Updated: Oct 16, 2022
Fear of abandonment, and the experience of feeling emotions intensely, can make it difficult for someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) to build a relationship. The push and pull cycle is a common occurrence in relationships for people with BPD. This cycle is divided into 6 stages which are mentioned and explained in this article.
Not every relationship with BPD has to go through these stages. However, it has been observed that this is often the following pattern.
First stage - Idealisation
Relationships that start with those that have BPD can develop quickly. They sometimes mistake initial attraction for perceiving the individual as the ''one'' since their feeling of emptiness gets filled. In this stage, the best of the borderline comes out: they will shower their partner with affection and attention, resulting in the relationship being very passionate and loving.
Second stage - Fear of abandonment
The individual with BPD is prone to becoming obsessive and hypervigilant of the partner’s behavior, looking for all the tiny details pointing to the potential abandonment. Missed calls and texts are the beginning of self-doubt and fear of abandonment. People with BPD might convince themselves they are not being loved anymore, just because someone else did not pick up the phone.
Third stage - Reassurance
This is when the person with BPD goes from defense to attack; to prevent being abandoned, he will either do anything to be the first to leave or to see the partner “fight” for the relationship. What they are looking for in this stage is reassurance that the partner won't leave, and by picking fights, they want to see if the partner will fight to remain in the relationship. However, frequent fighting and push-pull behavior can be toxic for a relationship.
Fourth stage - Distress
At this stage, the relationship begins to fall apart. Without constant reassurance and grand gestures, someone with BPD can become convinced that the partner will leave them while simultaneously thinking they are at fault. They start to feel empty but are not able to communicate this to their partner. The relationship will fail if there isn't good communication, especially if one of the partners has BPD.
Fifth stage - Abandonment
Before he/she can be abandoned, the individual with BPD pulls away from the relationship. This can leave the partner shocked and full of doubts. The person with BPD frequently realizes what is done afterward and regrets their decisions. Even when they try to explain what was going on in their mind, the relationship will rarely recover. When the partner decides to not get together after the relationship has fallen apart, the borderline's fear of abandonment becomes a reality. Which ultimately strengthens their fear and increases the chance of repeating this cycle in upcoming relationships.
Sixth stage - Grief
After the breakup, the person with BPD is left alone to deal with the extreme pain that often comes after such a difficult period. They will often blame themselves, and to deal with the inner turmoil, they might engage in self-harm and suicidal behavior. Along with those, substance abuse and risky behavior are also common.
How long does the BPD relationship cycle last?
The length of the cycle is entirely dependent on how far along the individual with BPD is on his or her recovery journey, as well as how supportive and patient the partner is. There is no timeline set for the cycle, as the stages can take from hours to days. The most intense episodes tend to last several hours but are followed by periods of relatively emotional stability.
However, if the odds are against both partners, if the borderline doesn't have the right tools to cope, and if the partner is not supportive, the relationship can either end quickly, or these episodes of push and pull may last for years.
What causes the BPD push and pull behavior?
It's typical for someone with BPD to experience separation anxiety and fear of abandonment. Their fear can be so overpowering that they make choices or do things they later regret. They look for the smallest details that can confirm their fears about their partner. This can lead to paranoid behavior and the end of a relationship.
Someone with BPD also struggles with seeing someone as a good person when they have flaws. Good and bad are always separated, which is often called black and white thinking or splitting. This good and bad fallacy is then projected to the outside world: the borderline will idealize the partner (projecting the good) and then switch rapidly to devaluing them (projecting the bad). This forms the “I hate you don’t leave me” behavior in BPD relationships.
Dating a Borderline with push and pull behavior