Dear Dr. Tara Palmatier, How do I help my BPD ex? How do I support my borderline ex-girlfriend after the break-up? Since beginning Shrink4men in 2009, I sometimes receive questions from men and women on a variety of topics such as:
- Determining if a partner or ex is personality disordered.
- Divorce and custody matters.
- Dating after a relationship with a narcissist, borderline, histrionic or other toxic person.
- Preventing parental alienation and helping kids who are being alienated.
- New partners of men who share custody with a crazy ex.
- Fixing a wife who’s likely personality disordered. For example, “Can you meet with my wife and tell her she needs help? I think if she could hear this from a professional . . .” [In case anyone’s wondering how I answer this question, it’s always a gentle, firm NO. Instead, I offer to help the individual who’s still trying to make a relationship work with someone he believes is abusive and personality disordered.]
I appreciate the kind emails and questions. So please don’t hesitate to reach out.
I also receive some pretty venomous emails. I accept this part of what I’ve chosen for myself. If you’re one of the folks who felt inspired to write messages telling me things like:
- You clearly aren’t a feminist and are an awful disgrace to the female population for supporting abusive men. Shame on you!
- YOU ARE TOTALLY WRONG ABOUT BORDERLINES. I DO NOT CARE IFYOU [sic] ARE A PROFESSIONAL, YOU ARE STUPID AND MISINFORMED AND IGNORANT!
- Death upon your weak little shoulders!
Please don’t be alarmed when you don’t receive a reply. I never reply to these messages. However, I’ll make an exception just this once and offer a blanket response: You seem nice. Have an emotionally regulated day!
How do I help my BPD ex?
Shortly after publishing, So your Tinder Date Tells You She Has BPD, I received the following email:
Dear Dr. Palmatier,
I read your article about BPD with great interest because I have a recent ex-partner who I believe may have undiagnosed BPD, or something similar. She certainly ticks a lot of boxes in terms of typical symptomatic behaviors, and exposure to typical environmental causes as a child.
With the benefit of 3 years of often painful hindsight I can certainly relate to the instinct to “Run, Forrest, run!” but I also have huge sympathy with BPD sufferers, especially when it’s undiagnosed. From a layman’s point of view, the last thing they need is to be condemned to a life of celibacy and romantic and emotional isolation. My sympathy compounds because, at least in the situation I’m familiar with, because my ex was very much the victim of the environmental causal factors.
It’s a real challenge to get to the point of an accurate diagnosis because, almost by definition, there’s a relatively short cycle through: emotional crisis => remorse => there’s something wrong with me => I need help => you need to have some understanding and take some responsibility => actually, you’re the reason I behave this way; meaning the personal accountability phase doesn’t last long enough to arrange and get a diagnosis.
Next, having got a diagnosis, it’s incredibly difficult to access the necessary quality of individual and group therapy without using the private sector, which is out of affordable reach for most.
I’d love to see a follow up article on how genuinely caring friends, family and lovers can best support someone with BPD.
Thank you to the gentleman who sent such a polite and thoughtful email. Now, let’s address his message point by point.
Condemned to a life of celibacy and romantic and emotional isolation.
The gentlemen writes, “From a layman’s point of view, the last thing they need is to be condemned to a life of celibacy and romantic and emotional isolation.” I don’t “condemn” anyone “to a life of celibacy and romantic and emotional isolation.” However, I do strongly suggest to anyone contemplating a relationship with a personality disordered individual to caveat emptor. In other words, buyer beware. Or, if you prefer, educate yourself.
It’s not for me to say if individuals with severe characterological deficiencies deserve love. It seems to me that abusing and lying to the people you claim to love is a good way to lose their love and, in my opinion, rightly so. Actions have consequences. Meaningful change won’t occur without personal accountability and meaningful consequences.
External causal factors don’t nullify one’s personal responsibility for harming others.
He continues, “My sympathy compounds because, at least in the situation I’m familiar with, because my ex was very much the victim of the environmental causal factors.” I interpret “the victim of the environmental causal factors” to mean his ex had a bad childhood and bad parents. This is likely true for many murderers, rapists, other violent criminals, embezzlers and fraudsters in prison.
Not all people who are the “victims of environmental causal factors” become personality disordered abusers. There’s no excuse for abuse — diagnosis or no diagnosis. A personality disorder may explain their abusive traits and refusal to take personal responsibility. However, it doesn’t excuse their abusive behavior and dysfunctional beliefs.
As an adult, a borderline, narcissist or histrionic is 100% responsible for their words and deeds. Again, if a person is destructive and cruel to the people who love them, a natural consequence is to lose these relationships. Not only is it a natural consequence, it’s a reasonable and just one.
There’s a relatively short cycle through: emotional crisis => remorse => there’s something wrong with me => I need help => you need to have some understanding and take some responsibility => actually, you’re the reason I behave this way; meaning the personal accountability phase doesn’t last long enough to arrange and get a diagnosis.
Yes, this is exactly right. It’s the nature of a personality disorder. Additionally, it’s what makes these individual so treatment resistant with poor prognoses and poor outcomes.
Compassion and understanding.
It can be extremely painful to admit that all the love, care, time and energy that you invested into a borderline, narcissistic or histrionic partner has been for naught. That, ultimately, you’ll be split black and blamed for the break-up. You can try to take this on and help the individual. However, you’ll likely sustain a great deal of abuse in the process.
You can practice radical acceptance and not “personalize the abuse.” However, this is difficult because the way these individuals abuse their partners is very personal. During the love bombing stage, you share your vulnerabilities, insecurities, hopes, dreams, etc., under the guise of building intimacy and trust.
And this is precisely where individuals with BPD, NPD and HPD attack you when they want to hurt you. Unlike some enabling BPD advocates, I believe these individuals are 100% responsible for their behavior. Including when they feel triggered and are emotionally dysregulating.
Furthermore, even if they’re properly diagnosed and begin treatment, there are no guarantees they’ll improve. Or worse, they work with a therapist who enables them in using a BPD diagnosis as a means to abdicate personal responsibility for their destructive to self and others behavior. BPD enabler and apologist therapists are every bit as destructive as the person with BPD. Actually, I suspect many of these therapists likely have BPD/NPD themselves.
DO YOUR OWN WORK FIRST. THEN DETERMINE IF YOU WANT TO HELP YOUR BPD EX.
Yes, your feelings for the BPD ex are real. And yes, I’m sure there were some truly special moments during the love bombing stage, the Hoovers, when you were being split white and those fleeting moments when she was emotionally regulated. However, I encourage you to examine your desire to help and support a BPD, HPD or NPD ex.
In my experience, this desire to continue to help an abusive ex is usually a combination of the following:
Are you stuck in the denial and bargaining stages of grief?
For example, “If I could just get her a diagnosis and treatment, then everything will be wonderful again.” Except that it won’t. Let’s say the BPD ex is accurately diagnosed and begins appropriate treatment. She won’t revert back to the adoring love bomber you first encountered because that wasn’t/isn’t her true self.
She was masking her true self and mirroring you to seduce you. It doesn’t matter if her actions were conscious or unconscious. The result is the same in the end. Furthermore, treatment like DBT is no guarantee that she’ll get better. To clarify, better doesn’t mean cured.
Better means better self-awareness and symptom management. Thus, treatment isn’t a reverse Kafka metamorphosis back to the ideal girlfriend you first met. So be clear about what you mean when you ask, “How do I help my BPD ex?” Do you want her to get healthier? Or, do you want them to be the adoring, flattering seductress/seducer from the idealization stage?
Are you stuck in a trauma bond?
In a trauma bond, you feel a misplaced sense of loyalty to the person who’s abused, betrayed and exploited you. This misplaced loyalty can result in feelings of guilt and obligation. Borderlines, narcissists, histrionics and other characterologically disordered individuals are emotionally intense and exhibit extreme behavior.
My codependent and trauma bond-prone clients confuse emotional intensity for emotional intimacy. A BPD, NPD or HPD’s intensity is a manifestation of their pathology, not their capacity to love. The typical instantaneous intensity of emotion upon first meeting them can feel seductive, hypnotic and even euphoric. This is what some people confuse for “chemistry.”
Real emotional intimacy grows over time. It requires reciprocal empathy, emotional attunement and the willingness to be vulnerable with each other. Emotional intensity — without depth — is usually indicative of character pathology. Emotional depth isn’t a flash of lightning that disappears as quickly as it appears. Once developed, it’s actually a consistent character attribute.
Additionally, trauma bond relationships have an addiction-like quality. Many clients experience withdrawal from the intensity and dopamine from the high highs of their relationships with BPD, NPD and HPD exes. The thing is, you can’t keep having those high highs without the low lows (e.g., false abuse allegations, restraining orders and parental alienation). And the successive highs are never as good as the first ones. Hence the term chasing the dragon. In heroin/opioid addiction, this means “expression given to the pursuit of the original or ultimate but unattainable high, which can lead to a dangerous spiral of legal and health consequences” (FBI.gov).
Are you stuck in FOG?
FOG stands for fear, obligation and guilt. It’s the intangible glue that keeps many men and women stuck in abusive relationships. In other words, when you think about leaving your abuser, you many feel anxious, fearful and guilty — like you’re doing something wrong. You may also feel like you’re “abandoning” the BPD.
For the record, ending a relationship with another adult isn’t abandonment. Unless, of course, you do it in the desert, jump in your car and speed away leaving them stranded. Even when clients rationally know breaking up is the healthy and sane choice, they still feel an irrational degree of FOG.
The reason is usually twofold. First, their parent(s) used FOG to manipulate them as children. Second, dysfunctional personalities like the personality disordered and codependents use guilt, obligation and fear to manipulate their partners, kids, etc. There’s a difference, however. Codependents are highly vulnerable to guilt. Attempts to guilt or obligate most BPDs and NPDs results in lashing out, rage, victim-playing, gaslighting and all their other nasty stuff.
Are you stuck in codependency?
Are you a people-pleaser? A rescuer-fixer-hero-heroine-savior-martyr-professional caretaker type? If so, you’re walking around with a target on your back. Did your relationship identity and ethos develop around the belief that the way you get love and acceptance is by being an emotional caretaker? By tolerating abuse? By being even more loving and patient when someone is being cruel and unfair to you (i.e, love her harder)?
If so, you probably have codependency traits. Codependency is a dysfunction of interpersonal relating. It’s a repertoire of behaviors and beliefs learned in childhood about yourself, relationships and how to get your needs met. Codependents typically confuse being needed with being loved.
Supporting someone who’s abusing and exploiting you isn’t helping them; it’s called enabling them. Meaning, you’re aiding and abetting them to continue to be irresponsible, selfish and destructive to themselves and others. If there’s any hope of personality disordered individuals changing for the better, it’s through experiencing meaningful consequences.
Are you stuck stuck in repetition compulsion?
Freud wrote about this phenomenon in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. He believed repetition compulsion is our unconscious attempt to gain mastery over an early traumatic event or relationship by recreating and repeating it with the aim of having a different, happier outcome in the present.
It’s not the repetition of the relational trauma that’s happier. It’s the possibility that you might be able to get the love you’ve yearned for since childhood from an adult partner who’s similar to the parent who inflicted the core wound. That’s the problem. If the object of your desire is every bit as limited, broken, alcoholic, unstable, abusive and personality disordered as the parent who did the original damage, you’re not going to get a different result. Instead of healing and gaining mastery, you recreate the abuse and replay the misery.
Yeah okay, but I still want to know how do I help my BPD ex?
If after doing your own work you still want to help an abusive BPD, NPD or HPD ex, have you considered how an ongoing “helping” relationship with your BPD ex may impact a potential new relationship? [To clarify, by doing your own work I mean at least 20 therapy sessions with a psychologist who has expertise in this area.] It’s unlikely that many emotionally stable women with good boundaries will have interest in dating a man who’s still playing hero to an unstable, destructive ex.
Furthermore, a hypothetical future emotionally stable woman would be right not to pursue a relationship with you if you’re still mixed up with the BPD ex. I’ve supported many female clients in ending relationships with men who don’t have good boundaries with with disordered exes. This is especially true for men who don’t share kids with their exes.
If after considering how your desire to help the BPD ex will impact your ability to date and move on you still want to help the BPD ex, I suggest learning about tough love principles. Establish clear and firm boundaries and a no enabling policy. However, don’t forget, most personality disordered individuals experience things like boundaries, consequences, accountability and facts as abuse, victim-blaming and coercive control. So, in your efforts to help, you’ll likely be portrayed as a narcissistic abuser.
Lastly, continue working with a therapist if you really are determined to do this. First, to keep yourself accountable regarding your intentions. Second, to be better able to discern your issues vs. the BPD ex’s issues. Third, you’re not your ex’s family, her therapist or her caseworker. If you’re voluntarily signing up for this, you have issues you need to work on.