The BPD Relationship Cycle
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Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a diagnosable mental health condition associated with unstable emotions and a lack of a stable identity. Symptoms of the disorder include intense anger, impulsive behavior and an intense fear of abandonment, which can lead to chaotic and unhealthy relationships. The BPD relationship cycle arises from the instability that comes along with this mental health disorder.
Borderline Personality Disorder and Relationships
People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) tend to view the world in black and white extremes, meaning their opinions of people, including their significant other, can rapidly change. BPD also leads people to have an extreme fear of abandonment, which can make them distrustful in relationships.
These behaviors can create disruption and conflict within the context of a romantic relationship. In fact, a study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found BPD was linked to lower satisfaction levels in marriage and more marital problems. The study authors concluded BPD was associated with chronic relationship problems, which tend to begin early in marriage.
BPD and Cheating
One issue that can arise in BPD relationships is infidelity. Borderline personality disorder relationships and cheating may occur due to the impulsivity associated with this mental health condition. Recent research has shown people with BPD are more sexually impulsive and likely to engage in risky sexual behavior than those without BPD. Sexual impulsivity may lead a person with BPD to engage in sex outside their relationship, ultimately creating trust issues.
Average Length of a BPD Relationship
There is no set average length of a BPD relationship because each person’s symptoms and how BPD affects their relationships will differ. Given the instability that comes with BPD, some people with this disorder may experience a series of relationships that begin intensely and end quickly.
One study found most women with BPD (68.7%) experienced frequent breakups and reconciliations within their relationships, and over 18 months, almost 30% of them permanently broke up with their significant others. On average, couples broke up about once every 6 ½ months but tended to get back together. This study suggests that BPD relationships may be unstable but can last over time if couples reconcile after a breakup.
What Is the BPD Relationship Cycle?
The BPD relationship cycle refers to stages couples experience in the context of a relationship in which one partner has BPD. Since BPD is linked to impulsivity and unstable relationships, borderline personality disorder relationships tend to be cyclical in nature, with both highs and lows. The different BPD relationship stages progress from idealization, in which the person with BPD views their partner as perfect, to unstable periods of conflict, which may eventually end the relationship.
Six Stages of the BPD Relationship Cycle
The BPD relationship cycle occurs in the following six stag
- Stage one: In the first stage of a BPD relationship, the partner with BPD idealizes their significant other. They may even obsess over their new partner, convinced this is the perfect person for them. The relationship is mostly positive but can move quickly, given the impulsivity among people with BPD.
- Stage two: As the relationship progresses, the partner with BPD can become insecure as they convince themselves their partner does not love them. They may be especially sensitive to any feedback they perceive as negative from their partner. Fears of abandonment start to kick in, and the person with BPD grows increasingly anxious in the relationship.
- Stage three: During stage three, the partner with BPD will attempt to “push away” their significant other so the significant other has a chance to prove their love. They may accuse the partner of cheating or demand the partner prove their love someway. If the partner without BPD meets this demand, the person with BPD experiences less anxiety.
- Stage 4: Instability within the relationship continues during stage four. There may be increased levels of conflict, as the partner with BPD feels increasingly anxious and like their needs are not being met. The person with BPD may try to keep their insecurities inside but still feel fearful of abandonment within the relationship.
- Stage 5: The relationship begins to break down completely at this point, and the partner without BPD is likely to end things. Exhausted by the BPD relationship cycle, the non-BPD partner emotionally checks out and does not desire to continue. The person with BPD may try to make promises to change.
- Stage 6: In the final stage, after the relationship has ended, the person with BPD blames themselves. They become extremely angry and upset and may even engage in self-harming behaviors, which are common with BPD. The end of the relationship reinforces the person’s fear of abandonment, but they are unlikely to recognize that their own fears and insecurities led to the relationship ending.
Can Someone With BPD Have a Healthy Relationship?
Research has shown individuals with BPD and their partners tend to be less satisfied with their relationships. BPD relationships are also more likely to involve physical and psychological violence and repeated cycles of breaking up and then reconciling. These behaviors do not make for a healthy relationship. However, a person with BPD can increase their chances of having a healthy relationship if they are committed to engaging in therapy, learning their triggers and being self-aware of their own struggles.
Are All Relationships Involving BPD the Same?
While you can expect some general behaviors, such as impulsivity, mood swings and relationship instability with BPD, not every person with BPD is the same. Each person is unique, and BPD can occur on a spectrum. Some people with BPD may only have mild symptoms like a need for frequent reassurance, whereas others may engage in abusive behaviors, such as physical violence, within their relationships.
Should I Leave Someone With BPD?
If you’re in a BPD relationship, you may be able to develop a healthy, happy partnership by engaging in therapy together and helping your partner cope with their insecurities. On the other hand, having BPD does not give your partner the right to engage in abusive behaviors or violate your needs. Some signs it may be time to end a BPD relationship include:
- Your partner is physically violent or engages in psychological violence, such as frequently putting you down, calling you names or accusing you of cheating.
- Symptoms of BPD have led to frequent breakups and/or conflict, and your partner is unwilling to go to therapy to learn how to change their behavior.
- You have discussed your boundaries and needs with your partner, and they continue to ignore them.
- The relationship is bringing you more distress than happiness.
How To Cope With BPD Relationship Cycles
If you are living with BPD or your partner has BPD, there are ways to cope with relationship cycles. Whether you have BPD or love someone who does, therapy can improve BPD symptoms and make having healthy relationships easier. You might consider couples therapy to help you cope with BPD symptoms, and if you live with BPD, individual therapy can help reduce BPD symptoms that interfere with your relationship.
If you live with BPD, the following tips can help you to cope with BPD relationship cycles:
- Learn stress management techniques, such as practicing yoga or meditation.
- Establish a strong support network of friends and family who understand your mental health condition and are willing to offer a listening ear when you experience distress.
- Practice self-care through a healthy diet and a consistent sleep schedule.
- Stay connected with your therapist to work on identifying your triggers and learning coping skills.
If you love someone with BPD, the following coping strategies can be helpful:
- Encourage your partner to seek treatment.
- Learn about their mental health condition so you understand their symptoms and can be more empathetic toward them.
- Try to remain calm when your partner is upset, and do not take their behavior personally. When you recognize their behavior comes from their own distress and fear, you’ll be more likely to remain calm instead of reacting with anger.
- Set clear boundaries with your partner, which includes refusing to tolerate abusive behavior.
- Seek counseling or therapy if you are feeling distressed and unsure of how to cope.
Nobu offers a free-to-download mental wellness app that features mindfulness training, lessons from mental health experts and a goal tracker for monitoring your progress to help you learn strategies for coping with BPD in relationships. Nobu also offers a paid plan, which allows users to schedule online therapy sessions with licensed counselors. Download the app today on the App Store or Google Play Store to begin utilizing the benefits of this app.
Take Control Of Your Mental Health
- MentalHealth.gov. “Borderline Personality Disorder.” March 1, 2022. Accessed August 5, 2022.
- Lavner, Justin; Lamkin, Joanna; Miller, Joshua. “Borderline personality disorder symptoms and newlyweds’ observed communication, partner characteristics, and longitudinal marital outcomes.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2015. Accessed August 5, 2022.
- Frías, Álvaro; Palma Carol; Farriols, Núria; González, Laura. “Sexuality-related issues in borderline personality disorder: A comprehensive review.” Personality and Mental Health, August 2016. Accessed August 6, 2022.
- Bouchard, Sebastien; Sabourin, Stephane; Lussier, Yvan; Villeneuve, Evens. “Relationship Quality and Stability in Couples When One Partner Suffers From Borderline Personality Disorder.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, October 2009. Accessed August 6, 2022.
- Lay, Genziana. “Understanding Relational Dysfunction in Borderline, Narcissistic, and Antisocial Personality Disorders: Clinical Considerations, Presentation of Three Case Studies, and Implications for Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychology Research, August 2019. Accessed August 6, 2022.
- Reyes-Ortega, et al. “Clinical efficacy of a combined acceptance and commitment therapy, dialectical behavioural therapy, and functional analytic psychotherapy intervention in patients with borderline personality disorder.” Psychology and Psychotherapy, September 2020. Accessed August 6, 2022. Cleveland Clinic. “Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).” May 20, 2022. Accessed August 6, 2022.