Relationships Can Help in Borderline Personality Disorder

Author Article

For people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), relationships can be a struggle. The people close to these individuals themselves face significant challenges. With symptoms of the disorder that include difficulties with boundaries, instability of self-concept, inability to regulate emotions, and frequent attempts at self-harm, the individuals who meet this diagnosis may expect too much out of their relationship partners, react with outrage when they feel they’re being rejected, and be demanding of excessive reassurance and attention. Treatment for people with borderline personalitydisorder is generally given only to the individual instead of to the individual and close relationship partners. Such an approach not only leaves those partners out of the therapy loop, but also may fail to take advantage of the “data” a relationship partner can provide about the individual’s behavior outside of the therapy context.

According to new research by Rutgers University’s Skye Fitzpatrick and colleagues (2019), early childhood relationships are important factors in the development of this disorder. However, theorists and researchers may pay less attention than they should to adult relationships. A biopsychosocial perspective to BPD emphasizes how the disorder is maintained within the close relationships that people have in adulthood. As the authors note, “When emotional intensity increases in people with BPD, SOs (significant others) attempt to escape the intense emotion rather than engage in effective problem-solving, emotional validation, or emotional tolerance” (p. 2). As a result, the SOs become less supportive and more judgmental, and can become demanding, critical, attacking, and withholding of affection. A downward spiral ensues, only exacerbating the individual with BPD’s distress and hence, dysfunctional behaviors within the relationship.

Fitzpatrick and her colleagues note that SO’s are involved in many other types of treatments for a range of other disorders from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder. BPD would be an area particularly suitable for such interventions, given that the symptoms are so closely linked to relationship factors. Although some studies have included relationships with family members, they do not take into account the very important contributions of nonfamilial relationships. There are, Fitzpatrick et al. note, a number of potential targets of treatment if close intimate partners are involved in the process. These include reducing BPD symptoms in the individual but also reducing the distress of the SO, and thereby reducing the general distress in the relationship. SOs could also be used in therapy as “coaches,” as targets of education about the disorder, and to help the couple work on reducing their relationship distress in general.

Using this as a background, the Rutgers University researchers examined the existing literature on the most well-established approaches to BPD therapy that fall into these three categories. The first, are those coachinginterventions in which the SO actively participates in treatment. In what is called “Systems Training for Emotional Predictability and Problem-Solving (STEPPS),” clients themselves learn about such well-established therapeutic approaches as cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, which encourage clients to challenge their thoughts, learn to manage their emotions, communicate effectively, and manage their behaviors. SOs are brought in for one 2-hour session so that they can learn about these techniques. They can bring the therapy home by asking the individual with BPD such questions as “Have you tried a skill?” when they are distressed. STEPPS was shown, in two well-controlled randomized trial interventions, to show improvement in BPD symptoms that persisted past the end of therapy.

The second way of involving family in treating people with BPD uses education and family-based interventions. In “Family Connections,” family members of people with BPD participate in 12 weeks of group therapy in which they receive information and support. They also are taught some skills from dialectical behavior therapy to learn how to build healthier relationships with the individual with BPD. The tests of this approach were mixed, and compared to STEPPS, did not appear to provide substantial improvement, and it therefore appears to work more as a support group than as a therapeutic intervention. One variant of this approach involves family skills training in methods shown to work for individuals with BPD in traditional therapy, but there are no empirical studies demonstrating its effectiveness. Small positive effects of treatment were shown in what’s called “Staying Connected,” that focuses on the SO’s distress rather than on the partner with BPD. However, there were not enough studies to support this approach’s effectiveness.

Disorder-specific therapies involve SOs in forms of therapy ordinarily used for individuals alone. In couple dialectical behavior therapy, couples are seen as trapped together in a cycle of “high emotional arousal, inaccurate expression of emotion, and invalidation” (p. 7). Therapy attempts to reduce suicidal, self-injurious, and aggressive behavior. The couple then goes on to learn how to reactivate their relationship by engaging mindfully in joint activities. They learn how to identify and express their emotions in an accurate manner, and acknowledge the feelings of their partners. The couple also learns how to manage conflict in ways that reduces destructive communication and helps to restore feelings of closeness. Couple dialectical behavior therapy, although tested only in one randomized study, showed positive effects on relationship quality as well as the SO’s levels of passion.

The next BPD-specific therapy tested in the context of couples counseling was “couple emotion dysregulation treatment.” Across 3 phases of a 16-week treatment, couples learn methods of dialectical behavior and couples cognitive behavioral treatment with the goal of reducing the couple’s levels of distress. In the couples cognitive behavior phase of the treatment, for example, couples learn to differentiate between sharing and problem-solving, and in the process learn to soothe each other and express emotion. Unfortunately, the one study testing this approach was an uncontrolled pilot study, but the results suggested that the method did yield some positive effects on relationship satisfaction that persisted beyond the end of active treatment.

Given that these studies are just a beginning, the authors believe that the involvement of SOs in treatment of people with BPD shows promise. One common feature of all these approaches is their focus on training in emotion regulation skills. Using skills taught to the individual’s partner, such an approach helps to provide consistency outside the therapy session and in the home, both in terms of the feedback the individual receives from the partner as well as through modeling. Another positive feature of this approach is that the SO learns to regulate his or her own emotions, helping to break the destructive cycle in communication that can result when their anger and frustration start to get out of control.

As noted by the Rutgers researchers, the studies that incorporate SOs have additional limitations in that most of the individuals with BPD were female. Furthermore, other theoretical underpinnings in the causes and maintenance of the disorder were not tested in the intervention context. The other major limitation, of course, is that couples treatment was not compared to treatment involving individuals alone.

To sum up, Fitzpatrick and her collaborators have laid the groundwork for a potentially crucial area of intervention research with individuals who have BPD. Taking into account the relationships that make up such an important context for the lives of people with this disorder should help advance not only the theories of BPD in adulthood, but also the everyday contexts in which this disorder affects people’s lives.

5 Things to Know Before Attending Your First Psychiatry Appointment

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By Vania Manipod

As a psychiatrist, I often hear from my patients during their initial visit about how long they’ve been putting off seeing a psychiatrist out of fear. They also talk about how nervous they were leading up to the appointment.

First, if you’ve taken that major step to set an appointment, I commend you because I know it’s not an easy thing to do. Second, if the thought of attending your first psychiatry appointment has you stressing, one way to help tackle this is knowing what to expect ahead of time.

This can be anything from coming prepared with your full medical and psychiatric history to being open to the fact that your first session may evoke certain emotions — and knowing that this is totally OK.

So, if you’ve made your first appointment with a psychiatrist, read below to find out what you can expect from your first visit, in addition to tips to help you prep and feel more at ease.

Come prepared with your medical history

You’ll be asked about your medical and psychiatric history — personal and family — so be prepared by bringing the following:

  • a complete list of medications, in addition to psychiatric medications
  • a list of any and all psychiatric medications you might have tried in the past, including how long you took them for
  • your medical concerns and any diagnoses
  • family history of psychiatric issues, if there are any

Also, if you’ve seen a psychiatrist in the past, it’s very helpful to bring a copy of those records, or have your records sent from the previous office to the new psychiatrist you’ll be seeing.

Be prepared for the psychiatrist to ask you questions

Once you’re in your session, you can expect that the psychiatrist will ask you the reason you’re coming in to see them. They might ask in a variety of different ways, including:

  • “So, what brings you in today?”
  • “Tell me what you’re here for.”
  • “How’re you doing?”
  • “How can I help you?”

Being asked an open-ended question might make you nervous, especially if you don’t know where to begin or how to start. Take heed in knowing that there’s truly no wrong way to answer and a good psychiatrist will guide you through the interview.

If, however, you want to come prepared, be sure to communicate what you’ve been experiencing and also, if you feel comfortable, share the goals you’d like to achieve from being in treatment.

It’s OK to experience different emotions

You may cry, feel awkward, or experience various kinds of emotions while discussing your concerns, but know that it’s completely normal and fine.

Being open and sharing your story takes a lot of strength and courage, which can feel emotionally exhausting, especially if you’ve suppressed your emotions for quite a long time. Any standard psychiatry office will have a box of tissues, so don’t hesitate to use them. After all, that’s what they’re there for.

Some of the questions asked about your history may bring up sensitive issues, such as history of trauma or abuse. If you don’t feel comfortable or ready to share, please know that it’s OK to let the psychiatrist know that it’s a sensitive topic and that you’re not ready to discuss the issue in further detail.

You’ll work towards creating a plan for the future

Since most psychiatrists generally provide medication management, options for treatment will be discussed at the end of your session. A treatment plan may consist of:

  • medication options
  • referrals for psychotherapy
  • level of care needed, for example, if more intensive care is needed to appropriately address your symptoms, options to find an appropriate treatment program will be discussed
  • any recommended labs or procedures such as baseline tests prior to starting medications or tests to rule out any possible medical conditions that may contribute to symptoms

If you have any questions about your diagnosis, treatment, or wish to share any concerns you have, be sure to communicate them at this point before the end of the session.

Your first psychiatrist might not be the one for you

Even though the psychiatrist leads the session, go in with the mentality that you’re meeting your psychiatrist to see if they’re the right fit for you as well. Keep in mind that the best predictor of successful treatment depends on the quality of the therapeutic relationship.

So, if the connection doesn’t evolve over time and you don’t feel your issues are being addressed, at that point you can search for another psychiatrist and get a second opinion.

What to do after your first session

  • Often after the first visit, things will pop up in your mind that you wished you had asked. Take note of these things and be sure to write them down so you won’t forget to mention them next visit.
  • If you left your first visit feeling badly, know that building the therapeutic relationship may take more than one visit. So, unless your appointment turned out horrible and unredeemable, see how things go during the next few visits.

The bottom line

Feeling anxious about seeing a psychiatrist is a common feeling, but don’t let those fears interfere with you getting the help and treatment that you deserve and need. Having a general understanding of what kinds of questions will be asked and topics that will be discussed can definitely alleviate some of your concerns and make you feel more comfortable at your first appointment.

And remember, sometimes the first psychiatrist you see may not necessarily turn out to be the best fit for you. After all, this is your care and treatment — you deserve a psychiatrist who you feel comfortable with, who’s willing to answer your questions, and who will collaborate with you to achieve your treatment goals.