Imagine being stigmatized as crazy. Imagine your partner’s friends warning them to steer clear of you. On top of this, imagine experiencing exhausting mood swings and an unavoidable fear of being abandoned. Welcome to the world of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
This mental illness is somewhat of an enigma to the general public, probably because it's not discussed nearly as much as more common mental illnesses like Major Depressive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Oftentimes, it's confused with Bipolar Disorder, which is characterized by more extreme, fast mood swings. Perhaps the most well-known example of BPD is Winona Ryder’s character Susanna Kaysen in Girl, Interrupted, a film which follows the real-life experience (it's based on the book written by Kaysen) of young women in a mental hospital in the '60s. So to answer the question you may be thinking right now: No, not everyone who is diagnosed with BPD is admitted into a mental ward, but that doesn't mean it's not a difficult mental illness with which to live—particularly when it comes to interpersonal relationships.
While any mental illness can take a toll on relationships, BPD is often thought to take the cake when it comes to making dating difficult. Maureen McKeon, a LCSW practicing on Long Island, New York, states, “The definition of borderline [includes] a pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships. One of the main symptoms of BPD is an intense fear of abandonment. It makes it hard because borderlines tend to attach to people very quickly, and then any type of separation or breakup is very devastating.”
Borderline sufferers carry around the weight of frequently feeling misunderstood. New Jersey resident Corinne, 26, was diagnosed with the disorder seven years ago. She says, “I think it still has that stigma that's attached to it from the '70s, where people associate it with these extremes when in reality a ton of people function with it every day. It's not always wild mood swings from one minute to the next, and I think people have a tendency to be wary of mental illness because it seems ‘difficult.'” New Yorker Eve, 24, adds, “The biggest misconception I've seen, through media, is that it's your typical crazy girl that tries to manipulate everyone.”
McKeon agrees that these are common misjudgments. “The misconception is that borderlines are nonfunctioning people, but borderlines tend to be very smart, intellectual people. A lot of the time they’re actually very high-functioning.”
As one would imagine, it’s pretty scary to disclose a mental illness to your partner, no matter what stage of the relationship you’re in; it's not unreasonable to be afraid to scare a partner away. Corinne explains, "Sometimes it comes up naturally in conversation toward the beginning of things, if we're discussing mental health. Otherwise, I have to kind of disclose things when I have a moody or depressive episode and have inevitably taken it out on them." Mood swings or depressive episodes that can last for days are common in BPD, so if you're spending a lot of time with your significant other, you can bet that they’ll see you experiencing a low. She adds, "I wouldn't say it's ruined any relationships, but I would say that I am very hard to love because of it.”
Courtney, a 24-year-old living in Minnesota, has been married for three years while battling BPD, among other mental illnesses. “My husband was very supportive but didn't fully understand what it meant at first. I had to keep telling him he didn't know the ‘full me,’ until he was around long enough to see a lot of the effects of BPD.”
McKeon cautions that many people won’t know what BPD is, let alone understand it. She advises, “If I was someone who had a borderline personality and I started dating somebody, I’d talk more about how attachment is difficult for me. I really need someone who is trustworthy. Talk more about the qualities that they need in a relationship to feel safe so that their borderline tendencies won't be exaggerated.”
All three women agree that BPD has taken a toll on their dating lives and has put them in less than ideal situations. Courtney admits, “I only really had two relationships before meeting my husband, one of which was problematic on both sides, but was definitely destroyed by my drug addiction and cheating, both symptoms of BPD.” She elaborates, “It's easy to get swept away in impulsive behaviors and lose [your] grip on reality. I need to stay vigilant and remember that my husband is on my side, even when I am in a negative phase and hate myself.”
Additionally, Eve confesses, “BPD added a lot of turmoil to my past relationships. I allowed myself to be with several abusive men, and the BPD in me would refuse to walk away.” Corinne, who is currently single, says, “It's really easy for me to fall into a scary depressive episode that centers solely around being single, and usually to bolster my confidence it's followed by a manic episode where I obsessively use dating apps in a frenzy. I have to work extra hard against BPD to make sure I'm not basing my self-worth around my relationships.”
Unfortunately, BPD can be a lifelong battle, which can mean a lifetime of rocky relationships, especially if the sufferer does not get treatment. McKeon says, “The most effective treatment for Borderline is something called DBT [Dialectical Behavior Therapy]. They typically have their loved ones involved in that. So I would advise anyone dating a borderline to get involved in their DBT work, their counseling sessions, and learn from the experts.”
When it comes to dating with BPD, it is possible to make it work, and it can be extremely rewarding for both parties involved. Having a mental illness doesn’t make someone less lovable. Dating someone with BPD can be hard work, but, hey, what relationship doesn’t require a little elbow grease?