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Understanding Borderline Relationships

What Should You Expect From Borderline Relationships?


Updated June 30, 2014

Borderline relationships are often tumultuous and chaotic. The effects of borderline personality disorder (BPD) on family members, friends, romantic partners, and children can be very broad, and are often devastating for loved ones. In this article, learn more about how BPD symptoms can affect relationships, and how treatment can help.

The Impact of Symptoms on Borderline Relationships

Many of the symptoms of BPD can have direct impact on relationships, and other symptoms have an indirect (but not necessarily less disruptive) influence.

For example, one of the symptoms of BPD listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) is “a pattern of unstable and intense personal relationships…” This symptom has a clear and direct impact on borderline relationships; if you have a loved one with BPD you may be familiar with the turbulent ups and downs that are characteristic of their relationships.

Another BPD symptom that impacts relationships directly is called “abandonment sensitivity.” People with BPD have intense abandonment fears, which can lead them to be constantly vigilant for signs that someone may leave them, and to interpret even a minor event as a sign that abandonment is imminent (resulting in frantic efforts to avoid abandonment, such as pleading, and even physically attempting to restrain others).

The combination of unstable, intense relationships and fear of abandonment leads to a real roller coaster. People with BPD are often terrified that others will leave them. But, they can shift suddenly to feeling smothered by and fearful of intimacy, which leads them to withdraw (often in dramatic ways) from relationships. The result is a constant back-and-forth between pleas for love or attention and sudden withdrawal or isolation.

Other symptoms of BPD, including impulsivity, self-harm, and dissociative symptoms, can have an indirect impact on borderline relationships. For example, if a loved one with BPD is engaging in impulsive behavior, such as going on spending sprees, it can cause major issues within the family.

Below you can learn more about symptoms of BPD that can have a dramatic impact on relationships:

Special Issues in Borderline Relationships

There are many different kinds of relationships, and each one carries with it a unique set of challenges. To learn more about the specific issues you may face in your BPD relationships, read these articles:

Trust and Safety in Borderline Relationships

One very serious problem that can arise in borderline relationships is the issue of violence. Because people with BPD experience very strong emotions and often lack impulse control, they are more prone to committing violent acts in relationships.

Another common complaint of loved ones in borderline relationships is lying. While lying and deception are not part of the formal diagnostic criteria of BPD (although, these are part of the diagnostic criteria for a related disorder antisocial personality disorder), many loved ones say lying is one of their biggest concerns. To learn more about trust and safety issues in BPD relationships, read these articles:

Borderline Relationships and Treatment

Many loved ones want to know if there is any chance that their BPD relationship can improve with treatment. The good news is that the prognosis for BPD is good. While most people with BPD do experience residual symptoms even after time and treatment, in the long term there is hope that your relationship with your loved one can improve.

In addition to treatments that are targeted toward the individual with BPD (e.g., medications, psychotherapy), there are other treatment options that aim to directly impact BPD relationships and families. The articles listed below cover the various treatment options available.

More on Making Borderline Relationships Work

In addition to formal treatment, there are strategies that you can use to help improve your borderline relationships. To learn more about how to make BPD relationships work, check out this article:


Gunderson JG. “Disturbed Relationships as a Phenotype for Borderline Personality Disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry. 164(11):1637-1640, 2007.

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