should I stay or should I go?
December 29, 2009 2:54 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend has serious bipolar disorder. I love her, but living with her is very, very difficult. She breaks down all the time. I don't know if I should commit to a life with her, and deal with this into perpetuity, or if I should move on and try to find someone better adjusted, leaving love for peace and stability.

Has anyone dealt with this before? I know everyone has problems, but this is really like a second full-time job. Which I don't mind, so much, but is it always this way? Is it better to walk away, or deal with a possible progression of the disorder? I also know if I bail she will lose her mind again.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have zero relevant experience to this - but I do know that everyone who does have something useful to say is going to need to know what, if anything, she's getting in terms of treatment.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:59 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is she in treatment and regularly taking her medication(s)? I have been in a similar situation and unless the person sticks to therapy & medication, it's probably not going to end well.
posted by bahama mama at 3:01 PM on December 29, 2009

I dated a girl with bipolar disorder for awhile. The roller coaster never abated. The thing is I was willing at the time to stick it out...but in one of her manic episodes she dumped me and I made sure not to reconcile with her. Two things you don't mention...are you in love with her? And is she taking medication/under a doctor's supervision?
posted by vito90 at 3:02 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

comment from someone who would prefer to remain anonymous.
Has anyone dealt with this before?

My SO is bipolar and has been for the 12 years of our marriage. It's hard at times, especially when she at the greater end of each cycle, but she's fairly functional and we know what to do keep things on an even keel, so to speak. Part of this process was her going through the various drug trials to find the best combination of drugs to keep her stable. Once that was done, things have leveled our considerably and life is pretty normal.

I know everyone has problems, but this is really like a second full-time job.

This is a bad sign, period, doesn't matter if she's bipolar or not, no relationship should feel like a full time job

Which I don't mind, so much, but is it always this way? Is it better to walk away, or deal with a possible progression of the disorder?

My rule about getting married and staying married to my bipolar SO is that she has to take responsibility for her illness. This means she needs to take meds and take them as prescribed to keep her balanced. If she can not take care of herself, there's no way she can. It's terrible that she has this disease, but she needs to accept that she does and take the steps needed to take care of herself.

Another rule is that you absolutely need to develop your own life outside her and her illness. This is true for any relationship but doubly so for one with a mental illness. You can and should be part of her support network but you can't be her entire support system.

I also know if I bail she will lose her mind again.

You can not allow yourself or anyone else to hold you responsible for someone else's welfare. Period, no exceptions. No one is responsible for another's sanity, just by their presence in a relationship and anyone who uses this on their partner should almost immediately be broken up with because it indicates an unhealthy level of co-dependence.
posted by jessamyn at 3:12 PM on December 29, 2009 [26 favorites]

Been through it before. It never got better.

That's not to say that you won't have better luck, but put it this way to yourself: You deserve to have the opportunity to be happy. What you do with that opportunity is up to you, but realize that a decision like this is more important than any other decision you make in your like, so think about what 10 and 20 years in the future is going to be like, depending on the decision you make today.
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 3:17 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Completely ignoring the bipolar part: if you're already debating leaving due to ANY issues, it's probably too late to salvage the relationship. Not saying you can't, but it really sounds like you don't have the motivation to put forth that effort. I would leave her, if you can't deal with it.

On the bipolar topic: if she's still this bad and is getting treatment, you need a new doctor, or to look at new medications. I've known 2 bipolar people in my life, and they have both been largely normal when medicated (with periodic bouts of mania/depression, but it was closer to monthly PMS than "OMG let's go reshingle the roof!")
posted by phrakture at 3:18 PM on December 29, 2009

One of my siblings is married to a woman with bipolar. They've had a verrrry difficult road, but things are great now, because she took responsibility for the treatment of her disorder and worked her ass off with several doctors to find a suitable combination of medications. Things aren't perfect, but they are much more stable. They also developed a very strong foundation of constant communication, so they're both more aware of her moods and how she's feeling and reacting to things.

It can definitely be done, but both parties have to be willing to do a lot of emotional work, and commit to healthy and open communication.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 3:21 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd echo what the anonymous poster said via jessamyn. I grew up with an unmedicated bipolar mother. I would not wish that on anyone. However, she has been in treatment for the last 15 years and is a wonderful, stable person now. A commitment to treatment - from both of you - is absolutely necessary. My stepfather should be considered for sainthood given what he has gone through with my mother. He provides the stability she needs to maintain treatment. I would absolutely not consider marrying or having children with your girlfriend until she has been in treatment and is stable for at least a couple of years.

I also agree with phrakture that it doesn't sound like you have the motivation to stick it out. I would not stay out of guilt or fear that you will "break" her; she is going to suffer w/o treatment whether you stay or go. I would, however, gently explain why you are leaving and the importance of treatment. It may provide the motivation for her to seek help. Do not hold this as a carrot to getting back together, though.
posted by desjardins at 3:25 PM on December 29, 2009

You may want to check out this old thread of "living with a bipolar partner success stories" for tips on how to know whether your situation can work or not.
posted by orange swan at 3:28 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have you read the other questions tagged with bipolar? Or done any reading about it? I'm sure that others will suggest specific books and sites, and I hope you'll take their recommendations.

It's unclear whether your girlfriend has been diagnosed with clinical bipolar, if if that's your informal label for her behavior. If she has not been diagnosed, please encourage her to go to her family doc and tell her/him what's happening--a referral to a psychiatrist might follow.

It can take time to find the right combination of drugs to treat bipolar, and even when the right cocktail is found, it can take time to adjust to the correct levels. You need to understand that there will be no miracle and that it's likely that treatment will take a long time, a lot of time, a lot of visits to psychiatrists and therapists and a lot of heartache for both of you until she levels out. In the meantime, yeah, there are going to be episodes.

*Which does not make her unloveable.* You are going to have to make a special effort to help her manage her illness, and she is going to have to come to terms with the ways it affects you, personally, and you as a couple. Couples therapy might really be a help to you.

Bottom line is that you're going to have to develop a whole new set of interpersonal skills (to help her deal with her spiraling, for example, or not getting angry when she lashes out) and a stronger emotional armor as well as much, much deeper compassion. You are the only one who can evaluate whether your commitment to her runs deep enough to take on this task. If it were cancer instead of bipolar, would you be asking your question?

/my .02
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:29 PM on December 29, 2009

is it always this way?

Maybe yes. Maybe no. As others have said, it is all dependent on how serious your girlfriend is about taking responsibility for her well-being, and to a coequal extent, how good her doctors are at helping her.

If she's incapable of or unwilling to care for herself, then I think it is fair to question whether she has the capacity to be in a relationship. And in that case, you wouldn't be agreeing to be her partner, but rather her caregiver.

Also remember that she may have the capacity and will to control this disorder, but she may not be receiving the medical treatment that she needs in order for that to happen. This disorder is still very mysterious and the medical response I've observed has been horrifyingly imprecise - but that is out of necessity. Because different people respond to different medications and therapies, there is no "one size fits all" treatment for bipolar disorder. Take stock of her dedication to her well-being. But since her disorder is still interfering with her ability to maintain normal relationships (evidence: you're here), accept that there may still be more to be done to achieve control of her disorder.

My brother has bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. That's a terrifying combination - but it is entirely controllable and he's doing really well with a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. (Though it took - several, difficult - years to find a decent combination of medications.)
posted by greekphilosophy at 3:51 PM on December 29, 2009

My mom has bipolar. With the right medication she's highly functional. Without it, she's nearly impossible for anyone to tolerate. It's a hard question. You need to go into this with your eyes wide open about what kind of burden this can be. My dad raised us because my mom couldn't do it. I personally think only a saint could handle a person with bp
posted by bananafish at 3:58 PM on December 29, 2009

My mom also has bipolar disorder. There were times growing up when my dad definitely had to take care of my siblings and I by himself, but there were also longer periods of time where my mom was pretty well functioning. It took a while for my mom to find a medication that really helped her. Maybe your girlfriend still needs to find the right treatment for her. It might not always be like this, but it is possible that it could. You have to make your decision based on the possibility that it might always be this hard; it's not an easy decision to make but you can't expect her to get better and then leave her when she doesn't.

I agree with seems like it takes someone who is exceptionally strong or saintly to handle an SO with bipolar. If that is you, then that's awesome. But if it's not, that's totally okay. It doesn't make you weak, it just makes you normal.
posted by too bad you're not me at 4:24 PM on December 29, 2009

MonkeyToes: If it were cancer instead of bipolar, would you be asking your question?

This is a false analogy designed to unnecessarily make people feel guilty. Yes, both diseases are real, biological and cannot be overcome by sheer willpower. However, cancer isn't primarily known for making people difficult to be around. Mental illnesses, by their very nature, affect behavior in dysfunctional ways. I would suspect that few people refuse cancer treatment, relative to the number of mentally ill who refuse treatment. Cancer does not have the same stigma. (Nor should mental illness, but the fact that it does means people are less likely to seek treatment.)

OP, you're not married, you haven't committed to "for better or for worse, til death do us part." You shouldn't feel guilty about leaving someone whose behavior is outside the boundaries of what you're prepared to deal with. If she had cancer but she was abusive, you wouldn't be obligated to endure that either just because cancer is a more sympathetic disease.
posted by desjardins at 4:33 PM on December 29, 2009 [21 favorites]

My boyfriend has bipolar disorder, but we got together about a year after he'd been diagnosed/relatively stable. I would not have dated him otherwise. It's not that it doesn't pop up sometimes, but as the Anon commenter above said, it's not YOUR responsibility. I'm supportive, but I don't feel like I'm a nurse or something. It helps that when I have issues he's totally there for me, too.
posted by herbaliser at 4:49 PM on December 29, 2009

Just my humble opinion: run, run, run like hell and do not look back. Receiving this awareness to a level of certainty BEFORE the point of no return is a precious gift. Please don't waste it!
posted by charris5005 at 5:19 PM on December 29, 2009

This does really come down to how responsible she is about managing her illness. If she is in treatment, takes her meds, and has developed strategies to lessen the impact of her shifting cycles, then it could be worth sticking it out. On the other hand, if she goes on and off her meds, bails on appointments, seems to let her bipolar condition rule her life and occasionally uses it as an excuse, then I would strongly consider walking away. Two things to keep in mind when dealing with mental health issues:

1. Your partner is only as healthy as her most consistent, effective care. If she is an active and committed participant in managing her illness, then a stable, long-term relationship is possible and worth the time and effort.

2. Just because someone is bipolar/depressed/sick, doesn't mean they don't also have major personality flaws unrelated to their illness. While mental health issues can strongly effect the dynamic of relationships or daily life, they shouldn't determine the majority of those interactions in the long-term. Also, someone can be mentally ill and still be an ass. I'm not saying your girlfriend is an ass, but you need to separate the illness from the person to some extent. For example, severely depressed people struggle to function, but once they have made progress, some people use their condition to excuse bad behavior or allow them to abdicate responsibility. Most people won't do this, but some will. Behavior like that isn't about bipolar disorder or depression or other mental health issues, it's just about being a selfish, manipulative person, and no one should put up with that. Again, I'm not saying this is what your girlfriend is doing, but try to separate the negative behavior caused by her illness from her personality flaws (which we all have) that persist even when benefiting from successful treatment, and then decide if those flaws are reasonable, normal, "not everyone is perfect" type things or something less healthy and tolerable.

Lastly, regardless of your decision, you cannot take responsibility for what happens to her if you end the relationship. You cannot protect your girlfriend from the bad things that inevitably happen in life, and as difficult as it is, she will need to learn how to cope with those events and is really the only one who can be responsible for that. If you decide to leave, as long as you do this with kindness and understanding, you have fulfilled your obligation. I would suggest taking the extra step to make sure a person integral to her support system is around to help her find her way through a break up. This means after you inform her of your decision, the next call is to the friend or family member who can step in and be the support you can no longer be. Best of luck to you both.
posted by katemcd at 5:49 PM on December 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

I feel, and this may sound harsh, I don't know--that a person with bipolar disorder NEEDS to 1) have accepted the diagnosis, and 2) be committed to taking the necessary medication and sticking with therapy, in order to be able to maintain a real and functional relationship. The vast, vast majority of people with untreated bipolar disorder are struggling so hard to achieve basic balance in their own lives, that a functional romantic relationship (or family relationships, or mutually supportive friendships, or professional/work relationships) is just not on the menu until treatment is under control.

I would disagree with a knee-jerk "run like hell" response. If you care about this person, stick with this, try to understand as much as you can about bipolar disorder and about how your partner is affected by it. If this person is not capable right now of committing to treatment, then you have to choose whether or not you can live with that (and you should NEVER have to stay in a relationship just because "she will lose her mind again").
posted by so_gracefully at 5:51 PM on December 29, 2009

If the issue is that her illness is not responsive to treatment that she is pursuing aggressively, that's one thing.

If the issue is that she's not managing her illness responsibly, that's another thing.

The first thing I would hang in with; the second I would not. But that's me.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:14 PM on December 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

Nthing that "if I bail she will lose her mind again" is a terrible reason to stay together. This describes a patient-nurse relationship, not a partnership. It doesn't sound as if she's ready to partner with anyone, and that's not your fault or your responsibility or in any way under your control.
posted by jon1270 at 6:24 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

A couple of thoughts come to mind (I used to be married to a mildly bipolar woman).

First, you talk about the relationship feeling like a full time job. Let me offer you my direct and personal assurance that time spent managing her is not time spent loving her, and that the more time you spend managing her the more it is likely to affect the rest of your interactions.

Second, don't think about it in terms of her being bipolar or not. Think about her behavior. Is she behaving in ways you don't like or find exhausting to deal with? Then she is, and it doesn't really matter whether it's because she has bipolar disorder, has bpd, has cancer, has some other disorder, had a bad upbringing, or periodically channels a nasty bitch from beyond the grave. If you want to spend the next 50-80 years living with someone who behaves like that, stay. If you don't want to, leave.

If anything, monkeytoes probably has it backwards. If she were behaving in ways you didn't like because she had cancer, then either you'd expect her behavior to change when she felt better, or that the bad behavior wouldn't last that long because she would die. But if she's resisted treatment so far or this is her under treatment, then you can expect this to be a lifelong pattern of behavior or something close to it.

If she's already at the point where she's "lost her mind" at least once and you leaving would "make her" do it again, then leaving looks better. It sounds cruel, but if she's already that fragile, the odds of her making it through a full life without various normal setbacks and stresses making her "lose her mind" periodically, possibly with disastrous consequences, seem pretty low. Like with a lot of tragic or potentially tragic situations, if her life is likely to feature some real disasters, it's better for those to be only her disasters rather than hers and yours too.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:01 PM on December 29, 2009 [6 favorites]

I came across this while doing research on mental illness last semester:

Fast, Julie A. and John D. Preston. 2004. Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder: Understanding & Helping Your Partner. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

The book's focus is on staying in the relationship..but it has a lot of tips on understanding the disorder, advice for both partners, and some concrete when to bail advice. It also has voices from both partners. My library had it, yours might too.

On a more personal note...I have a long time friendship with someone with bipolar that, yes, sometimes feels like I am managing said person and sometimes feels like an exhausting job. She's worth it the times when it's not...but I've formed a support network with her family and other friends for when she is (and when we all need to persuade her to get more treatment). Maybe worth considering if you decide to stay.
posted by eleanna at 9:25 PM on December 29, 2009

The comparison to cancer is stupid; no-one expects someone with cancer to be treated by their boyfriend, yet it's fairly common for partners to be expected to act as therapist-cum-nurse for someone with an illness; moreover, cancer tends to be a pretty limited commitment. People get better, or they die, within fairly short order. They don't, in general, spend the next 30 or 40 or 50 years in the grips of their illness.

I also know if I bail she will lose her mind again.

No, no, no. You are not and cannot be responsible for the whole of another person's welfare. It doesn't matter what the problem is - bipolar, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction - I an think of no better way of opening yourself up to destruction that this. It's only a few steps removed from "If I had dinner on the table when he got home he wouldn't beat me."

If she loses her mind it's because she's sick. And if you feel like you have a full-time second job all the time, well, it isn't going to be long before you're sick. If you want to stay together then you need to be her boyfriend, not her nurse-therapist. That doesn't mean cavalierly ignoring the help her illness needs, but that doesn't mean coming home from work to do your night shift, either.

Like other posters, I can say there's no point trying to stay if she's not seeking professional help. But I'll also add: what I your life goals? What do you want? Children? Travel? If she stays the same as she is now, will your relationship allow those things? Because there's no point being there in ten years, embittered and resentful of your lost opportunities.
posted by rodgerd at 1:47 AM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

You are obviously offering her a lot of support. Can she give you the same support back? Healthy relationships are partnerships and while it is normal for the need for support to fluctuate between the two people somewhat unevenly, if one person is draining all the support and unable to reciprocate it becomes a co-dependent relationship.

Is her family a strong support system? Just as parents of developmentally delayed adults can't cut the ties they normally would, parents of mentally unstable adult children need to remain very involved in their children's lives. Their support should ideally be emotional as well as financial (as her disorder will probably impact her earning ability). Beware of families that are happy to make their child someone else's problem - sadly I have several times seen apparently supportive families turn their back on a draining family member - taking much needed support from the partner.

Are you happy with her doctors and do you feel they take your concerns seriously? Do you have a support group around you of people who are also dealing with someone else's disorder that you can vent with and hopefully find a mentor?

And n'thing that you are not responsible for her illness, whether you stay or go.
posted by saucysault at 7:28 AM on December 30, 2009

My wife has bipolar. Before it was diagnosed life was pretty tough, especially as she's more manic than depressive so it was just weird that she would sleep for like an hour a night for weeks at a time and was impossible to talk to in any meaningful way. She's taken responsibility for her illness and health, is seeing a psychiatrist, and is on medication, and things are back to being terrific. One of my best friends is also bipolar, and has not had a hypomanic episode in 6 years while on medication.

If your GF does not take the illness seriously, is not seeing someone, and is not on meds, then there is literally nothing you can do to make her better. The nature of the illness is that she's going to be completely irrational one way or the other depending in what part of the cycle she's in, and challenging for you to be around (though there can be benefits to being around a manic...better sex, up for new activities, etc.).

So the way you should think about this is that if she can and does take responsibility for the illness, then you two might have a shot. If she's not, then you don't. I was literally on the verge of a divorce when she started treatment, and things are back to great, so I also wouldn't take the advice of people who think you should run and that there is no chance.
posted by kryptonik at 1:11 PM on December 30, 2009

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