Splitting in BPD (Or: A Guide To Loving Me When I Hate Your Guts)

Allow me to define “splitting”. It’s a behaviour often found in individuals with BPD, characterised by suddenly and intensely wanting or needing to detach from someone to whom you were previously attached. I can only compare it to those mad thoughts you have about going to live in some nearby woods when you’re 14 and arguing with your mum about your school uniform, but amplified to be inescapable, all of that adolescent rage attached to it alongside fear, hurt, revulsion, heartbreak and every other feeling you could attribute to a trauma response. It’s the brain’s way of protecting you from more unhealthy attachments, so it happens in response to a stimulus of some sort – but one of the cornerstones of BPD is hypersensitivity, so the stimulus that prompts us to split might not actually be as dangerous as it feels. Whether it’s a punch to the face or an ignored text message, it feels intensely dangerous, so much so that my brain then takes action, working to replace any fondness with anger or fear by creatively reinterpreting real-world evidence until it fits with the all-or-nothing, “this person is dead to me” narrative.

The first thing that you need to know about splitting is that it hurts me more than it hurts you. You will probably feel wounded, rejected, anxious, frustrated, and it will suck, but I am also having all of those emotions in BPD form, i.e. with the intensity of a thousand suns. I don’t just put you out of my mind entirely when I split on you; I agonise over it. My thumb hovers over block buttons until the muscles in my hand cramp whilst I try to weigh up how reasonable I’m being. I type and delete messages I will never send about what’s hurting me and what I need. Sometimes, I act like a dick, and I know as I’m doing it that I’m being dickish, but it feels like the only safe thing to do. My deep, reptile-brain impulse is to destroy the relationship beyond repair so that there’s never any danger of more hurt, and I spend hours with my stomach in knots, arguing with myself about how I can’t have normal human relationships and how selfish moving to the woods might actually be. I can identify when I’m splitting (though I couldn’t as a furious 14-year-old) but I don’t split for no reason. I can’t automatically reconnect with reality when my brain is twisting things, blowing them out of proportion and shoving them through traumatised lenses, but I can try and conduct myself in a way that Connected-to-Reality Morgan won’t deeply regret. This mostly involves distancing myself, not in any embarrassing noticeable ways like hitting that block button but just reaching out less, trying not to give my BPD any new ammo with which it can maintain the split. At this point, frustrating though it is, all you can do is leave me to my space and my thoughts. 

This brings me onto the second thing you need to know about splitting: unsplitting is hard work. Fighting my impulse to run is hard enough, but unsplitting requires you to walk directly towards the scary thing. There’s a principle in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) called “Opposite Action”, where you identify an irrational feeling or impulse and you act in the exact opposite way that your impulse wants you to. In splitting, for me, this looks like sending a message after a long period of quiet, trying to make plans or being openly affectionate towards you again. They are small acts that are too terrifying to commit whilst sober a lot of the time, so Stoned or Drunk Morgan picks up the slack while their fear and hurt are somewhat numbed. This opposite action can only happen, though, once I’ve identified why I’m splitting and whether this person is actually dangerous. The obvious piece of advice here, then, is to continually prove through your actions that you are not a danger to me. The other piece of advice I would like to give is that if you think I’m doing Opposite Action, or if I’ve been quiet for a while, or in general if you don’t know where you stand with me, just respond with enthusiasm. Make it clear that you’re glad to hear from me. Essentially, reward me for doing the hard scary thing, and leave the ball in my court when it comes to beginning a discussion about the splitting itself, because I’m probably too scared for that in this early stage of unsplitting.

Here is the third thing about splitting: it’s not about you. It’s really, really not. My brain, with its rigid little boxes, has tried to file you in the same cabinet as some other people who did some other things. If you get busy and don’t respond to my inane messages about memes and movies, my brain tries to put you into a cabinet with other people who stopped messaging me abruptly, which includes people who did that exact thing in order to manipulate me. If you said something on a rainy Monday morning which came off as irritable, my brain tries to put you into the same filing cabinet as the man who shoved me towards the top of the staircase when I was 15, because in that situation, irritability preceded abuse. Those filing cabinets are alarmed, and they were like that before your files showed up. I’m really stretching the filing metaphor here, but I want you to know that the majority of the time, a split is a function of my brain, not of our relationship – it’s usually only minimally connected to your behaviour, and has much more to do with the behaviour of cunts you’ve never even met. All I can say is try – and I know it’s fucking hard – not to take it personally when my brain links you to evil bastards and floods me with fear. If you do take it personally, mid-split or mid-unsplit is maybe not the most constructive time to ask me for reassurance, but if you understand splitting (due to blog posts like these), you have the opportunity and the vocabulary to talk to other loved ones about what’s going on with us, so you can at least process it a little before you and I start to discuss it.

The fourth thing, for everyone to know about splitting, is: it passes. It’s hard work, and sometimes it’s not worth it. I split on celebrities after one transphobic joke and I don’t care enough about them to work through all my DBT techniques in order to forgive them and move on. I split on people who, with distance, I end up seeing are legitimately dangerous. But I also split on people who are patient and loving towards me, who accept that sometimes I need space and sometimes I need attention and sometimes I need help figuring out which one I need. I split on people who are beloved by my support network and said support network helps me to unsplit, safe in the knowledge that this time, it’s definitely just my BPD and not a real threat to my wellbeing. I split on people regularly, in smaller ways and bigger ones, but I conquer it when I realise it’s worth conquering. My brain has this extremely strong mechanism by which to keep me safe, but I’m stronger even than that, because I have learned and am learning how to shut the filing cabinets and say hi. The fact that people with BPD have relationships like the ones I now have, characterised by love and mutual support and trust, is a testament to the ferocity with which we fight, every day, to be good people despite our pain. And again, let me reiterate, splitting is painful, but us people with BPD know that, and knowingly take on that risk when they form and keep relationships, every single day. Therefore, my final piece of advice is to remember that people with BPD are working hard to stay in your life, on purpose, every day, because we have decided that you’re worth it. Remember that we’re people, and we’re often great people, and for that reason alone we’re worth the hard work, too.