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Understanding Romantic BPD Relationships

Can You Make Romantic BPD Relationships Work?

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Updated June 30, 2014

BPD relationships are often chaotic, intense, and conflict-laden. This can be especially true for romantic BPD relationships. Many people have been hurt in their romantic relationships with borderline personality partners, but others have found a way to make the relationships work.

If you are considering starting a relationship with someone with BPD, or are in one now, you need to educate yourself about the disorder and what to expect. If you have been diagnosed with BPD, it can be helpful to think about how your symptoms have affected your romantic relationships.

Romantic BPD Relationships and Symptoms

One of the core features of BPD is the presence of serious interpersonal problems. People with BPD tend to have intense, unstable relationships, characterized by frequent wavering between strong clinginess/dependency and sudden withdrawal. In addition, many of the symptoms of BPD (e.g., suicidal gestures, impulsive behavior) are extremely frustrating and scary for romantic partners, and can introduce more stress into the relationship.

To learn more about the variety of ways that BPD can affect all kinds of relationships, see this article titled “Borderline Relationships: Understand the Impact of BPD Symptoms.”

Research on Romantic BPD Relationships

Research has confirmed that people with BPD tend to have very stormy romantic relationships characterized by a great deal of tumult and dysfunction. For example, one study demonstrated that women with BPD symptoms reported greater chronic relationship stress and more frequent conflicts. In addition, the more severe of person’s BPD symptoms are, the less satisfaction their partners report.

Research has also shown that BPD symptoms are associated with a greater number of romantic relationships over time, and a higher incidence of unplanned pregnancies in women. Individuals with BPD also tend to have more former partners and tend to terminate more relationships in their social networks than patients without personality disorders — this suggests that romantic relationships with people with BPD are more likely to end in a break up.

It is important to note, however, that these types of problems are not exclusive to BPD. People with many different types of personality disorder symptoms report problems in their romantic relationships. However, it is clear that people with BPD struggle in their romantic relationships.

Starting a Romantic Relationship with Someone With BPD

Given all the difficulties that exist in BPD relationships, why would anyone start a relationship with someone with BPD? First, it is important to remember that despite these intense and disruptive symptoms, people with BPD are frequently good, kind, and caring individuals. Often they have many positive qualities that can make them great romantic partners some of the time.

In addition, many people who have been in a romantic relationship with someone with BPD talk about how fun, exciting, and passionate a BPD partner can be. Many people are drawn to a BPD partner precisely because people with BPD have intense emotions and strong desire for intimacy.

BPD Relationships and Sex

Impulsive sexuality is one of the symptoms of BPD, and many people with BPD struggle with issues of sexuality. In addition, a large percentage of people with BPD experienced childhood sexual abuse, which can make sex very complicated.

Research has shown that women with BPD have more negative attitudes about sex, are more likely to feel pressured into having sex by their partner, and are more ambivalent about sex, than women without BPD. Unfortunately no research has been done on sexuality in men with BPD.

Can You Make a Romantic BPD Relationship Last?

Most BPD relationships go through a honeymoon period. People with BPD will often report that at the beginning of a new romantic relationship they put their new partner “on a pedestal” and sometimes feel they have found their perfect match, a soul mate who will rescue them from the emotional pain (a kind of thinking called “idealization.”)

This honeymoon period can be very exciting for the new partner too. After all, it is really nice to have someone feel so strongly about you, and to feel as if you are needed.

Problems start to arise, however, when reality sets in. When a person with BPD realizes that their new partner is not faultless, that image of the perfect (idealized) soul mate can come crashing down. Because people with BPD struggle with dichotomous thinking, or seeing things only in black and white, they can have trouble recognizing the fact that most people make mistakes even when they mean well. As a result, they may quickly go from idealization to devaluation (or thinking that their partner is a horrible person).

The key to maintaining a relationship with someone with BPD is to find ways to cope with these cycles (and to encourage your BPD partner to get professional help to reduce these cycles). Sometimes partners in a BPD relationships are helped by couples therapy.

BPD and Romantic Relationships: Breaking Up

Many issues arise when a BPD relationship is ending. Because people with BPD have an intense fear of abandonment, a break up can leave them feeling absolutely desperate and devastated. Even if a relationship is unhealthy, a person with BPD can often have trouble letting the relationship go. This will particularly true of long-term partnerships or marriages. For example, see “Should I Divorce My BPD Spouse?”)

Sources:

Bouchard S, Godbout N, Sabourin S. “Sexual Attitudes and Activities in Women with Borderline Personality Disorder Involved in Romantic Relationships.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. 35(2):106-121, 2009.  

Clifton A, Pilkonis PA, McCarty C. “Social Networks in Borderline Personality Disorder.” Journal of Personality Disorders, 21:434-441, 2007.

Daley SE, Burge D, Hammen C. “Borderline Personality Disorder Symptoms as Predictors of 4-year Romantic Relationship Dysfunction in Young Women: Addressing Issues of Specificity.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 109(3):451-460, 2000.

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