Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“Is it Unfair to Stay in a Relationship if I Have Borderline Personality Disorder?”

Guest columnists and contributors are generously sharing their talents and insights while I’m taking some time to care for my new baby. Today’s letter is answered by freelance writer, Rachel East, AKA ReginaRey.

About four months ago, I met up with a guy I had been messaging back and forth with on an online dating site. We hit it off (our first date lasted six hours) and pretty much since then we’ve had a growing, serious relationship. He is everything I could ever want or ask for in a partner: he’s patient, intellectual, passionate, and he makes me laugh…he really is someone I admire.

The problem is, I have been battling some mental illness issues and recently was diagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder. Learning more about this disease, I was pretty shocked at how “textbook” my pattern of behavior was/is: the uncontrolled anger; the alternating clingy/distancing behavior; the childhood sexual abuse. And this has obviously caused a lot of stress within our relationship (not to mention right now I’m also in a challenging graduate degree program).

I’ve read a lot on the internet about partners/spouses of people with BPD and basically it sounds horrible to be in their shoes. I know that I’m not always the partner I want to be (in fact this is one reason why I sought out professional help), but he says that he cares enough about me and wants to be supportive and stay around throughout my treatment as he knows he’s “in love with the real me” and not the “sick me.” But I’m worried that I will revert back to my unstable behavior, especially when I encounter high stress situations and basically be that crazy girlfriend that he’ll eventually dump (for good reason).

Am I being unfair in trying to stay in a relationship that is still pretty new given the serious emotional baggage I’m dealing with? — Borderline Breakup

Give this relationship a chance. If you two are able to get through everything you’re experiencing now as a couple, it bodes very well for your ability to make it through the rest of life’s challenges together, too. And that’s worth testing. But if he’s serious about supporting you, he needs to know exactly what to expect. Ask your therapist for information that will help him understand what you’re going through, and how he can best support you and your mental health. Can he go with you to some therapy sessions? It might benefit the both of you for him to be there to listen and share his own struggles in the relationship. Support groups and online forums for loved ones of those with BPD could be another great resource for him.

He also needs to remember that BPD is, as far as I’ve read, a lifelong diagnosis. The “sick you” and the “real you” that he mentioned are the same person – and he has to choose to love the whole package for this relationship to work. Can he handle the fact that, while you’ll certainly improve over time, this is your new “normal”?

As for your part, you need to stay as mentally sound and healthy as you can, which means always taking ownership of your BPD. Continue to go to therapy regularly and be ready to accept and act on the advice your therapist gives you. Prioritize your mental health, because if you’re managing it well, your relationship and the rest of your life will be positively impacted as well.

Just as critically: don’t ever use your disorder as an excuse. If you find yourself becoming clingy or angry or distant, don’t be content to blame it on the BPD. If you and your boyfriend get into an argument, which is inevitable, don’t write it off as the BPD talking. Again, take ownership of your disorder. Don’t let it drag you down into the “crazy girlfriend” behavior that you fear.

Everyone has their own setback to work through in life, and this is yours. It doesn’t make you “damaged” or unworthy of a lasting relationship, but it does mean that to do yourself and your disorder justice, you’re going to have to consistently and honestly evaluate what’s good for your mental health…and what isn’t. There may come a point when your current relationship is no longer working, or when a particular job or friend or insert-whatever-you-want, is exacerbating your BPD. If that happens, you need to assess (with the help of your therapist) whether you’re better off without that stressor in your life. Have the strength to always put your health, and your quality of life, first.

*ReginaRey (Real Name: Rachel East) is a full-time Events & Promotions Coordinator and a part-time freelance writer focusing on dating and relationships. One day, after tackling grad school, she plans to be your Marriage and Family Therapist…because the only thing better than talking about relationships all day is getting paid to talk about relationships all day. You can check out her weekly column here and follow her on Twitter @MissRachelEast.


31 comments… add one
  • Tax Geek November 28, 2011, 7:46 am

    A nitpick: Bipolar and Borderline PD are not the same thing, although some people may have both I suppose.

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  • cobalt November 28, 2011, 7:55 am

    Tax Geek already mentioned this, but Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder are two distinct disorders, with different characteristics and treatments.

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      Wendy November 28, 2011, 8:08 am

      Oops, that was my fault. I was too hasty in writing the title. It’s fixed now.

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    FireStar November 28, 2011, 8:11 am

    I have a very good friend whose spouse is bipolar. He makes the effort to manage his disease and be forthcoming about it and she knows what to expect and is completely happy in their relationship and wouldn’t trade him for the world. Part of that turns on the severity of the disorder – it by no means cripples him but it doesn’t sound like it is crippling you either. I agree with RR. Inform your boyfriend so he can make an educated decision and if he tells you he can manage it then take him at his word until or unless you have reason not to. My friend and her husband are stupid happy in their relationship – there is no reason why the two of you can’t be either.

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      FireStar November 28, 2011, 8:16 am

      Oops. My comment is more analogous now than on point with the title change. The advice though still holds true. Don’t sabotage a great relationship because of fear of what effect your illness can have.

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    fast eddie November 28, 2011, 8:17 am

    Your looking for trouble where none currently exists, that’s merely anxiety which may be amplified by your disorder. Go for the gold and let the relationship unfold as it will. Someone wiser then myself said: Two things keep us from happiness, regret for the past and fear of the future.

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    caitie_didn't November 28, 2011, 9:02 am

    Great advice!!

    I think it bodes well for the LW that she has been so proactive in managing her disorder and seeking professional treatment for it. I recommend asking her therapist about some “good arguing techniques”, so when her and her bf get into an argument (as they will; inevitably), she will be able to take a deep breath and use constructive language and phrases first, rather than resorting to techniques that will be hurtful and destructive. Hey, I know lots of people who could benefit from that, myself included!

    The LW is right that being the spouse of someone with BPD is a challenge, but it will be made easier if she continues to prioritize getting her mental health under control and keeping it that way.

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    • honeybeenicki November 28, 2011, 10:18 am

      When my husband and I saw a therapist after he got into trouble, she gave us “fair fight rules” that (when followed) worked great.

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    • Britannia November 28, 2011, 1:38 pm

      I second the seeing a therapist suggestion. Like honeybeenicki mentioned, establishing “fair fight rules” for yourself is very important. Oftentimes, when you’re (not severely) mentally ill, it’s too easy for you to excuse poor behavior by saying, “Well, I have bipolar disorder, it’s not my fault!” Of course it isn’t your fault, but that doesn’t mean you’re not accountable for your behavior. In order to have a successful relationship with someone when dealing with an emotional disorder, you have to be willing to apologize for hurting them even if you didn’t mean to or didn’t have control over yourself at the time.

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  • Carolynasaurus November 28, 2011, 9:03 am

    I think she nailed it, but here’s my one concern that wasn’t really addressed: it sounds like you have been diagnosed since you started dating this guy. If you had been diagnosed before you started dating this guy and had had some time to come to grips with how this might affect your personal life, I’d say you should give it your all with this guy.

    However, because it sounds like you’ve been very recently diagnosed, you shouldn’t have to feel like your learning how to manage yourself and this guy at the same time. Without considering the guy, you have a lot going on right now and it already sounds like a high-stress situation. It’s ok to step back and tell this guy you need a break if things get too hard. If it becomes too much and you need some time to straighten it out, he’ll understand if he’s a good guy.

    Good luck getting to know the new you.

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    • DDL November 28, 2011, 9:21 am

      I think it’s more like she’s had mental health issues for a while now, and the doctors have finally pin-pointed what it was; BPD doesn’t show until you’re in late adolescence or adulthood (that’s according to Wikipedia – apologies if I’m wrong and shame on me for conducting proper research). So I think the BF is going off the assumption that this is something she can ‘get over’ and be ‘normal’ again, going off of what she had said about him loving the real her and not the sick her. However, I could be reading the letter wrong and she means he’s saying that he knows the BPD isn’t what defines her as a person.

      Anyways, I think I was trying to agree with you (and everyone else) that this might be a good thing for her – finding someone who will support her. However, I think she should step back from the relationship and take care of herself first and learn how to manage the BPD before taking on the stress of a relationship.

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      • DDL November 28, 2011, 9:22 am

        *not conducting proper research

        … shame on me for not proof-reading. :S

  • Painted_lady November 28, 2011, 9:24 am

    I have a friend who’s got similar issues, and she and her fiancé came up with a really brilliant solution when she’s having a rough day. They live together, and she will IM or text him when she’s at a point where she can’t control her emotions. They still communicate, but she doesn’t have the pressure of an emotionally charged conversation, he doesn’t have to deal with someone whose emotions are out of control, and something about having to put everything down in writing makes everything clearer for both of them. Also, he gets to do the same thing when she’s becoming difficult to deal with. It’s sort of a truce for both of them, and it works.

    I’m not saying you have to do exactly this, but find your own system to deal with your issues. Think outside the box; maybe it’s colored tickets for you. Maybe it’s writing everything down during the day and leave it in a note for him to find. But it’s better to work around this than to leave this guy and never attach yourself to anyone again because you’re afraid you might be difficult to form a romantic relationship.

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    • mcminnem November 28, 2011, 2:24 pm

      Hey, I IM my boyfriend too when I’m too upset to talk. It means I can have a mini-breakdown if i need to without feeling pressured or embarrassed, and I can say what I need to in a sensible way. It helps a ton.
      …and I don’t even have a diagnosis to fall back on. I just suck at emotional conversations. 🙂

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      • Painted_lady November 28, 2011, 2:57 pm

        I actually asked her if I could steal that idea. Painted Dude thinks I’m crazy, but I think it’s brilliant.

  • bethany November 28, 2011, 9:25 am

    I think Regina’s advice was spot on. If he’s fully aware of your diagnosis, and he chooses to be there for you and support you, you should allow him to. I also think having him go to some of your therapy sessions is a great idea. He’ll get a better understanding of what you’re going through and he can learn how to properly support you. Good luck!

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  • Allison November 28, 2011, 10:23 am

    I think that if things are going well, then don’t worry about it. There are some people who have so much more baggage, with no diagnosis of anything, so I don’t think you should base it simply on that. I get that right now the concerns are probably based on the fact that you’re just figuring out what it means to have BPD, but if this is a lifelong thing, then it’s not reasonable to block out all potential relationships for the rest of your life, so why do it now?

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  • silver_dragon_girl November 28, 2011, 10:34 am

    Of course it’s not unfair. It would only be unfair if you hid this information from your boyfriend, or refused to try to cope with your illness or get treatment.

    Just because you have a mental illness does NOT mean that you don’t deserve a loving relationship. You have just as much right to that as anyone else does- no more, and certainly no less.

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    AlenaLynn November 28, 2011, 11:00 am

    I think ReginaRay gave such good advice on this. I know at least 4 people who have Borderline PD. *Warning, “bad” stuff comes first, but there is good.* One was an ex roommate. The ex-roommate never took ownership of this disorder. Whenever her “symptoms” were getting extreme, she’d blame it on the disorder. She saw a counselor a few times when things were really bad, but as soon as she was feeling better about herself, she’d quit going, and to put it bluntly, she never felt like it was her fault if her behavior affected anyone else and didn’t care if she made them feel like shit. To her, your feelings weren’t her problem, but all hell would break loose if she thought some action you did (never mind if it had nothing to do with her, she was not anywhere near when it happened, and everyone else believed it in no way impacted her) was against her. Tt was always so mean to her, but it wasn’t her fault that she was upset about it, because she couldn’t help it, so she thought it was perfectly appropriate to be a bitch to me. Those are actually some of the more mild parts of it. That’s what happens when people don’t take an attempt to own their borderline PD.

    Oddly enough, the few times she did decide to take ownership of her disorder (granted, they never lasted long), we had a great time together. I still remember those good times, so I’m still disappointed that she decided to stop talking to me when I decided to move out (mostly related to wanting to save money), but there is often no grey area, just black and white, when you have borderline PD.

    Enough of the bad though. LW said that her boyfriend is aware of her condition and wants to support her. As ReginaRay said, the “sick” and the “real” you are the same person. He needs to learn to understand and accept that as well. It’s far easier to accept someone when you think they’ll get “better.” Borderline PD is not really something you get “better” from, but it is something that can be better controlled. From what I’ve read, it’s one of the few mental illnesses that can come closest to being “cured,” because through good counseling, sufferers can learn to control it to a point where it doesn’t affect their lives much at all. He needs to know that ignoring your problems can do more harm than good.

    I’ll be honest here: LW, you ARE going to revert back to unstable behavior. Even people without a pressing mental illness do it from time to time, and unfortunately you’re far more vulnerable. However, you have the ability to not let it control you and control your relationships. Even if you have to post sticky notes to randomly remind you to think about things like, “is the reason I’m upset truly justified, or am I being overwhelmed by my own mind? Is this really as black and white (or whatever other way you’re looking at it) as I am thinking it is?” Perhaps you have a couple close friends, including your boyfriend, who will occasionally (not all the time! it’s overwhelming for them!) be willing to give you feedback on your thought patterns, when you’re having difficulty controlling them. Allow them to honestly give you logical breakdowns of situations, and listen, even if you don’t feel like you agree. Most of all, remember that what they’re saying has NOTHING to do with how they feel about you. You ask them to take an emotional step back and give you breakdowns of a situation from multiple sides, it’s going to be difficult to hear, but they’re doing you a favor, not trying to hurt you. You don’t have to change your thoughts if you don’t feel you need to, but it’s always good to be reminded that things are rarely as simple or insanely convoluted as they seem. (That may seem counter-intuitive, but from what I’ve experienced, the people I know with Borderline PD tend to take things as far too cut and dry at some points, then think of them as some giant conspiracy at others, it all depends on the situation.)

    I should stop writing. I’ve had far too many bad experiences with people struggling with Borderline PD, and I could write for hours on this subject. Even with such experiences, I wholeheartedly believe that the LW does not have to end this relationship (it’s actually pretty typical Borderline thinking to wonder if you have to end the relationship to be “fair”), and I believe it can work out fine. Good luck!

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  • ele4phant November 28, 2011, 12:26 pm

    Can I just say that the internet, while a great resource, isn’t necessarily representative of what life is like for all people at all times. In your instance, all you seem to be reading is negativity about how horrible life is with someone with BPD, but maybe all the spouses who find it challenging but make it work aren’t compelled to search other people out and share their perspective online. Or maybe even the people who are posting about how horrible it is to be with someone with BPD are having a bad day, or week, or month, but still love their spouse and wouldn’t trade it for the world.

    The point is, you are seeing a very selective, very narrow slice of the perspective. While surely a relationship will be more of a challenge for you than if you did not have BPD, take what you read online with a grain of salt.

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    • Painted_lady November 28, 2011, 12:59 pm

      Yeah, I would imagine very few people would reach out to a support group, discussion board, etc, if everything’s 100% fine. I mean, who’s going to write in “My girlfriend has BPD and you can’t even tell. She functions great, we are so close, and I’ve never been happier. WHAT DO I DO?!?!?!” So you make an excellent point. Even the moderators of boards don’t start them because they’ve seen zero problems ever with BPD. I guess it’s sort of like feeling like you have an informed opinion of heterosexual relationships from talking to women at a domestic violence shelter.

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    atlimbo November 28, 2011, 1:13 pm

    I have Bipolar, OCD, and somatic panic disorder, and I’m currently staring at a possible new array of diagnoses. I have a terrible habit of – whenever my Chemicals are freaking out – asking my long-term, live-in boyfriend a million times if he’s sure he wants to put up with this forever. I’ve made sure that throughout our ten year friendship and at times off and on relationship (thanks to distance that is no longer a problem), he’s always known what he’d be getting into by being with someone like me. I didn’t exaggerate the negative nor only paint the positive, and every time, every step, he’s said that this is all part of who I am, and he loves all of me, so it’s not “putting up with me” or “dealing with the disorders” – it’s just part of loving me, and we’ll get through it to the happy bits together. And so far, that’s how it’s worked. When I need space, he gives it to me, when I’m going through medication changes or issues, he’s supportive in every way, when I’m clingy, he holds tight. I’ve been very lucky, but it sounds like LW’s guy is willing to put in such hard work, too, even if it is early in the relationship.

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      theattack November 28, 2011, 2:56 pm

      I don’t want to get into your personal business or try to give you some sort of diagnosis over DW, but I’ve been doing a lot of research about co-occurring diagnoses in mental health, and a lot of times having that many diagnoses means that your psychologist hasn’t actually gotten to the root of the issue, and that they’re just describing symptoms. So so many times it relates back to trauma, and it’s all related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. With yours including somatic panic disorder it really makes me suspicious (especially while paired with bi-polar). Again, I don’t know you, and I’m not (yet) a professional, but you may want to have a conversation about this with your mental health professional. And if you are not seeing someone who specializes in mental health, you definitely should. Sorry to make a comment like this, but we don’t have a PM feature here. I wish you the best!

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        atlimbo November 29, 2011, 2:12 pm

        Hey! This is fine 🙂 I always appreciate advice and have been seeing professionals/going through the process for so long now (15+ years) that talking about the stuff never really bothers me. I’m glad that you mentioned this, too, because it’s something that I’ve thought about more than once over the years, which is why I’m in the process of getting new/updated (whatever they’d call it?) diagnoses. I’m hoping that things they saw when I was a kid, and again as a teen and young adult, have evolved or modified just as I have 🙂

  • Miss Lynn November 28, 2011, 1:17 pm

    First of all, let me commend you for reaching out and recognizing your specific situation for what it is. So many people (as the other commenters have pointed out) do not own their disorder and simply gaff it off when a problem occurs. My ex husband was never diagnosed with BPD, but only because he refused to ever seek help (once again, not owning his problem) and it inevitably led to the end of our marriage. You seem to have a good head on your shoulders and recognizing the importance of knowing and owning your disorder is a huge step in the right direction when it comes to your relationship. Plus, the fact that your SO seems so supportive is also a bonus! Don’t give up just yet, you still have so much to discover about your relationship down the road that you shouldn’t have to make a decision right away. Just keep taking it one day at a time and good luck!

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  • Pinky November 28, 2011, 4:18 pm

    Dear LW,

    Thank you very much for taking ownership and responsibility for your disorder. That is a huge step for anyone and I applaud you for your bravery. Mental illness is a huge stigma in this country and highly misunderstood and misdiagnosed.

    My sister has BPD. Unfortunately, she refuses to accept that anything might be amiss with her. She has lost all of her friends and has alienated every member of our family. I was the last remaining holdout, until she decided that I was evil, too. She refuses to go to therapy and believes that everything can be fixed with diet and yoga. People are attracted to her because she’s brilliant and dynamic, until she gets angry, then God help them. She has gone through countless relationships. Her own child wants nothing to do with her. I used to have hope that she would come out on the other side of this and we could be friends again. That was until I was declared an enemy for being so cruel as to suggest that she get some therapy.

    I’m heartbroken about my sister. However, LW, by going to therapy and being aware of your situation, you don’t have to follow the same path. Relationships, yes healthy relationships, are possible. I wish you the best of luck in your journey. You’re doing the right thing.

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  • AKchic November 28, 2011, 5:39 pm

    Let the relationship continue. Continue therapy. Allow the boyfriend to go to therapy with you once in a while. Continue to own up to your problems and don’t allow yourself to blame your “condition” for your behaviors, attitudes, etc. It’s not a crutch. YOU control you, not your “condition” (I constantly remind my ADHD children of this when they are bouncing off the walls with no impulse control).

    If the relationship fizzles, it fizzles. He wants to work with you on it, and honey, I’d be thankful about it. Right now, you’re worrying about something that might not happen.

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      atlimbo November 29, 2011, 2:13 pm

      “Allow the boyfriend to go to therapy with you once in a while.” I love this piece of advice! Big thumbs up.

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  • jubietta November 28, 2011, 7:38 pm

    I heard someone say recently that getting a new diagnosis, especially for something that’s going to be with you a while (or forever), is like entering a new world. If I were going to go into a new world, and someone wonderful and brilliant wanted to go with me, I’d sure be glad of it, especially if I felt like they had all the facts and were making the best choice for them at the time.

    And I sure appreciate your concern about whether or not it’s fair. That feels very empathetic and accountable.

    In addition to what’s been said above…I think the “fair” way through is not to try to protect your BF too much, but to treat him like a reasonable adult who knows how to choose for himself. Included in that is the grace that allows you both to re-evaluate the situation and make new choices and agreements as new information arises, and the world around you changes (as it inevitably will). Be as flexible as possible.

    It’s human to want to be loved and accepted, and whole. It’s also human to be imperfect. No diesease, physical or mental, should build a wall between two thoughful people where it doesn’t belong.

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  • FYI November 29, 2011, 6:02 pm

    Just a clarification, but an important one: Borderline Personality Disorder is NOT necessarily a lifelong diagnosis, and you don’t have to assume you’ll suffer from this (or drag your boyfriend through it) forever. There are new treatments recently developed that are much more effective than previous ones. Please make sure that your therapist is experienced in Dialectic Behavior Therapy (developed by Marsha Linehan, which research shows is the most effective treatment now available for BPD) and other current advances in treating Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s important to make sure you have a therapist who specializes in this condition, is up to speed on current research, and is not relying on what s/he learned in graduate school. This condition is not something to take to a general therapist. The treatment is evolving rapidly and there is a lot of misinformation still floating around the therapeutic community and online. There is more hope than people often think.

    You might be interested in the Judith Herman’s book Trauma & Recovery. She’s a psychiatrist at Harvard and a leading authority on the causes and treatment of trauma related conditions, including BPD. She has proposed a new theoretical and practical approach for BPD, which she outlines in her book. It’s written for the general public but has already become a classic text for psychiatrists, psychologists and researchers. Good luck!

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  • Elise October 26, 2012, 5:24 pm

    This brought me to tears as the most optimistic article I’ve read on BPD. Your answer gave me new hope. It is so special to find an article not making those with BPD out to be hideous, unstoppable monsters.

    Thank you.

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