My ex-boyfriend is bipolar, and all I want to do is take care of him. Is that a bad idea?
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Dear Miss Information,
My boyfriend — now ex, I guess — was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a disease my dad also suffers from, and therefore one I've had to deal with my entire life (I know, I basically ended up dating a twenty-five-year-old version of my dad, and it's creepy to me too). He lost his temper with me during a manic episode, and I left him. He begged me to take him back, and promised he would start seeing a therapist and work on his issues. The therapist diagnosed him as bipolar almost immediately, but didn't want to start him on meds while he was in the midst of finals. (We're both in professional school.)
Although we are compatible intellectually and physically, we can't seem to make it work emotionally. I thought that by watching my dad go through this process and come out on the other side much better for the treatment, I could help my boyfriend do the same. But as he told me in our breakup talk, which I initiated after the manic episode, he feels as though he is hurting me and doesn't want to do that anymore. I told him I was willing to stay with him and work with him throughout his treatment process, as long as he was willing to try and make this work. But he said he simply didn't want to subject me to that, and felt as though he couldn't make promises that he wouldn't react to me inappropriately and angrily in the future.
I'm left feeling like I failed at yet another relationship. I always feel like I could make compromises (should I let him take out his anger on me in order to stick with him through a difficult time?), and I know that relationships require work. I'm willing to do the work! But where do you draw the line between work that is necessary to any relationship and sacrificing your own emotional well-being? We're still in that dangerous stage where we might try and make this work yet again. I'm losing hope that it won't be just as hard with someone else, so I feel like I might as well stick it out with the one I've got now, whom I love on so many levels. Please help.
— Bipolar Problems
Dear Bipolar Problems,
This kernel of insight is the crux of your letter: you left him because you can't trust him, and he doesn't want you to stay because he can't trust himself. That is a pretty clear order. If he's telling you he can't be with you, it's because he has to put himself first here. It's a very mature decision in a tough situation, and it's something he has to do for himself. As the adage goes: if you love something, set it free.
Maybe he can't handle having a girlfriend right now, but he might need a friend and advocate. If you feel able to help, by all means, offer support. Just be mindful of your own boundaries here, and don't try to "save" him. Your letter suggests you think you could, and I want to disabuse you of that notion, fast. He doesn't need a crutch, though he might appreciate a caring presence. If you think you can navigate the tricky boundary between "ex-girlfriend" and "supporter/friend" while maintaining your own emotional health, go for it.
The fear of racking up points on some failed-relationship scorecard is no reason to stay in a situation that isn't beneficial for you or your partner. If this is a primary fear of yours, you're thinking too narrowly about the definition of "relationship." Relationships take on so many different forms, and, at their core, each one is practice on how to roll with punches and love another person even when it's difficult. Even if you break up, you're choosing what's best for yourself, as well as respecting what's best for him. And if you manage to stay in touch and offer your support to him, then you're in Advanced Placement territory. These are the real relationship skills that matter, not some stamp of "X months together: bronze medal. (Pick up your award from your local DMV.)"
You wrote about wanting to "do the work" in regard to saving this relationship. I suggest you still "do the work," but shift the target. Work on honoring what you want and grounding yourself, and allow him to do the same.
Dear Miss Info,
About a year ago, I broke up with my boyfriend. We were ridiculously in love, but he had some problems getting his life together. He was still living with his family, unemployed, and had no plans to change anything; he spent most of his time trying to "be an artist." We had an amazing relationship, and I shared with him some trivial information from my past which he took like a champ. (I'm no angel either.) But I foresaw us going in different directions and knew that if we stayed together we would make each other miserable in the long run.
Since then, I've tried to go out with others, but I've found myself paralyzed. I'm a very intellectual person and I don't "click" with many people. I haven't found anyone I enjoy spending time with as much, and, as ridiculous as it sounds, I'm incredibly scared of getting close to anyone again. I'm afraid of being cheated on, of having my heart ripped out, of STIs. Moreso, I haven't met anyone I want to put that much energy into. Dating kind of seems like a big messy train-wreck waiting to happen. I feel like I've "loved and lost" and am not so willing to love again.
— Paralyzed by Nostalgia
Ah, the lure of the unemployed, unmotivated, self-proclaimed artist! That's a hole in the ground covered up by leaves if ever I've heard one. You see it coming and scoff, "Nice try, booby trap," and the next moment, you're on your ass at the bottom of the hole. My point is, Paralyzed, everyone suffers dings and bruises from past relationships; it's to be expected. Just don't let nursing those injuries prevent you from living your life (and finding new and fun holes to fall into).
I think your primary problem here is that you're seeing dating and relationships from a macro-perspective, and getting freaked out. So what if you're not ready for a relationship at this very moment? Totally fine. But give people a chance. Relationships need to build; if you're worried about eventualities like emotional closeness, sex, and heartbreak, you're jumping several steps ahead.
Start small. Go out on some dates and see where they take you. You have no obligation to talk until the sun comes up, cry in each other's arms, or remove a single article of clothing. You get to set the rules. Do you like a guy? Fantastic! Are you not sure? Feel it out. Is he so boring he makes you want to lie down on the freeway? Cool, you never have to see him again. Dating is really just meeting people, with the occasional option of making out thrown in.
Also, intellectualism shouldn't cancel out attraction. (Take it from me — I picture myself as basically a brain with a body glued on, but sometimes I make out with people. I know, I'm just as shocked as you!) It may be initially harder to click when you're over-educated and over-thinking, but just shift your habits. Strike up a conversation with a cute stranger reading Rilke on the train, or hover awkwardly in the Barnes and Noble "Fantasy" section — whatever puts you around people you find engaging. If professional entomologists can find love, so can you.
The moral here? Don't look at dating in the intimidating abstract. Take it in baby-steps. Keep an open mind and keep a finger on your own emotional pulse. And make that brain-glued-on-body-thing work for you, not against you. I promise — a lot of people are into that.