A guide to leaving a partner with borderline personality disorder

Perhaps as many as 10 – 14% of the general population suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), with research suggesting even larger percentages for the gay and lesbian communities. Despite the great numbers of people suffering from the disorder, and the sometimes serious effect of its presence upon the partners of people with BPD, there is little information available for those partners in handling the mental and physical abuse that may occur because of the illness. This document itself will not address those issues; rather, it is a quick guide intended to cover the possible consequences of leaving a partner with BPD, with collective pointers from people who have gone through the experience themselves.

This is necessary, as many of the traits of BPD are distinctly antagonistic to peaceful settlements or simple partings. If your troubled partner displays any of the following characteristics, you may be dealing with BPD and need to know how its traits have a particular impact on your relationship:

“The person with a borderline personality is impulsive in areas that have a potential for self-destruction. Relationships with others are intense and unstable. The person will go through frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment by others, and express mood instability and inappropriate anger. There may also be identity uncertainty concerning self-image, long-term goals or career choice, sexual orientation, choice of friends, and values.”

People with this disorder tend to see things in terms of extremes, either all good or all bad. They view themselves as victims of circumstances and take little responsibility for themselves or for their problems.


  • unstable interpersonal relationships
  • frequent displays of temper
  • inappropriate anger
  • recurrent suicide gestures
  • feelings of emptiness and boredom
  • intolerance of being alone
  • impulsiveness in at least 2 of the following areas:
    Money, substance abuse, sexual relationships, reckless driving, binge eating, shoplifting

(from Yahoo! Health Guide; http://www.yahoo.com: type in “borderline personality disorder”)

You may have come across this document because you already knew or suspected BPD in your partner. Do not attempt to diagnose them, but be aware that if you recognize any of the above traits, or already know the diagnosis of BPD, then you should cautiously assume that all these traits, even ones you have not yet seen, may co-exist, impeding or endangering your attempt to leave the relationship. The following guide assumes a “worse case” scenario, but, as with any human disorder, there are obviously individual variations with some of the characteristics more prominent and others less so. Let your instincts and knowledge of your partner be your guide, but be prepared to deal with traits that you have not yet witnessed.

To Leave or Not to Leave:

This document cannot decide for you whether you should leave or not. Instead, it is aimed at those who have already decided to leave, and aims to cover the possible pitfalls involved, with suggestions to ease your way out of the relationship with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of safety.

Even if you have decided to leave, you may still find yourself beforehand grappling with counter-reasons to stay. Some of the more common are listed below:

Hope that things will be “the way it used to be” BPD mood swings may have conditioned you to think that, after a bad period, things will get better. However, if you recognize such a clear cycle, be aware they may also get worse again! In some cases there may not be another swing to “the way it used to be”, and the behavior or abuse may worsen.

Unclear thinking

People in an abusive BPD relationship may be under not only stress but also shock, and so may not think clearly. They may find themselves confused over the way the partner with BPD alternates between awful rages and then normal, loving behavior. Keep in contact with friends, and listen closely to their comments; they may have a clearer view of the person and relationship than you do. If you are disturbed or confused by your partner’s behavior, seek therapy to help in coping with its unpredictable nature.


Dealing daily with the fear of a rage, or constantly being on guard against other strange behaviors, will leave you exhausted to the point you may not want to do ANYTHING, let alone pack up and get out of the relationship. If you can, find some time alone to rest and think about your situation from a distance.

Substance Abuse

 If, in your stressed state, you are indulging in substance abuse to “cope”, do your best to taper off or quit entirely — you need to be clear-headed not only for your partner’s benefit, but your own.


 Some fear that all they have is their partner. Out of their fears of abandonment, the BPD partner may have been pushing others away from you, and you may have been giving too much attention to the relationship as a way of avoiding conflict. Your own dependency issues may be at work as well. Keep in contact with friends and family, and seek therapy if you are feeling isolated.

Staying to help

You might want to stay to help; but, as in alcoholism, your BPD partner cannot get better until THEY want to do so. Getting help is THEIR decision, not yours. Your primary responsibility is to yourself. If you want your partner in therapy, the best course is to set an example and get therapy for YOURSELF. Be aware that even the act of getting therapy for yourself might disturb your partner and consequently their behavior may worsen, so don’t overplay the fact that you are seeking help.

Keep in mind

YOU are a trigger of the illness! That is the nature of BPD. Rather than making the situation worse, it might help BOTH of you if you leave. Certainly, your presence might inadvertently be making the BPD person worse, as people with BPD tend to relive earlier traumas through their significant others, alternating between paradoxical feelings of extreme engulfment or extreme isolation. You did not deliberately cause these feelings, but your presence may be exacerbating the BPD’s response. You may also find that a partner with BPD may leave YOU suddenly, and for no apparent reason, due to the stress of alternating feelings of “too much closeness” and fear of abandonment.

Fear that the partner might commit suicide if you leave

You are not responsible for another person’s actions. Some people with BPD use the threat of suicide to prevent their biggest fear: abandonment. But while threatening suicide, they may also be making long-term arrangements, having affairs to replace you, even, as one woman found, pocketing away common money for the impending divorce. However, if a threat is actually attempted, do not hesitate to bring in not only medical personnel, but police. You cannot shoulder on yourself the responsibilities of doctors and legal authorities. If the partner is in therapy, alert the therapist to any suggestion of suicide.

Fear that your partner may hurt themselves in other ways.

A well-known BPD trait is “self-mutilation”, whereby the distressed person cuts or otherwise mutilates their own body in an effort to escape inner pain. Always alert your partner’s doctor or therapist if you see this happening, or even if it is merely threatened.

Even if you stay undecided about leaving, always have a “sudden exit strategy” in place. Have a packed suitcase, spare money, essential items in one place, and a safe residence to go on a moment’s notice. Do not tolerate physical abuse or even the threat of it; leave immediately. When a BPD partner is raging, they are not thinking clearly, and you should definitely leave the situation, if only temporarily, until the partner calms down. If you make a habit of this, they will also be less suspicious when it is time to make your final departure.

Before Leaving

The best way to leave a partner with BPD is through careful planning. Once you have made the decision to leave, you should take the following steps before you leave:

Keep the “sudden exit strategy” in place and even start adding to it with more details You do not ideally want to leave on the spur of the moment, but keep in mind that people with BPD fear abandonment, and therefore may worsen their behavior if any whiff of your intention to leave is detected. “If in doubt — get out!” Pack needed items a few at a time beforehand, to not only be prepared but also to delay suspicions from your partner.

Consult a therapist about your situation

Therapy will help you deal with the emotional abuse characteristic of relationships with BPD, and provide a safe and assuring environment in which to talk over your feelings about the partner. You may also learn ways of coping and reacting to the disorder that shield both you and your partner. Question the therapist beforehand about their knowledge of BPD; the disorder is not so widely known that you can assume they are familiar with its particular issues.

If your partner is in therapy, tell their therapist about your intention of leaving.

An ethical therapist will NOT tell your partner of your intent, but can help prepare them for the event, easing not only your departure, but also your ex-partner’s reaction to the change.

Consult a lawyer

There are many legal ramifications of leaving your own home, or forcing an abusive partner to leave a shared home. If you are not legally married, you may not have the normal court protections. Lawyers are also useful in discussing such issues as possible restraining orders. If you are planning divorce it is very important that you make legal moves carefully before you make your intentions known to your partner. There is also the possibility of counter-lawsuits from the abandoned party against which you may have to defend yourself. Since laws vary from state to state, and country to country, and you may find conflicting advice from friends and family over these laws, give full weight to your lawyer’s advice.

Document as fully as you can the abusive actions of your partner! Keep a diary of strange behavior. This will be valuable evidence in case authorities “do not believe you” or if the person with BPD makes false accusations or blames you for the breakup. Given that BPD behavior is more commonly witnessed by the partner, while the person with BPD may act normally in front of others, you may need backup to your claims of abusive behaviors as others may not believe you. You may also find that referring to your documentation strengthens your resolve to leave.

Take all your personal posessions with you when you leave You do not want to be “held hostage” to personal items that you may want to retrieve later; you may even find them missing or destroyed. Once again, consult a lawyer over the legal ramifications of abandoning or taking mutual property. Instead of taking everything at once, you may decide to move individual items one at a time, especially personal items, or those useful in an independent living situation or “sudden exit”. Be careful, however, not to tip off your partner of your intention of leaving by removing everything at once, or obvious items that suggest you are leaving.

Do not prematurely tell the person with BPD that you are leaving! It will backfire as a threat due, once again, to the sometimes extreme reactions of the disorder. So when leaving, do it suddenly, previously unannounced, and, preferably, in the presence of STRANGERS. Because people with BPD tend to “act out” their disorder more around people they know, you will be inhibiting that behavior by having strangers around you. Friends may volunteer their help, but you are better off paying for a moving company to aid you — this not only makes the move happen quickly, it also furnishes strangers who can witness any bad reactions. A BPD person caught off-guard, in the presence of strangers, and during a sudden, quickly-occurring move, is safer than a BPD person who has had time to prepare their response!

If your household has guns, remove them to a safe and secret place right before you start moving/leaving.

Let both your workplace AND the police know about your impending departure ahead of time. As abandoned BPDs may start a “smear” campaign against you — they may even call the police on YOU — this helps to short-circuit that attempt. Have your documentation of the abusive behavior at hand. Police may be puzzled why you are still in the abusive situation, and think you simply need an escort back to the premises to pick up your stuff, so make them very aware that the real danger with BPD is not so much in the staying, but the act of leaving! Have them arrive shortly before the movers to either witness as strangers, or to talk to the BPD partner and warn them about doing anything rash. Remember, as a taxpayer, you have the right to ask for a police escort at any time.

Avoid giving the BPD partner ANY reason not to trust you

If they are having an affair, DO NOT have an affair yourself, as you may find the reaction much greater than you anticipated (especially from one who is indulging in the same behavior!). Likewise, you may find any distrust of you turned into material for a “smear” campaign as listed above.

Due to the nature of BPD, you may be “hoovered” at the time of leaving or afterwards. This means your partner will suddenly be on their best behavior in an attempt to suck you back into the relationship. Keep in mind the cycle of their behavior; even when things return to “good”, they will also return to “bad”, and the fear of abandonment may make the “bad” even worse when it returns! To guard against the “hoover”, you may want to NOT leave a forwarding address or phone number. If you MUST do so, leave the number of a “neutral” third party, such as your lawyer or a mutual friend who can screen what is a reasonable and what is an abusive request.

Concentrate on the “right now” Instead of letting all the preparation overwhelm you, make a list, and follow it one step at a time. Unless there is the real threat of physical violence, you have all the time you need to prepare.

Always be aware that the time shortly before and after leaving may be the most dangerous period of all. As people with BPD are very sensitive to being abandoned, they may increase their strange or abusive behavior beforehand or afterwards, and even exhibit symptoms you have not yet seen, such as suicidal gestures or threats against your person or belongings.

As You Leave:

These are specific actions or items to consider or do as you move out:

Once again, take everything you rightfully own with you. Even if the person with BPD expresses a desire for you to leave, they may still latch upon your remaining possessions as a “hostage” in an attempt to keep you in contact. Or, they may rage against the departure and destroy or throw away any item that reminds them of you. Since some people with BPD have trouble “remembering how they feel” about other people, they may show a strong unwillingness to part with items that remind them of their partner.

Even people with BPD who want you to leave may be tense or, possibly, temporarily psychotic as you pack. If you can, pack and move when they are not present. If you are unsure whether they will be present or not, have strangers on hand as a means of keeping the BPD in check (people with BPD who cannot control their rages in front of you may sometimes show remarkable restraint in the presence of strangers). Once again, as a citizen you have the right to request a police escort in or out of a potentially abusive situation — use it!

Do not linger after packing or make much of your going. This may only increase the stress of the BPD partner and thereby cause a rage or short psychotic episode. It will not do your stress any good either.

As noted before, you may want to avoid leaving your new address or even phone number behind with the BPD partner. This lessens the chance of their playing upon your own ambivalence about the move and courting you back into the abusive relationship, or of venting their anger on you later. If you must stay in contact, call them from a safe place, or leave a third party’s phone number behind as the mediator.

After You Leave

It is best to have absolutely NO CONTACT afterwards; if, again, you must because of obligations (children, divorce, common property to divide), wait until such time as you feel not only comfortable, but also RESOLVED not to continue the relationship. Do not meet alone, either, if you must, but have an outside observer, preferably a stranger-to-the-BPD, on hand.

Those with shared children may still need to maintain some contact. In this situation, keep the conversations strictly on the topic of the children, and if the former partner starts getting personal about your relationship, cut the conversation short. The same advice goes for e-mail; if it gets personal, send a short, concise message back, then delete the offending e-mail. Send unofficial postal letters back, “return to sender”, and unopened; or, if your attorney has asked you for documentation, you might consider forwarding all mail unopened to your attorney.

Mourn the relationship. But don’t wallow in it; focus on some outside target/task to be accomplished that has nothing to do with the ex-partner. If you have left your home to get away from the BPD, you will find plenty to do! Settling in elsewhere, making new friends, telling family members and others about your transition, etc., are all worthy goals to occupy your attention.

Be aware that things don’t magically “get better” the moment you are out the door

Some common experiences related afterwards by people who have left a person with BPD include:

A period of time in which a lot of the anxiety and tension from the experience will well up and seemingly overwhelm you. You may be experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or you may simply find that you have been “hyper-vigilant” for so long that it is almost a habit! Be aware that these feelings will slowly subside; continue therapy if possible. Expect to feel exhausted; take care of yourself and rest.

Disturbed dreams

A healthy person processes events through their dreaming; so your dreams may continue to be about the situation/BPD person for some time. These dreams may go away, only to crop up much later. Know that this is normal; use dreams as useful tools to analyze your reaction to the stressful events that triggered them. You may even gauge your progress by how the bad dreams are fading.

Feelings of doubt

Did you do the right thing? How is that person with BPD doing? Am I BPD too? Remember that you may have acquired such BPD traits as projection by merely being in contact with the disorder; a therapist will help you straighten out any feelings of doubt about these issues. Your partner functioned without you before you met them — as did you! — so concentrate on your own needs and priorities.


You may find yourself feeling isolated in your new surroundings and without a support group. You may feel that you do not have the energy left to make new friends, or even to confront old ones. You may not want to go anywhere; you may feel depressed. So treat yourself: go for a walk. Go to a coffee shop and be open to conversation. If you have hobbies, like painting, writing, reading, etc., use this new-found time — when you are no longer dealing constantly with BPD issues – to pursue your interests. Go back to school. Look upon this as a new beginning! You will also find during this period that having your familiar things around you helps. So pay close attention to the advice about “TAKE EVERYTHING YOU OWN WITH YOU!” Conversely, don’t let loneliness drive you into a new relationship quickly, at least not until you have gone through a healthy period of:


“Why” did you get into that relationship in the first place? This is a good time to examine your family background and see what blinded you to the fact that the BPD person was trouble (it is true that people with BPD are sometimes very good at hiding their illness, but in retrospect you will see that some early signs were there). You may have doubts or fears about making new friends or dating because you are afraid that you will once again choose a BPD partner. Keep in mind that you are now an expert on recognizing BPD symptoms, and so practice looking for these signs and deciding if your fears are real or not. Continue therapy. Self-awareness is actually one of the “gifts” received from having been in an abusive situation; with enough work, you may actually come out of the experience as a stronger person. Be warned again, however, about rushing into any new relationships before you have fully processed the previous bad one!

Encountering the “smear” campaign

If your partner degraded previous partners, you may rest assured they are probably “bad-mouthing” you. Remember what kindergarten taught you: sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you! Put yourself above blame, be an adult and get on with your life. Of course, some smears can get ugly: lawsuits and nasty divorce proceedings sometimes occur as yet another means to keep you from “abandoning” the person with BPD.

An abandoned BPD partner may try retaliating as “punishment”

This can be avoided or meliorated somewhat by paying careful attention to the “Before You Leave” section; anticipate how you may be smeared and ‘nip it in the bud’ before you leave. Also, it is harder to smear someone who is no longer there to be smeared! Keep the “no contact” rule. And, once again, NEVER give the person with BPD reasons not to trust you, either before or after you leave!


While it is easy to be mad at either the person with BPD or the illness itself and its effect upon you, personal recovery from the experience is greatly facilitated by forgiveness and understanding on your part. Find out as much as you can about BPD: this will help you to forgive the person suffering from the disorder (as their actions are signs of their own suffering, and have little or nothing to do with you personally). This also gives you a better “feel” for recognizing the symptoms if you encounter them in other people, and, in turn, will increase your social confidence.

So, having faced all of the above, how long does it take to really recover from an abusive BPD relationship? Count on the first three months or so to be the worst, when the dreams, anxiety, new surroundings, doubts, exhaustion, etc., are all on the forefront. But if you keep to “one issue at a time” and don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed, you will find your tensions easing slowly but surely. After a year or two of steady self-care, you may be amazed that you even allowed yourself to fall into such a relationship — and even more amazed to find that you now have the inner strength and awareness to avoid it in the future!

Resources: http://www.kostverlorenvaart.nl/leave.htm

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