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When a loved-one has traits of Borderline Personality

Friday, October 29, 2010

Extinction Bursts - Important to Understand when your Partner has BPD.

We all know that life is a journey and that it’s important to have focus and objectives. This can become difficult if the person "traveling" with us has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).  Because of the associated impulsiveness, hypersensitivity, and dysfunctional coping, people with this disorder often "wander off the path". And we often feel compelled to chase after and cater to them, which, in turn, diverts our focus and often results in anxiety, abuse, and dysfunction for everyone.

According to, extinguishing this pattern isn’t easy, yet it is an essential first step in having a healthy relationship.  Taking care of ourselves may feel like a selfish focus - but as the emotionally healthier one, it’s important  that we not get bogged down in BPD induced dramas.  And it's important that we understand that our BPD loved ones aren’t mentally fit to be leading the relationship.

So what do we do?   When the person with Borderline Personality Disorder becomes dysregulated or depressed. recommends that you give them the space to self sooth - not try to do it for them.  Take a deep breath and politely and non-aggressively disengage. It’s not easy to block out the distraction and emotional pleas for our attention, yet it is only with a critical pause that we can really stay on a constructive and healthy pathway.

This act is called extinction. We essentially remove our reinforcement in an attempt to stop the  behavior. We simply stop rewarding the behavior.

When our partner doesn’t get the expected response (reinforcement by us) it may scare or anger them and they may try harder to  engage us using threats, violence, destruction, intimidation, name calling, belittling, promises of withholding necessary things, retaliation, or any other painful thing they can think of to get us to engage.   This escalation is know as an extinction burst.

Extinction Burst - The term extinction burst describes the phenomena of behavior temporarily getting worse, not better, when the reinforcement stops.

Spontaneous Recovery - Behavior affected by extinction is apt to recur in the future when the trigger is presented again. This is known as spontaneous recovery or the transient increase in behavior. Be aware of this eventuality. It is a part of the extinction process. Don't be discouraged.

This is OK, as long as we anticipate it, understand it, and are prepared for it.  The same is true for spontaneous recovery.

They won’t like this, but it is a necessary for them to experience and to learn to self sooth their own frustrations in life.  It is what will bring on the opportunity for change.   When we do it, we block this opportunity for change and we subvert our own emotional health.

We can not allow others to lead us astray on our journey. In time, if we stay committed to our path our partners will adjust.  And we won’t be subjecting ourselves to as much pain.  

Authors: United for Now, Skip provides support, education, tools, and perspective to individuals with a loved one affected by Borderline Personality Disorder. BPFamily is a non-profit, co-op of nearly 75,000 volunteer members and alumni formed in 1998. We welcome you to join our free 24 hour on-line support community with its nearly 3 million postings and grow with us as we learn to live better lives in the shadow of this disorder. For more information or to register, please click here.

Write comments
  1. Very nice, succinct article. There's so much in it that I can relate to. Before I joined the online support community, I truly felt so lost. It's the most important thing I've ever done to learn, understand and help myself....I only wish I'd have found it sooner.

  2. This is a really outstanding article. I think we tend to get caught up in cycles of dysfunction in these relationship and fuel each others bad behavior. This makes a great deal of sense. Don't let the weaker partner control the relationship dynamics.

  3. I echo the previous comment, I wish I had found it sooner. A great deal of pain could have been spared on both sides of the equation.


  4. Fantastic information. I wish I had stumbled on this info years ago when I was constantly enabling and making things worse.

    Breaking these cycles takes a lot of courage but the results are so incredibly worthwhile. To finally feel like my own person again, someone in control of their own destiny. And my partner benefited from this too and continues on her road to recovery.


  5. Very good article. I have been living this for some time and just don't see an end. Really want to leave her but I love her. SOunds like a bad love story on tv but I live it every day.

  6. Never knew after 40 years of suspecting this disorder that it really existed. I have always suspected it but I thought it was unique to my spouse. It is so uplifting to know that support can be found through this website and blog.

  7. The most empowering thing is knowing I am not alone. I am not the only one that enabled this behavior for years and years. I am not the only one that has felt the bewilderment of why what I was doing wasn't working. So thank you to all that have made comments on this page. As I have started to do this, my wife has not taken to it well. I only hope that someday she understands the destructiveness she has caused her entire family.

    1. Wow, this is scary. How dead on all of your posts are. I always thought it was me. But in a way it was because i kept taking the abuse and making excuses. I feel free reading these.
      Thanks for your post.

  8. I did this. I used my DBT skills of not engaging. I walked away from a fight I knew I would not win and set boundaries while I did this. I also informed my wife I would leave and contact her shortly and we could discuss the issue after she calmed down. I went to DBT to better understand BPD. It was helpful. The long and the short of it, that was a month and a half ago. My wife has not talked to me since. She has told me via text the marriage is over and she wants a divorce. Be careful what you do. My relationship was moving in a very positive way, at least I thought, and now I am here. With BPD, you never know what can happen at any given moment. That is why this disease is so scary and hurtful to the non.

  9. Wow. My therapist says I use my empathy in a wrong way and end up taking care of someone else to keep them from feeling the pain I went through as a child of an alcoholic father and BPD mother. Clearly that feeds the BPD monster rather than allowing that part of a person to learn to self-sooth in a better way that exploding all over me. Lots to learn!

  10. In response to Anonymous Dec.27,2012 and for anyone reading:

    This can turn into yet another "catch-22" situation. Although some types of approaches teach ppl to disengage-- if you walk away, or walk out, or even mention it may be best for both parties to consider a mutual agreed upon temporary separation, the pwBPD will often take this as rejection or as potential rejection. Definitely a threat. S/he cannot hear the part where you will return when they are ready to talk calmly. If this is perceived as a real threat, a threat that you might leave or might not return, the pwBPD may react out of fear and anger and may either prematurely end the relationship, even if you were committed to trying to work with him/her, or may do something you will find very punishing and/or so damaging to the relationship, no reconciliation is possible.

    Also, want to mention: Sometimes a pwBPD is very threatened by the fact that a loved one is learning and applying DBT skills. This changes the dynamics, for the better hopefully; yet, this change can be perceived as very threatening to the pwBPD. Some pwDBT have expressed they feel family skills groups which don't include the pwBPD are private groups which exclude the pwBPD because the group is learning how to manipulate the pwBPD. ( Yes, this has been said to me more than once by a pwBPD when their family is offered a skills
    group.) In that the pwBPD has his/her own skills group, it's not inappropriate for family members to also meet together to learn the skills as well. Some pwBPD may appreciate this offering to their families, others may perceive this at a threat.

    When possible, take the time to think through your words, behaviors thoroughly before saying anything or doing anything. This may help to bring the situation to a more workable or a more reasonable place. It also may not do so. One can only try to do his/her best. We cannot control what the pwBPD does in response to our very best attempts to heal the relationship. Much of what goes on does not make sense, especially during an exacerbation of illness. There are too many distortions involved and it takes tremendous energy to change the focus and/or to clear the many distortions. If/when paranoia sets in, and it does in some cases, it's even more difficult to negotiate anything at all. Sad, but true. I hope there are more breakthroughs in the understanding of the biology and the treatment of BPD, soon.