Being In Love with Someone in Pain

Being In Love with Someone in Pain

Ah, being in love! What a wonderful feeling, like being on amphetamines with no time limit. And the beloved, so perfect, their big eyes, their infectious laugh, generosity, groundedness, reasonableness, hunger to connect…and more, so much more. But falling in love, if all goes well, transitions into some level of commitment if not marriage itself. And that’s when it hits. Your story begins to sound markedly different from the others around you. Their groundedness is really depression, the hunger to connect starts revealing itself as smothering, controlling…OCD, anyone? Maybe even PTSD. As are the nightmares that wake them, and you, in the night, as well as the sudden shift in your beloveds eyes as they no longer see you as absolutely wonderful: you are now their dire enemy. And if you’re now tied by a mortgage and children, that bipolar mania plays havoc on the safety of your budget and your family.

When couples started coming to me, I found it fascinating how often each knew the other better than they, or their partner, realized. How much, under all the miscomprehension, all the hurt, everyone hugging their corner of the ring with mouthguard on, ready for the next bout…there was a bond of…something, that glued them together. Not necessarily love, although that was the case far more often then my couples wanted to admit, but some deep connection, maybe a family pattern, maybe a past life. Really, who knows? For any of you who’ve been in a committed relationship for any period of time can attest, our sense of togetherness despite our disagreements is a mystery.

Most couples begin to see that the hurt their relationship suffers from is not just due to one of them. They’ve begun a dance, with steps learned from their families, from earlier relationships, and find themselves together, perfectly mismatched, performing a brutal tango that neither can break away from, even as they deride the other’s poor dancing skills. To change the dance is both simple, and difficult. One must brave one’s own defenses, optimally in the presence of the partner, to lean into the anger, the shame, the sadness, the fear lying underneath, that holds those old, dysfunctional patterns in place, and begin to heal them. Together.

But upon occasion, a couple would come into my office, and I would find one of them to be so lost in their own pain, their own deeply distorted story that they lacked one of two things crucial to a relationship of relative equals: the insight to see enough into one’s self and one’s partner to live in the same reality; or the strength to hold the other up when times got tough. Due to one of several mental illnesses, including Complex PTSD, some of the personality disorders such as Narcissistic or Borderline PD, or addiction, the partner has built walls so high and deep against their inner pain, or the partner’s identification of some of the hurtful behaviors it causes, that they will sabotage the session, making it about the other person, attempting to manipulate the therapist, and when/if that fails, berating both in the confidence that they are in the right.

Depression and Bipolar Disorder offer their own challenges. This is a difficult world, and in it, we are all privy to the occasional disappointment, the loss, the betrayal, either at the hands of work, family, or the world we live in. And in it, the knowledge, the confidence felt deeply in our bones and comforting our hearts that one person always has our back is the one thing that allows us to recover, to be resilient, to carry on and persist until our world is right again. We fall into, and in turn catch, our beloved. But when our beloved is collapsed into their depression, a very real medical illness, and one of the poles in Bipolar, we find ourselves falling into thin air. We are stripped of safety. In these couples, what I’ve witnessed is that the partner would love to be able to be of support, and simply cannot, any more than a paraplegic can get up and do a jig. In the case of those with brain damage due to an accident or serious addiction, this is especially true.

I know the rest of you are wondering, what drew the healthier partner to the one crippled by their illness? And why don’t they just leave? Great questions! People with Bipolar, in their hypomanic state, are lively and adventurous, those with depression can be grounding and insightful. When people who have Borderline love you, it’s like taking a warm bath in their adoration, and when people who are narcissistic approve of you, your ego expands; you are not merely good enough, you are worthy. Some joined with their partner, then tragedy struck in the form of an accident or incident that caused brain damage, or triggered an addictive behavior that quickly grew out of control, and must now renegotiate the relationship to take into account what is often a markedly different personality.

Many of my clients who have committed their lives to those with mental illness have an amazing desire to help, even to rescue others. Though much maligned in this selfish world, the altruistic desire to make other’s lives better is a trait I would wish on everyone. In the healthiest, most vital relationships, each fights for the other, celebrates the other, and elicits from the other their best self. This benefit is enjoyed not only at home, but as each ventures out into the world to give the gift of that best self, and society is the better for it.

As these relationships progress, however, you find yourself adapting, shaping yourself in relationship to their illness. Falsely cheerful fronts for the depressed, hypervigilence carefully tuning into mood swings, attempting to be perfect, to not ruffle feathers. You try one “fix” after another, read books on how to communicate, get angry with your partner for not responding to what the books tell you will work. Shame follows on the heals of what you perceive to be your failure, resentment at their “failure” to respond; when others at work talk about their relationships, you either lie, or remain mum. You dread the invites for couples, knowing others will see and perhaps even feel the impact of your significant other’s worst self. Worse, they will judge you for it. Especially if you have shared obligations, as one man told me, he couldn’t run away, nor could he change his wife. So he just…left…his life. Disappeared from himself.

Recently, I started a Meetup group. Hopefully, some people will seek the additional support of a therapy group I’d like to start. In either case, the opportunity to hear each other’s stories, and not so much advise as to clarify, become more educated, perhaps even understand that, even though they’re healthier, they may yet be contributing to the unhappy situation. It is not safe to be this vulnerable in front of the beloved with mental illness, for they will often not have either the strength to support or the ability to resist the urge to take advantage of that vulnerability.

You need a place to be safe enough to see what and who you are, have become, in this relationship, and the room to expand your choices both within and in relationship. Will you be able to make it work? I don’t know, but I confess that I hope so. You know better than anyone that your mate isn’t just their illness. They are so much more. And then again, there IS that mysterious glue!

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