Practicing polyamory and borderline personality disorder

Is it possible to practice polyamory when you have borderline personality disorder or abandonment issues?

My long term partner ([non-binary], early 20s) and I (F, early 20s) have been together for 7.5 years and got married last fall. Last December, our best friend started (F, early 20s) dating us and we formed a triad organically. It wasn’t a requirement, it just so happened we all had feelings for each other.

I struggled a lot at first because I wasn’t sure how I felt about polyamory due to severe abandonment issues. My partner wanted to pursue polyamory for some time, so we went for it. I was hesitant, but I also did want to explore this and these feelings.

That relationship, the one with the best friend, ended in early September after she emotionally abused me for months. She knew of my fears and exploited them. She told me she didn’t love me any more, broke up with me, and then gaslit me into thinking I broke up with her. My spouse then called it off with her due to this abuse, and she was cut out of our life after trying to encourage cheating.

This experience has made polyamory feel terrifying to me. I recently discovered I have quiet BPD [borderline personality disorder] — I have a lot of the symptoms but the anger is something I have a hard time feeling. But this makes it hard for me because when my partner would be out with her - even when things were great — I’d instantly feel suicidal, like I’d never see them again, like they were both going to abandon me.

My partner really wants polyamory. And I am open to it. And I want to be more stable with it. I trust my partner but I struggle so much with the abandonment due to my BPD. They’ve been my partner since High School and have stuck with me through everything. Losing them, even just the thought, feels like I’d collapse and nothing would matter.

All of that is to say.. how do you go about pursuing polyamory when you have BPD (or severe abandonment issues)? And when you’ve also had a horrible experience that makes you uneasy to jump in again? I have your book on the way and I’m excited to read it, I just need some more advice and don’t know where else to go.

The first thing I think that you should be aware of is that when you have trouble with emotional regulation and thoughts and fears of abandonment, which a lot of people with BPD do have, any type of relationship is going to be triggering to a certain extent.

And in reality, life is going to be triggering in general. As someone who had intense anxiety for a long time, I absolutely understand the survival drive the brain has to avoid pain and try and control the situation to make it safer for you. I’ve found it helpful to accept the fact that life itself was going to trigger my anxiety and that there wasn’t necessarily any way I was going to be able to completely avoid it and that all attempts I’d make to avoid it would be futile.

While this sounds depressing at first glance, it actually is far more freeing than it seems. Accepting that there is nothing you can do to prevent someone from abandoning you might help you release the responsibility on your shoulders to control that. However, I think that if you have been diagnosed with BPD, it’s easy for me to say all of this stuff to you, but the process of accepting that you don’t have control and learning how to deal with emotions isn’t something that is going to be solved by reading a single column or a book.

I think Dr. Nicole LePera has a lot of very useful things to say about diagnoses like Borderline Personality Disorder in that a lot of mental health disorders are essentially maladaptive responses to trauma. For most of us, our adaptive responses actually did work for us in some way when they were developing.

Your fear of abandonment comes from an understandable place — human beings are social creatures who need relationships to thrive. I’ve said this before but there is a reason solitary confinement causes us to lose touch with reality and is considered torture in many countries. We need each other. On a basic level, your fear is super understandable.

From what I understand from Borderline Personality Disorder, people who have it are quite often extremely sensitive to what they interpret as signs of abandonment and emotionally struggle a lot with highs and lows of feeling. This can definitely be difficult because being part of a relationship style where you don’t have the cultural scripts can trigger anxiety in even the calmest of people.

I think what coping mechanisms you employ for that will have to come from someone who has a professional therapeutic understanding of BPD and a respect for polyamory. What I would reassure you with is that while I have seen what untreated BPD can look like from the perspective of having a parent with untreated BPD, I have had friendships with people who have committed to treating their BPD and I honestly feel like that is sometimes half the battle.

The fact that you understand that you struggle with emotional regulation and that you know you may need help with that is a huge step forward. Give yourself some credit for that. Reframing your BPD as a result of your own brain’s survival instinct and your own desire to protect yourself I think can also be part of that step forward.

A big part will be learning how to trust yourself, learning that you will always be there for yourself, learning that you’re no longer in those environments where you need to be hyper vigilant and hyper aware. Getting a professional to help with that I think will be a key step forward.

I can’t promise you that you won’t have another horrible experience. Nor could I promise you that if you want back to monogamy that you wouldn’t have another horrible experience. No one can guarantee the future.

What I can say is that if you build your relationship with yourself and if you learn how to trust yourself, that you can hold yourself and take care of yourself regardless of what comes your way because at the end of the day, you are the one who can always be there for yourself. So if you can pursue some professional help, I would definitely do that. I think my book will help you set some foundations with your partner as far as finding out whether or not it’s something you want to do.

If your partner could give you a little bit of time to set up a foundation with a therapist, that would be great. Usually I’m not a big fan of trying to dip one’s toes in polyamory, but in this case I feel like if you were to put your efforts into finding a therapist and establishing a relationship over the next three months and your partner could give you that time and you both could use that time to decide what your anchors are and what your physical set up might be, then you can go forward with a good step in the right direction.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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