The PD Reader

  Exploring personality disorders in popular culture and real life.

Five Stages Everyone Goes Through When A Loved One Has BPD 

Do you have ongoing, serious blow-ups with someone close? Possibly a significant other, maybe a family member, or perhaps a close friend? 

Sometimes the relationship seems normal, healthy, supportive, and happy—and suddenly, they’re raging, crying, accusing you of saying things you don’t mean or doing things you never did. You’re struggling to deal with the same terrible scenes again and again, when you’re not sure what happened or why it keeps happening. 

Other people are telling you to set limits with the person, and they’re annoyed with you when you can’t. Or they’re telling you to leave, and they can’t understand why you stay. What actually is wrong? Could you be with someone who’s mentally ill?

I’ll never forget the moment I finally connected the dots.

I had struggled through episode after horrible episode with my mother. One day I’d be the good daughter she was so proud of, and we could go out to lunch or shopping and have a great time. The next week we’d have an awful time, with her stuck in complaining about some disagreement she was having with someone else—and very angry if I didn’t agree with her about it. She could be sunny and fun one day, rageful the next time I saw her, or tip over into an episode of crying that lasted for hours. It could be tough to tell what had set her off. For years, I had been plowing through relationship and self-help books, trying desperately to figure out what to do during these volatile and depressing scenes. 

My mom-episodes were bad enough and frequent enough to upset me for weeks. I cringed when I saw her name pop up in my email or when I saw she was calling me. They seriously disrupted my life. My friends heard about them whenever we went out. 

My friend Eva had known my mom three years and had an advanced degree as a researcher trained to recognize signs of mental illness. One day, halfway through my latest mom story, she looked at me and said, “Well, you know, she’s mentally ill.” I said, “Huh?” 

I was a Princess Diana fan. Diana biographies had led me to books about borderline personality disorder, from which Diana is said to have suffered. And, for a year or so, I had been plowing through those, thinking more and more that maybe this really did sound like my mom.

I said, “You mean you’ve been watching me read all these books, when you knew my mother was mentally ill three years ago and you never told me?”

When we’re having the same problems, over and over, with someone special in our lives, and we can’t seem to get them solved, the issue isn’t always that there’s mental illness in the picture. 

But when it is, this, the “Ah-ha!” moment, can be elusive. For those of us who get there, it’s only the beginning of our journey. And for those who care about us, looking on and watching us struggle, it isn’t always clear why we are having such a problem making decisions about a troubled person in our lives. But the truth is, we need to be patient with ourselves, and others need to be patient with us.

Randi Kreger, author of Stop Walking On Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder, outlines five stages those of us with a relative or loved one with BPD go through as we try to understand what’s happening. 

  • The Confusion Stage. Those years I went paging through books, aware that something awful was going on and desperate for answers, are very typical of Stage One. Family and friends have no idea what’s going on, only that it’s bad. They don’t know who to blame. Is it themselves, or the other person? A lot of people in this stage resign themselves to living in a situation that feels intolerable. It’s important to keep looking for answers, and not to stay stuck in this stage.

  • The Other-Directed Stage. Now those living with the affected person know: an undiagnosed mental illness is probably affecting their relationship. Or perhaps the person has suffered a crisis, and now they have the diagnosis. Once they know this, most people start a flurry of reading, trying to understand the illness, how their loved one is affected, and what makes the person act as they do. They feel angry at the person with BPD, but they understand the person BPD isn’t his or her fault. So, down on themselves for feeling angry, friends and family end up feeling depressed, hopeless, and guilty, especially when treatment is progressing slowly, when the borderline is refusing to accept that they need to be in treatment, or when they refuse to comply with treatment. People at this stage focus their efforts on trying to change the person with BPD. If this is you, you might try harder not to trigger the person. You might work hard at getting the person to understand they have an illness, and to seek help to get better. Basically, this is the stage when loved ones believe they can do something to cure the person, or to change the borderline’s behavior.

  • The Inner-Directed Stage. This is when friends, loved ones, and family members start to look at their own issues. People start to examine how they got into this relationship in the first place. They start gathering information about the relationship not only from the perspective of the borderline and their feelings, but from the perspective of themselves and their own feelings. Important advice at this stage is to look at any issues you might have with codependency: Do you think you have the right to be happy? Do you only believe you’re worthwhile when you’re sacrificing to care for someone else? In this stage, friends and loved ones of borderlines have to come to grips with the fact that the only person who can decide to get into treatment and make progress in treatment is the person with BPD. No matter how much you love the borderline, or how much you value the good times with that person, you can’t do the borderline’s healing work for the person. You can only do your own work on your life, not that person’s work on theirs. If they don’t or can’t change, what does that mean for you? In stage three, these issues come to the forefront.

  • The Decision-Making Stage. Now loved ones find themselves making decisions about the relationship. Why are they there? And, can they stay? In this stage, people can find themselves torn between conflicting values. Decisions are tough and can take years to make. You might be living with a violent borderline, but your family and your church don’t approve of divorce. In my case, my mother’s behavior was such a constant and ongoing problem that I felt like I needed to cut contact, but I knew the rest of my family would get angry and tell me I was wrong. It took me several years to feel comfortable enough with the consequences to actually do that. In stage four people are working through these dilemmas, and the process can involve a lot of soul-searching. But, one way or another, friends and family have to resolve their relationship with the person with BPD so that they can go forward into a more peaceful life.

  • The Resolution Stage. In this stage, one of two positive things happen: Healing, or hope. In the case where the friend or family member has had to break off a love relationship, cut contact with a BPD family member, or severely curtail contact with one, that person now has the peace and space to heal their life and go forward. In the case where the borderline is examining their issues and behavior and the loved one is, too, many times the borderline and their loved one can negotiate a new and improved relationship. BPD may always be there, or it may not—some sufferers do reach a full recovery. But some couples and families find creative ways to deal with symptoms, so the relationship can remain intact, with enough positives in it to make it fulfilling and worthwhile for everyone.

When people find they can work within the relationship while preserving their feeling of basic happiness and contentment in and with their lives, amazing and poignant journeys of love and friendship have happened, even with ongoing mental illness. 

But that isn’t always possible, and when it isn’t, it’s okay to put yourself first. If you sacrifice your own well-being for a mentally ill person who’s continually showing you out-of-control behavior, it doesn’t help the person, and the problems in the relationship wreck you. Then you have two wrecked people instead of one.

Each relationship is as different as each person who suffers from BPD. No one solution will work for everyone. The important thing to realize when dealing with someone in your life with BPD is that you, and any children who might be involved, have the right to basic health and happiness in your life. Not only do you have that right, but it has to be your first priority. That’s the main thread running through all of the five stages; getting comfortable putting your own well-being on a par with that of your loved one’s.

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