Communicating when you’re having a conflict with someone with BPD can be very difficult and often has a “things get worse before they get better” outcome. This post outlines 5 practical steps and tools to strengthen your ability to communicate effectively during a conflict.
Hello gang! Before we get started, we are going to review BPD briefly and focus on what it means for someone with BPD to “split.” Click here to read the previous post “6 Ways to Better Reassure Someone with BPD.” I strongly, strongly encourage you to read the “Reassurance” post first. Reassurance is a necessary component of BPD communication, even through conflicts. Please learn the reassurance tools before carrying on.
BPD (borderline personality disorder) is a cluster B personality disorder that makes it difficult to regulate emotions and comes with intense fear of abandonment. This fear seeps into most actions and means of communication for someone with BPD. Therefore, it is difficult but vital to develop particular and heathy communication habits.
Many people with BPD experience unstable relationships (with partners/family/friends) because they have difficulty interpreting the actions of their loved ones the way we intend it. Their fear of abandonment often puts them on edge, as if they are always looking for “proof” that the people in their life will be leaving them/doesn’t care about them. It is very important to try to understand this when communicating with someone with BPD.
“Splitting” is a coping mechanism and a very common trait of many people with BPD. When someone with BPD feels like they are losing control in a situation or are unable to regulate their emotions, it can lead to a “split.” When they split, they see events, situations, people, and actions in black or white (or all good or all bad). This is an immediate reaction to an event in order to regain control over their emotions by deciding that their emotions/feelings do not matter in a particular moment. The split’s duration and intensity can vary greatly. Splits can last for less than an hour or for months at a time; they can affect every relationship in the person’s life, or they can be focused in on one relationship in particular.
My girlfriend of four years was diagnosed with BPD in 2017, which you can read about here and here. The steps in this blog are based off of what works well for our communication, but some things may not be applicable for all relationships with someone with BPD (including those with friends/family members.)
(For clarity, I will be referring to the person with BPD as “your person.”)
Conflicts (How to prevent your person from splitting.)
Avoiding and resolving conflicts are extremely difficult in general, and when you add BPD to the equation, it can be even harder. These tips might be less applicable to every relationship, but they work pretty well for conflicts between my girlfriend and me.
My personal goal for every conflict her and I encounter is to help prevent her from “splitting.” As mentioned before, this is a term used to describe a trigger of all good/all bad thinking for someone with BPD. This can be catastrophic during a conflict, because if your person “splits,” they will likely view you as “all bad” in that moment, making further communication often impossible.
It is important to note that you will not always be able to prevent a split, and that is not your fault. The tools described below are only means at trying to prevent the split, but it may not always be possible.
1. Frame discussions as “I feel” statements, not accusations.
This helps try to avoid conflicts before they happen. One of the things that has taken me a long time to learn and caused a lot of frustration is not knowing how to talk about my needs in our relationship. Discussing this can be really tricky, because people with BPD seem to interpret this as criticism on their character and triggers them to split.
This comes back to the “you don’t care about me” default. Your person will push you away as a defense mechanism to make it easier for you to not care about them. Essentially, it’s part of a (perhaps subconscious) plan to speed up your inevitable intention to abandon your person (because this is what they believe will happen). Because of this, talking about your needs is a very delicate process. Most of the time, discussing your needs will require some kind of relationship feedback. This is where “I feel” phrasing can be critical. You want to try to convey that you are not blaming your person, but rather talking about yourself.
For a simple example, I might want my girlfriend to show more interest in my interests. This will require me to talk about why I feel this is something I need. (She doesn’t get excited about the things I am excited about; it makes me feel let-down and upset.) I could say, “I feel like my interests aren’t very exciting to you and that is kind of upsetting, because I feel like I put effort into getting involved with your interests.” This is a lot different than, “You don’t put effort into being excited about my interests like I do for you and it’s upsetting.” One sounds a lot more accusatory, right? This technique isn’t always going to work, but it might help frame the conflict away from an accusation, and thus be less likely to cause your person to split.
2. State the positives before the negatives.
Another tactic to try to prevent your person’s splitting is to give extra attention to positive inputs, depending on the conflict. It’s hard to focus on things that are going well during an argument, but carving out space to talk about what you appreciate can be very helpful at assuring your person that just because you are having a conflict, does not mean you want to abandon them.
Let’s look back at the previous example of feeling like my interests aren’t getting enough effort from my girlfriend. Before bringing this up, I could first point out an instance where I appreciated the amount of excitement and effort I received on getting involved with my interests, and why I appreciated it. For example, “I really loved the day we made dinner together, and you let me pick the movies for our movie marathon. It made me feel really loved and happy that day, and I was so glad you enjoyed Star Wars!”
Then, I could follow up with my needs on the subject with the same “I feel” phrase from before. “Sometimes, I feel like my interests aren’t very exciting to you and that is kind of upsetting.” It might also be helpful to provide a particular example when your person did not meet your needs. This way, they don’t see it as a blanket statement where they are never meeting your expectations, and it instead points to a particular instance.
Not only does this balance of (perceived) positive and negative help prevent triggering a “they hate me” response or instant-guilt reaction, but it also provides an example of how your person can help meet your needs. This can take a lot of practice to get into the habit of, and it’s not always going to prevent a split, but fostering this method of communication between you two can have a positive impact on the way you handle conflicts.
Conflicts (What to do when your person splits.)
When your person splits (which you may or may not have experienced), it is unlikely that any communication afterwards will be very helpful. For my girlfriend, a split usually causes her to either completely withdraw or ignites an angry outburst, and either one of those can make me upset and/or angry.
Try to understand that it is natural to react badly to your person’s split. You can’t control your emotions, especially when your person is acting in ways that are seemingly irrational. That being said, controlling your actions during their split is very, very important. After a split, focus on regulating your own emotions. I found this a lot more helpful than trying to continue a discussion because I would only grow more hurt or angry, which worsens the situation. Here are some ways you can keep yourself in check.
1. Give you and your person a cool-off during an intense argument.
This is a technique I have discussed in a previous blog on LDR communication. Essentially, after your person splits and the conflict has become a full argument, you decide on taking a cool-off period and table the discussion. This can be quite difficult to do, but if you notice yourself reacting with anger, you need to walk away to prevent further damage. But it’s not as simple as just walking away for an hour.
You need to decide before a conflict what to do during a conflict. This will require an awkward conversation and could potentially carry some guilt to your person if it’s not done carefully. Your person may interpret this suggestion for a “cool-off break” as a guilt-trip for even needing a plan for arguments in the first place.
My suggestion would be to say you have been doing research on their BPD, and that this cool-off period was part of the advice. A lot of times, people with BPD want to know that their loved ones are putting in the effort to understand them, their emotions, and their diagnosis. Pointing out that you are putting this effort in before bringing up sensitive topics could be beneficial.
Note that not all cool-off periods may work or be the same as mine, but I will describe how I use my cool-off periods so you can have something to model and adjust as you need. Before implementing the cool-off, we decided that I had to decide when the cool-off is needed. I usually judge this by my own emotions, not my girlfriend’s. Sometimes I am able to remain calm during her splits, sometimes I am not. When I feel myself reacting badly to her split, that’s when I decide we need a cool-off period.
I tell her that we need a cool-off and that I will check on her in one hour. (A one-hour cool-off period was also decided on before a conflict took place.) When I do so, I always, always, tell her I love her, even if I’m fuming and even if she couldn’t care less in that moment. When the hour is up, I check on her. She is never the one to check in after the cool-off. This was also decided during the planning stage, and I strongly recommend that you take on this role, not your person. It’s likely your person will still be in their split and having to check on you might re-ignite the worst of it.
When I check in, I am usually calmer and more in control of my emotions, and therefore, better able to handle the split. Sometimes, she has also been able to calm down herself and pull out of the split, but this is less common. I often begin evaluating her emotions by beginning with an apology for only my behavior and only where it’s warranted. It’s important to not over-apologize or take responsibility for your person’s actions because it teaches them that their poor behavior (as the result of their BPD) is acceptable, and that you’re okay with being treated poorly. While you should avoid placing blame on your person for their poor actions during a split, you should not take responsibility for them.
Upon checking in with my girlfriend’s emotions and my own, I decide whether we need longer than a one-hour cool-off, if we are now able to continue our discussion, or if the discussion should continue a different day. I also recommend that you take this on this role, not your person. Their emotions will likely still be split and unregulated, making it difficult to assess their own abilities to communicate calmly and effectively, let alone yours.
My girlfriend and I have been using this technique for over a year now, maybe longer. It does not make a situation magically get better, but it absolutely keeps us from making a situation worse. Although it seems awkward to set up and start practicing, it is the single most important tool I’ve used to help us get through conflicts.
2. Use the cool-off period to actually cool off.
When my girlfriend and I first began using the cool-off technique, it wasn’t always effective because I would often return to the conversation still fuming. So, it’s vital to take that one hour to actively distract yourself from thinking about the conflict or find tools to keep your angry or hurt responses in check. I have a few suggestions that I use regularly.
The first is one I use more often, which is to simply launch myself into a work project, a hobby, or TV show. I go for a full distraction and force myself to give my full attention to something else entirely. This helps diffuse the anger greatly, rather than the times I would do nothing but sit around and continue thinking about the conflict, sometimes even making me more upset. I suggest picking something that requires active thought, not something you can do mindlessly (like choosing to write over crocheting). This has significantly decreased my anger and hurt feelings before returning to the conversation.
Another technique I’ve began using is with an App called Youper (Apple | Android). Y’all don’t read my blogs enough for me to have sponsors so this is coming from the heart. Youper is a really great mood-tracking app developed by psychologists with a built-in AI that helps you regulate emotions. When you open the app, the AI will ask you to choose a mood from 23 options and then require you to determine the factors associated with this mood out of another list of 42 options. Then, the AI asks you to explain why you feel this way, which all gets logged in the app. Pretty straightforward.
If your input is a “negative” mood, then the AI provides further options for you to discuss what situation lead you to feel this way, and what your thoughts are regarding that situation. This can be extremely helpful to actively separate your emotions, thoughts, and situation, and it has greatly reduced my initial negative mood in the past. This makes it easier to re-enter the conversation with my girlfriend after an effective cool-off period. It also offers gratitude and mindfulness/mediation exercises, which I rarely use for cool-offs, but could also be quite helpful.
There are likely other tools you can use to regain control over your emotions and finding what works for you is worth the time and effort. The last thing you want to do is take an hour break to find more reasons to be upset or angry, so this step is very important.
3. Encourage your person to make decisions tomorrow, not in the moment.
Sometimes, it can be impossible to prevent or manage a split. I find that the splits often lead to my girlfriend wanting to make decisions that seem irrational to me, such as cutting off friendships or quitting university. It’s important to know that when this happens, your person is 100% serious and does not see this as irrational at all. Try not to discard these thoughts as irrational and work to steer them away from making a decision.
One way I do so is simply by validating the thought (I know you’re upset right now), and then by suggesting the decision should wait until tomorrow (but let’s wait to make this decision tomorrow, okay?). Notice I use the word “let’s” as in first person plural, because it puts us on the same team, making decisions together and facing difficulties together. Notice I also use “okay?” to show that I am not making this decision for her, but rather suggesting we do this together at a different time.
It can be really difficult and a lot of pressure to prevent these “irrational” decisions, especially if they affect you. (Like, “We should break up.”) The best thing is to try to not to dismiss your person’s desire to make these decisions because they are the reaction to a split and based on the need to control a situation before they lose that control. (For example, your person wants to cut you out of their life because they truly believe you will be cutting them out of theirs.) It might also be helpful to refer to evidence-based reassurance in this situation, if the decision directly deals with the relationship between you and your person.
Managing conflicts before and during a split can be unpredictable and a strain on the relationship with your person. Remember that preventing a split is not your responsibility but doing your best to not trigger a split is vital. Regulating your own emotions during your person’s split should be your focus in order to prevent worsening the effects of the split. This will take a lot of time and practice, and the tips will never fully work as you want it to every single time.
The important thing is to keep trying to increase your understanding of what makes your person split and what makes these splits worsen for both of you. This way, you can better navigate conflicts when they occur. Again, it has taken over two years to get to a point where I can identify what works and what doesn’t, and I am not always able to make these tools work when I want them to.