I read a lot. As a writer, I read to know the world, to gain knowledge and to understand parts of myself more deeply. When I was first diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) at 26, I read all I could. I wanted to understand what to expect, both of myself and of how my relationships would be impacted.
Most articles implied that people with BPD have little or no empathy for others. We are “reactive,” they said, and “hostile” with terrible mood swings and splitting symptoms (seeing issues in black and white) that could make us hard to trust.
The disorder is highly stigmatized and reading about it legitimately freaked me out. I’m a lesbian, so I already have my own set of hurdles to navigate. Adding this to the mix made me feel like I was doomed to be alone forever. It made me feel like all my relationships (friends included) were doomed to fail. But were they?
As someone with little family support, my friends have always been my lifeline. They have picked me up whenever I need help, made jokes, given me places to stay, cooked me meals, forgiven me for acting like a fool, bought me presents and told me everything was going to be OK. I would not be alive without the help of my friends, and I am incredibly thankful for them. However, despite my fears, my relationships did not dissolve when I was diagnosed. Instead, my diagnosis gave me the tools and knowledge I needed to strengthen them.
Relationships with those with BPD take a lot of work, but (I believe) are incredibly fulfilling. In my experience, people with BPD can be extremely empathetic. We are loyal and headstrong in fighting for our friends’ needs. Yet, too, I know I can be reactive. The slights I feel are always magnified, and I get my feelings hurt easily and deeply. But I have great friends who practice incredible understanding and empathy with me. The tactics they use are most likely innate but have helped our relationship stay strong.
Here are some things you can do to strengthen the stability of your relationship with someone who has BPD:
1. Create predictability and routine within the relationship wherever you can.
I have a routine with one of my best friends — I go to her house on Sundays and do laundry there. We chat, go to brunch or walk the dogs. Sometimes, we just sit together and work on our computers. But it’s always on Sunday, and around the same time, though not every week. This simple routine gives me so much peace of mind. I don’t worry about when I’ll see her next. I know I have a safe, familiar space to be around her, and that has helped ground our friendship in a huge way.
2. Find time to spend with us one-on-one when you’re able.
I know this much about myself — I like attention. Most people with BPD do. But we like meaningful, true attention, and this connection is often hard for us to experience in groups as we may feel like we have to “compete” to be noticed. One of my co-workers is great about understanding this. If I’m feeling down, she always asks me to go for a walk or get out of the office for a bit, just the two of us. I always return in a better mood. Spending time alone with a friend reduces distractions and helps me feel like I am being prioritized.
3. Communicate your needs honestly and openly.
It’s so helpful when a friend states what they need in open, honest terms. That way, there is less for me to decode and less for me to misinterpret. If a friend tells me, “hey, I’m not in the mental space to deal with this right now,” I know I need to reach out to someone else. If someone with BPD is asking too much of you, tell us during a calm, quiet moment together. Most of us will feel bad about it and will change our behavior. We don’t want to hurt our friends, but we may struggle with boundaries. If you set some, it helps us create rules to follow within the relationship, which relates back to suggestion one.
4. Respond to text messages promptly, when able.
This is SUCH a nice, thoughtful thing to do. It reduces so much of our worry about abandonment (we are always worrying about being abandoned). A semi-prompt reply to a text just makes our whole lives easier.
5. Don’t worry about de-escalating us.
We are responsible for our own actions, and many of us work hard to recognize when we’re having a reactive episode and deal with it accordingly. When I’m having a reactive episode, the best thing my friends can tell me is, “It’s OK. I understand. I hear you. It will pass.” We don’t need you to solve our anger or frustration, but simply bear witness to the pain — we experience heightened pain and emotions that can make life seem unbearable at times. It makes us feel seen and validated, and that’s really all that most of us want.
6. Give us time if we’ve recently gotten in a fight.
People with BPD are so loyal. We love our friends, and we always come back to them, even if we get upset sometimes. I know with some, especially with those who have been or are my “favorite person,” I can often get worked up about little things. Rationally, I know I shouldn’t. But I do. The best thing my friends do when I get like this is to give me time to get over it. I’m more of a “cold-fish” with my BPD. When I’m upset, I go quiet and pull away from people instead of getting in their face about it. However, if someone addresses me when I’m like this, I’m more likely to feel attacked and react aggressively. My friends giving me time to cool down helps both of us reflect and move forward without big blowups.
I realize the suggestions listed above are sometimes not feasible. None of us can give 100% to our relationships all the time. That’s OK. But doing one or two semi-frequently will help a lot. In addition, we — people with BPD — must recognize our harmful behaviors and do our best to make sure they are not impacting you.
A lot of times, I feel guilty about my BPD and how it affects my relationships. I don’t want anyone to struggle to be friends with me. But, as I’ve grown, I too recognize that all relationships take work. Everyone has their own baggage, their own issues to deal with. Although I have avoided romantic relationships (both purposefully and non-purposefully) since my diagnosis, I realize now that my BPD is not the relationship death sentence I once thought it was.