Welcome: Couples Where One Struggles with Emotion Dysregulation or BPD

Feb 14, 2022borderline brain2 comments

To the person with borderline personality disorder, I hear your pain—the agonizing, stabbing-in-the-gut-with-a-red-hot poker pain that utterly strips away anything but that stabbing and the desire to make it stop! Sadly, I’m not aware of anyone or anything that can make it stop, other than maybe some lessening of it over the passage of the years. [note: there is no medication directly for bpd, though some medications can be prescribed to treat some of its symptoms.] Yet, even further damage can be done from acting out of that stabbing pain, and it can be just as, if not more, painful in its own way.

To the person in relationship with someone with borderline personality disorder, there can be anguish, both in trying to understand why your loved one has painful reactions and why perhaps they lash out at you or hurt themselves. And this is on top of the usual challenges of any close relationship. Please know, often, there is no explanation for why a truly innocent look, word, or action from you, or innocent lack of saying a word, or doing an action, is followed by such a sharp emotional explosion, no matter how adamantly your loved one says to the contrary! Quite often, the ONLY overall rational explanation is that your loved one’s brain is wired differently. Take a look at the brain scan of a person with borderline personality disorder:

Brain Scan Copyright Dr. Allan N. Schore Amygdala Hyperreactivity in Borderline Personality Disorder … https://images.app.goo.gl/izQ54VvJP9j25knQ6 Images may be subject to copyright.

Their brain is just sending intense emotional signals for some as yet unexplained and not-understood reason, and the signals result in emotional sensitivity which is often off the charts. The suddenness and searing intensity of hurt is unbelievable to most. There is nothing we know to do to stop the bpd brain from sending signals like this! That’s it—that is often the only rational explanation for a seemingly irrational emotional turmoil or outburst or self-harm—he or she is HURTING! It hurts to feel this stabbing-in-the-gut feeling! It’s their “fight or flight” response, from deep in the “ancient of days” part of the brain–the amygdala. This old, core part of the brain perhaps kept our primitive ancestors safe from life-threatening dangers back then. Today, in the bpd brain, the deeply emotional amygdala can frequently and quickly take over, an “amygdala hijack,” and preempt the more “thinking” parts of the brain like the cortex.  While everyone experiences fight or flight responses at times, I suspect an individual with bpd experiences them more often, more intensely and more out of proportion to the situation.

An early bite-sized family bpd story that we sometimes share involves me being with my husband at the dinner table. When he innocently asked me to pass a fork, I had a bpd “stabbing” episode and reacted loudly and harshly, believing he was criticizing me for the way I had set the table and that he didn’t love me. I know that does not seem rational, which it’s not, but I can assure you that my sudden pain was sharp and deep and real in that moment of feeling unloved. Once you understand the thoughts, feelings and beliefs I hold in that moment, it makes complete sense. My husband can validate me by saying, “Wow!I am so sad and sorry to hear how much pain you feel! And it makes complete sense that you would be overcome by pain when you think I am criticizing you and don’t love you. Man, that must be so difficult for you!”

When you have bpd, your brain intensely sends out sharp emotions and it hurts like hell! Sure, you might be able to categorize some types of interactions that particularly lend themselves to triggering the brain firing and feeling hurt (for me one example is a sudden change in plans), but bpd reactions commonly come up in everyday situations. And often bpd is more likely to manifest in the relationships with close family members. There is no explaining the horrendous depth and sudden intensity of the hurt. That’s why, when I try to explain what it’s like, I stick with “being stabbed in the gut with a red-hot poker.” Sometimes, it feels like I am being stabbed once every second for 60 seconds over and over again for a period of several minutes, like when you are having back-to-back contractions in labor that feel like they are happening to you and are never going to end.

It can feel like there is no way to “make it stop”—either for the person with the condition, or for their partner. There are ways to try to learn how to deal with it. I began experiencing this condition in childhood and my husband and I have contended with it since we began dating in law school. Unfortunately, I don’t and can’t even pretend to “have the answers,” but I have some experiences that I would like to share with you in the form of this blog, in case my journey might help to ease your way forward through “dealing with” this often-wretched, clearly pain-filled condition.

Please know you are not alone and that I believe your way forward, though extremely difficult, is possible. People get through many difficult life situations by focusing on what they can do today to make things better. I believe there are ways to help manage and thrive in a relationship when one of you has bpd, if you are willing to be educated, practice self-care, and learn some tips and skills for your tool belt.

I plan on regularly sharing some skill/tip/tool that has helped us move forward. Please remember, it’s not just the person with bpd who has porcupine quills; each individual experiences quills from the other!! Also though, it’s two porcupines who love each other and can look for each other’s loving qualities. Many porcupines mate for life–there’s much more to porcupines than their quills!

• The information in this blog is not a substitute for medical care. You need to continue with your regular doctor. If you have serious mental health issues such as severe anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, seek professional help now or call 911 if you’re experiencing a medical or safety emergency. The suicide prevention help line is 1-800-273-8255.

• All rights reserved. (porcupine love, ™®)


  1. Carrie

    Love this. I so appreciate your acknowledgement that there are no “quick-fixes” to our emotional pain, but with hard work and awareness, we can learn to lessen our “acting out” in the moment and even, in time, lessen the severity of the pain. What wonderful words of hope and understanding that we are all in this together.

  2. Marie-Paule

    Cathleen, your vulnerability and ability to capture the pain and -yes- the hope is a tribute to the wonderful person that you are: brave, resilient, determined. You and Jim are an example to the rest of us all, imperfect and extraordinary humans – whether bpd is part of the picture or not.


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"Those who love you are not fooled by mistakes you have made or dark images you hold about yourself. They remember your beauty when you feel ugly; your wholeness when you are broken; your innocence when you feel guilty; and your purpose when you are confused." - Alan Cohen (Wisdom of the Heart, 2002)