Ten helpful ideas for improving a relationship with a partner with symptoms, traits, or a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. To start, pick just one of these tips and try to practice just that one a few times.
1. Validation, validation, validation. Validating only the valid and never validating the invalid!
To validate is to confirm that the internal experiences, especially the emotions that your partner is feeling, are authentic, legitimate, understandable, or that they make sense. (I have written a lot about validation, including an entire book, "Genuine Validation" that I highly recommend.)
2. Acceptance. Your partner suffers from emotional dysregulation: a low threshold for provoking an emotion, a high intensity of the emotional response and a longer duration of an emotion. Understanding and accepting this condition in your partner without judgement, without blame, and without absorbing the emotion can be profoundly helpful. Radical acceptance includes seeing the benefits of emotional sensitivity (passion or creativity, for example) as well as accepting the complex behaviors that arise from emotional dysregulation. Acceptance does not mean that you just allow your partner to engage in any emotional behavior, but it does mean that you stop fighting against the reality of your partner’s behavioral patterns that arise out of emotional dysregulation and that you understand and observe how your partner cannot control their emotion in the present moment. 3. Name your own emotions and feelings. Speak from your heart. Not as a victim, but as an honest and capable person who is feeling “disappointed” or “sad” or “frustrated” or “embarrassed.” The more that you can communicate your feelings as a part of normal human experience, the more you are modeling and teaching that which many persons with BPD can’t do or don’t know how: that is, to tolerate an emotion and to communicate it clearly without acting on all the emotional impulses.
4. Look for all the ways that you might be reinforcing undesirable behaviors and do your best to stop (being aware that the undesirable behavior will increase before it decreases if you consistently stop reinforcing it.
Verbally aggressive behavior or any type of “temper tantrum” might be reinforced with the uninterrupted attention, presence, and attempts to soothe the person (behaviors that naturally arise out of fear of what the angry person might do). Instead, a more effective response may be for you to take a break or leave the scene. “I need a glass of water… I am going for a walk... I’ll be back in a half hour… Let’s talk about this tonight after dinner…I can’t talk about this right now, I’m too angry. Let's talk about this when we are both calm.” Remember your partner needs to practice tolerating distress. Taking a short break and returning when you say you will is giving them the opportunity to practice this skill. Also, your presence may be sustaining the emotion (especially if her or she is angry with you) and removing yourself from the situation may help the other person to calm down. Frequent texts or phone calls throughout the day are reinforced by attending the phone or texting back — even if it is to say ’stop texting me’. Do not respond. Turn off the phone if necessary.
5. Do not try to solve their problems. Active passivity is common among persons with BPD. This is a behavioral pattern that is often reinforced by helping, fixing, or solving problems for another when the other is passive, appears too weak, tired, or unable to resolve their own problems. Instead: “That sounds frustrating for you. However, I am not going to do that for you. If you want that done, I would rather be a sounding board for you to find an effective solution. I know you can do it, you have done hard things just like that in the past." 6. Timing is Everything. Do not attempt to resolve a problem, defend yourself, or give any long-winded explanations when your partner is in an intense emotional state. This will only make things worse. If you have a request to make, be clear and specific, and validate before and after. A clear and specific request is concise. It is thought out ahead of time. And it is discussed at the right moment, not during a crisis, for example. 7. Be brief, clear, and concise, especially when making a request or observing a personal limit. You will lose your partner with long explanations. The more you say, the more likely conflict will escalate. Try to remain calm, grounded, and gently confident. It is okay to sound like a 'broken record.’ For example, “I love you, and, yes, we can have different opinions or different perspectives.” 8. Do not create communication triangles. If your partner wants you to say something to someone on their behalf, resist. Ask them to do it and/or offer to help them figure out an effective way for them to say it — but resist speaking on their behalf to another person, especially if you disagree with what they want to say to the other person. Ask them what they want to communicate, how they would say it if they had the opportunity, what they expect would be the consequences of saying it like that, and you might even convey how you might receive it if you were the other person, etc. Your partner cannot set you up to “split” you from another person, only you can do that. 9. Avoid the use of the words “always" and “never." These words usually represent untrue generalizations and judgements. They will often trigger a negative emotional reaction. 10. Be true to yourself. It is all too easy to get lost in a relationship, to bend further and further into saying and doing things that are not aligned with your most deeply held values and your most important human needs. Pause, take one breath and exhale slowly. Connect with your own wise mind before responding. Remember, a relationship offers you the opportunity to practice patience and self-care everyday. It is not all about empathic giving, giving, giving, although that is important. You deserve to receive just as much as your partner — not more and not less.
If you want to learn more, you can sign up for my 12-week workshop for families and loved ones of people with symptoms of bpd. The next one begins February 3, 2022. There are a limited number of slots to allow time for participation and questions from everyone. For more information click here.