Time and again people settle down with someone who turns out to be an emotional mess. Years later, emerging from the wreckage, they look back and wonder how they could have been so foolish. Why did they not see the signs? Unfortunately, blinded by lust, excitement, and hope, people are very good at deceiving themselves. Spotting emotional instability at the earliest possible stage is therefore vital and may save you years of pain and heartache.
The emotionally unstable lack proportion. In other words, they react in a manner wholly inappropriate to the situation. They may screech with laughter at a weak joke, for example, cry uncontrollably over nothing, or explode with anger for the most trivial of reasons. Friends and loved ones generally find them hard work and, because they are so unpredictable, even a little scary.
In general, such instability diminishes over time. Indeed, emotional instability is common during puberty, even among children who do not go on to become emotionally unstable adults. This may also explain why self-harm, itself a symptom of emotional instability, is much more common in adolescence.
First, and most importantly, consider how your new partner makes you feel. Spending time with the emotionally unstable can be hard. Of course, you may struggle to answer. And that would be understandable, since this kind of instability leaves you feeling like you are in a relationship with several different people: there is "happy Joe" and "sad Joe" and "raging Joe" and "cheerful Joe," and so on.
You may feel flat, even tearful, in their company. More often, you will be edgy and nervous, feeling as if you are walking across thin ice – one wrong word and crack, you are through. You may, for example, soon discover that they cannot tolerate criticism and, what's worse, that they see it everywhere. No matter how hard you try, they misinterpret the most harmless and innocent statements, often taking it in a way you didn't mean. They may also dislike jokes made at their expense, no matter how gentle or harmless.
Such relationships often end when someone realizes they are spending most of their time placating and soothing the other person. In other words, instead of enjoying their evening, they are preoccupied with trying to keep them happy and stable. You may find that you end a date relieved that things went smoothly and that there were no upsets or incidents. Indeed, people often come away thinking "what a relief! I got away with it." Hardly an appropriate response to a romantic dinner!
The emotionally unstable are unpredictable. Indeed, unpredictability is the essence of the problem. You never know what lies in store. One evening will be magical, the next fraught and unnerving. Soon, you find yourself tensing up before each date, wondering what kind of mood he or she is going to be in. And the emotional range of such people can be astonishing, from gloomy and depressing to excitable and fun, from moany to joyful, kind to spiteful.
The emotionally unstable change not just from day to day but from moment to moment. For example, imagine a man is dating a new woman. She seems really sparkly and fun, and he looks forward to seeing her. On their third date, they sit in the taxi laughing and flirting, arrive at the restaurant early, eat their meal, go for a drink in a nearby bar and seem to be enjoying themselves when he makes some remark or joke that backfires. To his amazement she falls silent, fixes him with a stony stare and then become enraged. Before he knows what is happening she has thrown wine in his face, worked herself into a frenzy of anger and disgust and stormed out. All night he goes over and over what he said. It seemed the most innocuous, harmless comment, and he just cannot see why she reacted in that way.
A common trait shared by many emotionally unstable people is deliberate misunderstanding and offence taking. They live in a swirling storm of emotion that even they cannot understand or predict. All they know is that it needs to be released. In the hypothetical example above, the man was probably right to be confused. His date may have begun the evening feeling cheery and upbeat but ended it enraged by a series of trivial incidents that had nothing to do with him – food that was overcooked, even a drink with insufficient ice. Gradually, the anger mounted and she looked for an excuse to unleash it. He makes a harmless comment and bang, she explodes. It would be untrue to say that such reactions are fake; on the contrary, their anger is genuine, but it is, to borrow a word from the psychoanalysts, "displaced" onto something else.
Of course, such people will not only lose their temper with you but may try to make you lose your temper with them. Trying to provoke others is a classic sign of emotional instability. It is as if extremes of emotion are a drug to such people. They may, for example, try to make you jealous by flirting with other people or by describing past lovers in unnecessarily explicit detail. Or they may encourage you to lose your temper with someone else – a rude waiter, for example.
You may also find that he or she keeps playing games. The obvious example would be a constant ebb and flow of interest. Or, as people usually put it, "blowing hot and cold": kind and loving one moment, cold and distant the next. And just when you feel close to snapping, maybe about to leave in tears or explode in rage, they change, becoming gentle and loving, begging you not to leave, assuring you that they couldn't bear life without you, and so on. You may feel that none of this is sincere, neither the spite nor the love, that this person is so dominated by emotion, swept so helplessly along by it, that you have no idea who they really are.
This becomes even more obvious when they talk about their past, and especially about the people in their past. Once again, it can be very difficult to get beyond the emotion, which seems to cloud their view of everything. When they talk about their parents, for example, they may do so with mawkish sentimentality one day and irritable contempt the next. Emotionally unstable people also tend to be full of blame. When they talk about the past, they often do so with great bitterness, blaming others for the way their life turned out – blame which quickly spirals into hatred and rage.
This may be explained in part by another common trait – projection. This word, popular in psychoanalysis, means seeing in other people the qualities, failings or desires that really lurk in you. The classic example would be the repressed homosexual who is convinced everyone else is gay. The emotionally unstable, overflowing with emotion, naturally see these emotions everywhere else. You may find that they constantly accuse other people of jealousy, for example, or anger or fear, when in fact these emotions exist inside them.
Neediness is another sign of emotional instability. For example, your new partner may be possessive and jealous, flying into a rage when you mention ex-partners, interrogating you when you arrive home late, checking your text messages when you are not in the room, and so on. Closely related to this neediness is the attempt to manipulate and control. Such people also tend to have a poor sense of boundaries. And of course, their reactions will be over the top. For example, buy them an expensive piece of jewellery, or book a surprise vacation in Paris or London, and you may be met with an overreaction: tears, hysterical laughter etc. Smile at another woman or man in a restaurant, however, and you may have to endure insults and even violence.
Such people often experienced fear and uncertainty during childhood, or have felt unloved and unwanted all their life. Maybe a beloved parent walked out on them and hardly bothered to keep in touch, for example, or maybe an ex suddenly left them. In essence, they fear being abandoned all over again. The fear then becomes so intense that it dominates everything they say and do.
Of course, not every relationship with an emotionally unstable person is doomed to failure. Indeed, some actually seek such people out, claiming that they find the highs and lows exciting. Unfortunately, many do not realize or accept the reality until it is too late. Only once you realize that you are in such a relationship can you decide if this is what you really want.