Incapable of Loyalty?
Note: The narrative and question in the letter have been edited for clarity
Dear Dr. Deb,
I have been reading your new column and really appreciate all the honest advice you’ve given. I’ve considered writing to you several times before, but my relationship problems have always seemed to resolve themselves.
This time, it’s different.
Let me begin by saying that I think the world of my girlfriend. She’s intelligent, adventurous, and we laugh a lot. Not to mention that she’s beautiful. We’re both in our thirties and have been dating for about eight months. I really care about her. It’s a big plus that we both grew up in Catholic families and share similar values. Despite dating a relatively short time, I occasionally daydream about our future together.
The bad news is that she’s been diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder. She began having symptoms when she was 19 years old. She experienced cycles of depression and manic hypersexual behavior, which is one of the characteristics of the disorder. But at the time, she felt too embarrassed to tell her psychiatrist about her hypersexual behavior. She ended up getting misdiagnosed and improperly medicated. It wasn’t until years later that she told her doctor about it and finally got help and the right treatment for her sexual dysfunction.
Since we began dating, she’s seemed emotionally stable. But deep down, I’ve always felt that we should be talking about her mental illness and discuss how it could affect our relationship. I know it’s easier said than done, and it seems like we’re able to talk openly about all this only when we’ve both been drinking.
In these “sessions,” I’ve told her that I’m a fiercely loyal, monogamous person. I’ve admitted to infidelity as a dealbreaker for me, and I’m worried that her disorder will jeopardize our relationship. She has tried to reassure me by saying that her episodes of acting out sexually and recklessly are simply part of her bipolar struggle and not a relationship related issue. I don’t feel reassured at all.
Dr. Deb, I do love her, and I don’t want to break off our relationship, but should I commit to someone who can’t offer me the stability and monogamy in return because of her condition?
Is it time to cut my losses and end this or is there a way to work this out?
Dear Fiercely Loyal,
You and your girlfriend may not be married to each other, but I find myself thinking of the most striking conditional phrase in a marriage vow: in sickness and health. Whether you like it or not, the truth is your partner’s episodes of mania and depression are putting the relationship to the test.
Cultivating a healthy romantic relationship is tricky enough as it is. Any number of things from work stress to sexual and money issues, can lead to conflict and put a strain on the partnership. Add bipolar disorder to the mix – with its roller-coaster of emotions and impulsive, reckless behavior – and it’s a steeper degree of challenge for both parties.
Instead of asking if you should continue the relationship with your bipolar partner, the better question may be: is it possible to have a healthy romantic relationship with someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder?
Living with a bipolar person is a non-linear journey. You need to ready for the ups and downs – you take a step forward, and most probably take a couple of steps back just as soon. It’s tough, but not impossible. It will take work from both of you to make sure the partnership survives.
There are some things you might want to consider if you want the relationship to work out:
- There must be a focus on steady, open communication – and not when you’ve both been drinking.
- Set clear boundaries with each other. Part of this is discussing the impact bipolar disorder may have on your sex life. Specifically, about your need to be reassured that she understands and respects your need for a monogamous relationship. It’s important to clearly agree that while hypersexuality is a symptom of the disease, it doesn’t give your partner a pass from taking responsibility for her actions.
- Talk to a professional who has expertise with bipolar disorder. Specifically, one who helps patients exhibiting episodes of manic hypersexual behavior.
It can be hard work to understand what your partner is going through, and it won’t help your relationship if you start policing her behavior. As much as you need to be reassured, she also needs to know that you’re there for her, ready to listen when she expresses her needs.
Try to remember the positive aspects of the relationship. It’s easy to forget the pleasurable moments when helping her manage her condition. She’s both the person you “think the world of” and the person who is dealing with mental health challenges.
That said, make sure you have a self-care plan in place to balance your personal needs. Getting proper food, sleep, movement, and downtime would go a long way in avoiding burn out.
About your question on loyalty, I hate to break it to you, but no one can guarantee perfect and complete fidelity in a relationship, no matter how strong the intention. Not even you. Living with bipolar disorder, your girlfriend is probably trying to take things as they come, one day at a time. She, of all people, would be better acquainted with just how fragile intentions are.
If you can learn to love your partner unconditionally, accept her for who she is, and learn to be grateful for the wonderful things about her, then a calculated exit may not be the answer.
In fact, this may be a challenge to find out what it means to stick with someone through hard times and not make excuses when things get rough. And most importantly, to recognize that nothing in love and relationships can ever be guaranteed.
Ask yourself, are you ready to live with the reality of an emotionally mature relationship, and, like the girlfriend that you love, take each day as it comes?