Remember that kids’ game about love? We’d pick the petals off a daisy saying, “Love me…” pick the next petal…”love me not…” pick the next petal…”love me…”. We’d do that on and on until all the petals were picked and we found out whether that cute kid four houses down really loved us or if they absolutely did not love us. It was definitive, that petal game.
This week, after hearing so much about Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) in the news, thanks to the Depp-Heard trial, I got to thinking about how the petal game is a good metaphor for understanding BPD.
People with BPD traits have an extreme fear of being abandoned.
People with BPD traits have an extreme, existential fear of being abandoned. You can think of it almost like a phobia – that’s how strong the fear of being rejected or left alone is. People with BPD traits want to avoid feeling rejected because rejection is like emotional death. Because of that fear of being abandoned, you might think someone with BPD would hold on to relationships very tightly. And you’d be right. People with BPD traits want to know you’re their person. And, that you’re never leaving.
People with BPD traits want to avoid feeling rejected because rejection is like emotional death
The borderline personality disorder relationship cycle
Here’s a familiar cycle: The partner with BPD traits holds on really (and I mean really really) tightly. They want to spend all their time with you. They want to know who you’re with and if that person “likes” you. They want to, and often do, text you non-stop and get snippy if you don’t respond right away. That’s, of course, still the “love me” petal. They think, “If you really love me, it should be just fine that I question and confirm your love on a minute-by-minute basis.”
But that’s not the end of a love story with someone with BPD traits. At some point in the relationship, another petal gets picked – the “love me not” one. That petal happens when you get antsy and say something like, “Hey, can I have some breathing room over here?” and the partner with BPD traits thinks, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? YOU OBVIOUSLY DON’T LOVE ME ANYMORE! I HATE YOU!” And you boogie on out the door because that was weird, right? Or, more likely, you question whether you actually need breathing room or if you’re being overdramatic.
In case you don’t already know this, when anyone (including yourself) tries to talk you out of or into a feeling that is different than what you’re actually feeling, it’s called gaslighting. You can look that up anywhere on the internet (or learn about it in the High Conflict Relationships course).
Or…you don’t say or do any of that, but you start passively-aggressively coming over or home later and later, responding to fewer texts, and getting kind of quiet and the partner with BPD traits does…well, see above. Or they kick you out and/or break up with you. And you go, with some level of relief because the relationship was smothering you.
They obsess about how to get you back – STAT – so they don’t emotionally die.
Here’s where it gets trickier than being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t have BPD traits. Remember that big fear I mentioned? Well, the minute the relationship is over, or perceived to be heading toward over, or isn’t like it was…that fear gets amplified. It gets put on blast. It consumes the partner with BPD traits so they obsess about how to get you back – STAT – so they don’t emotionally die.
Typical attempts to salvage the relationship include:
Doing all the things you asked them to do before – e.g. give you a little space, be nicer to you, do less snooping, etc.
Pointing out how YOU were actually at fault and will need to make it up to them because they really, really love you. They might also point out that you need them in order to be a better person.
They experience a sudden health or mental health crisis, including a trip to the hospital, a mental breakdown, or a suicide attempt (or just suicidal talk).
They start some scorched earth strategies of interfering in your other relationships, involving law enforcement, impacting your work or school, etc. (While this doesn’t seem like a relationship salvaging attempt, the goal is to get you to come back in order for them to stop hurting you.)
Really, all of these responses by the person with BPD traits are designed to get you to come back…to ”love me”.
What can you do when a borderline personality disorder ends a relationship? Actually, plenty, believe it or not.
Start tracking the patterns. They’ll be there. You’ll notice a distinct cycle of “love me, love me not”. Knowing the pattern will help you figure out where to interrupt it.
Don’t threaten to leave, unless you’re actually leaving the person with BPD traits. Threatening to leave is just as bad as really leaving and will cause them extreme stress.
Avoid telling them they have BPD or any other mental health disorder. When we label someone with BPD traits, it signals to them that you’re not planning to stick around…because they’re not perfect.
Find ways to get your needs met without triggering their fears. For instance, if you’re going out with friends and that’s a trigger, plan a different time to spend with them so they know you aren’t leaving for real.
Set limits on their behavior. “If you threaten to kill yourself, I will call for a well-check and help you find a good inpatient treatment center.” The goal with your responses is to NOT reward the attention-seeking behavior with anything other than appropriate attention. The appropriate response to a suicidal partner isn’t to go back to them; it’s to get them help.
Now, those strategies are for if you’re staying IN the relationship. If you’re trying to leave the relationship, here are some additional tips:
If you’re going to leave, be clear about when and how. Offer to coordinate someone to support them during the transition.
Set clear boundaries on communication going forward. Use “if-then” statements again. “If you text me past 10 pm, I won’t answer.” Or, “If you keep texting me so frequently, I’ll block you and you’ll have to just email me.”
Stick to your boundaries no matter what. A person with BPD traits will look for any opportunity to get you to relax and allow room for the relationship again.
Still don’t tell them they have BPD!
Know that you will feel bad. It won’t be easy to watch them suffer (and they will suffer). It may be heart-wrenching. It may be infuriating. Try to remember that they suffer from a fear of abandonment (which you’ve just done), but it doesn’t make you a bad person to still want to leave.
The strategies listed here are a better fit for romantic relationships with borderline personality individuals. But you can use the same concepts toward non-romantic relationships - borderline personality disorder mother daughter relationships. You might also get more specific if you’re in a romantic relationship with a borderline personality male versus a borderline personality female. Consider talking to a relationship coach if you’re having trouble navigating the “what do I do next” stage.
As always, if you’re having any type of difficulty managing a relationship, find a good therapist with experience in personality disorders. You can also check out my course: High Conflict Relationships: Rescue, Recovery, and Restoration, which will give you foundational knowledge about personality disorders and transformational strategies and techniques for navigating relationships with high conflict individuals. You can also find support by joining my Facebook group @highconflicthelp.