About Randi

Randi Kreger has brought the concerns of people who have a family member with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) to an international forefront through her best-selling books, informative website, and popular online family support community Welcome to Oz.


10 Essential Limits for Romantic Relationships

Marital therapy often doesn't work when your partner has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder. That's because too much effort is put into the partners blaming and criticizing each other. You may come off as the bad guy because the therapist doesn't understand the real factors at work.

But just about all therapists understand what hurts and helps relationships. If you focus in on these factors rather than trying to convince the therapist your partner has problems, the sessions may be useful.

In this article, clinical psychologist and author Dr. Susan Heitler and I suggest 10 essential limits you might want to set, preferably in a marital therapy setting in which:

  • The therapist is experienced with borderline and narcissistic people
  • The focus is on problemsolving in the here and now rather than blame-storming
  • The therapist is able to coach the both of you into learning better communication skills.

You can set these by yourself, if your partner won't go to counseling. But make sure you're prepared. Read the limits sections in my books and work with your own therapist to rehearse.

The Warm Up

If your therapist has a clue, he or she will attempt to set the stage for mutual listening, reflection, and cooperation. That may be hard for you, but even more difficult for your partner, whose disorder rebuffs attempts to make changes.

Dr. Heitler says, "Because emotional escalations are central to their dysfunctional interactions, folks with BPD need to start by learning new rules for managing anger. 'Learning' means gaining understanding about rage and the damage it does. The answer is building mutual time-out routines, building willingness to actually use these new routines, learning techniques for self-soothing, and becoming totally clear that anger outbursts are a form of bullying and totally unacceptable in a mature relationship."

Dr. Heitler says that narcissists, on the other hand, need an initial and central focus on improving their listening skills. She says, "Their 'it's all about me' orientation to life blocks ability to hear others. They may need particular help in hearing others' feelings, as many narcissists take the others' upset feelings as critical statements about themselves. That's why they get mad and/or leave instead of being able to listen and be supportive."

It will take time for both partners to learn these new habits and way of relating. The longer you've been stuck in unhealthy patterns, the longer it may take. But even if your partner won't try them, you can make big changes in your relationship by following these guidelines yourself.

After the therapist has taught these basic factors, consider working with him or her to implement the following 10 critical limits. The limits are for both of you to follow. With them, your relationship has a good chance of becoming safe and successful. Without them, trust, intimacy and love can be destroyed.

The 10 Essential Limits

Keep in mind that a limit is not about rules or telling the other person what to do. You can't control their behavior; you can only control your own. Limits are based on your personal values and about what you will do to take care of yourself. For more information about limits, what they are and what they're not, and how to set and observe them, see my book The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder.

1. No mindreading. Your job is verbalize your own thoughts, feelings, concerns and preferences. By contrast, assuming you know the other person's thoughts and motivations (e.g., "You think that.." or, "You did this/said this because....") is almost always guaranteed to get you into trouble. Mindreading is one of the biggest obstacles to effective communication; it is invalidating, provocative, and almost always based on misinterpretations.

2. Build routines of taking a time out when things begin to get heated. People who are furious simply can't think straight; their brain is so focused on their feelings that logic gets thrown out the window. This is especially true with BPs and NPs. You can test this yourself. Think about something you said in the moment of anger that you regretted the next day (or week).

Talk about time-outs at a calm before they are needed, letting your partner know how this will work and assuring him or her that you two will come back to finish the discussion when you are both calmer. (Your partner, of course, has the option of initiating a time out too.) Find a safe place that is sacrosanct to you where no one else can enter when you need to be alone.

Early exits when either of you is beginning to feel a temperature rise prevents unsafe, hurtful mistakes--verbal as well as physical. Take the pot off the stove by removing yourself early on from a situation you may not be able to handle calmly.

3. Regularly do things you both enjoy and share positive reactions to your partner. The two of you need positive shared time and interactions to keep the relationship connection solid.

Positivity makes relationships worth having. The more appreciation, agreement, affection, playfulness, attention, etc you offer each other, the sunnier your relationship will be.  And the more you give, the more you'll get.

4. Focus on what you can do to improve situations rather than criticizing each other. And if you do feel it could be helpful to say something to your partner about what she or he has been doing, offer it as feedback, not as a criticism or complaint. People with personality disorders take criticism very badly, so it doesn't work to change their behavior.

Instead, learn ways to bring up your concerns without being critical and triggering the other person's defenses (well, as much as you can for a person with BPD/NPD). To give feedback offer a when-you statement, as in, "When you xyz, I feel abc"). Especially avoid the phrase, "You make me feel."  That's blame.

Remember that it's not your job to tell your partner what he or she should or shouldn't be doing. It is up to you to be honest about how you react as a consequence of your behavior. Your partner's concern for your feelings will tell you a lot about their capacity to show their love.

Just because you stop criticizing them won't stop them from criticizing and blaming you. With your own therapist or one of my books, formulate a strategy for how you will respond. My books go into this in detail.

5. Do not speak with contempt, ever. Studies have shown that couples who communicate contempt for each other are the most likely to break up. This principle is most important with regard to listening. Dismissive or eye-rolling as a form of listening dooms relationships.

6. No hostile touching; no putting hands on each other in anger. No threats or hurting property, either. Have a zero tolerance policy. Men, take any physical aggressiveness by your girlfriend or wife seriously; abuse of men is an underreported epidemic. Document, document, document, and be in communication with the police.

Never put your hands on your partner. Even if it is a mild pat, your partner may exaggerate it and make false abuse claims. You may end up in jail and unable to see your children.

7. Each person needs to have his or her own space, private time, and friendships as well as joint ones. Keep up with your friends and family and never become isolated. Isolation is the kiss of death to your confidence level, well-being, and sense of reality. Find at least one friend or counselor you can be honest with about what's going on. You need outside perspective, even if that threatens your partner.

8. Take responsibility for having and managing your own feelings, verbalizing your concerns and preferences, and being responsive to your partner's concerns and preferences.

9. Come to a mutual agreement about monogamy (or lack of) so you are honest and on the same page. Do not put up with infidelity (however you define it) that goes against your values. With infidelity, your sense of self-esteem will take a huge nosedive and your marriage will eventually be in name only. Again, formulate strategies with a therapist.

10. Work on problem-solving, not blame, and find win-win solutions so "Your-way" and "Their–way" differences lead to an "Our-way" solution that you both feel good about.

The key to finding win-win solutions is to focus first on identifying your concerns. The solution needs to be responsive to all the concerns of both of you to be fully win-win.

Establishing these limits and principles is a great start for partners. It likely won't work if you try to accomplish them all of them at the same time. Start with the ones you feel strongest about, and move forward discussing and implementing them one by one.

If your partner won't seek marital therapy with you, work with your own therapist to make these changes. You need support and encouragement. Enlist family and friends to help you. And remember these guidelines require changes from both of you.


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