Dating A Guy With Bipolar Disorder Was The Hardest & The Best Relationship I’ve Ever Had

I’ve had relationships with all kinds of guys, but one of the most challenging and most eye-opening was with one who had bipolar disorder. To say that things were hard is an understatement, and while we ultimately decided to end things, I’m so glad he was part of my life because the experience taught me so much. Here are just a few of the lessons I carry with me:

  1. You can’t make someone happy. Whenever my ex was in a depressive state, I would try to make him happy by offering to watch his favorite movie, go to his favorite restaurant, or give him a back rub. It never worked — all of these things just made him more frustrated than anything else. The truth is, if being happy was as easy as doing those things, he wouldn’t have a mental illness. Instead, things he usually enjoyed just served as reminders to him of how terrible he felt. No matter what you do, you can never make another person happy, and while that’s hard to accept, it’s not personal.
  2. Sometimes the best support you can offer is just being there. By the end of our relationship, I’d learned to ask him if there was anything I could do for him. Sometimes the answer was no and I accepted that. For a while, I was offended because I felt like as his partner, I should be able to fix things. However, sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is to just be there.
  3. Mental illness isn’t always crippling. Before or after depressive episodes, people with bipolar disorder get episodes of mania or hypomania. For my ex, these were periods of great excitement and focus. He would sit down at his desk and work on his college papers for an absurd amount of time a day, which gave him great grades but some unhealthy habits. I had no idea that this kind of super-focus is part of a mental illness. I ignorantly assumed bipolar disorder meant you never got out of bed or got anything done, and that’s not the case at all. It is manageable, even if it’s a struggle.
  4. Sometimes people just need space. When my ex was in one of his manic phases, he didn’t want to take breaks to eat, never mind  go anywhere or spend quality time with me. For those few days or weeks, he couldn’t be pried away from his desk for anything non-essential without becoming super irritable. Quickly, I learned to identify these episodes and steer clear of him. He would always come out the other side grateful that I had let him work through it on his own.
  5. Other people’s mood doesn’t have to affect yours. I was much happier once I realized that his depressive moods didn’t mean I had to be miserable to match. If he didn’t want to go out, I didn’t have to stay in to keep him company. If he was sulking in the bed, me sitting next to him was more of a bother to him than a help. I dedicated myself to ensure that my own happiness wasn’t sacrificed as I worked to increase his. It wasn’t easy, but I succeeded.
  6. You have to keep your own life going even when your partner’s is stalled. As long as there was nothing he needed from me — and he knew he could always come to me if there was and I’d be more than happy to do it — I’d continue on with my life while he was sad. He cared about me enough to know that I wasn’t ignoring him and that I still cared, but that I had responsibilities and things to accomplish outside of our relationship that I couldn’t neglect.
  7. Sudden changes are par for the course. I remember vividly one moment when my ex walked away from his desk and sat down next to me to watch the Olympic opening ceremonies I had on. He had just been in a hypomanic mood, I had just learned what that was, and I was stunned that it appeared to be over. I asked if he had finished his coursework and he simply said it could wait and wrapped his arm around my shoulder. It was a change I didn’t expect, but I learned how to roll with it. Sometimes the best you can do in life is go with the flow.
  8. There’s no use worrying about the future — you have to enjoy the moment. Instead of getting caught up on the moon he’d just been in or worrying about when the next change would strike, I just cuddled up to him and enjoyed the moment we were in. Most people with bipolar disorder experience long periods of stability where they’re neither depressive nor manic and I learned to simply enjoy those times without a looming sense of dread hanging over our heads. It really is the only way to live.
  9.  You can’t force someone to seek help, no matter how badly they need it. Like many with bipolar disorder, he would only agree to get help when he was in a depressive mood and he would abandon medication and therapy as soon as that episode ended. I searched obsessively for ways to help him recognize his moods and ways to reassure him about medications and their side effects, but nothing I said convinced him in the slightest. You can go in with good intentions to help your partner when he’s struggling, if he doesn’t choose to get treatment and help himself, there’s usually nothing you can do about it.
  10. Suffering from mental illness isn’t an excuse for bad behavior. When someone has a mental illness, it isn’t their fault, but that doesn’t mean their behavior is okay. If they can’t recognize how they’re hurting you or refuse to take steps to get treated, you don’t have to stay with them. When my ex was depressed, he would lash out at me. He apologized when he was stable, but he wouldn’t agree to anything that would have made me feel safer during his episodes (never mind anything that would help him). If this is your situation, you should be prioritizing your own safety over their personal struggle.
  11. Sometimes all you can do is walk away. I definitely felt an obligation to help my ex because I cared about him and hated to see him struggle. However, I eventually realized that it’s not my responsibility to shoulder all of that alone — there were doctors, therapists, family and friends he could lean on for help, too. Eventually things just got too hard and I knew I couldn’t stay. When I left, I told his family and his close friends that I was going to leave him and asked them to check up on him regularly. He was upset for some time, but he did recover — and so did I.
Ellysa won't shy away from the hard truths about modern relationships. She will shy away from commitment-phobes, red roses and toe socks.