Living With a Wife with Borderline Personality Disorder

How to hear what is not said.

Posted Sep 26, 2020

Individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) suffer from unstable emotions and relationships. If your spouse suffers from significant symptoms of this disorder, you are most likely affected on a daily basis. Understanding what your spouse is feeling and what causes her to feel that way will give you new tools that you can use to stabilize your relationship.

Let me hear you.
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Do you find yourself struggling to anticipate and understand your spouse’s feelings and the behaviors that follow? Does your spouse often go very quickly from one emotion to another? Does she have difficulty accepting if she doesn’t get her way? If so, your spouse may be suffering from symptoms of BPD.

The effects of BPD are most severe in intimate relationships. The spousal relationship is perhaps the most intimate of all. This is because individuals with BPD tend to suffer painful feelings of emptiness almost all the time. They desperately seek out others to make them feel whole. This causes anxiety and fear of abandonment, which leads them to feel insecure about the relationship. Consider the following exchange between Brett and Jasmine as they lay in bed.

Jasmine: Wake up!! Wake up!! How can you be sleeping?

Brett: Why shouldn’t I be sleeping?

Jasmine: Because I am lying here!!

Brett: We made beautiful love and then I fell asleep.

Jasmine: Yeah, you got what you wanted and then just rolled over and rolled away.

Brett: What do want me to do? Sit up and look at you all night?

Jasmine: I don’t want you to do anything. I don’t even want to be married to you.

This interaction illustrates how BPD can cause a married couple to go from passionately loving to alienation in a matter of minutes. Relationships generally don’t change that quickly, particularly when one party is asleep. More likely these changes are due to instability in Jasmine’s view of the relationship. The intensity of the intimacy felt during passion with her husband induced fears of abandonment, which prompted her to wake Brett and confront him. Here is another example.

Brett: Would you like to go out to dinner tonight?

Jasmine: How could you ask me that? You know I had a difficult day at work and I am exhausted.

Brett: That’s why I asked you to go out.

Jasmine: You have no idea who I am. You don’t pay attention to me. Why are we together?

Continued interactions like this one may leave Brett feeling like Jasmine will see anything he does as wrong and he may give up on the relationship. Empathic understanding of Jasmine’s feelings will allow him to respond to her more constructively and more supportively. The two exchanges above both reflect Jasmine’s insecurity in intimate relationships. They are her way of saying to Brett I am afraid that you will lose interest in me and leave.

Brett did not hear this message. Instead, he felt accused of doing something hurtful to her. He felt defensive. He was confused by this because he had no intention whatsoever of hurting her. To the contrary, these were efforts to please her.

So how does Brett learn to hear the emotion that Jasmine does directly express? Empathy is the process that allows us to feel the emotions of others. Of course, this is easiest and most efficient when the person expresses their feelings articulately, but many individuals have difficulty doing so. Those suffering from symptoms of BPD have particular difficulty because the intensity of their emotional experience often overwhelms their ability to differentiate strong emotions and put them into understandable terms. Instead, the emotions are acted out, like in the examples above.

The first step in deepening empathic ability is to become aware that there is always an emotional component, or subtext, to communication between people in intimate relationships. This allows you to actively seek it out.

One way to do this is by asking directly. You can do this by asking general questions, such as:

  • Are you worried about something?
  • Did I hurt you?
  • What are you feeling?

Or you can do this indirectly by making inferences from vocal tone, body posture, and context, such as waking someone from sleep.

In future posts, additional tools will be described and illustrated to further increase your ability to understand the emotions of people you care about and craft responses that are both effective and loving.