The last time I went on a date was long before the pandemic began. I’ve been on a “dating sabbatical” since 2018 and I feel pretty indifferent towards the idea of getting back out there.
Although initially understanding, my friends, family, and therapist are now showing some light concern over my total ambivalence to relationships. At first, I told myself I needed to take a break to focus on myself, which was true. At age 26, my previously bustling sex life has now transitioned into sex once every couple of years. Lately, I’ve begun to accept that I’m not being independent, I’m hiding.
I don’t blame it all on having borderline personality disorder (BPD) — a mental health condition characterised by unstable relationships with other people, unstable emotions, and an unstable sense of self.
All these features make it difficult to date, but I’ve invested a lot of time (and money) in recovery. For example, the countless hours of talk therapy I’ve spent learning to name and process my emotions in a healthier way. Initially, I may have judged the validity of emotion wheels (a colour-coordinated wheel with various adjectives of feelings to help you describe your emotional wellbeing). But after a few years in the process, I no longer feel “broken” by having the disorder. In truth, the only time I feel “sick” is when I’m dating. So, it’s no wonder I find myself avoiding it completely out of fear of feeling symptomatic.
BPD is one of the most stigmatised mental health disorders. As a result, some believe those with the disorder are unworthy of being loved. The emotional instability of those with BPD creates a vicious cycle whereby actions to cope with the burden of stigma exacerbate the condition. For example, some may isolate, neglect treatment, and skip their medication. But it doesn’t have to come to this. There are strategies that can help people with BPD get the emotional attachments they deserve. These lessons can also be helpful to daters without the disorder should they enter a relationship with someone who has BPD. It can also help others more generally not to misperceive the disorder. After all, dating is currently a mess, so we could collectively use all the help we can get.
Don’t we all want to be loved? What makes BPD different?
BPD is a very broad diagnosis that affects everyone differently. With 256 different symptom combinations, the most common include impulsivity, chronic emptiness, and trouble controlling emotions. It has been estimated that there is one in 100 people living with BPD in the UK, and two in 100 in the U.S., though the actual prevalence is thought to be much higher than these statistics. Overall, people with BPD are 50 times more likely to die by suicide than those who don’t have the disorder.
Many people with BPD are living happy and fulfilled lives, but there are undoubtedly people like myself who are still hesitant to relinquish control in the realm of relationships. After all, internal instability often leads to unstable relationships and what is more destabilising than dating?
Dating pre-diagnosis can be difficult
Zahra Navabi*, a 20-year-old student diagnosed with BPD around July 2020, has always struggled with her mental health, her perception of herself, and her relationship with her emotions. For her, depression and anxiety didn’t explain the whole story. “I was feeling so much but pretending to feel so little,” she says.
At the time, she was dating her best friend, who would ignore Navabi for days. They had their own mental health issues, but seeing them active on social media and interacting with others caused extreme distress. “I’d have physical chest pains and be immobilised by it,” she says. On one of these occasions, she spent three days paralysed in bed, only to recover by emotionally detaching completely. In Navabi’s case, rather than engaging with her feelings, she disconnected from them entirely and intellectualised her emotions instead. This devaluation moved their ex from being on a pedestal to becoming irrelevant; from here, they were able to “recover”. Through discussions with friends and her therapist, she realised the intensity of her emotions wasn’t standard, and she was diagnosed soon after.
Though this emotional volatility can be scary, allowing yourself to be present in the emotions is the best way to get through it, says Dr. Leslie Secrest, medical director and psychiatrist.
Don’t ‘force a fit’
During his 40 years of practising psychiatry, Secrest has seen some people overlook reflecting on how a potential partner’s personality dynamics complements theirs. In these instances, people fight to create a relationship while ignoring incompatibility signs. To illustrate this, he uses an analogy of going shoe shopping. “You may have a perfectly good foot and you see that perfectly good shoe. But if it doesn’t fit, you have to acknowledge that,” he says. The lack of a “fit” doesn’t indicate any deficiencies of either party but rather a fact of life — that you aren’t right for one another.
This particularly hits home for me. I have a long history of believing that feelings are enough. In my head, compatibility didn’t matter, and I thought desire was enough to make the relationship work. In truth, relationships are much more complicated than that. The temptation to pathologise your own feelings is something people with BPD live with. There were moments when Navabi doubted her entitlement to certain boundaries, like anger towards the lack of communication in her previous relationship. “Because of the existing stereotypes, if something hurt me, I would go ‘oh, it’s probably just the BPD’ instead,” she tells me.
Look out for warning signs of co-dependent and abusive relationships
Another documented trend in relationships is how those with BPD and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) tend to find each other. Although many people tend to think these conditions are the same, they are opposites due to their characteristics and traits.
People with BPD can see those with NPD representing everything they are not — being with them validates their character and self-esteem. In comparison, those with NPD receive continuing validation and attention, which provides constant affirmation of their idealised sense of self. In short, those with NPD want continuous affirmation of their self-esteem, whereas those with BPD want continuous reassurance that they are loved. From this dynamic, intense and quick attachments form, which is why this pairing can lead to the reinforcement of a distorted world view and create a highly addictive cycle of abuse — complementing each other “for better and worse.”
Koe Aziz-Kamara, a 22-year-old student, experienced this dynamic in her last major relationship. While her partner at the time wasn’t diagnosed with NPD until later, Aziz-Kamara reflects on how co-dependent the relationship was. “Codependency is really the drug of those with BPD,” she says.
Take things slow
Since then, Aziz-Kamara has been dating with more care and intention. She no longer relies on romantic partners in her lowest emotional ebbs. Through this, she avoids trauma bonding — an emotional attachment developed from repeating cycles of abuse, devaluation, and positive reinforcement. Instead, she has continued to invest in her friendships and goes to these people when in need.
This means she can get to know romantic partners while taking things slow. In her experience, she did this by taking a three-month vow of celibacy to ensure the intentional building of a relationship. While not for everyone, if others want to give her tactic a try, she advises them to be honest and upfront with their intentions and to remember that other people’s possible romantic disinterest or rejection will likely be for the best in the long run. “I now know what my boundaries are and what bad relationships look like,” she says.
Don’t overthink it
Navabi believes her latest relationship success was partly due to not overthinking it. “You have to take evidence, not feelings,” she says. Stopping herself from second-guessing other people’s intentions has allowed her more freedom within the relationship. “We have such a massive capacity for overthinking, to the point where these thoughts appear valid,” she says. While some of these negative thoughts may be valid due to our experiences, this shouldn’t justify never having healthy and fulfilling relationships.
“Emotions are assets, not liabilities.”
At the same time, this shouldn’t be read as an instruction to underthink. Checking in with yourself while getting to know someone — as well as during more established relationships — is crucial. Secrest reminds people of the importance of trusting while constantly verifying that their energy and love is being received and treated respectfully. “Usually people think that ‘if I trust, I don’t have to verify’ but relationships are dynamic and always changing,” he says.
If you find yourself forcing a fit with someone, he recommends really paying attention to the emotions you feel in the moment. “Acknowledging and reflecting on what the emotions are trying to get your mind to focus on and become aware of can give you an opportunity to work things through,” he says. After all, many of us with BPD run away from our feelings due to their intensity, but usually, this can make things worse. “Emotions are assets, not liabilities,” he concludes.
Learn to embrace the fear
Relationship expert Callisto Adams says fear is the biggest obstacle for her clients. She believes part of the solution is in acknowledging that dating isn’t easy in general. After you’ve done this, she advises people to “engage in activities that help you release negative thoughts,” she adds. “Pay attention to your coping mechanisms, but also your defence mechanisms too.” These, she tells me, will help you stay grounded in the present.
For example, I have a habit of internalising and avoiding my emotions. When this happens, I disengage from the situation completely. For dating, this is impractical as it can lead to a lack of communication. These days, when I feel this way, I use my emotion wheel to name my experience. Once I’ve done that, I make myself aware of why I am feeling this way; doing so helps ground me and it’s been an effective self-soothing method. It helps me notice what’s true right now versus what you’re afraid might happen in the future. Should I date and get negative thoughts, I know to use this method to cope.
Unlike me, Navabi has had a healthy dating history since being diagnosed in July 2020 and has been using any negative experiences to inform her next steps. “My desire for companionship overcame my fears around dating successfully,” she says.
Decide when you’re comfortable talking about BPD
Aziz-Kamara doesn’t rush disclosing her diagnosis at the start of a new relationship and explains how not sharing it allows for her protection. “It is a big part of me, and it’s shaped me. But I don’t think it needs to be at the centre of who I am,” she says. In addition, previously, she revealed it to someone who shifted their behaviour and began to infantilise her.
Navabi echoes Aziz-Kamara’s sentiment on revealing her diagnosis. She “soft launches” it by disclosing general mental health issues with no specifics. As for whether she thinks this is hiding, she disagrees, saying: “If I tell you on the fourth date, the versions of me you have experienced on dates one to three are still me with BPD,” she adds. “It’s not like I’ve removed it from myself!”
“It is a big part of me, and it’s shaped me. But I don’t think it needs to be at the centre of who I am.”
Curious, I probe Secrest on his thoughts around people without BPD dating those with the disorder. “The category of BPD often is treated as absolute when we don’t know everything there is to know about the disorder,” he tells me. As previously mentioned, the diagnosis comes from a collection of symptoms, but one symptom is focused on more than another in these discussions.
For people living with BPD, the assumption that we are “manipulative” and “dangerous” is particularly damaging, not to mention inaccurate. “This really misses the focus on how two people (or more) relate to one another, and the patience it takes to form a relationship,” Secrest says. He explains how the effort needed to make relationships work is not (and should not be) dependent on the labels attached to an individual’s personal experience. “It only comes down to what it is that allows a relationship to fit,” he adds. “It’s the willingness to be honest and patient with each other that’s important.”
Invest in your friendships
Even though I have been avoiding romantic relationships, I’ve been putting more effort into my platonic ones. These friendships have made me reflect on how I previously used to approach relationships. Rather than choosing people who complemented me, I chose people based purely on infatuation. Though I wish I’d communicated my needs and expectations more, I can see many of these relationships lacked substance and would have never lasted long term. These friendships have also allowed me to remember that I’m not a burden for simply existing. As Navabi tells me, “Being in a healthy relationship — whether platonic or romantic — with someone can be very healing.”
Though everyone deserves to experience love, the pursuit can seem terrifying with a condition like BPD. However, there is hope. Aziz-Kamara calls for those without BPD to remember, “Our capacity to feel can lead to a lot of hurt, but it also means we have an incredible potential to love and be your person.”
Those with BPD will undoubtedly make mistakes along the way, but this is not a characteristic of the disorder. As Secrest explains, we might use the label of BPD like it’s precise, but in reality, our experiences are dynamic. Through this exploration, I’ve been reminded of just how lucky the people are who encounter even a fraction of what we can give. I still may not trust other people, but at least I have the tools (and trust in myself) to learn and improve. Like the rest of the world, those with BPD are not perfect. But we must all remember, our capacity for love runs just as deeply as our desire to be loved.
*names have been changed upon request
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET, or email [email protected]. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.