How I Stopped Pushing My Love Over The Borderline
"Sometimes my love for him is so intense that I want to crawl inside his body. I want him to be pregnant with me and never give birth, just hold me in. At other times, I wonder, Who is that guy? And why is he in my house? ” - Miranda July, The Metal Bowl
So one of the misconceptions about people with Borderline Personality Disorder is that we are impossible to have relationships with. I’d been fairly convinced of that too - despite being in an eight-year one - that is, until recently.
Borderline affects around 2 percent of the population. It’s typically characterised by intense and unstable interpersonal relationships, poorly regulated emotions, self-destructive impulsivity and unstable self-image. In short, people with BPD are intensely afraid of abandonment from loved ones. We suffer from chronic feelings of emptiness, anxiety and rage and these are some of the reasons suicide is prevalent among those with BPD.
Relationships for people living with BPD can be very up and down. To briefly summarise how my mental health typically explodes mine: I am triggered by something that has made me feel attacked or I feel inadequate, empty, and looking to swap that for feeling attacked. I then become convinced my partner is trying to sabotage me and that his love has actually been a lie. I spin into a rage, my bones press against my skin. I proceed to build walls for him to scale to prove that I’m wrong.
So it's not great.
For survival, my partner has become quite the scholar of my emotional patterns and self-belief systems over the years. Just the other day I got mad at him for playing video games whilst I struggled to assemble artichoke enchiladas and finish the work I still hadn’t completed. He reminded me I can ask for help and gently guided me to consider whether I was really mad at him or mad at myself. I had outsourced self-judgement so that I could have a fight with it instead of confronting the difficult emotions I was feeling.
Aside from struggling to manage emotional states, one of the primary reasons borderline can fracture relationships is a result of having such an intensely wounded self-image. In any relationship, attachment anxieties come up; we can expect our partners to provide what we never received from our parents. It becomes hard to remember that you are two individuals as your own negative self-view gets projected onto the other. In any relationship, coming to terms with the fact a partner can never complete you is important. I think for people with BPD, it can be especially hard.
Now I’m not saying this applies to everybody with BPD, it probably applies to plenty of folks without it. The truth is, I don’t know which of my problems come from what experience, disorder, or society anymore. What I do know is that putting my relationship (and friends) through a whirlwind of I love you, I hate you was not working.
Acceptance & Change
It’s difficult to build a stable relationship alongside an unstable mood. For a long time, my life was beholden to my mood. But then I thought: what if it also works the other way around?
In the days that followed the disappointing enchiladas, my partner demonstrated he had actually witnessed my distress, even if he couldn’t relate to it. He suggested, over a glass of wine, we get a timetable in place so we can work together to build a more stable life. Inexplicably, this made me cry. I had always resisted structure, thinking one day I would naturally evolve and float towards the glowing ember of my true purpose. Clearly, this was not happening.
I had to learn to change, but I also had to accept what I was really like. How could I possibly do both at the same time? Often BPD can render the world in monochrome: good or bad, monsters and angels. Coming to terms with the dual existence of acceptance and change is one of the foundations of the lauded treatment for Borderline, DBT (Dialectical Behavioural therapy) founded by Dr Marsha Linehan. Linehan developed DBT as a result of her own experiences, and also suffered from a fragmented self-image. The NYT reports,
“She had tried to kill herself so many times because the gulf between the person she wanted to be and the person she was left her desperate, hopeless, deeply homesick for a life she would never know”.
Borderline personality, according to Linehan, can but doesn’t have to, originate from an invalidating early environment. So, to borrow a strategy from The Holistic Psychologist, one healing solution may be to "reparent" yourself, or give “yourself what you didn’t receive as a child”. To build habits that foster your self-image and practice healthier ways to regulate emotions.
I’m absolutely not about to describe a quick fix. Mental health problems are tough and therapy (especially DBT for BPD), medication, and community support are all good and important options. I’m heavily pursuing most of them. But in the face of sometimes feeling myself to be too much for others, and often putting my hopes in goals without feeling equipped to do the work, I devised a few manageable ways to help myself.
Stop Believing Your Thoughts
I know, I know that even the most irrational feelings can be painful as hell. Living with Borderline can be a very difficult and lonely place. I don’t want to minimise that and I think you should get to feel those feelings without being told you are being ‘too sensitive’ etc. There’s no shortcut around a feeling, you just have to feel it.
Thoughts, however, those rarely deserve the airtime they get. Mostly, they are there to draw a tangled etch-a-sketch over feelings.
So, finally, I gave in to the most popular recommendation from The Artist’s Way, to write morning pages. Journaling in any form helps feelings and thoughts float to the surface. With the help of the cognitive-therapy-based book, Feeling Good, writing has helped me recognize triggers, distorting core beliefs, bou and most importantly: it offers an outlet for emotions that you don’t have to censor (it's good to get thoughts out of your head before it chews them to mush).
Getting to know (and question) thoughts has helped me take some of their power away; I can now see them as the measly critters they are. Swarming around up there. Robbing me of my joy.
Schedule Your Days
It makes sense that if you struggle with feelings of instability, finding ways to add stability to your life can be no bad thing. Fundamentally this is what reparenting is, it’s about recognising what feels good for you and sticking to it on a regular basis. Most crucially though, it’s about taking baby steps. If you like doing yoga, don’t aim to do an hour every day, try just ten minutes a day. If you wish you woke up earlier, try waking up ten minutes earlier for a week. Find habits that make you feel grounded and build them gradually.
Most days this means I have to drag myself from cuddling in bed to journal, do yoga and spend time pursuing personal goals. When you lack a strong sense of self, it can be easy to become co-dependent and lose sight of what matters to you if you're in a relationship (or even if you're not). Morning rituals help because no matter where your day goes, you have already done something that makes you feel like yourself.
Having a kind of household timetable (something I only expected to have pending multiple children and a wiener dog) has also become important. It helps set unified goals for the relationship so you have a concrete view of what is expected - maybe this is why some people get married, I don’t know. But when you have BPD and an episode can have you tearing it all down in a heartbeat, it’s good to be reminded that relationships are built on the choices we make day-to-day.
My hope is that by sticking to schedules, achieving small goals and allowing time to elapse in ways that feel predictable, I can eventually learn to trust myself. I can have a record of who I am when it all feels like a black hole.
Communicate With Your Partner
When you’re god-awful at discussing feelings, they find novel and chaotic ways to discuss themselves. Recognising this as maladaptive, I introduced nerdy systems like talk cards, to signal when I am about to attempt to struggle to explain a feeling. The reason I like nerdy systems - timetables, cards, notebooks - is because they are separate from me, which helps remind me I am not my emotions.
I also introduced cards because since I’m so bad at expressing emotions, I often mistake my partner as not listening to me when in fact he was confused about what I needed. So with a card, it’s clear you have something important to say and holding it can signal when it is your turn to talk or to listen. You might even consider going so far as to purchase actual talk cards. The Gottman Institute has a helpful app for this, so you too can have a bumbling go at, “when you do this I feel…”
I have felt safer in the relationship since attempting to communicate and actually having boundaries (who knew?!) Expressing emotions no longer carries the threat of a catastrophe and, as a result of improving stability, my partner has shown more compassion (now I think of it, staying up fighting all night did not put me in the best mood either). Despite the difficulty I have with emotional extremes, communicating has kept us in the middle, neither desperately in love nor despairing, like a contented monk.
To the People that Love You
It’s not really helpful to tell somebody with BPD that what they are saying is wildly irrational. Advice will tell you, it is better to not engage. This is as much for your protection as it is for theirs. Everydayhealth explains:
“Practice healthy communication. When you communicate, don't say anything that could make the person with BPD feel slighted or uncared for. Actively listen and do your best to respond in a positive way. “Always do it in love as opposed to attacking or putting the person down,”
Maybe there are people out there capable of only reacting with love, I have yet to meet them. Sometimes you have to just look after yourself. Over time, certain patterns may become easier to recognise, detach from and respond to. But this is somebody you love, so you are forgiven for feeling hurt or not always responding in the best way possible. Educate and care for yourself first.
To You, Dear Borderline
It’s hard to trust yourself when everything has been chaotic for so long. But I hope one day that even if things aren’t always ok, you can feel assured you will be.
Yes, I cringe that I can’t go to bed late whenever I want and have to worry about yoga and diet and other things that make people sickeningly boring. But at this point, with my relationship and mental health better than ever, I will colour code my feet if I have to.
So my advice to you? I know it hurts. Do what it takes. Be compassionate and patient.
You are not unlovable.