Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a complex mental illness characterized by intense and unstable emotions, impulsive behavior, and difficulties in maintaining stable relationships. One of the key features of BPD is the push-pull dynamics, which occur when individuals have a strong urge for intimacy and deep connection with someone, but their fear of rejection and abandonment leads them to push the person away.
The idea is that pushing someone away before they themselves can be rejected by that person is easier to manage compared to taking the risk of getting closer and then potentially being abandoned by someone. Someone with BPD might also push someone away in order to “test” whether the person will stay with them or come back to them after being pushed away. For example, someone might initiate a conflict by saying, “You don’t even care about me” or “You don’t understand me” in order to gain attention, reassurance, and validation from their partner.
Before we dive more into understanding these dynamics, it’s important to recognize that some of these behaviors can occur in the absence of a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. For example, those with trauma, difficulty trusting others, or those with complex attachment concerns might also have a tendency to engage in push-pull dynamics. That’s why it’s so important to seek treatment from a mental health professional who can properly assess whether your individual behaviors and symptoms are aligned with BPD (which consists of more than just relationship difficulties). Only a mental health professional can diagnose someone with BPD.
The push-pull dynamics among those living with borderline personality disorder are often caused by emotional dysregulation. The ability to regulate your emotions means that you have the ability to manage and control a range of different feelings. It refers to the capacity to monitor, evaluate, and modify your emotional reactions to different situations. In general, emotional regulation is important for developing healthy and adaptive coping mechanisms for dealing with a variety of challenges in life, but it is particularly important for building and maintaining strong, healthy relationships.
Individuals with borderline personality disorder often experience intense and overwhelming emotions that they struggle to regulate. As a result, they may exhibit extreme behaviors, such as lashing out in anger toward others or withdrawing from others, in an attempt to cope with their emotions. In addition, self-sabotage behaviors can be a way of exercising control over their lives when feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Behaviors may include picking fights, breaking up with someone they love, or engaging in risky behaviors.
At the same time, however, individuals with BPD also have a strong desire for reassurance and validation from their partners and loved ones. They may seek constant attention and affirmation, and feel anxiety or distress when they are not receiving it. This can create a tension between the desire for connection and the fear of being hurt or rejected, leading to a cycle of toxic behaviors. This cycle can be harmful to both partners involved in a relationship. The constant fluctuation between affection and distance can lead to confusion, hurt feelings, and a breakdown in trust. In addition, the intense emotions and impulsive behaviors that can accompany the push-pull dynamics can create a chaotic and unpredictable environment that is challenging for partners to navigate. Many people call it a “love-hate relationship.” The term captures the inherent contradiction that exists in these relationships, where two people can love each other deeply, but also experience irrational irritability, anger, and frustration.
Given the challenges posed by the push-pull dynamics in BPD, it is essential for individuals struggling with this to seek professional help. The push-pull dynamics involve complex and challenging aspects of BPD that create significant distress for affected individuals and families. Understanding the emotional dysregulation that underlies these issues is key to overcoming them. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are just two examples of therapy modalities that help people with BPD manage their symptoms and develop healthy relationships. Seeking therapy, participating in support groups, prioritizing self-care, learning communication skills, and setting realistic expectations can all contribute to the development of stronger relationships. With patience, effort, and support, people with BPD can absolutely build long-lasting fulfilling relationships. You deserve to feel loved and supported in healthy, wholesome ways.