My year of hell: being in a relationship with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder
She shall remain nameless — there is no reason to shame her publicly. Let’s just call her X. I thought I knew her, but I was in an emotionally abusive relationship with her.
Shortly after entering a relationship with X, it became apparent that she has severe behavioural issues. At the time, I clung to the belief that things would get better, and that with the right help, her sense of self-worth would be enhanced and that her prospects for a productive and fulfilling life would improve. I believed she had simply had a bad start in life, and that she genuinely wanted to improve. This belief was reinforced by messages from friends that implied that, although we were experiencing problems, that once X had got through these, her loyalty and gratitude towards me would be unprecedented and she would be a changed person. The memes that circulate about this issue exemplify the general belief that sticking with such a person through their recovery is the best thing that you can do. My experience taught me otherwise.
I had met X about 12 years ago when we worked for the same employer. We had kept in contact through the years, mainly through Facebook, and through an occasional barbeque. She had been through divorce years ago. She had at one time invited me for a barbeque at her place, a townhouse she lived in shortly after her divorce. Thereafter, things went progressively worse for her, financially. She moved into smaller and smaller places until a few years ago, she was a barely surviving tenant in a garden cottage. She has a young son, who lives with his father, but the times her son is with her are the highlights of her existence. I invited her out a few times e.g. to friends’ wedding, or for a burger. At these times, she was invariably excited and exciting, although honest about her failed relationships. I once insisted on taking her to the doctor and paying for it, due to some health concern she had. In the car on the way back, she shared nonchalantly about some of the trauma she had suffered, including that she had been raped. At the time, I took this as a sign of honest communication about her problems and issues. Looking back at it now, I realise that the informality and matter of fact way that she mentioned this was not a sign of having dealt with it, having but instead a sign of her detachment from her emotions.
She did not show any emotion when mentioning this shocking event. She mentioned in the way one would say “Please remember to put out the rubbish”. Had I known enough about the effects of trauma at the time, this would have been a flashing warning sign to me. Unfortunately, the red flags appeared too late. It took more than a year for me to extricate myself from a controlling, emotionally abusive and manipulative relationship that cost me my emotional stability. Now that I can recognise the symptoms, I will never, ever, allow someone that exhibits this kind of behaviour to come close to me. Besides learning something about this disorder, the fact that I allowed her to control and manipulate me has also taught me much about myself.
Before I go any further into describing how it is to live with and love someone like this, let me be clear why I am writing this. I do not blame X for having this condition. This is not a way of getting back at her. The circumstances that lead to her being like this, as should be clear from the forthcoming discussion, are due to deep abandonment and lack of care since childhood — beyond her control. However, I do blame her for failing to address her condition and for allowing it to affect me, unmitigated. There are treatments for it. It can be controlled, although probably not eliminated. Yet, without honesty about the reality of your condition, there can be no improvement. The one time I mentioned this condition to her, she was in complete denial about it and went into defensive mode, as is her habit whenever anything is mentioned that could be interpreted as criticism. Given her deep denial, she will likely never improve or be able to maintain a stable relationship.
It took me a long time to piece together her personal and relationship history and to recognise Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) in her. To be sure, it has not been diagnosed by a mental health care professional. Yet, one of the books she was reading on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — an affliction she had self-diagnosed — mentioned a number of similar disorders. When I first read the symptoms — a bullet list of summarised points — I immediately reacted with a gut-wrenching “But this is X!”. Although some of the symptoms of PTSD such as hypersensitivity to stimuli fit her, it does not accurately describe all her behaviours and emotions. At the time, she was seeing a counsellor (not a registered mental health practitioner, but someone with decades of experience), who told me that although she is not legally allowed to diagnose mental conditions, BPD is the closest she can come to X’s behaviours.
BPD is characterised by a combination of at least five of the following symptoms, which manifest in our relationship as described below:
- Fear of abandonment: X’s mom was pregnant with her in high school. From what I have pieced together, her mom never indicated any interest in X. X never got a packed lunch to school — she would often go hungry. Her mom never helped her with homework or was interested in any way in her life and development. Her mom was more interested in her boyfriends, of which there was a steady stream. One of these boyfriends sexually abused X. X told her mom, who refused to believe her and continued to cohabit with the same boyfriend. Loyalty (her idea of it) is everything to X. Failure to live up to her idealised concept of loyalty is interpreted as abandonment or betrayal.
- Unstable relationships. People with BPD tend to have relationships that are intense and short-lived. You may fall in love quickly, believing that each new person is the one who will make them feel whole, only to be quickly disappointed. This was certainly true of X (and, I confess, somewhat true of me too). I have learned to mitigate this, X has not. Her utterances indicated that she quickly came to regard me as her saviour, her “one true love”. She proclaimed very early in the relationship that she was busy building a life with me, for her and for her son, and wanted to be a family with me and my daughter. This struck me as a premature declaration so early on. As quick as the hero-worship arrives, so prompt is your fall from grace when you disappoint her. Failure to keep a promise, even due to changed circumstances, is not forgiven. One of the things she would say most often, with respect to people who had disappointed her in some way, is “They plunged a knife into my back”, implying betrayal. She tends to interpret anything that does not suit her purpose or sensibilities as a betrayal. Her judgement and barbed sarcasm when she has reached that judgment about you are swift and damning.
- Unclear or shifting self-image. When you have BPD, your sense of self is typically unstable. In X’s life, her sense of self was completely dependent on the attention others gave her. She became a photographic model, due to stunningly good looks, and was absolutely energised by the attention this gave her. Instagram and Facebook are her favourite attention-seeking outlets. External validation was a constant need, and these social media outlets gave her exactly that. She would constantly curate her Instagram image, posting new images of herself or re-posting and editing old images. She would keep score of the number of likes, also comparing these with the numbers that other models would receive. If she was the centre of attention, she was happy. If not, she was moody and belligerent, often accusing other photographers and models of stealing her ideas.
- Impulsive, self-destructive behaviours, including self-harm. People with BPD tend to engage in harmful, sensation-seeking behaviours, especially when they’re upset. You may impulsively spend money you can’t afford, indulge in binge eating, drive recklessly, shoplift, engage in risky sex, or overdo it with drugs or alcohol. In X, this manifest in physical self-harm. She has tried, in her past, to commit suicide. To my recollection, there were at least three instances of threatened suicide when we were together — there might have been more implied attempts, but these three stand out. She once broke the glass of a cabinet and dramatically searched for and held the sharpest and longest piece in her hand. It took hours to talk her out of it. My sense is that it was attention-seeking behaviour rather than a sincere desire to end her life. When she felt particularly depressed, she would scratch her own upper arms and forearms arms until they bled. She once sent me a picture of her bleeding arms while I was at work, after one of her episodes of sitting in a darkened bedroom the entire day (see below). I ignored this — what was it supposed to achieve? Apparently, I assume, she was hoping I would rush back home to rescue her because that would give her the attention she craved. It is like the tantrum of a child who tries desperately to get attention, even if through negative means.
- Extreme emotional swings. One evening, after we had had a disagreement she threatened suicide, stormed off in her car, saying she would sleep somewhere on the street (a vain attempt at sympathy). Within an hour after having left, she was sending me sexually suggestive messages. Her changes in behaviour, from suicidal to sexually suggestive, were flabbergasting.
- Chronic feelings of emptiness. People with BPD often talk about feeling empty, as if there’s a hole or a void inside them. At the extreme, they may feel as if they’re “nothing” or “nobody.”. I never heard her utter words similar to this, but her behaviour showed her emptiness. It became increasingly clear that she found no inspiration inside herself, relying solely on the validation and encouragement from others for motivation.
- Explosive anger. She lacked the ability to control emotions or how she expressed them. Most of us, to some extent, have the ability to think about how we wish to respond to emotions. Although we may feel anger, resentment or sadness, we do not necessarily immediately react with physical manifestations of rage or tears. Not so with X. Whatever she was feeling in the moment would erupt immediately. Her strongest emotions are jealously (like when she suspected my attention was not fully on her), and she would mostly react with anger and resentment, by accusing me of some imagined transgression, often followed by a sarcastic insult. Her tools are textbook emotional manipulation — Fear, Obligation and Guilt (FOG).
Anger and resentment are her default emotions in times of difficulty.
- Extreme suspicion / paranoia. She would be in a constant state of suspicion, hardly ever being able to fully relax. Her mind and body are programmed to expect the next assault at any moment — the fight or flight response also common to PTSD. She was particularly suspicious of me (in spite of repeating how much she loved and adored me): where I was, who I was speaking to (especially if they were women), why I needed to speak to them, why I would be 30 minutes late coming home from work, why did I need to travel, why could someone else not do the travelling, whom I was travelling with? I once gave her access to my location on Google Maps to reassure her about where I was during a work trip. This also backfired — she monitored me constantly and accused me of “going off into the bushes” when I had simply walked from my bedroom to the dining room. She would phone me at work to check why I was later than usual, and when I explained what I was doing, she would refuse to believe me. I once invited her to the office so that she could reassure herself about where I sit and meet my colleagues. On the way to my desk, she noticed an attractive young woman, who sat on a different floor to me and to whom I had never spoken, and demanded to know who she was. When I told her who I was working with, or when I received work-related phone messages (she monitored who messaged me), she would do an internet search for their names and pictures. She once freaked out when looking at the phone profile picture of an attractive female colleague of mine. I was not sure what she expected me to do — refuse to work with this colleague? Apparently so. But even that would not have been enough, because she still shared the office space with me.
Her suspicion would extend to insignificant issues like what kind of likes and how many I had received on Facebook, and from whom. No woman dared respond with a heart or a kiss, although her Instagram profile was full of such responses from men. Even too many likes from men were regarded with suspicion.
Her assumptions about my motives were always worst-case — primarily that I was cheating on her. She would use the flimsiest circumstances to rush to an elaborate conclusion about my lack of loyalty or faithfulness.
Some further examples:
- I invited her to an office year-end function to get to know my colleagues (she was the only partner who had the privilege of attending). After the function, she told me she noticed how one of my female colleagues had looked at me “funny” (meaning with lust).
- When I had to go abroad for work (accompanied by a female colleague), I informed her I was getting a local sim card for my phone to avoid high data costs. It would enable me to phone her via whatsapp, for instance. When I told her this, she immediately assumed that she should expect no contact from me while I am away.
- Whenever she saw me online, she would be resentful if it was not to chat with her. I suspect she would monitor my online presence throughout the day because often, the moment I went online, she would send me a message.
- After phoning X, I sent her pictures of a place where my colleague and I had dinner on the way to the airport, on the day of our return. One of the pictures had heart shapes from some of the decor. X responded with a sarcastic “Well then, I hope you two have a nice romantic evening!”.
- In three hours of traffic jam on the way to the airport, I fell asleep and lost reception. When I woke up and sent a message about our progress, she informed me that my delayed reaction was “not cool”.
- On the way back from a shopping trip, she asked out of the blue “Do you know the girl you were staring at like that?”. I could not even recall such a person. The tiniest glance of recognition of another woman would be treated with suspicion. I sometimes felt that the only way to avoid this suspicion would be to walk with my head down and my eyes fixed on the ground.
- She would monitor my phone exchanges, particularly with female friends, including listening to voice notes. As a result, I found myself withdrawing from contact with female friends more and more as time wore on. I would have to rush home after work, neglecting shopping, for fear of her suspicion about me talking to or seeing women.
- She would often complain about “my phone being switched off”, implying she thought that I wanted to avoid talking to her, when in fact I keep it on all day.
- She would wake me in the middle of the night to complain about me getting an erection during my sleep or “moving in a suspicious way” (meaning masturbating). I could never respond to these accusations since I had been asleep, and even valid explanations of men getting several natural erections during the course of a night’s sleep were not accepted. She would always assume I was fantasising about someone else. I would often be woken with the question “Are you awake?” (when, ironically, I was clearly not awake when the question was asked — I was invariably woken up by the question) and be questioned about my movements during my sleep. The irony of having to answer questions about my behaviour while I was not conscious seemed to be lost on her. I hardly ever have erotic dreams, but her assumption in these episodes would always be that I was fantasising about someone else.
- She would often read my private journal, which I use to express my own feelings and regulate my emotions. She would even resort to writing contradictions to some of my own notes in my journal. Despite repeated promises to stop this behaviour, it never did.
- At the end of my child’s birthday party, as everyone was leaving, she threw a tantrum because, in her estimation, not everyone had properly said goodbye to her or thanked her enough for the effort she had put in.
The list could go on — there are countless entries in my journal, but I am sure this sketches the picture.
My own addition — a very strong sense of powerlessness and a lack of agency: In late 2018 I was busy renovating a garden cottage (a necessary source of extra income for me) after a previous tenant had moved out. A month was left before the new tenant would be moving in. X assured me, of her own volition, that I need not worry about the painting since she would do it all. As the deadline drew closer, it became apparent that she was not keeping her promise, in spite of her not having a job and being home all day. This and many other promises that required a little bit of effort were not kept. I ended up doing the painting myself. Her assistance was absolutely minimal — she painted for a single day initially but never joined me while I was painting.
Coupled with her belief in her own powerlessness is the belief that external forces will change her fortune. She expressed the desire to do a yoga instructor course, based on having applied yoga when she worked as a gym instructor, at a time that I was getting into the routine of doing yoga mornings. She joined me doing this initially, but her participation soon dissipated. She has a knee injury, which makes it difficult to do certain moves. Yet, she emphatically believed the course would give her career opportunities — she wanted to become an instructor, despite not having the energy or perseverance to do half an hour of exercise per day at home. If she had shown commitment to a regular yoga routine of her own, I may have been willing, but it never showed.
There would be entire days during which she would not leave the bedroom. On bad days, which could be triggered by anything uncomfortable or something that she would interpret as offensive or an attack on her person (to her almost everything was personal). She would remain in bed, with the curtains closed, literally not moving out of the room until I returned in the evening. She would also clutch one of her son’s blankets to soothe herself. In this child-like, semi-catatonic state, it was impossible to communicate or reason with her. I sometimes lost my temper with this behaviour, telling her in harsh words “Get over yourself!”. This would of course only drive her deeper into a state of victimhood.
Everything was a monumental effort to her. Almost her entire existence, especially in times of crisis, would be focused on her social media presence. Instagram would be her favourite means of getting attention, where male fans fawn over her sexy pictures (excuse my own sarcasm here).
Getting back to my reasons for writing this piece (there are probably more than what I started out with above):
Part of the reason is that I have got into the habit of using writing to reflect on my experiences, as a way of processing emotion and dealing with issues, especially uncomfortable issues. This to me was as awful as it gets. With no risk of hyperbole, I can say this was the worst year of my adult life.
It was a stuttering catastrophe of multiple, repeated manufactured psychological crises — manufactured because the day to day stimuli against which X reacted with such vehement anger would to an emotionally well-adjusted person be just another everyday obstacle. To call it a progression is too kind because progression implies reaching some desired destination or a better place. There was no improvement.
Secondly, I need to make sense of why I stuck it out with her for so long. I kept believing, at first passionately, later less frequently, and later still not at all, that she would change, because she wanted to change, and that I could give her the security and safety to allow her to work through her multiple traumas (the ones I mention here are only part of the story) to at least have some of the basic tools to free herself of the crippling fear that rules her life. I believed because I needed to believe. I had managed to overcome some of my own undesirable behaviours, thus I believed that she could too. Because I understood just how difficult it was, I thought I was in a good position to support her. But in the end, her fear and anger are all she had known her entire life. It is how she navigates life and makes sense of the world. All people, including the one she thinks she loves, are potential threats. She is safe with no one. Without her certainties about the threats she faces, life would not make sense to her. They are her template to interpret the world.
I also need to remind myself just how bad it really was. Memories tend to fade. To keep this in memory is to put up a road sign for potentially hazardous conditions ahead, to prevent me from going down that path again. It’s like a psychological holocaust memorial — a reminder of the worst that can happen.
Paradoxically, in view of the above, putting down these words helps to purge her from my memory. Putting this out there is like a final goodbye, like writing the concluding remarks of a lived horror story.
Please heed the warning. There is a meme out there: “Never fall in love with potential”. If she is not what you are looking for — if she is sarcastic to you, uses emotional blackmail, blames people for her misfortunes, and has no energy or willingness to dig herself out of that hole — then do not expect that she will become what you are looking for. If it really is that bad, it is going to stay that way. The “diamond in the rough” is going to remain a lump of coal. Despite all her apologies for her unnecessary accusations and hurtful behaviours, her invasions of my privacy, her need to control, her behaviours never changed. To be sure, she would apologise every single time, but there would always be an excuse (“I was overwhelmed”) and the abuse happened with such regulatory that the apologies also followed like clockwork. Her promises to change became meaningless and her words empty.
Maybe the image of the diamond failing to appear sounds nihilistic. People, including me, need to believe that people can change for the better. In this case, I wish to seal that box, throw away the key and burn it, to ensure that I shall never be tempted to re-use it.
Of course, here she could be replaced by he as necessary — this is not about women or men’s tendency to be abusive, but I happen to write from my perspective as a man. Many of her behaviours are similar to the narcissism that is common amongst male abusers.
Interestingly, she always found reasons for her abusive behaviours, and these invariably involved resentment about something I had done or said. It was never her fault. She did things because I did other things. I was always the ultimate source.
Finally, this experience has taught me much about myself. I have a strong people-pleasing “rescuer” in me. I feel sorry for people who suffer and want them to be happy and live their full potential. I tried to make her happy, not realising early enough that she did not want to be happy. I tend to dive in too early, before being aware of the full consequences or the person’s entire make-up. She is sexy and attractive, part of my psychological DNA is that I thrive on the validation I get from being with an attractive woman. I have learned that I am enough, but I had not yet learned it at the time. Seeing potential creates expectations (“I’m sure she will improve, and then things will be great”). But by looking through the coloured lens of expectations only, I set myself up for disappointment.