Relational Trauma: Personality Disordered Partners and Those Who Love Them

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Have you ever met someone who seemed like the realistic manifestation of your dream partner? He or she said and did all the right things and everything felt….just so perfect? Thoughtful good morning text messages with heart and winking emojiis, small, meaningful gifts given to you just because, and carefully planned dates tailored to your tastes. You may have found yourself thinking ‘this is the best person I’ve ever dated!’ or even surprised yourself and thought ‘I think I’ve finally found the right person for me!’ after just a few weeks together, only for it to, seemingly out of nowhere, crash down on you like the proverbial ton of bricks? Suddenly, your seemingly perfect sweetheart becomes infuriated by something you deem to be trivial. You try to explain yourself. You remind your partner that you love them and didn’t mean to hurt them, but they are deaf to your entreaties. They curse you and verbally obliterate you with such hatred and blind rage, you are left stunned and frightened. They leave you in a state of shock and despair, reeling from the argument and complete emotional turnaround. And then, just as quickly as the fight began, they shock you once again when they suddenly ‘forgive you’ and behave lovingly towards you. You are left wondering if you imagined the entire thing due to some warped malfunction of your short circuiting brain. You want so badly to forget the whole horrible incident that, despite the little warning voice in the back of your mind telling you that your partner is somehow ‘off’, you accept your partner’s requests to ‘just move on’ in the relationship, eager for it to resume as it was: sweet, untainted, loving.

Only to have the cycle repeat over and over again.

Time passes and you helplessly feel yourself deteriorate as you remain with your partner, waiting in vain for them to ‘normalize’, desperate to experience that perfect love again. It never returns, and you are left stuck in the ruins of a dysfunctional relationship built on a complete and utter façade of ‘love’.

Sounds familiar? Then you have likely met and dated someone with Borderline Personality traits or Borderline Personality Disorder. 

WARNING: the remainder of this article is focused on addressing the struggles experienced by non-personality disordered individuals who are in relationships with those diagnosed with BPD (or undiagnosed but presenting with BPD traits). If you are diagnosed with BPD, you may not wish to continue reading this article as the material presented may be too emotionally triggering for you and does not address the unique needs of a diagnosed BPD individual.

According to the National Institute of Health, over 4 million Americans, male and female, are currently diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (and that does not include individuals who meet some but not all criteria for BPD). While the average American’s number of romantic partners can be difficult to accurately assess, a census performed by the CDC in 2002 suggests that the average American woman reported having 4 partners in her lifetime, while the average American man reported having 6-8 partners. Given these statistics (especially considering that the census took place 16 years ago, before the popularity of dating apps exploded and likely raised these numbers) it is likely that mingling singles might find themselves dating a personality disordered partner.


As a psychotherapist, I treat a substantial number of clients who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder, and an even more substantial number of those who are in relationships with them. While those who suffer from BPD and seek treatment for it can make progress in managing their harmful behaviors and learning healthy coping skills, their loved ones require their own unique treatment approach in order to address the traumatic injuries suffered during the course of relating with a personality disordered individual.

It is imperative that I articulate an important distinction here. In addressing non-PD partners and their unique traumatic experiences, I am distinguishing between dysfunctional BPD partners and functional BPD partners. I am by no means discriminating against this population. A diagnosis does not ever encapsulate one’s value and identity and should never be considered as such! It IS possible to have a healthy relationship with a diagnosed BPD partner. However, in order for such a healthy relationship to occur, the diagnosed partner must be aware and in agreement with the diagnosis AND fully engaged in mental health treatment to address their behaviors. Additionally, the undiagnosed partner (you!) must possess a healthy sense of identity and self-respect, strong assertiveness skills, and solid personal boundaries.

Little has been written and studied about the unique struggles and healing processes of those in relationships with personality disordered individuals, despite the plethora of research aimed at exploring the epidemiology and treatment of those diagnosed with the disorder. This is especially unfortunate because while personality disordered individuals tend to lack insight and therefore, a sense of personal responsibility, those who relate with BPDs tend to be insightful, self-reflective, analytical and overly conscientious. This can result in the development of chronic self-doubt in a non-PD partner, family member or friend, leading to feelings of low self-concept, a loss of identity, depression and anxiety.

However, due to their sharp insight and curious self-reflection and analysis, this population tends to make excellent progress in therapeutic treatment. By exploring their codependent roles, non-PD partners may learn why they attracted a partner who is personality disordered and why they remained in the relationship despite suffering abuse and/or neglect. Through the course of treatment, they develop self-respect and assertiveness skills, establishing and reinforcing their boundaries to protect their rights and needs, a practice they may struggle to master due to being ‘others’ focused during the course of their relationship, to the point of sacrificing themselves. With commitment to change, effort, and time, non- PD partners can enjoy a healthy self-concept, assertive communication, and healthy, loving relationships.

So if you are in a relationship like the one I described at the beginning of this article, firstly, know that you are not alone. If you began to speak about your current or past experiences in a relationship like this, you’d likely find someone who has experienced something similar. Secondly, know that you deserve to invest in yourself to heal from the traumatic relationship experiences you’ve endured, in order to enjoy healthy, reciprocal, self-affirming relationships with yourself and others.

P.S. One of the most common requests I receive from those who have healed from a relationship with a dysfunctional personality disordered partner is: how can I spot someone with borderline personality traits early on in the dating game, in order to avoid partnering with someone dysfunctional again? Listed below are some (but by no means all) early warning signs to look out for! But before you read the list please note that the most important thing to do in order to avoid ‘going down that road’ is….

Become the healthiest you because….


Healthy people attract healthy partners and codependent people attract disordered partners.

The second most important way to avoid dating a dysfunctional BPD partner is to:


I have included common instinctual thoughts and feelings in the list below that one may have when faced with these red flag signs and behaviors. Never ignore your instincts. If you experience these thoughts and feelings, trust them and assert your boundaries. If that is difficult for you and you find yourself ignoring your instincts, seek the help of a professional psychotherapist who is experienced with the BPD population.

Please note: the starred behavior may also be exhibited by healthy individuals. It’s important to examine an individual comprehensively in order to determine if they may be unhealthy for you.

And now, the list!

(Pronouns have been used interchangeably to reflect both male and female personality-disordered partners):




Going out of his way after meeting with you/talking to you once or twice in order to plan dates that you would enjoy without regard for, or mention of, what he likes or needs.*

Example: You happen to mention during your initial text conversation that you love pink roses, Italian food and prefer to be indoors in the summer since you hate the heat. For your first date, he arrives with a dozen bright pink roses and takes you to an upscale Italian restaurant with indoor seating and beautiful outdoor views.

This date is incredible! Maybe my best date ever! I have finally found someone who really listens to what I like!

Happiness, excitement, attraction, hope, appreciation

Doing the behavior above and jokingly (read: passive aggressively) dropping hints afterwards about desiring a preconceived amount of appreciation for the date. In an argument, he may declare that he ‘wasted’ his money or effort on providing you with the perfect date(s) as you are unworthy of such a thoughtful and generous partner as himself.

Example: You receive a text the day after your amazing date that reads: ‘Did you enjoy our date? I wasn’t sure…you didn’t say much about it’

A week later during an argument he says ‘I can’t believe I spent all that money on taking you out because you are such a selfish person. You don’t appreciate anything.’

Have I behaved ungratefully? Do these dates have ‘strings attached’? I can’t believe he would use a date he chose to plan as a verbal weapon against me in an argument.

self-doubt, shame, guilt, disappointment, deceit, betrayal, self-loathing

Saying ‘I love you’ within the first 8 weeks of dating you. Feeling disappointed with you, or pressuring you directly or indirectly, to return the sentiment, regardless of your true feelings.*

Wow that was fast I wouldn’t have even thought to say the L word yet. I’m touched but I’m not sure I feel the same yet. I hope he isn’t insulted that I’m not saying it back. Should I spare his feelings and say it anyway? I would hate to hurt him or make him feel I don’t like him. I wish he hadn’t said it so soon…I don’t feel ready but I also don’t want to lose him. How can he expect me to say I love you when we barely know each other?

self-doubt, shame, anxiety, guilt, anger, fear

Inviting you to meet her closest friends and family after dating for less than two months.*

It’s kind of odd that she wants me to meet her mom when we’ve only been on a few dates. Are we committed already? Will she want to meet my inner circle of friends and family so soon too? This isn’t a pace I’m comfortable with but she’s so excited, how can I disappoint her or hurt her? I really want to get to know her more, instead of getting to know her parents. I don’t feel ready.

self-doubt, shame, anxiety, guilt, fear

Giving expensive or very sentimental gifts to you during the early dating period.*

We’ve only went out on two dates and she’s already given me an expensive watch and this beautiful love letter. I feel weird about accepting these gifts, almost like I’m making some kind of commitment to her by doing so. At the same time, when I told her I couldn’t accept she pouted and suggested I don’t care about her. I don’t want to hurt her feelings but this is a lot, very soon.

Self-doubt, anxiety, guilt, discomfort

Asking you what your music/clothing/food preferences are and stating that he too has all of the same preferences.

What are the odds? It’s like I found my perfect match!

Happiness, excitement, attraction, hope, appreciation

Speaking about others in very ‘black and white’ terms. Her cousin is the devil and a whore, her father is the best man that ever lived. In an alarmingly short period of time, her feelings about the same people can change dramatically but continue to reflect extremes.

I’m glad I’m on her good side! I just hope things remain happy between us. She seems to get so intense sometimes and I don’t know how to calm that down.

Worry, fear, concern, relief

Communicating multiple times in rapid succession, even and especially when you ask her to give you space.


13 text messages in a row, 7 missed phone calls within 2 minutes, 3 consecutive voicemails. Becoming upset or enraged when you fail to or are slow, to respond to attempts at digital communication.

I don’t know if I can do this for much longer, I feel like I need to answer right away or she will get mad. Maybe she is just so in love with me so she wants to speak to me all the time? This just doesn’t feel right.

Anxiety, worry, fear, concern, engulfing, drowning, suffocating

Verbalizing vicious comments or threats when angry with you that would constitute verbal/emotional abuse. Becoming physical toward you or toward inanimate objects.


During an argument, your boyfriend calls you a ‘slut’ and yells at you for a long time. On another occasion, after demanding a response from you, he angrily punches a wall in the bedroom, creating a fist-sized hole.

I don’t even recognize this person right now! I can’t believe he would say those awful things to me, the girlfriend he just said he loved more than anyone else this very morning! This person is scary and unpredictable.

Fear, insecurity, anger, hatred, sadness, disbelief, shock

Just as quickly as the fight erupted, your partner is eager to ‘make up’ and begins acting very sweetly and apologetic toward you. The apologies do not reflect true ownership of the behavior.

Example: You receive a text reading: Please answer my call. I didn’t mean to say that stuff to you. You just seemed distant to me so I started to worry that maybe you were seeing someone else and it makes me crazy to think that you might be! It’s because I love you so much that I do this stuff…I feel so strongly about you! I hope you forgive me so we can move forward. We are so perfect for each other. I don’t want to lose you.

It sounds like an apology but it also seems like he’s blaming me for the incident. I can’t get him yelling at me out of my head, how am I supposed to accept this ‘apology’ right now? But if I don’t answer, I feel like he won’t stop messaging me. I just feel so confused and stuck.

Sadness, hurt, anger, confusion, relief, anxiety, concern

He exhibits highly sexualized behaviors very frequently and at inappropriate times.

Example: 10 minutes after a fight between you and your boyfriend ends, your boyfriend attempts to initiate sex. After you explain that you are still recovering from the fight, he pressures you further, insisting that it will strengthen the bond between the two of you. When you insist you are not going to have sex with him, he pouts and sulks, ignoring you for the rest of the evening.

I can’t sleep with him right now, especially after what he just said to me. Why would he even ask me that? Doesn’t he feel bad about our fight, too? I hate feeling so much pressure to do sexual things with him all the time. I hate having to suffer the emotional consequences when I say no, or my internal conflicts when I say yes even when I don’t want to. I feel like this is a lose-lose situation.

Sadness, confusion, anger, fear, worry, anxiety, hurt, lost, used.


Best Regards,

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Elana Friedman, LCSW, CCTP



Elana Friedman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional. Elana graduated Summa Cum Laude with her Masters of Social Work degree from New York University and has since worked as a primary therapist providing individual, couples, family and group therapy for a full caseload of diverse clients at community mental health clinics in New York City. Her clients have struggled with depression and anxiety as a result of trauma, as well as adjustment difficulties involving parenting, aging, young adult issues, and relationship difficulties.

Elana founded her private practice, Daniel's Place Center For Healing in Nassau County, NY and provides individual psychotherapy, individual teletherapy, couples psychotherapy, and family psychotherapy.