[content warning for discussion of abuse, self-injury and suicidality]
There is a problem with advice for the loved ones of people with borderline personality disorder.
The problem is this: imagine describing the behavior of someone with borderline personality disorder from the perspective of her partner. You might come up with a description like this:
My partner has absurdly huge negative reactions to relatively small triggers. Sometimes it feels like I can’t do anything right; whatever I do, she gets upset. Sometimes she even threatens to kill herself! She’s tremendously afraid that I will leave her, and sometimes that makes her want to kill herself. Half the time she puts me on a pedestal and acts like I don’t have any flaws, while at other times she seems to despise me. When my partner fucks up, she apologizes so much– and, of course, wants to kill herself– that I feel guilty for criticizing her. She has these fits of negative emotions where she seems completely out of control. When it’s good, it’s really really good– she’s tremendously sweet and loving, the most romantic person I’ve ever dated, and great in bed– but I’m not sure if I can put up with the bad times anymore.
You know what that’s also a description of?
An abusive relationship.
Of course, most borderlines are not abusive. But the things that make a relationship not abusive… well, we sort of take them for granted. They’re part of the minimum basic expectation for any relationship. And so you don’t mention “my partner was legitimately horrified when she found out that apologizing so much made me not want to say when something’s bothering me, and while she still apologizes waaaaaay too much I can tell she’s trying”. Or “my partner cares about my feelings and preferences; even when she’s having a bad day, she wants me to be happy”. Or “while disagreeing with my partner involves a lot of giant meltdowns, and that’s a pain in the ass, eventually we come to a compromise that satisfies both of us”. Or “my partner encourages and reassures me when I’m upset.” Or “my partner understands that I have boundaries and would never invade my privacy.”
And so when someone who has an abusive partner reads those descriptions, quite naturally, they conclude their partner has borderline personality disorder. And this is particularly true for people who are being abused by a woman, because the majority of borderlines are female, and our culture still has no concept that a woman can be abusive.
However, a borderline and an abuser are two completely different things. As Lundy Bancroft writes in Why Does He Do That?:
Yet the great majority of my clients over the years have been psychologically “normal.” Their minds work logically; they understand cause and effect; they don’t hallucinate. Their perceptions of most life circumstances are reasonably accurate. They get good reports at work; they do well in school or training programs; and no one other than their partners—and children—thinks that there is anything wrong with them. Their value system is unhealthy, not their psychology.
A borderline may have mood swings, or psychotic episodes, or dissociation issues. A borderline may have truly awful relationship skills: I know I’ve more than once attempted the Telepathy Method of setting boundaries. A borderline may be seen as manipulative: for instance, if she gets so distressed that she cuts, and her partner presumes that this is an attempt on her part to manipulate them into preventing her distress. A borderline may even be manipulative: if the only way a borderline knows to ask for attention is to cut, of course she’s going to cut.
But there is a step you do not cross unless you also have fucked-up values: unless you believe, in your heart of hearts, that you are entitled to certain things, that you deserve to be able to control your partner, that it’s okay to disrespect your partner, that abuse is a good way of expressing love. You might have overwhelming emotions, but you don’t decide that it’s your partner’s job to handle your emotions and keep you from ever feeling bad unless you have a fucked-up value system. You might have poor relationship skills, but that doesn’t mean you have contempt for your partner, that you think of them like they’re dirt. There is an important difference between someone who cuts because they don’t know how else to tell people they’re upset and who wishes they had some other strategy but who doesn’t, and someone who cuts because they’ve figured out it’s a great way to keep their partner from ever sticking a toe out of line.
(This is not to say, of course, that abusive borderlines do not exist. Of course they do.)
I think conflating the two is terrible for abuse survivors, for borderlines, and for the partners of nonabusive borderlines.
The harm it causes to abuse survivors is obvious. Most people feel pretty bad about leaving a partner who’s mentally ill; it feels like abandoning her, like not being supportive. They might also be optimistic about their partner getting better. The rate of recovery for people with borderline personality disorder is quite good: about fifty percent of borderlines recover within ten years, and the rate is higher for people who are in DBT. Unfortunately, while DBT is very good at helping people regulate their emotions, it’s absolute shit at getting people to fix their value systems. If you put an abusive borderline through DBT, you wind up with someone who can tolerate distress, regulate their emotions, and stay mindful– and still believes that she is entitled to you preventing her from ever feeling upset.
A lot of websites provide advice about how to deal with people with borderline personality disorder. Providing advice for dealing with abusive partners is good– not everyone is ready to leave their abusive partners, and harm reduction is important. But by presenting this advice as a cureall, survivors may believe that if they just validate their partner’s emotions enough, if they just set the right boundaries, if they just do everything right, their partner will stop being abusive. And that’s simply not how it works.
The partners of nonabusive borderlines are also harmed. Many people are interested in learning how to better support their partner with borderline personality disorder. However, all of the advice for dealing with people with borderline personality disorder is this cockamamie combination of advice for supporting a borderline and advice for coping with an abuser. In a shocking turn of events, these aren’t actually the same problem, and the same advice doesn’t work for both– meaning that partners of borderlines are left figuring out what works by trial and error.
Furthermore, a lot of the advice aimed at partners of people with borderline personality disorder begins and ends with “leave”. Partners are warned of the dire fate that will happen if they stay with their borderline: physical violence, false accusations of abuse, gaslighting, and on and on.
I want to be clear. Dating a person with borderline personality disorder is not for everyone. In fact, it probably isn’t for most people. The most essential skill for having a healthy relationship with a borderline is the ability to say “I understand that me going to a party tonight makes you want to kill yourself; however, I’m still going to the party, because I want to and it would make me happy.” If you can’t do that, your relationship with a borderline is going to be short and miserable. It is totally okay to decide that you, personally, do not want to date borderlines.
However, some people are okay with that. Some people can feel compassion for their partner’s pain while simultaneously caring about their own needs; some people don’t mind endlessly reassuring their partner “yes, I do still love you”; some people love their borderline partner very much and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep them. And that’s okay.
Finally, this situation is pretty shit for borderlines. First, because no one likes having a bunch of websites devoted to how they are totally awful and all their relationships are abusive. The participants in such websites often conclude that borderlines who get upset are “having rages” and “splitting”, despite the obvious fact that most people get insulted when you say they are inherently abusive. And I worry about the effects such websites have on people I disclose my disorder to– will people conclude that I’m an abuser?
The “just leave!” advice is pretty bad for borderlines as well. If you advise everyone in a close relationship with a borderline to leave, you’re essentially saying that people should not have close relationships with borderlines– which means that you’re saying we should not have a basic human need fulfilled. Humans need socialization, intimacy, and love. There’s a reason solitary confinement is literally torture.
This is different from “leave an abusive relationship!” If you’re in an abusive relationship, you’re being hurt, by definition. If you’re in a relationship with a borderline, you may or may not be hurt. Abusers are capable of being perfectly pleasant to people they don’t feel like they own; borderlines are borderline at everyone. If everyone left abusive relationships, abusers would never date and probably sulk on incel forums a lot; if everyone refused to befriend borderlines, we would be alone for the rest of our lives.
And yet most of the people who give this advice don’t want us to be dead– they often add “be sure to call the hospital if they’re suicidal!” Ought we to struggle through recovery with no support besides our therapists (if, that is, we can afford one– borderlines have sky-high unemployment rates)? You know what the odds are against figuring out how to cope with your mental disorder without any intimate relationships? It’s a setup for disaster.
I suppose in theory borderlines could just be friends with other borderlines– but that kind of screws us over too. While of course borderline/borderline relationships can be healthy, in my experience relationships for borderlines work best with someone calm and low-neuroticism, so you don’t wind up triggering each other or trapped in the delightful “when I’m avoidant you’re anxious, when you’re anxious I’m avoidant” struggle.
And then you add in that most borderlines are not abusive. We do not hit, we do not rape, we do not gaslight, we do not isolate our partners from their friends, we do not threaten. Dating us is stressful, certainly. But if someone decides they want to shoulder the burden of that stress– of their own free will, without anyone pressuring or manipulating them– that’s okay.
In conclusion: abusiveness and borderline personality disorder are two different things. While borderlines are more likely to abuse (and to be abused, something that is always lost in this sort of conversation), most borderlines are not abusive and most abusers are not borderline. And while people have a right to refuse to date people for any reason or no reason– and borderline personality disorder is a particularly good reason– the idea that no one should be in a relationship with borderlines is wrong and evil.