Reviewed by Dawn Brown, LPC, NCC
While even the healthiest individuals can struggle to maintain healthy, fulfilling relationships, people with Borderline Personality Disorder may experience extreme difficulty in relationships, and may even deal with something called the Borderline Personality Disorder relationship pattern, or relationship cycle.
What Is Borderline Personality Disorder?
Before diving too deeply into the Borderline Personality Disorder cycle of relationships, an understanding of BPD symptoms is in order. The symptoms of Borderline Personality disorder follow a simple set of common suspects. These include:
- Avoidant behavior. Avoidant behavior most often stems from relationships and abandonment. People with BPD may avoid relationships at all costs, in order to prevent eventual feelings of abandonment or outright abandonment.
- Difficulty in relationships. People with BPD often have mood swings and cycles of devaluation and idealization, which can make relationships extremely volatile and difficult to maintain. For some, relationship difficulty may focus almost entirely on romantic entanglements, while for others, all relationships are difficult to maintain, and all are marked by fear and discomfort.
- Intense fear of abandonment. People with BPD typically experience intense fear of being abandoned, which can put a truly enormous amount of strain on their relationships. Fear of abandonment can prompt people with BPD to avoid intimacy at all costs and to run from relationships that have established some amount of intimacy.
- Periods of depression or depressed mood—with or without a depressive disorder. People with Borderline Personality Disorder may experience periods of depression or depressed mood, which can last a few days or can go on for weeks. This particular tendency can lead to a misdiagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, but Borderline Personality Disorder depression is not followed by mania, disqualifying it from a true Bipolar diagnosis.
- Emotional swings. Borderline Personality Disorder prompts a large number of emotional swings, both in terms of emotional state and in terms of relationship quality. People with BPD might be hopeful and excited one day, and frustrated and hopeless the next, and may regard their relationship with hope one day, before breaking it off the next.
- The dissociation in Borderline Personality Disorder is not the dissociation associated with psychosis but is more often a dissociation from painful feelings and experiences. People with BPD might dissociate in order to preserve feelings of fear, abandonment, or loss, and may have periods of time in which they refuse to engage with and feel their emotions.
Although not all of these symptoms and signs are necessary to receive a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, there is typically some variation of at least 3-5 of these symptoms. While BPD typically stems from childhood and adolescent experiences, it is not usually diagnosed until later and may be mistaken for many other more common childhood disorders or difficulties, including attention issues, learning disorders, and even mood disorders. Online tests can provide a simple self-evaluation of existing symptoms, and can lend greater insight into the likelihood of Borderline Personality Disorder’s presence.
Borderline Personality Disorder Risk Factors
Borderline Personality Disorder typically has its most significant roots in childhood, and the environments children grew up in. Living in a home with little stability bears a strong link to the development of BPD, as children who grow up without stability and consistency in childhood may look for people and things outside of their homes and themselves in order to feel safe and grounded. In a similar vein, children who have experienced trauma are more likely to receive a BPD diagnosis. Trauma can be abuse (mental, sexual, or physical), or can be a single, traumatic event, such as an accident, exposure to death, or even divorce.
Children who were in some way abandoned in childhood are also at increased risk for a BPD diagnosis. Parents leaving and popping back in sporadically (or not at all), a loved one dying, or even a beloved friend moving away can all make a child feel as though they have been abandoned, and that abandonment can create a persistent pattern of avoidance and fear of intimacy in children, contributing to the onset of Borderline Personality Disorder.
BPD Relationships Cycle
The BPD relationships cycle has also been called the Borderline Personality Disorder breakup cycle, because breaking up is very often the inevitable result of the Borderline Personality Disorder relationship cycle, whether it is the person with BPD who breaks off the relationship or the partner of the person with BPD. The BPD relationship cycle begins with idealization or “hyping up” a new relationship partner. At the beginning of a relationship with someone with BPD, emotions are likely running high. The new partner is often given the mantle of “you can do no wrong,” and is seen as the one, or the person who will finally give the person with BPD the love, support, and commitment they long for. This stage can last a few days or even a few months, but in the relationship cycle, it will always be followed by devaluation.
Devaluation is the second (and final) portion of the BPD relationship cycle and involves losing respect or care for the partner, due to imagined or observed flaws and slights. The person with BPD will likely begin to pick fights, withdraw, or disappear from the relationship altogether, beginning the breakup process. Like the beginning of the cycle, emotions are likely riding high during this time, though emotions are not the excited, joyful experiences recounted at the beginning of the relationship, but are usually hopeless, angry, and betrayed. The relationship cycle is often painful for both involved parties and is considered a type of coping and avoidance in order to ward off abandonment.
Borderline Rage Cycle: Emotions and Bipolar Personality Disorder
A significant player in the relationship cycle associated with Borderline Personality Disorder is the emotional upheaval unique to the disorder. Although many personality and mood disorders have shifting emotions as part of their signs and symptoms, Borderline Personality Disorder is unique in how quickly and easily moods can shift. Someone with BPD might easily transition from ecstatic to furious at a moment’s notice. This constant unpredictability with moods and thought processes feeds into the BPD relationship cycle because it is not limited to emotions; the BPD rage cycle can also apply to how an individual views others.
In the BPD rage cycle, someone with BPD might feel a great deal of admiration or respect for someone, only to find that, a few days later, they actually feel overwhelming disgust or horror toward that same person—often without a concrete cause. This can cause further issues with emotions and relationship issues and can make maintaining regular relationships extremely difficult.
Relationships: Beginnings and Endings
The beginnings and endings of relationships with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder are often similarly intense—though the intensity will typically exist at opposite ends of the same spectrum. At the beginning of a relationship, someone with BPD might feel ecstatic and throw themselves into the relationship with gusto. In some cases, people with BPD are convinced that their new partner is the culmination of everything they have been looking for. In some, the partner with the BPD diagnosis may feel as though they have an almost otherworldly connection to a new flame, and pursue the relationship with a great deal of excitement and commitment.
Over time, these feelings of joy and excitement typically fade. As relationship flaws come to the surface, or the idealized partner loses their new-relationship sheen, someone with BPD may begin to feel restless, angry, or disgusted by the partner they seemingly could not live without only a few months prior.
How does a BPD deal with a breakup? Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder may be more prone to “ghosting,” or leaving a relationship without a trace. This is due, in part, to a lingering feeling of betrayal by the partner they are leaving, and may also be due, in part, to the poor communication typical of people with BPD. Someone with BPD is unlikely to have healthy, well-communicated breakups, and is far more likely to experience a great deal of tension, avoidance, and discomfort during the breakup process.
These relationship patterns can also be viewed in friendships and other non-romantic relationships, as well. People with Borderline Personality Disorder may struggle to maintain healthy, consistent friendships and familial relationships. They may “disappear” for weeks or months at a time, or view their loved ones in very black and white terms, labeling virtually all behavior as either “good” or “bad.”
Although the relationship cycle of Borderline Personality Disorder is frustrating for people with BPD, the good news is this: BPD is among the most treatable personality disorders in existence, and there is hope for anyone locked in the relationship cycle. Unlike many personality and mood disorders, BPD does not have a standard type of pharmaceutical treatment but relies almost entirely on various types of therapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. While the depressive aspects of BPD might be aided by the use of antidepressants, the symptoms specific to Borderline Personality Disorder are most effectively treated by therapy, whether that includes individual therapy or group therapy. This is because the basis of BPD is the formulation of unhealthy coping mechanisms—coping mechanisms that can be worked on and transitioned to healthier coping mechanisms that mitigate the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
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