Your phone rings. Her name appears on your screen. You dread clicking over.
And then comes the guilt.
Your history with her rushes into your mind as you wait for one more ring — all the times that you’ve rushed to her side, comforted her, and told her you’d be there for her, somehow knowing your caring would never be enough to shore up her own fragile self-worth. Or how you’ve watched as she’s made one impulsive choice after another, blaming others, including you, for the chaos of her life. You’ve had to set boundaries that she constantly pushes against, questioning whether you care or not when she senses your fatigue. You’ve heard veiled comments over and over that she doesn’t know how long she can continue like this or that somehow, you’re disappointing her once again. You’ve bent over backwards to love her — and there are sudden, unexplainable times when you’ve felt that love reciprocated in an intense and almost intoxicating way. And then it disappears in a cloud of sudden anger or irrational disappointment.
Other people don’t know what’s behind the scenes. They don’t know how draining this relationship can be. They don’t know she has borderline personality disorder.
No matter who she is, you can become exhausted. But your own guilt can be unrelenting.
What guilt can sound like inside your head…
She’s your mother — she raised you the best way she could. And she’s getting older and not as able to care for herself.
She’s your daughter and you’ll never forget the day you saw her for the first time. She deserves the same kind of relationship you have with your other kids. But you know in your gut she’s different than your other children and you’re torn.
She’s your wife and even though you wonder now how she seemed like the perfect choice; you vowed to be there for her. And after all, she’s your kids’ mom and you still love her. Of if she’s your ex, you fear what would happen to those very kids if she felt more abandoned by you than the divorce may have made her feel. You fear the repercussions of the slightest detachment on your part.
She was your best friend when no one else would talk to you in eighth grade. She was there, always. How can you shudder at the thought of simply talking with her?
Guilt. And more guilt.
In I Hate You Don’t Leave Me, the classic book on borderline personality disorder, the authors state, “The borderline shifts her personality like a rotating kaleidoscope, rearranging the fragmented glass of her being into different formations… Like a chameleon, (she) transforms herself into any shape that she imagines will please the viewer.” Her emotions govern all her actions. She’s terrified of abandonment and highly sensitive to not feeling understood.
As a therapist, I suspect I have someone with borderline traits in front of me when, after only after one or two sessions, I hear, “I’ve never felt this understood by anyone before.” She puts me on a pedestal in order to bond with me, as she tries unconsciously to figure out my own vulnerabilities. In fact, it can be uncanny how well someone with borderline traits can assess your own internal struggles — and use those very issues to manipulate you. For example, if you’re someone who takes responsibility for your actions very seriously, she may subtly or not so subtly insinuate you’re falling down on the job or question whether you know what you’re doing.
Having BPD yourself can be miserable without treatment…
I want to make sure I stress this point. Living with an emotional hurricane inside of you day in and day out is no party. Having borderline personality disorder is more than tough. Unrecognized and untreated, it can lead to a miserable existence, as one by one, you wear out the people who are trying to love or help you. There are therapeutic techniques that have been shown to work well, DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy being chief among them. I’ve worked with many people with borderline features. Their stories often include horrific parenting or all kinds of abuse and trauma.
If you experience life full of dramatic and intense emotions that seem almost impossible to control, and lead to habitually impulsive and self-destructive actions, please seek help.
What you can do to try your best to make it work…
If you’re the child of someone with borderline traits or the entire spectrum of problems (click here if you want the full description), then your own ability to trust, to share true emotional intimacy with someone is likely challenged in some way. You may have absorbed some of your parent’s habits — which is hard to admit and even harder to alter. It can be done with education, practice and support.
If you’re married to someone with borderline traits, books like Stop Walking on Eggshells and I Hate You Don’t Leave Me provide strategies for you. They offer the idea that you want to have empathy (not sympathy) for the person you love, and support where you can give it, but that you also hand them back the responsibility for change — for “fixing” their lives. You have to set very strict boundaries where you’ll go with them — what topics you will and won’t discuss to avoid potential escalation, what verbiage they use that you will respond to automatically (If they say they’re suicidal, you’ll call their therapist or the police), where you can travel with them emotionally and where you can’t.
Not all people with borderline traits threaten suicide consistently or have intense rage reactions. There are several “types,” some who are quieter, less dramatic versions of the disorder — all are difficult.
But what to do about the guilt? What if you need to set limits that may seem harsh to others? What if you decrease your own availability and something terrible happens? Would that be your fault?
I’ve seen the pain in a parent’s eyes when they have to say to their now adult child that they cannot come home for the holidays. Or when they change the locks on their homes. I’ve heard when an adult child has to arrange for caregiving when they can no longer tolerate the criticism and venom that still leaks from their mother’s mouth. “I can’t do it any longer.” I’ve counseled men through the stages of divorcing someone with borderline — and seeing the abject fear in their eyes as they have no idea what might be coming next — both for them and their children.
You can only be responsible for that which you can control. You’ve tried multiple times to get your loved one help — and she stops taking her meds. Or she gets involved with another bad relationship. Or she won’t return your texts, after she’s threatened suicide one more time.
Nine things to avoid a paralyzing sense of guilt…
In order to let go of the guilt, here are nine things to do. They’re simple for me to write, but difficult to do.
- Face the fear of your own actual helplessness. Predict the most feared outcome and decide how you would handle it.
- Assess whether or not her capability of physically hurting you is rational. If it is, seek advice from a lawyer or police officer.
- Objectively see the damage caused to other family members by your continued involvement.
- Give her back the responsibility for her own life. Know she’ll never give you permission to change the relationship.
- Provide empathy but not sympathy. Set up strict boundaries for communication and then, be available if she follows those guidelines.
- Grieve the relationship that could have been.
- Realize she may never have the capacity of understanding the impact she is having on you or your family.
- Get support from others who understand or have walked the same walk.
- And perhaps the most important, have compassion for yourself.
If you have enjoyed a wonderful partner in your relationship, you might want to thank them in a small way. Click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” a gift book by Dr. Margaret!
You can hear more about relationships and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly blog posts and podcasts!
*Note: There are a greater percentage of women with borderline personality disorder than men. Thus the pronoun “she” has been used for this post. However, men can also have borderline personality.