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Dating when you have borderline personality disorder: 'I get obsessed really quickly'

Borderline personality disorder affects one in 100 people, according to a mental health charity. It can make romantic relationships intense and difficult. BBC Three speaks to three people about how the condition has affected their relationships

Thea de Gallier

“When I was diagnosed with BPD, I thought I’d never have healthy relationships.”

That’s how 21-year-old Mae felt when she was told earlier this year that she had borderline personality disorder (BPD) - and it’s a sentiment shared on social media by many others with that diagnosis.

Almost the exact same idea appears as a caption on one of the many videos on the topic on TikTok – content under the hashtag #bpdisorder has amassed over 500,000 views at the time of writing. Much of it is people sharing their own experiences, sometimes with an injection of humour, and a recurring theme that comes up is heartbreak and toxic relationships.

BPD is becoming increasingly visible on social media, and Dr Liana Romaniuk, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, thinks this is partly down to young people having a different approach to it than previous generations.

“I’ve had quite a few young people I work with ask me, ‘could I have BPD?’ I think there’s a growing awareness,” says Dr Romaniuk.

'There were horrible notions people with BPD are manipulative'

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental health issue that causes emotional instability and can affect how people manage their moods and interact with other people. It’s thought around one in 100 people have it.

Many people with BPD have experienced trauma or neglect in childhood, which can make relationships difficult as an adult. Dr Romaniuk points out that “trauma” doesn’t have to mean something horrific or abusive – things like parents splitting up, being emotionally distant, or losing a parent at a young age could also have an effect.

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Some people with BPD want to frequently call and text who they're dating

Unfortunately, there can be a stigma attached to having a BPD diagnosis. Dr Romaniuk explains: “Professionally, there were a lot of horrible old-school notions that BPD was untreatable or people were being manipulative. Thankfully, that’s not the view held by anyone I work with at the moment.”

There is also an “ongoing debate” in professional circles, says Dr Romaniuk, as to whether BPD is in fact a personality disorder, or a reaction to past trauma.

“I’ve got huge difficulty with the phrase ‘personality disorder’, it feels like you’re stabbing someone in the heart when you say that,” she says. “It sounds like you’re saying there’s something fundamentally wrong with [the person], and that’s not the case. I think about it more in terms of, they’re survivors, they’re adapters.”

Getting 'obsessive' in relationships

Mae started researching BPD because she noticed herself becoming “obsessive” and anxious in relationships.

“I noticed my symptoms were a lot stronger and more dysfunctional when I was in a relationship,” she says, who was diagnosed in March 2021.

“I get obsessive quite quickly. I’ll constantly want to call or text, and I’ll isolate from other friends – I drop hobbies and dedicate all my time to that person.”

Things that seem like a non-event to someone without BPD can be catastrophic.

“One time, I was at my friend’s apartment when I got a text from the boyfriend and the tone really spooked me – I literally picked up all my stuff and said, ‘I’ve got to go’, and ran to his apartment 15 minutes away.

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BPD can put a strain on relationships

“I was having a full-on panic attack. It turned out it was fine, so I went back to my friend’s. It must have been really bizarre to her, but I wouldn’t have been able to sit chatting because that panic would’ve continued to mount.”

The fear of abandonment can also manifest as hostility. “In the last few weeks of my last relationship, I was breaking up with them, saying I was going to leave a few times, and being really spiteful,” Mae says.

“Then when they finally broke up with me, I was absolutely crushed, calling them crying, begging to get back together. That relationship ending was directly related to my BPD.”

Since her diagnosis, Mae has started a treatment called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which is a type of talking therapy for people who struggle to regulate their emotions. She has also started taking antidepressants.

“I’m feeling a lot more positive,” she says. “When I was first diagnosed it felt like a death sentence, and I was going to be like that for the rest of my life, but the DBT is showing me a way out.”

It’s important to note that not everyone diagnosed with BPD will behave the same way, as Dr Romaniuk points out: “You can’t make an assessment on a whole group of people based on three letters.”

BPD symptoms or abusive behaviour?

The partners of people with BPD can sometimes find it difficult, too – although many with the condition can build healthy relationships, Ellen’s* ex partner, she says, struggled.

The 32-year-old dated a man with diagnosed BPD last year. “I don’t know how things might have been different if he didn’t have BPD,” she says. “I think I excused a lot of abusive behaviour, because I thought maybe it was part of the condition.”

She explains that he would “make me feel guilty” about leaving him alone, to the point she started coming home early from work. “If we had any kind of disagreement, he’d give me the silent treatment,” she continues. “I made a lot of allowances thinking it was the BPD. He started to leave me every three days – he’d leave in the middle of the night, then would come back and tell me I was the love of his life.”

She says some of his behaviour was abusive. But is this a fair label to put on people with the condition?

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'Honest conversation' is key to a healthy relationship, says expert

“That’s a really important question that touches on the core of who we are as human beings,” says Dr Romaniuk. “Having BPD, you are still your own self. It might predispose you to responding in certain ways, but I think there’s still a level of responsibility for what you do in a given moment. A lot of the time, the behaviour is not manipulative, but sometimes, it might be.”

More often than not, though, the behaviour comes from fear of abandonment. “From what other people with BPD have told me, there's a tendency to push before you’re pushed,” Dr Romaniuk says. “You might create reasons to end a relationship, or create tests to make sure your partner is really with you. This is subconscious – it’s not overt manipulation. From your brain’s survival point of view, it’s always better to be on your guard and expect the worst.”

She encourages “honest conversation” between partners if one person has BPD, but also for the person without the condition to “have concern for their wellbeing, too.”

She also stresses that every person with BPD is different, and the label doesn’t predispose anyone to a specific set of behaviours: “Some of the loveliest, most dynamic, interesting people I know have BPD.”

*Some names have been changed