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.
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.