I love my girlfriend, but cannot shake this feeling.
April 22, 2013 4:56 PM   Subscribe

I have been dating my girlfriend for 2 years and am very much in love. She is bipolar and it is affecting my emotional and mental health. I cannot shake these feelings of leaving her but I know love is hard to come by. What should I do?

I am having trouble shaking these feelings, so I wanted to throw it up here to get more advice.

I am in my mid twenties and have been dating someone for about 2 years. I love her so much and she loves me. We recently found out that she is bipolar. This actually explains a lot of the issues that have come up in the relationship and we have been working on getting her help.

For the past couple of months I have not been able to shake the feeling of wanting to break free from the relationship. It has caused me a lot of confusion because I have never been so in love with anybody before. This relationship has been the most rewarding and most trying relationship of my life.

My emotional and mental health have really been neglected because most of my time is spent helping her with her issues. When I am the happiest is when she is doing well and feeling loved. A lot of effort is put into helping her get here.

As you may know, you always need to be alert while dating a bipolar person. It's not their fault, but any little thing can push them over the edge. I am someone who loves to help people and get a lot of my fulfillment in "fixing" issues.

While my SO is as giving as she can be, my needs and desires are always pushed to the side and I don't usually get to be a focus in the relationship. While this is ok and sometimes necessary in this type of relationship, I can't help but desire a more fulfilling relationship.

As I said, I love this girl so much and know no matter what relationship she is in, her SO will have to work more than in other relationships. I am very happy to be that for her. I suppose I chose this life by being with her. This is my issue in my head.

My issue is that I know things will not get better. She will always be bipolar and, although the relationship will always have great points (when they are great, they are GREAT), I know I will have to forfeit some of my desires.

I know the grass is not greener on the other side, believe me. I went through a very hard breakup years ago the left me realizing that it's not better, just different outside of a relationship.

The thought of breaking up with her breaks my heart. I know that eventually, I will be ok. I suppose I am wondering if anybody has been in a similar situation. Love is a hard thing to find. If you have it, should you hold onto it until your dying breath? Have you ever broke up with someone you really loved and regretted it years later? Are my concerns a result of being young and immature? I don't want to make a decision I will really regret later.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You say she has been recently diagnosed. Has she gotten on a regimen of meds that works for her yet? Once that happens, and if she is diligent with them and with things like sleep hygiene, etc. to stay healthy, she may very well be much more stable in the forseeable future.

That having been said, yes, it's tough dealing with someone with this issue. Only you can decide whether or not this eventually will become a dealbreaker. But you don't have to decide right this minute.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:01 PM on April 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

It is sort of hard to discern the question you're asking or the problem to be solved.

"should you hold onto it until your dying breath?"... not if the relationship is unhealthy.

"Have you ever broke up with someone you really loved and regretted it years later?"... of course, this has happened, but other people's experience with this does not equate to a prediction for your choices.

"Are my concerns the result of being young and immature?"... which concerns?

That said.... Yes, it is possible to have a loving relationship with someone who is bipolar, and, as you noted, you'll work very hard and it will never be perfect.

The statement "I am someone who loves to help people and get a lot of my fulfillment in "fixing" issues." is going to make it that much more difficult for you... Your own distorted thinking in this regard is going to cause much confusion.

If you choose this route, you'll need your own support system....
posted by HuronBob at 5:04 PM on April 22, 2013

This may not have to be a breaking up situation. You don't mention this, but are you putting your own needs aside on your own or because she's opposed to compromising? If it's the former, you need to stop doing that. Now. It sounds like you might have a white-knight/self-sacrificing thing going on, but you don't have to be a martyr. You should always, always take care of your needs/mental health. This becomes even more important when you have a partner with mental issues.

So, I would start there. See a therapist, join a support group, whatever you feel will help you learn how to start taking care of yourself in this relationship. She's an adult and she presumably has friends, family and other support that she doesn't need you to sacrifice yourself for her.

To answer your other question, I've broken up with someone and regretted it for years, but never more than a few years. And usually after that time the rose-colored glasses have faded and it becomes easier to see why the end of the relationship necessary. Looking back now, I wouldn't choose to be with any of the people I was so devastated to break up with. So yeah, if you do end things, it'll get better with time. A lot of time.
posted by Autumn at 5:10 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Love is not hard to come by. This issue is real, significant, and not in your head. You do not have to stay with someone with depression if your needs are consistently not being met. You do not need to go without a support system, and you should not need to persuade yourself to stay with someone if you're unhappy.

It is also 100% possible and okay to love someone and not be right for that person, and vice versa. This may be one of those times. It might not be.

My suggestions:

1. Wait to see what happens with her meds.
2. Get your own therapist so you can work on advocating for your needs and not get thrown into the pit so to speak as your SO deals with her depression.
3. Start advocating for your needs and don't discount them in favor of hers anymore.
4. Don't be afraid to let go if things don't work out. Think critically here. You are not obligated to stay in a relationship with her. Truly! But you can if you really want/need to. You have a choice though!
5. It will work out in the end. Either you stay together, or you don't. It really will be okay either way.

Good luck.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 5:11 PM on April 22, 2013 [14 favorites]

I guess the question has to be: is she approaching the diagnosis as a starting point to try to improve her life? Is she looking forward to treatment or therapy? Or is she viewing it as an end, meaning this is why she behaves the way she does and there is nothing she wants to do to change it?

Bipolar is tough, but everyone's attitude toward it makes a big difference. There is a twinge of your having to walk on eggshells around her, and that's not fun or conducive to a healthy relationship. Give it some time and see if this changes. If it doesn't, it might be time to bolt.
posted by gjc at 5:13 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you ever heard of codependency? Maybe it is not what you are experiencing, but it wouldn't hurt to look into it. It's fulfillment through external means - just like what you describe in feeling happy by "fixing" others instead of looking at your internal needs.

edit: These Birds of a Feather gave some really great advice!
posted by fireandthud at 5:14 PM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

...I know love is hard to come by.

It's not, though. It's really not. In fact, as you focus on the important things that matter to you, you'll find that love will seek you out.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:19 PM on April 22, 2013 [6 favorites]

you always need to be alert while dating a bipolar person
Eh, maybe. Different people with bipolar disorder are different. What I need from a significant other may or may not be what your girlfriend needs - and what we each need may have everything or nothing (or something in the middle) to do with our shared diagnosis.
I know things will not get better
You know no such thing - this is a thought, a belief, but not a fact. "It," in fact, "gets better" for quite a lot of people with this diagnosis. I, for instance, am ridiculously functional compared to where I was a year ago.
She will always be bipolar
She will always be herself - she may or may not always have the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and she almost certainly will not be at the same functional level as she is now, in the future. This is why we have medication and therapy - to get to a different place in terms of our well-being.

I think you should do some couple's counseling, and also get yourself some education on what bipolar disorder is and is not. Support groups for family/friends of those with mental illness also exist through NAMI and DBSA; if you stick with this relationship I strongly recommend attending them.

I can't help but notice, by the way, that it appears that things in your relationship have always been difficult. And that you kind of seem like you have some issues with codependency (the "fixing things" bit.) This is excellent stuff to discuss with a therapist in an individual setting; no matter what relationship you are in a year or two from now, you want to resolve this stuff.

Oh, and if you do break up with her, please do so gently, firmly, and after making sure she has a good support system in place.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 5:21 PM on April 22, 2013 [10 favorites]

You know what it's like to date a person who is undiagnosed and untreated for their bipolar disorder. You don't know what it's like to be with someone who has bipolar disorder and is managing it. Is she that someone? We can't tell you. I can say that even if she didn't have bipolar disorder your relationship would sound somewhat unhealthy to me. On both sides.

It's a tough row to hoe, for sure, but I think if you approach a relationship with this woman as you have laid it out here - problems to be "fixed" and forfeiture of your desires - you're doomed. If you are unhappy, and it sounds like you are, then no amount of love between you is going to make you happy and keep the relationship going in a healthy, mutually beneficial way.

To answer your question about regret -- Sad in the moment? Absolutely. Regretting it years later? Nope, never.
posted by sm1tten at 5:22 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ok, before you go do anything rash, keep in mind that she is the same person she was before she got diagnosed. Just because someone put a label on her now, doesn't make her more bipolar than before. The difference is that now you are aware of what options and tools you guys have to help her. Now, if she is saying "well I can get away with this because I am bipolar, my doctor said so, so you have to deal with it" then yes, that issue needs to be dealt with, or this relationship will go sour quickly. But if she is the same person you've been in love with for 2 years, and now you have this bonus of knowing that you can make this relationship even better with the right therapy/meds, then don't make any decisions now. It's a lot of news to find out about the love of your life, so it's overwhelming and it might seem easier to run, but it might be worth sticking it out until you both are in a bipolar-managing routine, just to see how life and how your relationship will be from then on. Now, keep in mind that part of this bipolar-managing routine is remembering to take care of your mental and emotional needs as well. This might mean therapy for you, long walks for you, maybe having your girlfriend help you emotionally with some things as well if she can deal with it - whatever works for you and her! Good luck!
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 5:46 PM on April 22, 2013

Everyone in the world comes with their own set of issues, and that's fine and well, but it just sounds like your needs aren't getting met in the relationship. You said you feel like your needs and desires are pushed to the side, and your happiness depends on her current mental state. You deserve someone who is able and willing to give as much to the relationship as you are. Right now it sounds like you're giving a lot and maybe she's not able to do that right now with where she is in dealing with her illness. I also think it sounds like you should explore the idea of codependency.

Being able to trust and rely on someone is a really important underpinning to a healthy relationship.
posted by mermily at 6:06 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I absolutely cannot speak for your girlfriend, but as someone who is bipolar, it CAN get better. When I was first diagnosed (and in the year leading up to the diagnosis), I was a wreck. Hospitalizations, lashing out, cruel words, tears, self-harm, days of too pleasant manic highs, etc. I couldn't imagine being someone's girlfriend at that point. It would have been way too hard on the both of us. But now, thanks to years of meds (which took many adjustments), therapy, diet and lifestyle changes, and learning a whole frickin lot of self-awareness, I can now say that I'm very mentally healthy. New friends (even my new boyfriend) had no idea I was bipolar, and as of yet, still haven't seen any of my symptoms. I've learned how to take care of myself, and, for myself and those around me, I make a concerted effort to put in the hard work to stay well, even when it's tough. This isn't to say I will always be so symptom-free, but for now, it's working.

All this to say that things might be rough at the moment, but there may likely be a light at the end of the tunnel. If she's willing to put in the work, things can likely settle down. Again, each person deals with bipolar in a different way, and she might require more intense treatment, or have more severe symptoms. But don't assume that it WILL always be difficult, just because of the scary diagnosis.
posted by hasna at 6:08 PM on April 22, 2013 [6 favorites]

The thing early breakups in your twenties are supposed to teach you is, yes, breaking up with someone you love sucks, but you get over it and find someone else. You say you broke up with a girl before; and now you have someone you love even more. That can happen again.

People with mental health issues do require support, but there is no written rule that that support will come in the form of a partner, and even if they do have a supportive partner their family and medical team also play a huge role. You are not obligated to stay.

I have no opinion as to whether you should leave or not, but if you do: that is ok and totally fine. I give you permission.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:13 PM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I feel like a jerk for bringing this up, but I was in your position, somewhat. I dated a man when I was in my 20s and he was in his 30s. He had been diagnosed as bipolar in his early 20s, and even after 10 years seemed at sea in terms of what meds/dosage worked best for him. I saw him through one manic episode (fun, then annoying, then really scary), several depressive episodes (just heartbreaking), and one paranoid episode (scary).

In retrospect, I know that I loved him very, very much, cared about him, was willing to do just about anything for him. I would have married him, supported him, had his babies and supported them too.

The only thing that saved me was that he didn't want to have kids. And now that I'm married to a man who is mentally solid as a rock, I thank my lucky stars that it didn't workout with this former boyfriend.

This is not to say that your girlfriend will be like him, or that you shouldn't break up with her for other reasons (there are some codependency red flags in your post). I'm just encouraging you to look at the bigger picture, if you wish to do so. I have no idea if you even want kids.
posted by tk at 7:48 PM on April 22, 2013

I think there are two intertwined issues here.

For one, you know very little about Bipolar Disorder with regard to its course, treatment options and how they can help, and the concept of recovery. NAMI is an excellent resource for this; their website has a lot of information on the disorder and they run several support groups for people whose loved ones have a mental illness.

The other thing that stuck out while I was reading your post was that in a way, your girlfriend's bipolar disorder plays a part in creating a dynamic in the relationship that you seem to thrive on. You do so much to support her that your own needs are being neglected, you get a lot of pleasure out of "fixing" your girlfriend, you're only happy when she's happy... in essence, you get to be the knight in shining armor while simultaneously taking all the focus away from you and putting it on her. It sounds like a situation where has become the source of all the stress and drama, and your own issues within the relationship are conveniently downplayed. To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if the relationship does fall apart once she starts getting better-- your white knight schtick will be made irrelevant, and you will no longer be able to keep the spotlight off of your own issues.

Just some food for thought.
posted by fox problems at 7:53 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

As you may know, you always need to be alert while dating a bipolar person. It's not their fault, but any little thing can push them over the edge.

... a demanding, abusive, temperamental partner can make you feel this way as well.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:26 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

... a demanding, abusive, temperamental partner can make you feel this way as well.

Stepping over the line a little bit, huh? Jesus Christ.

I think the huffiness and attacks are unwarranted here. Relationships with people who have mental illnesses are difficult. She has only just started treatment, so it might be worth seeing if issues stabilize as she does. However--you admit to liking feeling like a "fixer", and I'm guessing she's been happy to provide something for you to "fix". This co-dependent dynamic may quite possibly continue even after she stabilizes simply because this is how your relationship has always been. Both of you will have to start the hard process of beginning to discover one another as people rather than white-knight/damsel-in-distress archetypes. You may find after working through it that neither of you actually want that relationship.

At the same time, you're young. You're not married, you don't have kids. You'll find other relationships and so will she. You are not required to stay in a relationship that drains and alienates you. BUT when you enter in future relationships, be aware of the risk of trying to start the co-dependent dynamic again. It's no good for you to leave a relationship that drains you only to enter in another because you've got an addiction to fixing.
posted by schroedinger at 8:38 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

It is perfectly acceptable in my experience to say, "You have traits I cannot handle emotionally in this relationship." Just because it's not her fault doesn't mean that you should HAVE to stay with her. Yes, help her get support whether you stay or go, and yes get help for yourself in being a "I must fix this" kind of person.

Try talking about it or seeing how treatment goes, but in any case, this is a disorder that, although it can be managed, will never go away. It's the same with anything that's not someone's fault.

This is also coming from experience. My biological mother has borderline personalty disorder. (We haven't spoken since I was 16, thankfully.) BPD is like bipolar, bumped up by 1000%. Moods can change in an instant. Also things like bipolar, depression, and BPD can sometimes also go hand-in-hand with issues like addition and manipulation.

My parents thankfully divorced when I was 15. My dad said he wanted to stay because he thought it would be better for me, however he realized that it was really really bad for me. He loved her, but in the end he just couldn't handle it and she wasn't working to help herself. He had to go to Al-Anon to handle his co-dependence issues, and when I ended a really bad relationship at 19, my dad said, "I hope I didn't teach you that it was okay to be walked on from being with your mother." And it broke my heart. I hated seeing my dad go through all of that with her, and when he said he was getting a divorce, I cried with him but we felt free.

I am not saying your girlfriend is like this. Many people with disorders such as this live relatively normal lives and can mange their symptoms with therapy and medication. However it is a constant struggle. In my case the person didn't work on themselves and it has completely affected my life from start to finish. I also don't know all the ins and outs in your relationship.

Really think about what you want in life. I encourage you to take a step back before things get serous. You can give her a chance to get help and get better, however if it's something you can't handle, it's okay. You have to love yourself first before you can truly love or support someone else. Then that love has to be equal, and it sounds like it's not equal in your relationship.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:04 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's important to remember that your girlfriend's mental well-being is not your responsibility. However, your well-being is first and foremost your own responsibility, and the best way for you to be supportive of anyone is to attend to your own health first. If you are neglecting your own needs and feeling responsible for your girlfriend's mental health, that is co-dependent and is not healthy for either of you. The tendency to be a fixer can be traced to a need to control, and though your intentions might be good, it's much healthier for you to step away from that role and instead support her ability to manage her own mental health - if you want to stick around, that is, which you do not have to do at all if you feel you're not up to it. Regardless, I highly recommend you examine this need to be a fixer in therapy or a group like Al-Anon (they are ultimately about co-dependency). I say this as someone with those tendencies, myself.

As has been mentioned, your girlfriend can manage her condition to the point where she leads a more or less normal life. She will only be able to do this successfully if she takes on this responsibility, and trying to fix the situation or neglecting your needs while putting hers first is not going to help her get to a healthy place where she can do this.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:49 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know where you got the idea that love is hard to come by, but I challenge that premise.

It's an active thing, not a chance thing. Once you select someone to love, from there on out, it's work. What you have been doing is love. It's not always successful and not often free from effort or personal cost.

As to who you can choose to love, the numbers are in your favor. Whether you make a good choice, or let someone worthwhile choose you is a different story, but in raw numbers, there are billions of possibilities. Don't kid yourself. "The One" is a myth. Total bullshit. Even if there were "The One" at any given point in time, people are changing quantities or they aren't alive. The One will change into Formerly The One at some point leaving you to adapt, settle, move on. Don't fall for it.

Girl is bipolar? Assess if that's the kind of mate you want long term and if not, get it fixed or move on. Perhaps someone is out there who can do a better job of caring for her. Consider you may be preventing that from misplaced motives.
posted by FauxScot at 2:41 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

My emotional and mental health have really been neglected

This is not okay, and if you can't shake the feeling that you want to leave, there's probably a very good reason for that, and you cannot ignore it.

To answer your question, I left and never regretted it (quite the opposite), and only wish I had done so years earlier. A big difference is that my ex got his diagnosis only after I did leave, and then only in an effort to get me to come back. In your relationship, a good sign is that it seems like your girlfriend is addressing the issue and trying to get help – unless you are the one who has primarily been the driver in all that, and she isn't necessarily committed to working through the process.

I can't give you specific advice to stay or go, because your situation is too different, but I can say that the most insidious element of this kind of relationship is the conditioning that creeps in wherein the eggshell-walking and self-sacrifice becomes the norm, and it doesn't seem that bizarre that every morning you wake up wondering if the emotional weather is going to be bright, warm and balmy, or psychedelic rainbow rollercoaster, or the darkest, most hopeless stormclouds of despair, or a tornado of Breaking Bad-level anxiety and trauma. And you have no control or agency in that.

The delight and wonder I felt at escaping that atmosphere was overwhelming. I had literally forgotten that this isn't normal, and I didn't need to live that way... despite having a completely normal, emotional healthy, supportive and sane upbringing. I wasn't a downtrodden, low-esteem victim. Like you, I felt that I was emotionally stronger than my partner, and that I was the one who must bring stability and stoicism to the situation and play the hero/helper role. And love. And loyalty. And empathy/sympathy. Commitment to vows. All that.

But it wears you down. If the situation is unchecked, over years it eventually it wears you down to a wretched, weeping human mess. Not constantly, but enough that it rewires your programming, and alters the very foundation of who you are. Don't become that person.

Others here and elsewhere can give you informed advice about how to sanely and responsibly help a bipolar loved one while protecting your own mental health, and if you stay, I would highly recommend some professional and/or group support to help you set the limits and parameters of your relationship and your concept of your own role. I can't counsel you there, because my ex didn't seek help until it was too late for us. It only ended for me by leaving, and I don't exaggerate when I say that I'm consciously, specifically grateful nearly every single day that I did, and that I found someone wonderful who is on the same emotional wavelength as I am. When reflecting on it all (lo these many, many years later), I'm now baffled that it ever seemed okay to me to live that way, especially since I had no model for that. I do think that (what I now see as) my idea of myself as a noble savior type with singular powers was unrealistic, naive, and ultimately dangerous to my own wefare. It didn't help him, and it certainly didn't help me.

If you stay and your girlfriend is committed to helping herself, you help yourself by learning about the disorder and finding a knowledgeable expert and a help network to keep you grounded and plugged in to reality. Don't indulge in magical thinking, and don't isolate yourself with a bunker mentality. I wish you both the very best.
posted by taz at 2:52 AM on April 23, 2013 [9 favorites]

The statement "we have been working on getting her help," implies that she now has a diagnosis, but still no treatment plan. You feel like she's going to be this way forever because right now she is chemically the same as she has been throughout your relationship. Insanity is the most selfish thing, like a fire that needs to be fought continually and obscures your view of everything else -- including your partner's house, which is also smoldering. You feel like your needs are never, ever going to be addressed. Of course you want out.

I have two close friends, one with debilitating bipolar disorder, the other with schizoaffective disorder. In both instances, I met them after their illnesses were being properly managed by doctors and themselves. The stories I hear from their unmanaged eras just do not sound like my friends. They don't even look like themselves in pictures, as if their features had been twisted. I have only known them to be compassionate, productive people. The powerful drugs they need do constrict their lives somewhat vis-a-vis sleep schedules, alcohol consumption, etc. There's an extra layer of complication in being social with them, but no more so than for a friend who has young children or works a swing shift.

There are, of course, noncompliant bipolar patients, and I've met them, too -- the ones I've heard described as "addicted to their own brain chemistry." A manic high sounds like a meth trip. Some of the afflicted are so adjusted to chaos they can't readjust to the lack of it, the way a person who's only ever slept on a floor will lie awake all night on a proper mattress, miserably uncomfortable.

In your shoes, I would give her more time (with "more" in terms of months, not weeks nor years) to see whether she's doing the work of getting better, or remains mired in her disorder. It would be a shame if you broke up with her, she went on Lithium, and blossomed into the perfect partner for you, just too late to save the relationship. *Sigh* on other hand... I have also known those who stayed stubbornly mired until their partner pulled their support and they bottomed out. Knowing so little about your girlfriend, I can't say what the more likely scenario is. Maybe you can already extrapolate.
posted by cirocco at 7:41 AM on April 23, 2013

As you may know, you always need to be alert while dating a bipolar person. It's not their fault, but any little thing can push them over the edge.

Welcome to my entire childhood. If you decide to stay together, please don't have children with this woman until she is adequately treated and stable. I get along great with my mother now, but it's only because she's found a treatment regimen that works. Unfortunately it took until I was 25.

If you decide to stay, you would be wise to train yourself out of "constant alert mode." Unless she is physically hurting you or herself, you don't need to react to her outbursts. If she gets upset over something minor, it's not your job to calm her down. She needs to learn to manage her own feelings via therapy and medication. You are not obligated to follow her over the edge. Meditation is a very good tool to help you manage your own feelings.

NAMI was incredibly useful; they have classes for friends and family members of the mentally ill, and they explain the biology of it and teach you coping methods. I highly, highly recommend you check them out.
posted by desjardins at 9:59 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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