with BPD is emotionally underdeveloped and does not have "adult" emotional skills - especially in times of stress.  If you are in this type of relationship it is important to have realistic expectations for what the relationship can be in terms of consistent respect, trust and support, honesty and accountability, and in terms of negotiation and fairness, or expectations of non-threatening behavior.  It is important to accept the relationship behavior for what it is - not hope the person will permanently return to the idealization phase, not accept the external excuses for the bad behavior, and not hope that changing your behavior to heal someone else.

Accept the Role of "Emotional Caretaker": According to Kraft Goin MD (University of Southern California), "borderlines need a person who is a constant, continuing, empathic force in their lives; someone who can listen and handle being the target of intense rage and idealization while concurrently defining limits and boundaries with firmness and candor".  To be in this type of relationship, you must accept the role as emotional caretaker - consistently staying above it. 

  1. Maintaining routine and structure
  2. Setting and maintain boundaries
  3. Being empathetic, building trust, even in difficult times
  4. Don’t tolerate abusive treatment, threats and ultimatums
  5. In crisis, stay calm, don’t get defensive, don't take it personally
  6. Don’t protect them from natural consequences of their actions - let them fail
  7. Self-Destructive acts/threats require action

And at the same time, its important to understand that you and your behavior cannot rehabilitate anyone - you can only end your contribution to the emotional instability of the relationship. Rehabilitation requires an individual's deep personal commitment, consistently, and over time.

Protection: Difficult things will likely happen in a BP relationship and it is important that you try to protect everyone (you, the BPD, the children) - financially, emotionally, etc.  Be prepared for digressions when they occur -  they will. This could range from controlling the bank accounts, to educating the children, to having a suicide threat plan.  You can mitigate some of the damage.

Preserve Your Emotional Health: The intensity of emotional reactions, and the rage take a toll on even the strongest.  Since you cannot escape the natural human impulses to "recoil when raged" upon or "be overly protective" when idealized, it really important to have other outlets / escapes to keep yourself grounded. It's important not to become isolated. It's important to have a significant emotional support system for yourself (e.g., close friends) that goes beyond the relationship.

Understand Why: There are a many reasons to be in BP relationship or to try.  It's a deeply personal decision.  Sometimes the reasons are unhealthy- such as BPD/NPD relationships, BPD/Co-dependent relationship, etc.   It's important to understand your own emotional health and what motivates you to "stay in" and build a life that "evolves around" and has to "continually compensate for" the acts of a destructive person. Many professionals enter therapy when they are treating BPD to stay grounded.  It is a good idea for you too. 


Last modified: 
January 04, 2021