Wednesday, October 30, 2013

How to Survive a Relationship with a Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

The bulk of emails that I receive inquire about how to deal with a Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) relationship whether a parent, spouse, or sibling. Often I receive emails from women who have young children and don’t know how to protect their children from the BPD grandmother or BPD in-law. Also, another frequent topic is the discovery that the long-term abusive, toxic, and / or dysfunctional mother has BPD and how to proceed. How to deal with the BPD spouse is another topic that I receive. 

The House of Cards

If you are trying to maintain a relationship with a BPD, first and foremost be prepared to protect yourself otherwise each minute unarmed will slowly make you lose the battle. You cannot survive a relationship with a BPD if your own self-esteem is shattered, so  take care of yourself as the BPD is incapable of taking care of you. 

The emotional cycle that a person with BPD goes through can be compared to a house of cards. The slightest wind can make the entire house fall over. Your focus is to try to remove the slightest wind and  learn what makes the house of cards fall. Pay attention to surrounding experiences and anticipate ways to keep things calm. 

If you can calm yourself, you can begin to try to navigate the stormy relationship into less windy skies. Remind yourself that the only aspect that you can control is how you respond. You cannot change the BPD’s behavior or how the BPD feels. Respond calmly and not impulsively to keep the winds calm and possibly discover new ways to communicate and manage your relationship with the BPD. 

Arm Yourself

  • Read About BPD  Educating yourself about the BPD disorder can help you deal with it. The following is a link to a list of books about Borderline Personality Disorder: Good Reads- Borderline Personality Disorder I also use Amazon- Books About Borderline Personality Disorder because the Customer Reviews can sometimes be just as valuable as the book itself. Also find blogs such as mine to find narratives and information about BPD to educate and enlighten you on the subject as much as possible.

  • Get Support

o   Join a Support Group if you live with someone who has BPD. The support groups could be in your local area or online.
o   Therapy for yourself is a consideration to help you deal with the issues you face with a BPD.
o   Al-Anon meetings may be necessary in order to learn how to stop feeling guilty for her moods, addictions or explosions. 

Set Boundaries


Boundaries provide structure to the relationship and prevent abuse. Protect yourself from damaging criticisms and verbal abuse with boundaries by:

  • Setting personal boundaries Even if you understand BPD behaviors, know your own limits and stick by them. Never allow yourself to be abused.
  • Avoiding imprisonment To regain control over you, she may accuse you of abandonment and betrayal, tell you how lonely and depressed she is, or threaten to harm you if you do not take care of her. Be compassionate but do not allow yourself to become imprisoned.
  • Protecting children. Children can't care of themselves, and they're depending on you. Set limits and keep them out of harm's way.
  • Avoiding sharing personal information Circumvent sharing personal information with the BPD because she will find fault with your decisions and choices.   
  • Setting times for discussion Sometimes the BPD can become very emotionally deregulated- agitated and irritated. Let the BPD know that her message is important but you need to set another time to discuss the issue.
  • Limiting contact

o   Try to keep distant.
o   Try to live far away.
o   Limit phone calls and visits.
o   Put down the phone when she is nasty.
o   Give up trying to please.
o   Do not try to get through to her because she will insist that she has never been wrong.
o   Keep things nice and shallow.
o   Do not expect trust or predictability.

  • Leaving if necessary. Do not tolerate physical threats, emotional abuse, or verbal abuse so leave temporarily if your relationship escalates to this level. Return after she has calmed down. Ultimately, sometimes the only thing you can do is leave the relationship when the BPD repeatedly runs over your boundaries, limits, or refuses treatment. Estrangement may be the healthiest long-term option. 

What You Need to Understand

  • Understand that BPD behaviors aren’t about you. Try to depersonalize what’s happening.
  • Understand the BPD’s hot buttons and try not to push them but know that you won’t always succeed.
  • Understand the reality of the situation. You cannot change the BPD’s behavior no matter how well you communicate with her. Only the BPD can eliminate her negative behavior. Your goal is simply respectful communication between you and the BPD.
  • Understand simplicity. When speaking with the BPD, especially about sensitive issues, emotion may be heightened to the point that neither of you can think straight. Make each sentence short, simple, and direct with no room for misinterpretation.
  • Understand the difference between the person and her behavior. Make it clear to the BPD that you dislike her behavior but you do not dislike her as a person. Emphasize this often.
  • Understand sticking to the point. Ignore the BPDs attacks, threats, or attempts to change the subject. Stay calm and reiterate your point. If you're feeling attacked, calmly say that things are getting too hot and you'll be back in an hour / two hours / 5pm, etc Promptly, without further discussion, leave the location.
  •  Understand turning the problem over to the BPD. Turn the problem over to the BPD and ask for different solutions.

How to Communicate with the BPD

  • Feelings before facts. In ordinary conversations, facts are placed before feelings. We assess facts and then react with our feelings. BPDs often reverse this process. The BPD has distinctive feelings, such as abandonment, so change facts to match her feelings. For example, a BPD may interpret your actions as abandonment when you are simply leaving to the run errands. Instead of pointing out the facts such as the TO DO List in your hand, emphasize with her feelings such as, "You sound really upset. I would be upset too if I thought you were leaving forever. However (however is better than "but") I'm just going to run errands and I'll be back at 3pm."
  • Remember the importance of timing. With certain subjects, good and bad times are available. Certain incidents can make the BPD feel weak and could lead her to feel rejected, abandoned or invalidated. During these times, communication is likely to be exponentially more difficult. Postpone the communication if you can; however, if you can’t, take into account the BPD’s greater weakness at this time. During times of highly positive emotions, the BPD may show impulsivity which is a hallmark of BPD. During bad times, the BPD can be impulsive by telling you that she never wants to see you again. During good times, she may express that she adores you and wants to get married this instance. A BPD’s positive impulsivity can be very charming and enthralling. Detach yourself to as a defense again the seductiveness of her impulsivity.
  • Understand Validation You can validate the feelings of a BPD by accepting her right to own her feelings. Though you do not necessarily agree with her feelings, acknowledgement helps to identify her current feelings. Emotions circulate as feelings of being sad, frustrated, unheard, misunderstood, lonely, and depressed. By validating these feelings, you can help label her feelings and be there for her. The goal of validation is to calm the BPD, otherwise, a trivial issue may escalate to anger and rage.

Communication Methods

  • Delay, Distract, Depersonalize, and Detach. In the midst of an intense conversation that is escalating and unproductive, practice the following:

  • Delay -- Suggest talking about things later or asking for time to think about what she is saying. Speak calmly and in a way that affirms the BPD as well as yourself without necessarily confirming her claims: "I'm feeling upset right now. Your feelings are important to me and I need some time to understand them."
  • Distract -- Suggest doing something else at that moment, like grocery shopping.
  • Depersonalize -- Remind yourself often that the BPD’s tough criticism of you is not real. Try not to take the BPD’s comments personally however cutting or cruel they may feel to you as this is the nature of BPD.
  • Detach --  Remove yourself from getting caught up in the emotional whirlwind. Resolve to yourself, "I'm not going to get so involved in this."

  • The Four (4) Don'ts you should not do or say to the BDP:

1.      Don’t defend yourself.
2.      Don’t explain.
3.      Don’t justify.
4.      Don’t counter attack.

  • Practice SET Communication Method to effectively to handle the BPD with:

o   Support. support statements are important to reassure the BPD that you want to help.
o   Empathy. involves making the BPD feel that you understand her feelings.
o   Truth. re-state reality after emotional outbursts are settled.

After many decades of cycling in and out of a relationship with my BPD mother, the last straw occurred almost 10 years ago. Throughout my life, I forgave and moved forward after repeated emotional abuse from my BPD mother. The typical cycle was 5 years in a relationship, 5 years estranged (all of which were initiated by her). I accepted apologies, I turned the other cheek, and I walked on eggshells, using many of the recommendations and methods outline above. 

Ultimately, the healthiest choice I could make was estrangement. Initially when my mother blew-up on me about my engagement and future wedding, I hadn’t been pushed past the edge of never trusting her again. However, through her intense campaigns of denigration and her aggressive actions against me, trust was lost that cannot be repaired.

I didn't get to select my parent... I was born to her. Due to being born to a parent, many daughters and sons feel as if they have to remain in the relationship out of respect, religion, or duty. After trying to communicate, placate, understand, delay, distract, depersonalize, detach, and more, I made a choice not to take the abuse, dysfunction, toxicity, craziness, manipulations from my parent anymore. I didn’t want the battle anymore either. Further, I have a choice of who I let into my life, what influences me (and my husband and child too), and how I allow those around me to treat me. I would rather have the hole of where a mother should fill rather than a hole as a result of continued abuse.

One can build a life that is healthy and happy and prosper away from the BPD but trying to build a life with an ever destructive force of the BPD is extremely challenging and fatiguing. For those of you trying to survive a relationship with a BPD, I wish all of you the strength, clarity, and fortitude possible.  Hopefully some of these tips will help you to navigate away from the winds that blow over the BPD’s house of cards.


  1. Excellent post. It's good to see you back!

  2. Hi Gretel... I recently realized I have an NDad. I'd like to know if you could do something like this on how to deal with them or survive a relationship with them...?
    I went along with his flow for so long, tolerating his cycles of silent treatment for months, and then everything went back to normal and I just forgot about it all and was so happy and relieved that it was all over and I was loved and accepted again.
    I realize now I thought it was normal to act like that, that it was normal for him to stop liking me/loving me and therefore cutting me out of his life because I had been "bad" and made him upset. I just thought it was normal for parents to "punish" children like this. Even if they were adult children. I felt so horribly about myself every time he'd be mad at me and start his silent treatment... so ashamed of being who I was and being rejected and denied love by my very own father. I grew up to believe, to this day, that I don't deserve to be loved.
    I only started questioning his behaviour after I took the courage to tell someone about his periods of silent treatment towards me, and they told me that wasn't normal at all and it was in fact emotional abuse. Since me and my dad weren't estranged when I was told that, I just let it be and hoped it never happened again... but it did, of course it did and having now learned that silent treatment was vile and just wrong, I stood up to him and told him I wasn't going to tolerate that kind of mistreatment. Which of course got him even angrier, never accepted any of his wrongdoings and even tried to accuse ME of being bad once again. And of course, silent treatment followed again.Knowing this was just normal, I started researching emotional abuse and it wasn't long before I found out about NPD and how my dad fits the traits too well. So now I don't really know what to do. I'd love to go NC, but I still live with him and my mother, who also knows something's really wrong with my dad and supports me, but she enables his emotional abuse and has been doing so my whole life, since she's too afraid to confront him (she knows it'd be pointless too, he'll NEVER accept how wrong and sick he is)
    Thank you so much for this blog, I read a lot of your story and I'm really glad you found your place in the world, and the love and care you deserve, with your own family. I hope I get there one day too.

  3. Definitely will add your site to my collection of links on Cluster B personality disorders.

    My favorite site on this topic is:

  4. This is wonderful information. I'm sorry you had to live it. My soon-to-be ex-daughter-in-law has been diagnosed with BPD a few years ago. She has progressive gotten worse. She hates me very much because I am very close to my granddaughter. Granddaughter and I have always been very close. My daughter-in-law has made threats against me to the point I've been told by my son that I need to be very careful about where I go. I'm not too worried about her. I have never in 21 years gotten into an emotional tug-of-war with her. We've not even had any arguments.
    My mother just died last weekend and she chose this time to decide she hates my guts. (Her words, not mine.) I plan to stay away from her and I wish her the best life offers.

  5. As a child of a borderline mother, I thank you very much; this post is an excellent resource for me, now and in the future when I am dealing with tense conflict and outbursts. One issue that I am dealing with now in my mother-daughter relationship is setting clear boundaries which are loving but firm and to the point. I wish to maintain our relationship but do not want to keep getting stuck in cycles of conflict and her needing me as the daughter to fulfill this or that duty, or spend X amount of time at the house, in order to feel safe and secure. Do you have any recommendations on how to communicate and reinforce better, clearer personal boundaries with a BPD parent? If so, I'd love to hear back. Thank you!

  6. Thank you for sharing. I can relate to this in so many ways. I'm very fresh into learning of my own mothers BPD/NPD. 46 years old and discovered my mother's issues just keep getting worse especially with spouses and grandchildren involved. My brother and I naturally coped with it unknowingly until i started searching for answers on the internet. Felt full range of emotions after finding out she can never change. Mostly sadness and anger. Its good to relate and i try to release my pain through sharing my thoughts on supporting sites like this.

    My biggest thing about "no contact" is missing my father. He suffers the cycle and enables in so many ways it kills me to think of his suffering. I wonder if I should confront him about her PD.

    This is a very difficult thing for anyone to relate to unless your going thru it. Thankfully I have my brother and his family. Thanks again for sharing. Feeling sad in SoCal..

  7. I really like the house of cards thing...BUT. I have a father that's settling the windy sky's for far to long. It's broken him down over the years trying to "Keep Things Calm". He ends up reinforcing the bad behavior by trying to navigate our mother to calm. Now my brother whos in his early 50's and myself who just turned 46 don't even speak with our parents because of our CB mother. I guess what I'm saying is that trying to avoid conflict with them doesn't always work out in the long run. In our case it beat down my fathers will to inforce any boundries with her and completely follows the absurd blame shifting.

    Something that also might be alarming to most folks dealing with a CB is that they will cross any boundries you set and use them to hurt you at some point. Only the CB's feeling matter. This is the lack of empathy they have and can't ever seem to understand what its like in someone else's shoes. Someone very wise along their path wrote you can only be three things to a CB. You are either target, a tool or threat to the CB. In our case our wife's and our own family values became the threat. My father is the tool. The targets became grandchildren. It took me 45.5 years to understand what my mother is. As children we never give it a second thought as children don't question parents. Actually had a really good life up until 4-5 years ago. I think my mother was high fuctioning CB for most of her life until her own mother passed. I think her mother passing kind of triggered the memories of her own abandonment issues when she was raised.

    Bottom line is that I don't really blame her. She was brought up in a situation I don't know much about because we never discussed it growing up. I just know know that it messed up her emotional status to where it is today. Anyway, the last thing is that I feel better writing about this and sharing and if anyone else is going thu the same thing, I'd suggest finding forms like this to express for you and others that are going through the same issues.