Dear Imprudence: One of These Things is Not Like the Others

On last week’s Dear Amy, a reader wrote in for some relationship advice. The reader’s girlfriend is becoming more distant, and the reader wants to know what to do:

Dear Amy: I have been in a relationship with a woman for two years. I love her. She says she loves me. She says she wants to marry me and be together forever.

In the beginning, she needed to see me every other day, if not more often. All of our phone calls were long and rich with conversation.

Over the last several months, she has cheated on me numerous times with an ex-boyfriend, although she says she doesn’t like it, didn’t plan it and doesn’t love him.

Lately all phone calls happen while she is watching television or reading. They are very empty.

She has turned down all of my offers to get together.

When I express my feelings of confusion or when I tell her I miss her, she makes me feel I’m out of line. She is hostile.

How can I get her to open up to me again without seeming needy and insecure?

I believe the ex may be back in the picture, but I don’t know if this is the reason for the distance.

She is also bipolar.

How can I bring the love of my life back into my arms again?

— Hopelessly Devoted

Notice anything about this letter? As I read along, I thought ‘gee, this sounds like a situation where the relationship is pretty much over, and the party writing the letter just doesn’t realise it, or wants someone else to affirm it. There’s some emotional distance going on, and the letter writer is struggling with it.’ This is a scenario that plays out pretty much every day in relationships of all sorts.

And then, bam, the second to last sentence. ‘She is also bipolar.’ Just kind of thrown in there. It feels like an afterthought to me, rather than being brought up at the start of the letter as a piece of information that may potentially be important, and it feels less like being aware of something that might impact their relationship, and more like an attempt at just tossing off blame for where the relationship went; ‘she’s bipolar, and that’s why all of this is happening.’

Are there some disabilities that impact the way people think and interact with others, process information, and handle emotional conversations? There absolutely are. Being aware of the things that might change someone’s comfort level or ability to engage with a conversation is not the same as blaming someone for an integral part of that person’s identity and deciding that person can’t be approached at all. The girlfriend has become the disability, and everything wrong with the relationship  is suddenly because of the disability.

Amy responds:

Dear Devoted: You already know the truth. Your girlfriend has lost interest in you.

Whether she is cheating on you again or is going through a depressed cycle of her bipolar disorder, you cannot force her to love you, want to be with you or even have an honest conversation with you about your relationship.

I suggest, therefore, that you be completely honest with yourself and frank with her about your own needs.

You want honesty, fidelity and a close, romantic relationship. So say so. You won’t come off as needy, but as a guy who knows who he is and what he wants.

You also have to be willing to walk away from a relationship that is so imbalanced. You deserve better.

Amy’s approach here doesn’t really integrate an honest discussion about disability and how it might impact how the girlfriend is feeling. There’s one brief mention about ‘going through a depressed cycle,’ but that’s it. The advice about being frank is pretty solid; the letter writer definitely does need to communicate, but it might be good to start with communicating on terms the girlfriend will feel comfortable with. Perhaps she doesn’t want to talk about this on the phone and would feel more comfortable in email. Maybe she wants to meet in person. Maybe she needs some space and is having trouble articulating it.

The way Amy approaches this, it’s centered on the letter writer’s needs. She classifies the relationship as ‘imbalanced’ while providing rather imbalanced advice. She’s right when she says that you can’t force someone to love you, but lack of love might not actually be what is going on here. Indeed, the girlfriend may very much love her partner, and just be in a bad place right now.

It’s not clear from the original letter whether the people involved in this relationship have had a conversation about the girlfriend’s disability and how it sometimes impacts the ways she thinks and feels. Sometimes, people are just distant and not interested in a relationship anymore and it has nothing to do with disability. Sometimes, people are having a hard time of things in ways that are related to their mental health conditions, and need to be supported. Not by being reduced to their disabilities, not by having their disabilities blamed for everything, but by having a space where their needs are accommodated.

The message we are left with from this particular advice column seems to be  that people with bipolar disorder are inherently unsuitable for relationships or serious conversations, and neither of these things is true.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

6 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: One of These Things is Not Like the Others

  1. I can certainly relate to the girlfriend’s situation, and by no means does that indicate I don’t love my boyfriend. I am just rather introverted, not good with emotions, not good with intimacy, etc. It may be due to my autism. Still, I deeply love my boyfriend and still want to marry him.

  2. I dunno. The letter writer seemingly tried to blame it on the BPD, but I thought Amy played it down pretty well by making it a possible reason on par with everything else.

    I’m a little puzzled about why you think Amy shouldn’t focus so much on the letter writer’s needs. Zie is the one who asked for advice after all. According to the letter, the gf has turned down all offers of meeting up and talking things through.

    I’m autistic, I have great difficulties with voicing my own needs at times, but at the same time, I also understand that some people have a need for a partner who communicates in ways I don’t. That is not ableist in itself, it’s merely a fact of life.

    We clearly took wildly different messages away from this. To me the message seemed to be: whether or not we have a disability we all have needs that we need accommodated. And the letter writer’s needs are clearly such that they cannot be accommodated by the gf. That may not have anything to do with her disability, but merely that they’re too different in that regard.

    One would think that an autistic with touch and trust issues like myself would do fine with a long-distance relationship. Not so. I’ve tried that and it didn’t work. The reason it didn’t work was that my then bf and I had widely different needs and they just didn’t mix.

    Additionally, I find it troubling to speculate on HER needs, as if we (and Amy) ought to imagine what her needs are, without knowing anything about her or them, and draw conclusions based on that. In fact that is one of the things that infuriate me the most – when people assume I have certain needs because of my disability.

    When people interact with me I don’t want them to try and anticipate what my needs are and make decisions so I won’t have to. I want them to ASK ME what my needs are and let me make my own bloody decisions. I have had friends pull away from me, because they didn’t want to force me to make a decision about them (for reasons I don’t need to mention here), rather than just let me make my own bloody decision.

    She has cheated on him, she has been hostile to him, she spurns all his attempts at finding out what he can do. Seems to me that she is closing all doors in his face. Since it is not okay to assume that the BPD makes her unsuitable for a relationship, it shouldn’t be okay either to excuse her every hurtful action because she has BPD.

    Yes, disabilities of the mind can be debilitating, but it doesn’t preclude you from being an asshole. And telling the difference is seriously hard when we’re not talking to the person in question. So rather than tell him what she’s going through, I think Amy is actually doing the right thing in her advice. She’s doing the only thing she can do – work with HIM concerning HIS needs and wishes, because any needs his gf might have… well, we don’t now what they are, and assuming what her needs are based on her dx is just as patronizing as assuming she’s unfit for a ‘ship.

    And honestly – just as I wouldn’t forgo my own needs for a lover for whatever reason, I wouldn’t want my lover to forgo his needs, just because I have a disability. Sometimes, disabilities or no, people just don’t match each other.

    I dunno – I think it’s a really difficult letter to write a useful answer for, but I thin Amy did a good enough job of it, and I definitely don’t think your criticism is deserved. Well, the criticism of him, who felt it necessary to bring up the gf’s BPD, sure, but the way Amy handled it was as good as anyone could have done, I think.

  3. My reaction was similar to yours, Jemima. Even if this is a result of a depressive episode, he still needs to decide if he’s willing to put up with this behaviour long enough to help her (from the sounds of things, I suspect she’d fall into the ‘doesn’t want to be helped’ camp). As you said, he has needs, and he shouldn’t be expected to set them aside solely because she’s ill. If he wants to, that’s one thing, but it’s also okay if he decides that she’s more than he can handle. We don’t owe it to others to try and fix them.

  4. For me, this brings up the question of how far we can or should expect to take inclusiveness when it comes to intimate relationships. I’m completely committed to full inclusion in the public realm, where it has to do with employment, access to public places, and generally being treated like a Real Person by the world at large. But this letter is about an intimate relationship, and not everyone is cut out to have an intimate relationship with a disabled person. It doesn’t take a “martyr” or an “angel” to want to hang out with us, but it does take a person whose needs are compatible with ours, and not everyone is like that, and personally, I find that to be okay. People have other strengths for other relationships that I don’t have the strengths for.

    I’m autistic and so I need a lot of space and time to myself, and I need my sensory environment to be fairly calm and quiet. My present husband is able to give me those things because my needs are not altogether incompatible with his. My first husband was (and is) a very good man, but our sensory needs, our social needs, and the way we communicate and think were utterly incompatible, and that isn’t anyone’s fault. He needed to listen to loud music, and do things spontaneously, and not discuss things in great detail, and I needed quiet, and lots of preparation before doing things, and a fair bit of detailed discussion about the things I’m passionate about. There is no way I could have gotten him to accommodate my needs without robbing him of his needs. It’s not like we could have compromised, and he could have listened to his loud music half the time, because that would have made me sick from overload half the time. And asking him to never listen to his music would be like asking someone who loves painting to never paint. It wouldn’t have been fair.

    For many people, their home is their sanctuary, and as an autistic, I definitely feel this way. It should be a place where both parties can be fully included, and if someone isn’t getting their needs met in a relationship with someone who is autistic or bipolar or anything else, I would fully support their moving on. I feel like whatever my disability, I have a responsibility to my partner’s happiness.

  5. From what I’m reading here, I think people are reading s.e.’s post as implying or outright stating “Put up with things that make you unhappy because your partner has a disability”. That’s not really what I’m reading in s.e.’s response at all. I’m more reading a “Don’t dismiss things as being just because your partner has a disability, but at the same time remember that your partner does have a disability and make some accommodations when bringing up issues. But really, don’t stay in a relationship that makes you unhappy.”

    I find myself reminded of what would happen whenever Kate Harding would bring up advice columnists telling people to dump their fat partners. Kate would often write about how you don’t have to find your fat partner attractive, but you can treat them like a human being, stop berating them or making them unhappy, and if you’re really unhappy, *leave*. People would often read this as saying “You must find fat people attractive or you’re awful”, which wasn’t what Kate was saying either.

    s.e. isn’t suggesting that the letter writer, or anyone else, needs to stay in a relationship that makes them unhappy because their partner has a disability. I read s.e. as saying exactly the opposite, but be considerate.

  6. No one’s owed a relationship, but I think that when it comes to relationship difficulties, it seems like often there’s more focus on how hard it is for TAB partners to cope with PWD in relationships, and how PWD can’t expect this kind of energy. But also, what about PWD coping with ableism in relationships? Or PWD in relationships with each other?

    And I don’t know, I don’t think that PWD are less entitled to relationships than anyone else, but that may be because I don’t think anyone is particularly entitled, but it’s pretty easy to put the burden on PWD for being PWD, you know?

    And I doubt that the right for TAB people to break up with PWDs over disability is ever going to be in question.

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