I’ve been with my boyfriend for over a year now. I love him so much, but he is bipolar an


I’ve been with my boyfriend for over a year now. I love him so much, but he is bipolar and it often feels like he has two personalities: the kind, generous one I fell in love with, and the sad and angry one caused by his mental illness.

He has acted really abusively to me at times when he is in a low, and the times when he is in a low point keeps growing, making it harder and harder to be with him and excuse the behavior. I’ve come really close to cheating on him when he’s his “angry self” because he just can’t meet my needs anymore, both physically and emotionally.

He’s been saying he wants to get better and change things for me but I know he’s not yet in a place to truly get better, and I think he’s just saying these things so I don’t break up with him because he relies on me for so much.

I think I need to be able to see other people if he wants to continue to treat me how he does, and for my own sanity and self-fulfillment. I’ve brought this up to him and he does not like the idea at all. I can’t keep giving everything I have to him and getting nothing in return, but I don’t want to leave him.

I really don’t want to break up with him because we still have great times and are still full of love for each other, but sometimes it’s just too hard and I just want to throw my hands up and call it quits, which I’ve tried to do before but he convinces me out of it. What do you think my options are? I really don’t want to hurt him or leave him but it’s getting really hard to fight the urges to be with other people. My friends say “just leave him” but it’s really not that easy. I hope this makes sense.

Thanks for your advice.

Hello Fren,

What a burdensome sorrow to carry.

Calling your boyfriend’s mental illness a “burden” may seem callous, like a judgment. Like something you would never say out loud, something you would never even let yourself think.

But really, a burden doesn’t have to be anybody’s fault to be heavy.

And this sounds heavy.

It’s important to acknowledge that your boyfriend is not the only one who is suffering. The sorrow belongs to you, too.

Unburdening yourself of this wrenching and mysterious sorrow is a relatively simple thing. You can leave the relationship. You can slip his illness off of your shoulders like a backpack. But for your boyfriend, it is not so simple. He is stuck with this.

And I can understand that it seems unfair to leave him to carry it alone.

In the words of everyone’s fake dad Will Smith, “At its core, I think love is help. Everybody is having a hard time, so love is really a devotion to their struggle.”

It feels impossible to leave when you define love this way: as “help.”

But what The Fresh Prince means is that this feeling is meant to be mutual.

Nothing is ever entirely even or samesies, and nobody gets “paid” in reciprocity for 100% of the emotional labor that they do.

But relationships that are loving and ethical-- friendships and romantic relationships alike-- should have the feeling of mutual engagement in the others’ struggle.

You said in your own words that he just can’t meet your needs as a partner. You say that the people close to you have urged you to leave.

I think leaving is really the only thing you can do. You are not on this earth to be drained. You are not meant to be a husk. No matter how much someone else is suffering. No matter how much you hope you can help.

Make sure your boyfriend has access to help, make sure he knows he has you as a friend, and make sure you are extremely clear about your boundaries.

This means that when you have the conversation in which you tell him that this is no longer a viable scenario for your own happiness and growth as an individual, that you spell out exactly what you are willing and unwilling to be involved with from here on out.

This moment in culture is preoccupied with “boundaries.” Wellness culture touts the benefits of maintaining healthy boundaries to protect yourself from energetic vampires, from being polluted by toxic ideas and toxic feelings. Insanity culture touts the benefits of erecting billion dollar cement boundaries between nations. As a culture, we are obsessed. It is one of the fundamental questions of this time in consciousness.

What is a healthy boundary?

Where do I begin and where does someone else end? What is me and what is not me? Can there be a me and a we at the same time?

As someone interested in exploring my innermost feelings, as someone interested in ethical and empathic conduct in relationships, I’ve struggled with the whole boundary thing.

I’ve read articles and self- help books about healthy boundaries. I’ve often tried and failed to enforce my boundaries, because I’ve often tried and failed to find them!  

As it turns out, enforcing your boundaries is near impossible when you don’t know what they are.

If you are going to break up with your boyfriend but remain in his life as a friend, you are going to have to dig deeply into what does and does not make you happy and comfortable.

I recommend writing a list of all the ways this relationship has pushed past your feeling of safety, your happiness. Make a list of everything that has made you uncomfortable, scared, overlooked. You do not have to show anyone this list. Seeing everything in one place will help you find your boundaries. Once you’ve found them, you can clearly communicate your needs and boundaries to your boyfriend.

If you are so inclined, you might want to start this writing exercise and finish it with a therapist.

It can be puzzling to figure out the difference between the times “love is help” and the times “help” is unhealthy for everyone.

I struggle with this myself.

If you often find yourself in relationships with others that feel more like a care-taking job than a mutually valuable exchange, it might be time to examine your heart:

Is it open? Do you allow yourself to receive? Do you believe you deserve to be cared for?

The way that we give love to others is often the way we hope to receive love from others. Maybe it’s time you allow yourself to be the one being cared for. Maybe that will feel like a huge relief.  

There’s only one way to find out.