Dr. Burford is a Christian minister practicing science-based couples therapy through Couples Therapy Inc. He works with all couples with a specialization on couples wanting a biblical perspective. This post originally appeared on his blog.

Relationships where one or both partners are affected by Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are often characterized by a tumultuous push-pull cycle of idealization and devaluation. By gaining insight into what drives this pattern and how to establish new relational habits, couples dealing with BPD can break free of this painful dynamic. Let’s take a closer look at the stages of the Borderline relationship cycle.

Characteristics of Borderline Personality Disorder

A word on Personality Disorders (PDs):

Inherent especially to those with Cluster B personality disorders (PDs) is a lack of insight; a lack of awareness that they act as described. That is, people with personality disorders do not choose to think and act in the ways they do. They are likely to hear the description of their disorder and say, “That’s not me,” while those close to them will say, “That’s them to a ’T’.” Their condition is rooted in some combination of genetics, family of origin, life experiences, trauma, and past relationships. But the result is that those with whom they are in relationship will find themselves constantly “walking on eggshells.”

Lack of emotional regulation

Resisting therapy, changing therapists, and quitting therapy:

Consistent with the lack of self-awareness that characterizes people with personality disorders, persons with PDs will resist therapy, or often will participate in therapy only to “fix the other person” who, from their perspective, is responsible for the relationship problems. Relationship or couples therapy will be difficult for the PD because empathy for and understanding of another person’s point of view is bedrock for relationship therapy.

People with personality disorders struggle mightily with empathy and with accepting another point of view, especially if it exposes a fault or responsibility of their own. An inability to accept responsibility—or a defensiveness against accepting responsibility for their contribution to relationship discord—is a hallmark of personality disorders. So, when it becomes clear that they will not be able to solely blame their partner for the relationship problems (aside from a vague, “I’m not perfect.”), but that their way in the relationship is part (or much) of the problem, they will be “done” with that therapist or with therapy, altogether. It is not uncommon for a relationship affected by a PD to run through several couples therapists, as the PD-affected person eventually refuses to return to a counselor who is challenging their part in the relationship problems.


The Borderline relationship cycle

“Borderline” (short for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or referring to borderline traits) is a term often applied to women. But, it is not solely a female condition. Therefore, in this article, the BPD-affected person will be referred to either as “she” or as “them/they.” The non-BPD-affected person will be referred to as “partner.”

DSM-5 diagnostic criteria

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a Cluster B personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

It is characterized by:

“A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity that begins by early adulthood at is present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by 5 or more of the following symptoms:”

1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.

2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.

3. Identity disturbance: Markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.

4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating). (Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in criterion 5.)

5. Recurring suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats or self-mutilating behavior.

6. Affective instability caused by a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours, and only rarely more than a few days).

7. Chronic feelings of emptiness.

8. Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).

9. Transient, stress-related, paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.

Borderline Personality Disorder would be less mysterious if it were called “Emotion Dysregulation Disorder.” Alas, it is not. Persons affected by BPD experience extreme emotional highs and lows, responding impulsively to their feelings and to the story their emotions are telling them. These stories and the borderline’s impulsive reactions to their presumptive stories damage relationships (nearly all relationships), causing emotional or physical harm to partners, family members, coworkers, or others.

Their presumptions, stories, reactions, challenges, and accusations are experienced as uncaring, mean, selfish, manipulative or delusional. Because of the capriciousness and inexplicability of BPD reactions, relationships are turbulent and confusing, filled with frequent misunderstandings, conflicts, woundings, and relationship dissatisfaction. The relationship is confusing to both partners because their close, loving, sexual connections feel so good, but the scary, chaotic disruptions feel so bad. The result is a rapid cycling of relational closeness and relational distance.

The beginning of romantic BPD-affected relationships is typically exciting, fun, passionate, romantic, and electric. Persons on the Borderline spectrum have endearing qualities. They are “big feelers,” empathic and sensitive to others’ pain, champions of the underdog, quick to step in as caregivers. They are compassionate, affectionate, and caring. They are lovers of animals, often overseeing a menagerie of pets like a doting parent. They are drawn to babies, but less so to children once they are old enough to declare self-will (because the BPD-affected parent interprets differentiation as opposition). The attraction is nearly irresistible because, when not triggered, borderline-affected people are lovely, lovable, and loyal romantic partners.

The relationship typically feels best early on, when the couple is solely engaged with one another, free from outside influences and “competition” for time and attention. The caring relationship can briefly resurface if the non-BPD-affected partner falls ill or otherwise in need of “rescue.” The BPD-suffer’s natural compassion will rise to protect the partner, temporarily dropping borderline concerns for self protection. Once the crisis is over, however, emotional volatility will return.

The pathology of borderline traits is not fully understood. A genetic link is suspected, but it is hard to separate heritability from the psychological and behavioral impact of a parent who was emotionally invalidating, unavailable, abusive or neglectful. Whether by nature or nurture, relational safety in formative years either was not experienced, was inconsistent or short-lived, or ended in disappointment and hurt. The child did not experience empathy consistently, if at all, nor was helped in how to feel and manage emotions in a regulated way. If genetics are not at play, borderline traits and patterns may have passed down generationally as family system norms.

The fear of abandonment is the ultimate fear of a BPD sufferer, often rooted in their  neglected past. Whether from a childhood like those described above, or from abusive young adult relationships, a “disorganized, attachment style” develops—a person longs for caring, reliable connection to another human being, but at the same time distrusts it. The result is a push-pull dynamic in which the BPD-affected individual intensely embraces a close relationship, then—not trusting that someone can actually love and faithfully be there for them—will misinterpret myriad minor and innocent situations as criticism, rejection, abandonment, or precursors to abandonment.

They will then challenge, accuse or otherwise attack their partner. To the partner, these  fear-based protest behaviors feel unfair, selfish, manipulative, or even unsafe, motivating the partner to withdraw. This was certainly not the intent or desire of the borderline person; quite the opposite. They are ashamed of their behavior when viewed in the rear-view mirror and drift back to the relationship because they desperately want and need the partner they had pushed away only because they feared the partner was going to leave. Abandonment can become a self-fulfilling prophecy due to the cycle detailed below.

The Borderline relationship cycle follows these stages:

Idealization stage

It is not uncommon for persons with BPD or such tendencies to put a new love interest on a pedestal, allowing emotions to tell them after the first date that they have found their “soulmate”—the only person around whom they finally feel understood and safe. BPDs identify and enmesh with a “favorite person.” They will fully disclose their traumatic past and their insecurities, wholly entrusting themselves to the partner before a basis of trust has been built. Love-bombing and sex-bombing in the early stages of the relationship will create an intoxicating bond that mutes any real-life concerns. The couple spend weeks together—mostly in bed—before moving in together in very short order.

Obsessive clinging

Obsessive Clinging – The unstable or void self-identity of the BPD-affected person causes them to feel they need to be with, or be the center of attention of, their partner at all times. There will be texts or calls every hour, even if they know the partner is at work or with family or otherwise busy. Longing for that enmeshment that will fill them up, the BPD can hardly let a day go by without physical contact. Since it feels good to be needed and desired, this can at first pull in the partner even closer, with the partner taking on the hero/rescuer role in an unwritten contract that they will always be there for the borderline person, eschewing all other obligations. (This is a setup for later disappointment, given that such an unreasonable expectation is unsustainable.)


Having quickly bonded with a person to give them identity and make their life complete, the BPD sufferer just as quickly devalues a partner who has other interests and loyalties—even innocent and unavoidable commitments like work obligations, family relationships, friendships, memberships, or hobbies that do not involve the BPD  person. The BPD-influenced person wants their Favorite Person all to themselves.

There will be protests against even the most reasonable expenditure of time or attention elsewhere. There will be insults and subtle jabs at the partner’s worth, skills, or competence that make them needed elsewhere. There will be criticisms of the partner’s family, friends, job, and interests. Dichotomous ultimatums will be given by which the partner must choose the borderline-affected person over other people or interests. Choosing something else will bring an intense emotional reaction filled with accusations of unfaithfulness, complete with an unintentionally-fabricated story to back it up, which the BPD person will regard as absolutely true, unsatisfied by any argument or proof to the contrary. Loyalty anywhere else, including differentiation of self, is considered disloyalty to them; it is seen as rejection or abandonment.


Still early in the cycle, a push-pull dynamic begins in what feels like a Jekyll and Hyde switching of personalities. It is experienced by the partner as a confusing game of “Come here, go away.” 

In Attachment theory, this is called a Disorganized Attachment Style; an anxious pursuit of one’s partner in a way that ultimately pushes them away, or an anxious clinging to one’s partner, followed by distrust, and an avoidant distancing from one’s partner, followed by reengagement. And… repeat.

Practically, what does this look like? Something will happen that will feel to the BPD-influenced person like criticism, de-prioritization, a sign of unfaithfulness, rejection, or a precursor to abandonment. It could be something as benign as the person going to work, or stopping by their mother’s house, or getting together with old friends, a scheduling conflict, not texting back quickly enough, talking to someone of the opposite sex, having to work late, or engaging in a solo hobby.

Whatever the trigger, it will be interpreted by the BPD-affected partner as choosing against them; it will be “evidence” of a plan to abandon them. In response, they may flood their partner with texts, show up at their workplace, make accusatory calls to friends, family members, or work associates.

They may “retaliate” by withdrawing, ghosting, engage in risky behavior, withhold sex, threaten self-harm, threaten break-up, actually break up, or kick out their partner. Underlying these increasingly escalated behaviors the borderline-affected person is subconsciously conducting a damaging “loyalty test” to see how much effort the partner will put into keeping them. That is, will the partner put up with these things—a sign of their love—or abandon them.

It’s a damaging test that sabotages the relationship, mistreating it until the partner appropriately withdraws, confirming in the borderline’s mind that the partner wasn’t faithfully there for them after all, justifying in their mind the fear of abandonment. A partner’s legitimate self-defense or attempt to explain himself or herself will fall on deaf ears; the BPD-affected person will have lost touch with reality, possibly dissociating. Nothing can be said or done at the moment to deescalate them or to talk them out of their misperceptions.


When the borderline-affected person eventually comes down from escalated emotion, they may hold their partner responsible for their escalation and want an apology and a promise of change. Or, they may recognize that their behavior had been over-the-top and they will be filled with shame, regret and remorse. They may apologize, but the apology will likely carry a request for grace due to her wounds, or a want for comfort or even rescue. The partner may respond with declarations of renewed commitment and promises to forgo triggering behavior. The BPD-affected person will likewise—in a non-emotional state-of-mind—promise more measured behavior in the future. The reunion will likely be sealed with sexual intimacy, which in the borderline’s mind equals love, and there will be a temporary restoration of idealization.


 The partner takes inappropriate responsibility for things that trigger the BPD-affected person. They will try to keep them happy; to satisfy their needs, to avoid saying or doing anything that would upset them, walking on eggshells lest they say or do anything (including benign things), that would trigger the BPD-influenced person’s insecurities. This is impossible, of course. There will be another suspicion, another misinterpretation, another delusional story that the borderline-person adamantly believes is true and won’t be convinced otherwise, no matter the evidence.

Because of their inability to separate fact from feeling that something is true, they will voice ultimatums with a threat for non-compliance. If the partner is a male, these relentless challenges to his integrity and demands for his compliance rob him of respect and begin to strip away his manhood. He’ll become defeated, convinced that she’ll never let him remain her knight in shining armor, but will eventually always thrown him under the horse.

It is in such occurrences that the etymology of “borderline” can be seen. When first coined, the condition was understood to “border” Freud’s psychoanalytic categories of psychosis and neurosis. Psychosis, describing difficulty in perceiving what is real (think hallucinations and delusions), and neurosis characterized by unwarranted—often persistent—hyper-vigilance, now called “anxiety.”


The above pattern gets recycled. Temporary stability may be reached, but something will again trigger intense, emotional reactions and unreasonable behaviors. At this point, the partner may reconsider the relationship and decide to leave. Or, the partner may be “addicted” to the BPD, or their lives are too intertwined (such as with children), or the partner may not leave due to fear the BPD will harm themself. The cycle will therefore repeat itself throughout the relationship, or the relationship will end and the pattern will repeat with a new love interest.

Breaking the BPD relationship cycle

Ideally, however, the BPD-affected person will get help from a DBT-trained therapist, a DBT group—or better—both. Ideally, the partner will also get help to establish and maintain boundaries against abuse. And ideally, the marriage will get its own counselor to establish a new mutually protective pattern against the BPD tendencies.

To further explain the above cycle, understand that the person suffering from borderline personality disorder or tendencies typically lacks an internal identity. They don’t know who they are. Having no direction, interests or goals of their own, they completely adopt the pursuits, interests, passions and lifestyle of the now-boyfriend or girlfriend, enmeshing with their partner’s identity. As stated above, the new love-interest becomes their “favorite person”—practically the only person with whom they are relating or doing anything.

This is not sustainable. For one thing, it is difficult for the borderlined person to maintain a passion for something for which they lack real passion. They therefore begin to pull away from the partner’s interest, and also want the partner to reduce commitment to outside interests in order to be more attentive to them.

Enmeshment replaces a healthy rhythm of time-together-and-time-apart, which every couple must have. People need time on their own (especially introverts) and time to pursue solo interests. Couples need time to miss each other. Lacking this balance, the BPD partner’s relentless need for prioritization and togetherness becomes suffocating.

Because of the BPD-affected person’s desire for near-total attention, they will eventually erupt in protest when not given it. This will present as a shift from Anxious “pull” to Avoidant “push” that will be sudden and unexpected by the partner. It will be triggered by something minor or even benign, like the partner attending an office party or getting together with old friends. The borderline-affected person will misinterpret these incidents, reading into them nefarious intent, de-prioritization, criticism, rejection or unfaithfulness, igniting the fear of abandoment.

A ‘big feeler’

As mentioned, the borderline-affected person is a “big feeler.” While emotions are a good thing, pointing to something of importance, emotions are poor decision-makers. They are part of decision making, but must be regulated by wisdom, such that chosen behavior is wise and constructive in the long run. To do or say whatever we feel like doing or saying is rarely wise, it typically will be destructive life and relationships, in the long run. Most of us, therefore, slow down our reactions to emotions; we rein them in, knowing they can mislead us. We keep ourselves in check until we can make wise, relationally effective decisions based on verified facts.

The partner should stop trying to reason, and instead reassure their partner of their love and commitment, and that they are not leaving them. This might sound something like, “I love you. I’m committed to you. I have eyes for no one but you. I’m not going to be ________ (yelled at, cussed at, called names, hit…), so I’m going to be run some errands.

Persons suffering from borderline personality disorder or its tendencies don’t do this. They let emotions drive. In their mind, what they feel is real. If they feel it, it is fact. The story they are telling themselves is the way it is; they won’t be talked out of it. That phone call they overheard with a coworker of the opposite sex wasn’t just kind, it was flirtatious! Their reaction will be defensive and immediate. “Admit it! You’re having an affair, you cheating scum! How long has this been going on!?! Have you slept together? Were you ever going to tell me? When were you planning to leave me!?! You know what, save yourself the trouble. I’m outta here! Don’t call me. Don’t follow me. You’ll never see me again.”

Most partners will try to defend themselves; to explain it’s not that way; that there is an innocent explanation. But in a heightened emotional state, the borderline person is incapable of hearing another point of view, much less accepting it. This is the time for the partner to stop talking and erect a self-protective boundary against the BPD-flooded partner’s verbal or possibly physical or otherwise destructive abuse.

The partner should stop trying to reason, and instead reassure their partner of their love and commitment, and that they are not leaving them. This might sound something like, “I love you. I’m committed to you. I have eyes for no one but you. I’m not going to be ________ (yelled at, cussed at, called names, hit…), so I’m going to be run some errands. I’ll be back in an hour.” Give him or her a kiss on the forehead, or a hug if it feels safe and if allowed (which it may not be). Then leave. And very importantly, come back when you said you would, lest the experiment in trust be deemed a failure, and the fear of abandonment seem justified.

There are no guarantees, but such boundaries padded with assurances are likely to calm the borderline person over time. There is a greater chance of success if this plan is agreed to in advance, including the agreement that phone calls and texts will not be responded to during this break from each other. With repetition, this will become the new, healthier pattern.

If, while away, the borderline-influenced person destroys property, or makes calls to the partner’s workplace, friends, family members or to the police to make accusations or spread misinformation, there must be proportionate consequences. These consequences must be consistently imposed. For instance, they must replace or repair the damaged property or the police will be called. Or they must call back those they contacted and set the record straight, or you’ll move out. If these consequences are too severe, decide what is proportionate and enforceable. Then do it. If you voice a boundary, enforce it. Every time. And in the course of it, reassure the BPD-affected individual of your desire to be with them. Assure them that you do not desire to end the relationship, but that you won’t put up with abuse.

Following these unpleasant disruptions—and despite their earlier declarations that they never want to see you again—the borderlined partner will initiate contact, seeking restoration. This is the Anxious “pull” part of the push-pull pattern. They may offer a minimal apology. Or not. They may act as if nothing happened, or that it was no big deal. They may seek to restore the relationship through sexual intimacy. And then there will be a return to normal until the next incident that is interpreted as criticism, de-prioritization, rejection, or abandonment.

Interspersed in the above cycle, one can expect other BPD behaviors, such as splitting  (dichotomous, black and white idealization or devaluation of a person), depression lasting days or weeks, emotional volatility, dissociation, pleading, public scenes, lying, love-bombing, substance abuse, risky behavior, reckless spending, sexual acting out, self-injury, suicidal threats, and suicide attempts. These are all attempts to feel better by following emotional impulses into behavior that actually makes things worse.

Treatment for BPD

The good news is that BPD is treatable. Persons with borderline tendencies need therapeutic help managing their emotions, thoughts, and actions. In psychological terms, treatment hope is grounded in neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt and change in response to new experiences. People are wounded in relationships and healed in relationships. People can learn new ways of dealing with their feelings, thoughts, impulses, responses and behavior. As BPD sufferers gain corrective experiences in which people are consistently there for them and do not harm, lie to, cheat on, nor abandon them, the hair-trigger amygdala can begin to relax.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is the go-to therapy for Borderline tendencies. DBT teaches mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and relationship effectiveness. The borderline relationship cycle can stop when the couple becomes aware that their fight is not with each other, but is a shared fight against this cycle. With Dialectical Behavioral Therapy to help the borderline person, with protective strategies for the partner, and with an agreed-upon plan by which the couple agrees to manage the episodes, a new, healthy pattern can replace the old cycle. With DBT tools, misinterpretations and temptations to destructive impulses can become recognized early, distrusted, slowed down, yielded to self-control, and subjected to wise analysis. The old, insecurity-rooted, emotionally-driven push-and-pull cycle can thus be tamed, and a pattern of wise, relationally protective choices emerge.

(See this recommended video on Borderline Relationship Cycle)


The push-pull dynamic characteristic of BPD relationships is deeply painful for both partners. However, by gaining insight into what drives the cycle, learning skills to regulate emotions, and establishing mutually protective relational boundaries, couples can break free of destructive patterns and foster healthier intimacy. Treatment approaches like Dialectical Behavior Therapy offer hope and practical guidance for positive change.

Read Part 4: The Narcissistic Relationship Cycle