Love In A Void
September 9, 2011 9:50 AM   Subscribe

My other half seems utterly paralyzed. How do I talk to him about it?

I've been with my honey for about a year and a half. He's terminally shy and socially awkward to an extreme. He's also Type I bipolar (heavily medicated by lamictal and lithium) and suffers from extreme flatness of affect. In his particular case, he has very little motivation to seek out social contact, has only two or three close friends, and makes no plans of his own except when those friends reach out and make a concerted effort.

The crux of my problem is that I've tried everything I can to get him to engage and enjoy not just "our" life, but his own. I don't expect him to appreciate the same things I do, but I do want him to have his own set of passions. I'd like us to savor things independently and bring new things back to the relationship to keep it healthy and vibrant and diverse. Unfortunately, this has yet to happen.

I've just come home from another trip (alone) and I'm feeling the distance between us more than ever. This is my third trip without him. (To clarify, two of these trips have been for work, but this one was a large party in an extremely inhospitable environment, and he has no interest in attending.) He never asks me about them - how they went, what I did, who I met, what I saw, anything. He simply glues himself back to my side and expects me to return to the dinner/movie/concert rotation that makes up our life.

He never denies me the opportunity to do anything that I love or want to do, and has never once made me feel guilty about it, but he also doesn't want to partake of any of them. How this plays out is that when he's not at the gym or at work, he's hiding in his apartment or hanging out with me under rather limiting circumstances. He won't even let me into his apartment because it's such a disaster; he's lived in the unit next door for six months and hasn't unpacked or even cleaned since then.

I've been as understanding as I know how about the difficulty of suffering from severe bipolar disorder and the trauma that comes from having had a terrifying manic episode (and hospitalization), but I simply don't know how to abide by someone who seems so frozen. He's defensive about his condition and doesn't want to discuss the possibility of changing his medications, nor has he sought out therapy, even when he says and acknowledges that he needs it. I care about him deeply, but I feel as if I'm putting in all the work and I obviously can't make him change.

Now that I'm back from another trip, he thinks I want even more independence from him, but what I really want is for him to push through his fear and pain and join me in the world of the living. I'm going to talk to him about it in the next few days, but I would very much appreciate some strategies for positively approaching this conversation. I'm a bit at a loss as to how to not make all this sound like a big pile of His Problems. Your thoughts, please?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There's nothing wrong with being a homebody. It sounds like he likes to work, exercise and do comfortable things with you. It sounds like if he didn't also have the bipolar issue you would break up with him over simple incompatibility or learn to live with his preferences, but the mental health issue is confusing you.
posted by michaelh at 10:04 AM on September 9, 2011 [15 favorites]

Have you talked to him about what your needs are? If you feel that he's not showing enough interest in your life, tell him: I feel as though you don't care about me, as an individual, when you don't ask about my day or inquire about my trips. It makes me sad.

My partner - though not as challenged as yours - also has social issues and is sometimes clueless about what I want.

I've given him a list of ways to show he cares, and asked him to try to do at least one or two things from the list every day. Spontaneity or "just knowing" is nice, but the fact that he's willing to think about me every day, look at the list, and choose to do one or two of the things I've asked for each day, is also a way for him to show he loves me.

I have also worked to accept that the social aspects of my life are just going to be lived without him. He's miserable when pressured to participate, and I don't want to make him miserable.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:12 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's not at all clear whether this is his illness or his personality; you seem to assume it's the illness or the medication, but how do you know that his "real self" isn't just an introvert and a homebody? I don't see much hope here for him becoming the person you want him to be. Maybe it's time for you to move on.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 10:12 AM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

You're asking a bipolar, poorly medicated, anti-social, un-therapied and likely depressed man to be someone else. There is absolutely zero - and I mean zero - chance of seeing the changes you want to see if he is not willing to enter therapy and work with his doctor to find better meds that make him less flat. The problems frankly are his problems, and protecting him from that isn't actually helping him.

For the record, I have never been one of the people on MeFi to say "Your partner is bupolar? Run, and don't look back." People with this illness can thrive and be good partners (or fail miserably just like people who are not bipoalr) but they have to be actively engaged in being well. Your partner is not. Make ultimatums and be prepared to go, because this is not going to get better without him.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:14 AM on September 9, 2011 [32 favorites]

The problem is that you have an expectation of normalcy that he probably is never going to fulfill, and expecting him to will (at best) make him feel rejected/pressured and so on. Being introverted alone means that his most healthy idea of 'life' may not include going out and doing tons of stuff around other people. I've had long periods where my idea of excitement involved which story I'd read/written that day. Ok so I wasn't at my best, but I wasn't clinically depressed at the time, either. If he truly doesn't savor anything, that's a problem-- but I can't tell from this what his hobbies are or if he's pursuing them. The fact that he works out is actually a sign he's not as bad as he could be (the apartment thing is bad... if you were closer, you could just offer to make a day of it and unpack with him, make it a fun activity with pizza and loud music, etc). Regardless, for an introvert, being in his apartment isn't 'hiding', it's comfortable and normal. Hiding his apartment from you is different-- I found that very frustrating when an ex did that-- but it's a sign of intimacy issues. If he was truly comfortable with you, it wouldn't be an issue. So you may need to build trust and get him to loosen up, suspend judgment, push back that 'serious' conversation and just do what you can for him to lower his guard.

Anyway, as you said, you can't change someone, so figure out stuff you want to do together that you're not doing now-- that's all you can do. Like, I dunno, going on a walk in a park where you can people-watch and mingle a bit while he's in the area looking at dogs and kids playing or something. That way you can put a toe into those broader-socializing waters. If he likes people-watching at all, is abstractly interested in other people at all, you can gently open him up to different experiences by, yes, dragging him places. That's a traditional roles for the extrovert in a friend/romantic relationship to take. If you're not ok with it, then that's partly you limiting the options.

The 'flat affect' is a different issue, and separate from the 'world of the living' thing. There's difference between natural reticence and drugged numbness-- do you know for sure which is which in him? Regardless, the central thing to keep in mind is that the 'world of the living' is a broad stage where some actors like to keep behind the curtains. They're not zombies. They're just doing something else.
posted by reenka at 10:16 AM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you first need to sort out what you want to ask of him, and what choices you're willing to make based on his responses.

He's not just a homebody. If his apartment is so dirty he won't even let you see it, that's a problem. If you're essentially his only social contact, that's a problem. If his mental illness isn't managed properly yet he refuses to discuss his treatment with you and refuses to see a therapist, that's a big huge flashing problem.

Yes, his illness is difficult, emotionally painful, probably humiliating for him at times. You are wise to be aware of how hard it is for him. But. That doesn't mean you have to sit and watch while his poorly managed illness dictates the terms of your relationship.

I think it would be reasonable to ask him to get better treatment. I think, at this point, expecting him to make other changes without first addressing his illness would be a losing battle. It sounds like you're sensitive enough about his feelings that you could sit him down and say, "I know this is hard to talk about..." and sincerely do your best to work with him to find solutions rather than blaming him. However, you need to decide what you'll do with his response. You may have the most perfect, most loving, most sensitive way of phrasing "I need you to get help" and he may still refuse.

If he refuses to get better treatment, or even to talk about his options, it would not be wrong to break up with him--even if you feel protective of him and even if you love him. It would also not be wrong to stay with him if he refuses to get help, although you should be aware that your relationship will most likely continue to be dominated by his illness if that's what you choose.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:27 AM on September 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

I know nothing about bipolar disorder, but I have some experience with depression.

You cannot solve this, but you might be able to help him get to the professionals who can. When I had a very depressed friend who was not getting treated, I advised him strongly to get treatment repeatedly. You could say I pushed him pretty aggressively at times. It's hard to walk the line between being helpful and pushing too hard, but I think it helps to push.

Since he is not just your friend but your partner, I think you can push a little harder and even offer to do the work of getting him started. Since he acknowledges that he needs therapy, why not go to him and tell him that you really want to help him get started and offer to find a therapist and schedule an appointment. Either he'll let you or he'll do it himself or he'll resist/procrastinate. If it's the latter, try to gently set a timeframe/deadline -- maybe get him to agree to have a week to get it set up or else you can do it for him. Offer to sit with him and help if you can make that offer without sounding like you're going to be a taskmaster about it.

When trying to convince him, don't moralize and tell him that he "should" do it or that he owes it to you, because that kind of talk just feeds the depression. Talk about how much it can help, and how he doesn't have to feel this way and that it's the depression itself that makes him feel like it's not going to work, that he can't trust that feeling as true. Tell him you understand it's hard for him to get motivated about it, but you love him and that's why you're pushing him to get started.

It's hard to know how many of the problems you describe are symptoms of his illness and how many are his personality, but I can say that every problem you mention can be a symptom of depression, so that by going after the depression you are going after a very likely cause and not just the symptoms. I don't know anything about how those medications are contributing (or not) to his issues, but the therapist might be helpful in convincing him to consider adjusting his medications if he or she thinks it's necessary.
posted by callmejay at 10:48 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

This just came up?

Was he bipolar before you moved in?

If no, it's one thing. Hope spring eternal, and if it just came up, maybe it will just go away. Unlikely, but possible.

If yes, then why exactly did you choose to fall in love with/date/move in with/couple with someone whose very definition is the antithesis of 'relationship material'.

The larger question looming is "What's wrong with my decision making skills and how can I improve them in the critical area of mate selection?"

Getting boy to change his eye color would be easier. Metafilter won't help there, either, incidentally.
posted by FauxScot at 10:53 AM on September 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

I feel and sympathize with your frustration and sadness at your boyfriends anxiety and "stuck-ness", but I think you should break up, sorry. Getting a SO to pursue therapy or medication changes is an uphill struggle that rarely works because people have to take those decisions and steps for themselves, and getting major health issues fixed is rarely simple, quick, or even 100% possible. It takes a lot of determination by the person affected. It seems like getting a partner to make big life changes is often even harder when whatever the partner is struggling with has been going on longer than the relationship.

But even assuming your boyfriend does all the things you think he should do (I'm not saying you're wrong that they could be helpful things, but that's sort of beside the point) and assuming they work as well as could be and his bipolar symptoms are all managed and well controlled, the social life you describe your boyfriend as wanting isn't all that unusual, or automatically a sign of a problem. Dinner, movies, concerts, and two or three friends is what many people like to have as a social life, and he may never want to join you in the "world of the living". I'm a happy, basically healthy person with lots of friends I actively make plans with and I will never, ever, go to Burning Man (I assume that's what you're referring to) because it sounds annoying and terrible - it's just my preference, not a refusal to engage with life.

I guess what I'm saying is that before you commit to the major, major work of trying to get your partner to tackle something as big as revisiting how they deal with a mental illness, you should be pretty sure you'd be compatible and want the same things from life if that illness was a lesser or non-existent factor.
posted by crabintheocean at 10:57 AM on September 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I had a longer answer ready to go, but I'm trying to say things more simply these days. I'm also not experienced with a bi-polar partner, but I've learned something about any partner: You choose people based on how they are, not on who you'd like them to be.

Okay, because I'm incapable of not elaborating: Years ago, I was married to a guy I thought would make a great husband - if, you know, his mom stopped cashing his paycheck for him and then paying his bills, and if he just stopped boozing so much, etc. So we "fixed" a lot of that stuff, and he didn't need me anymore. I'd "fired" his mom (and became a mother figure - eesh), and he used his girlfriend to "fire" me, his wife. And in all the ensuing agony, I realized: I'd married a childish man who liked to drink and screw around, and who was I to change him?

So in this desperate time when I was open to self-help, I read a stupid book that I found at a thrift store. And it is an obnoxious in many, many ways. It is by someone I don't admire; and I don't agree with all "Ten Stupid Things" it's said that women do to screw up their lives. Maybe you can figure which book I mean. But I'll save you the trouble and shame of reading it:

It made me think about a couple of points - Who am I in this context? Why am I attaching to him? Why am I devoted to him? Is this the kind of love I want? Why am I committed to someone with problems such that I feel the need to fix him?

The problem was me, and what I chose. Not him. He was pretty fine with himself. Thankfully, my next choice was exactly the kind of stable, employed, kind-hearted, generous, faithful, independent man I could spend (coming up on fourteen) years with. I wanted these qualities, and I found someone who already had them, because I didn't want another project.

So I am saying, along with all of the good answers above, yes, do ask, and perhaps require, that he at least consider better treatment and participation in building the relationship and help him to get therapy. But, turn it around: You are choosing someone with whom you likely can't have your ideal relationship - not because of the situation, but because of who he is, in whole or in part due to his illness. What are you getting out of this? What do you see as the progression of this relationship?

If the benefits, like having your own space to yourself and independence and how you get complete freedom to do anything you love or want to do without guilt or companionship - outweigh his being a recluse, then sure. You're both getting the best of each other so don't bother to change him.

But if after all this time he won't even let you into his apartment because it's such a disaster; and he's lived in the unit next door for six months and hasn't unpacked or even cleaned since then, do you expect to ever live with him? What do you want for years down the road, and do you want to pave it yourself, or just travel down it with someone?
posted by peagood at 11:00 AM on September 9, 2011 [9 favorites]

My thoughts are "walk away" or "accept this guy as he is".

He's not trying to make this work with you. It might be the meds, it might be the bipolar, it might just be his personality or maybe it's a combination of factors. Who knows. It might be hard to walk away from an 18 month relationship, but his situation isn't going to change unless he wants it to. And it really doesn't seem like he wants it to. He might even be incapable of wanting it to, given the state he's in.

Whichever way, it's not working for you. And there are no magic words or gestures that you can use to change another person against their will. Being in a relationship with them doesn't affect that one iota. If he's not what you want, then resign yourself to being in a relationship with someone who isn't what you want, or move on. Whatever you do, though, don't make yourself responsible for his mental health.
posted by Solomon at 11:01 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

what I really want is for him to push through his fear and pain and join me in the world of the living.

I truly and completely understand this desire to be together in a way that you believe will be healthier and more mutually satisfying. However, what you are basically asking/expecting from him is a complete personal, psychological, social, and medical revolution in terms of his self-perception and his fundamental functioning in the world.

I mean this sincerely: do you believe that is both a fair and realistic expectation?
posted by scody at 11:23 AM on September 9, 2011 [8 favorites]

Girls change guys all the time, but I don't think it has ever worked by going up to them and telling them to change.

Just try to do things with him. The way it sounds, he doesn't hold you back when you say something like "I want to go to this movie". So instead say "I want to go to this movie with you."

Some of the things that you go do, he may not even realize that he's invited. You can't tell him to be less flat, you need to show him how to be less flat.
posted by BurnChao at 11:25 AM on September 9, 2011

How to talk about it? Back away from theories and just ask for what you want. "I'd really like it if you'd join me at the next party. I feel disconnected from you when I do so many things without you, and I want to feel closer." Then listen.

Potentially escalate: "I've invited you to three events and each time, you say you're just not in the mood. I'm starting to wonder if it is a mood or a permanent lack of interest and willingness."
posted by salvia at 12:48 PM on September 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Girls change guys all the time, but I don't think it has ever worked by going up to them and telling them to change.

No. No. No. NO, THEY DON'T. And the reason it hasn't worked by "telling them to change" is because no one changes anyone else. People change when they want to. Sometimes they are motivated to do so by the example and inspiration of the folks they love, but no one changes anyone else.

And this person, aside from the issue of his poor mental health (not because he's bipolar, but because of the choices he makes around it and the insight he appears to have), keeps telling you, in one way or another, that he does. not. want. to. change. And that means that he probably isn't going to. Maybe with better mental health care, this desire might come alive in him. But I don't think you should expect it to.
posted by liketitanic at 2:20 PM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Walk away.

You're obviously not compatible.

It sounds like maybe you are afraid to break up with him because you might be criticizing his illness, and that's not his fault. But regardless of what's causing him to be the way he is, he is the way he is, and you don't like him as a partner the way he is.

He's always been like this? Why are you with this guy? He doesn't sound like a bad person or anything, but that's not a good reason to stay with someone. Leave!
posted by J. Wilson at 4:31 PM on September 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Not everyone wants to go to Burning Man ("big party in an inhospitable place" is a pretty obvious clue at this time of the year). You travel for work and you go to the playa, and if he's not into the big dust rave you're going to spend some time apart. Speaking as a six time burner, not wanting to devote your summer to the logistics of camping on the playa isn't unimaginable even for a social butterfly. Nor is not quite grokkng the magnificence of all the stories that come back any particular year.

You guys sound like you're on very different social wavelengths. His lifestyle might be quite healthy for him. Demanding that he "join the land of the living" isn't any more fair than him demanding you stop traveling. Respect who he is, express what you'd like to do together as an invitation, not an indictment, and perhaps you can find common ground. Otherwise, bid him farewell and find someone with whom you click more socially.
posted by SakuraK at 9:50 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing the idea that you have personality differences that need not be blamed on his bipolar disorder or meds. Some people are homebodies. It's off-putting to hear you use his "only having two or three close friends" as some sort of proof of dysfunction. There is NOTHING wrong with that. You are just different. You should break up. You only say one positive thing in your whole post (that you care about him deeply) and the rest of it is complaining. It does not even come close to sounding like you should stay together.
posted by parrot_person at 9:53 PM on September 9, 2011

This is a book that you might find useful: I am not sick. I don't need help! How to help someone with Mental illness accept treatment.
posted by metahawk at 12:04 AM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

...and if that doesn't work, look for the book titled How to Help Someone Who is an Introverted Homebody Become the Social Butterfly/Traveler You Would Prefer They Be.
posted by parrot_person at 1:09 AM on September 10, 2011

I think this is super tangled up and messy and you're not likely to be satisfied at any time in the near future.

A lot of the stuff you describe is stuff I see in my own behavior - crippling social anxiety, OCD (apparently, this is a two-day old diagnosis) keeping me frozen in the land of "if I do I'll fail, so my house is so messy no one can come inside," poorly managed bipolar (II.) But, I'm naturally much more bubbly/interested in things (when I feel safe,) and I'm one of the lucky ones with atypical depression presentation, so I can be happy for spurts in the right circumstances, and my meds/personality combination do not result in flattened affect. I sometimes tried at stuff and it went badly - I signed up for a singles conference one time and hid in my room and explored the city and went to half the events and mostly hid in the back of the crowd and was miserable. But I wanted, and want, to succeed and be some weird internal definition of "normal."

Anyway, if someone was trying to get me to transform my behavior and feelings the way I think you want your BF to do, I don't know if that'd be possible no matter how much I wanted to please them (and pleasing others is one of my biggest motivations in life, maybe the biggest - also not so healthy.) Like, I'd go to the parties, but I'd be truly miserable for the most part, and it'd take months or years to get to the point where I was more than vaguely OK and sort of hopeful about them, and I don't know if I'd be especially competent and visibly comfortable unless each of the parties was very similar and involved the exact same people. It took a week of partial hospitalization meeting 5 hours a day to get to where I didn't want to bolt out of the room; to where I wasn't forcing myself to doodle notes like "the only thing you have to do is sit here, and it's okay to hate it" to myself to keep from doing so. Now I still need to color, and most of the time I'm still uncomfortable, but it's not quite so bad.

The bottom line is that the extremely limited (from a global perspective) progress I've made - I'm meeting someone from church, not in my house, for a casual conversation for an hour on Sunday; this is HUGE - has taken an insane amount of work. I'm living on emails from my family and therapist and work counselor telling me how brave I am, how hard they know it is for me, how brave I am, to get enough motivation to keep trying. I go to the question I wrote on AskMe before I went to my intake session and I read the answers and use them to keep going.

And it's only really happening at all because I couldn't take living the way I was, anymore. I was begging my therapist and my psychiatrist for something, anything, please, because this wasn't working for me, and I knew it. I was miserable and I hated it and I would do anything to get out of that place, even if I couldn't vocalize it.

And it's still really really really really hard. And I've been in treatment in general for several years (continuous therapy - every other week - and psychiatric visits every three or four weeks) and in the partial hospitalization program for a week and a half and it's still really really really really hard. If I didn't want to be doing it, if I hadn't been so desperate and unhappy and unwilling to continue the way things were, there isn't a chance I'd be doing it.

So far your BF seems to be in a place where he's not so unhappy. And you're just dissatisfied. Making him miserable about himself is... a really bad idea. And I can't think of anything that would be effective, because honestly, this has to be an internal thing.

(And he may never be a carefree social butterfly who loves life the way you want him to. Ever. Even without a single clinical symptom and no negative side effects from the drugs. EVER. Can you see yourself with him if you know he'll never get there? Where he's healthy but still introverted and kind of a homebody? Because from your question, I don't think you can.)
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 7:28 AM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

What you want for him seems reasonable. But it doesn't sound like it's what he wants for himself. Ask him what he wants his life to be like and how you can help him make his life that way. If it's about what you want for yourself, like somebody to accompany you to bars, go to dinner with, go to parties with, etc., tell him that, and ask him how much he is willing do do this thing that would be nice for you. Gently encourage him to improve his treatment plan, so that he can enjoy his life more, tell him you'll help to the extent you can, and then let him find his own way.
posted by theora55 at 1:34 PM on September 10, 2011

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