Relationship Falling Apart? Do NOT Give Your Partner Space

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21 Aug 2012

My partner is bipolar. Out of the blue, our relationship became difficult and we are hardly communicating now. When we last spoke I said that I understand the need for space, but I'm afraid my partner will just completely let go of me.

If your thoughts are something like this and you are confused, you aren't alone. This is theme I hear most often in my e-mails.

A usual pattern is that you and your partner met a few months ago and you both realised you were great for each other. And it has been great. And now - now you find that you and your partner have stopped doing fun activities together, or have simply stopped doing the things that hold a relationship together. Your relationship just drifts or limps along.

You are feeling that your partner may be avoiding you or is not communicating. When you try to discuss any problems, your partner is distant or skirting around the issues. Or they may be agreeing with you, but during the discussion you feel as if you are talking to a blank face or a blank wall, or you feel as if everything you say is falling into a black hole.

Your partner may be irritated by any discussions you might initiate, and they may act as if they don't particularly care about the relationship. Or they may talk about breaking up. All of sudden, your relationship is falling apart and you don't have a clue why.


Here's what happens.

When us bipolar people have depression episodes, everything goes wrong simultaneously. We are then either busy applying patch after patch to our failing lives or we are not doing anything at all because we are depressed. And unfortunately, relationships are not spared - we have difficulty holding up our end of a relationship.

When I say everything goes wrong in a depression episode, I really mean it. This is not a bad hair day kind of things going wrong. This is a Titanic sinking and dragging our entire lives under the sea kind of going wrong. Everything in our lives eventually stop working, down to being unable to brush our teeth. We are aware of all that is going wrong, but we are unable to do anything about it, because that's what depression is. And though we desperately try to prop up our lives, we always end up watching everything collapse around us.

Not surprisingly, once a depression episode begins, problems start to appear in a relationship. And for us, dealing with a confused partner's questions becomes one additional complication in the craziness our lives have become. To make matters worse, when we are depressed it is very difficult to talk with people - even people we care about - because that's also part of what depression is.

So, as we try to halt the collapse of our day to day lives by getting rid of non-critical pursuits / projects, it often feels easier to break up with our partner, and we often try to do just that. It sounds incredible that a great relationship suddenly falls under "non-critical", but we are having to expend real effort to shower and change. Pretty much everything above basic existence becomes non-critical.

Now, there is no reason why we try to break up the relationship other than we are depressed. In fact, in the big picture there really is nothing wrong with the relationship, so there is no real logic in saying we want to break off the relationshp - and if we succeed, we will often regret the breakup afterward. But at that moment in time, none of this matters - we are simply following a pattern dictated by the depression episode.

Your depressed partner will often tell you something like "It's not about you, it's about me," without giving any specifics. A useful interpretation for that is "I'm having a really difficult time just getting out of the house on mornings, so trying to handle the complexities of our relationship is beyond me at the moment. Please leave me alone."

To compound the problem, if your partner is depressed, their thought patterns tend to fall into the "I'm not worthy of being in this relationship / it's easier to not be in a relationship because we just argue / you are better off without me anyway." There may be nothing truthful about any of these statements, but that is how we feel.

Because of this double whammy - feeling unworthy and feeling unable to cope - almost any standard conflict resolution method you use to prevent your partner from breaking up will actually make things worse. In fact, your just asking what is wrong can make things worse, because the question itself is yet another thing for your depressed partner to deal with.

Picture the situation. Things are going wrong with your relationship. You reasonably ask questions on what is happening. We cannot cope so we draw back or get angry with you. You become even more concerned, so you are more insistent. So we pull back some more or get even more angry. And so the situation spirals downwards.

Now here's the riddle. If the stuff that you do to save the relationship can actively make the relationship worse, what can you do?

Well, there is one thing you can try. It's being with your partner without actually interacting with them.


I'll explain. But I am making the following assumptions - that you and your partner live apart, and the situation has reached the point where (1) you aren't communicating much and (2) the relationship has not completely fallen apart.

The earlier you catch the potential breakup of the relationship, the more likely the following suggestions are to work. Conversely, if your partner has made any of the "it's over" statements, I'm not sure anything here will work, no matter how much you try.

Right, back to work. When I say to be with your partner, I mean do NOT do the polite thing and "give them space." Do not stay out of their life while they "think things through."

The longer the time you spend apart, the more likely it is for the relationship to fall apart. Remember, if your partner is depressed, they are already trying to cope with basic details of surviving through the day. On that scale, you aren't very high on their list of important things. You rank below, say, putting on clean clothes, which has suddenly become a super-difficult task.

And your partner isn't "thinking anything through." My experience has been that while depressed, dealing with a relationship is (1) an annoying complication, or (2) a task that is not critical to survival, or (3) something to be discarded to make my life simpler.

There is no reminiscing over good times or weighing of the pros and cons of the relationship. It just doesn't happen. And if your partner is depressed enough, they aren't thinking of anything at all.

So giving your partner space doesn't help the relationship at all.

Worse than that, in trying to cope with the mess the depression is creating, your partner will try to reorganise their life. If you are not around, you will be reorganised out of their life. There is no good or bad or happy or satisfied or upset about what your partner will do - it's just what will happen.

Yes, you are important to them, but if you leave your partner alone, the mood swings will occupy sufficient of their attention that they will not have time to pay attention to you. Not staying in touch is likely to make any cracks in the relationship wider and increase the distance between you.

We tend to drift away from things / people that are out of sight and mind.

I've also noticed that when I come out depression my priorities are always different than when I entered the depression. So priority 1 might be lowered to priority 6, and priority 8 might move up to priority 2. You get the idea.

The problem is that if you were priority 2, you may get bumped down the list, and if your partner happens to meet someone else while you are giving them space, that person might move up the list. I have not been able to figure out why this happens yet, and there is no sense or logic for the reshuffling, but it happens.

You need to be physically present to remain important and high on your partner's priority list during depression and as they emerge from it .

So how you you actually stay in touch?

Your physical presence matters. My experience is that only a physical presence tends to slow or prevent the fading of the connection in the relationship. Talking by phone / e-mail / IM / texting / facebook / twittering / skype / etc. is not a substitute for being physically present. I strongly recommend that you visit your partner often if you want to increase the chances of keeping the relationship together.

The problem is that your partner may not want to deal with your visiting. You can't just show up and continue as if nothing is wrong with the relationship. If nothing else, you will certainly stress out your partner.

The compromise position is to be physically present but not necessarily making claims on your partner's time. I have realised that I can cope with my partner's presence as long as they don't try to draw me into doing things.

My best suggestion is to show up at your partner's house with dinner and desert and a DVD. The food provides an excuse to visit and the DVD provides an excuse to stay for a while.

Take away, like chinese or arabic, is better than home cooked as there are no obligation issues (i.e. - I slaved for the last two hours cooking for you). I like belgian chocolate ice cream for dessert, but anything goes. You could carry microwave popcorn to go with the DVD.

Alternatively, you could carry a book to read instead of a DVD. In fact, carry both in case your partner doesn't like the DVD or thinks it will be too noisy. Remember, you are trying to have a reason to stick around after dinner, and reading quietly on the couch works just as well as watching a movie. Or you could carry your knitting, crosswords, or a 500 piece puzzle - but no music or noisy things.

If you know your partner's schedule, I'd suggest simply showing up in person rather than telephoning to find out if it is ok to come over. If we are depressed, we don't want to see anyone, so if you call to find out if it is ok to come over, we'll say no.

If you do have to call first, don't ask for permission. Simply say "I'm bringing over dinner" and nicely override any objections we may make.

There are a few rules for when you visit your partner.

1 - This is not a therapy session.

Do not try to get detailed information on how your partner is feeling - chances are they won't be able to give you a clear answer and you will frustrate yourself and stress them out. It's okay to ask how they are feeling (and their response is most likely to be "Okay") but don't push for the nitty gritty details.

It's hard not to jump in and talk about how worried you are and how much you care and that you'll provide the support your partner needs. But don't do this.

Do not try to be positive or try to cheer your partner up! If anyone comes into my house to cheer me up when I am depressed, my first response is to consider punching them in the nose. My next responses are to (1) become sarcastic or (2) become angry, or if I am really restrained (3) I ignore the comments. Clearly, there are no happy endings to this.

2 - This is not a relationship discussion.

Depression also makes it very hard for us to make decisions or take action, and we try to avoid them at all costs. We also tend to become afraid of people - we always tend to think they are being critical of us.

A relationship discussion / argument is the worst case situation because not only are we put in a situation where we have to deal with someone, we actually have to think and decide. For us it feels as if someone is beating us on the head with a very big stick.

Anything that forces us to have to think, reason, decide, or act stresses us out, and we generally choose the path that allows us to not to have to do any of this - we will consider breaking off the relationship then and there.

3 - You did not visit to be critical.

If we are depressed, we are trying as hard as we can. Don't bother to bring up things your partner should be doing but is not doing. Your partner already knows that things are going wrong and they are failing miserably. You do not need to rub it in.

If you happen across such topics when talking, then just say "Well, you'll fix it / catch up when you can" and then move on to talk about something else.

Related to this is - do not clean your partner's apartment if it is messy. The cleaning up feels like criticism to us - that we are not doing a good job. Leave the dishes and garbage alone, ignore the stuff piled up everywhere, don't worry that laundry is not done, do not make up the bed, do not water the plants.

You are only allowed to clean enough dishes and clear the table to have dinner, and to move enough stuff you can sit on the sofa to watch the movie. And that's it. Your partner will not appreciate your being "helpful" otherwise.

4 - Don't go overboard with the protestations of love.

When you say you love your partner, it creates the expectation that they are supposed to respond to you.

Your partner can't think well enough to respond or will feel as if their response is artificial. But they also can't cope with the emotional trauma of not responding, so the situation become stressful for your partner, even though you didn't intend it to.

In any case your partner already knows that you love them. You showed up with food, didn't you?

5 - Do not try to get your partner to promise to do anything.

If we are depressed, there is absolutely no guarantee that we will follow through on anything. That includes promises made to you.

Asking for a promise is asking your partner to choose between (1) upsetting you by saying that they won't make the promise or (2) lying to you to make you feel happy. Nothing good can come out of either choice.

Worse than that, if your partner makes the promise, and then does not follow through, then you are likely to become upset and, well, you see where this goes.

Well, what does that leave you with?

1 - Talk about neutral stuff.

One of the the paradoxes is that if your partner doesn't have to deal with the complicated messy relationship issues, they can probably talk about almost anything else normally.

You'll realise your partner might be able to chat on easy topics like who is at the top of the football league, or current news, or about the newest movie, or what exactly caused the financial meltdown on Wall Street, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but not the difficult "where is the relationship going" one.

It can feel weird how articulate, cogent, and intelligent your partner can sound when talking about stuff other than the relationship or other personal topics. My father usually visits me when I am depressed and hiding in my house, and then I chat perfectly normally to him (on everything except why I'm hiding in my house) and he must wonder what the hell is going on. You'll feel that way too.

But we are only able to talk well on neutral subjects. Bring up personal or relationship or depression issues and you might as well be talking to a blank wall, and you will stress partner out.

However, it is a good thing to get us talking, so please talk about neutral subjects.

2 - Watch a movie together.

One of the nice things about watching a movie is that you can be with your partner without having to, well, talk. The attention is focused on the movie.

I usually dislike going to the movies for precisely this reason - it never feels that I get to talk with who I go with. But in this case, that is the advantage. Your partner won't feel as if they have to invest loads of energy to talk or otherwise interact with you. But they will, just by sharing the bowl of popcorn.

If you can persuade your partner to go out to watch a movie, that would also work, but don't force the issue - staying at home is just fine.

3 - Leave you partner to their own devices.

If your partner is sufficiently depressed, they may not even want to watch a movie, and they may well prefer to ignore you and read or surf the internet.

That's also okay, and that's why you walked with a book. If this happens, make yourself comfortable on the couch and read. Or set yourself up at the dining table to do the puzzle.

It does not matter if your partner is in the same room as you, or if you are not chatting with each other at all. Your presence is what matters. When I am depressed, I usually have my nose in the computer surfing and I ignore C. completely. But it still feels nice to know that someone is around - that C. is around.

If your partner says that you don't have to stay, respond with something like "I know, but I like spending time with you."

It's also perfectly fine to chat with other people your partner lives with or to watch the DVD with them, even if your partner has chosen not to be part of the conversation.

Do not feel that your partner is being rude because they are ignoring you. You came prepared for this possibility.

The one proviso - if your partner decides to go out, go with them. Do not stay in the house by yourself - you'll just feel foolish. Say "I'll come with you" and nicely override any objections in a cheerful manner.

4 - Go for a walk.

Suggest that your partner and you go for a walk in the neighbourhood. Being outside is good for us. But don't force this on us - suggest it but don't push too hard.

I don't recommend going for drive because the intimacy of a car can be too intense for us and can easily lead to the personal / relationship questions you are trying to avoid.

However, if you have to drive to go somewhere, put on the music and keep the atmosphere in the car light and cheerful.

Doing stuff with other people may be possible, and therapeutic, but play it by ear. You'll probably have to stay away from noisy, crowd filled activities. If your partner isn't up to this, don't push.

5 - Ask about medication.

If your partner has told you they are bipolar or depressed, it is okay to ask if they have taken their medication.

Do not criticise if they say they haven't because this is pretty common. Simply ask where your partner keeps the medication, get a dosage and a glass of water and stand in front of them while they take it.

There might be some resistance on the part of your partner. You can press a bit to make sure your partner takes the medication, but don't start an argument over it. You can try again before you leave.

6 - Say "I love you" without requiring your partner to reply.

Consider the following phrases -

I think you look wonderful

I just like being in the same room with you

I just feel happy when I'm around you

You make me feel good just by being there

I like how your hair looks

Say them without sounding as if your partner has to respond in kind. And then move on to something else.

It's okay to give hugs, or pecks on the cheek or the hair, or nuzzle the neck, etc. In fact, touching can be a good thing, a reassuring thing. Just keep it on the lighter hearted side rather than the more serious romantic side. You'll need to strike the balance between getting close and getting intimate.

When I was sitting at the computer, I used to like when C. would come behind me, hug my neck, kiss the top of my head, say "you're a wonderful guy," and then wander off again.

Whether you can cope with keeping company with your partner in this way depends on your expectations. If you try these ideas expecting no more than, well, a nice time, the time you and your partner spend together might be peaceful or pleasant, or maybe enjoyable even.

If however, you go looking for some sign that things will be ok between you and your partner in the future, the set of signals coming back at you will probably be confusing and you will probably have a hard time understanding where your relationship is heading.

Enjoy time spent with your partner for what it is, not what it means or what is says about the future. At this stage your major job is simply to be present and visible so that when your partner is feeling well enough to be thinking about your relationship again - there you are.

If all the suggestions sounds like being a friend rather than a partner, well it's knowing when to stay light 'n easy so as to not overburden your partner.

As the days pass, you might feel as if you are in a limbo position regarding whether you are or are not in a relationship. That's sorta about right and it is going to drive you crazy. The problem here is that your partner will not be able to talk about the relationship until they are back to something approaching normal. You can't do much about that and unless you know how long their mood swings last, you won't know how long you'll be waiting. And unfortunately, it can be a while -measured from 1 week to months. Consider asking a friend or family member how long your partner's past episodes have lasted.

Your partner may also have better days and worse days, so there may be days when you feel the relationship is solidifying again and days when it feels as if you've taken two steps back and they are as distant as ever. All this is normal for depression and may not say anything about you or the relationship. Don't read too much into what your partner is actually saying or not saying to you. The statements and actions may be the inaccurate indicators at the moment. Trust your instincts. Assume that you will be frustrated sometimes.

Confusingly, your partner can appear and sound perfectly normal and rational even if they are depressed. So you might have a difficult time figuring out whether they are feeling better or not. You might have already learned to read the signals of when your partner is becoming depressed, but if you haven't one of the simple rules is to assume that your partner's anger is depression related and try to calm rather than escalate problems. Similarly, assume that your partner not wanting to see you is depression related.

Your partner may talk to other people about personal stuff that they aren't telling you. Don't get angry or reproach them about this. However, if it is happening, see if you can steer the overall situation so that your partner feels they can have the same sort of intimacy with you.

In arguments, do not ask leading questions like "So you want to break up" because it makes it too easy for us to say yes.

If you can, also override the "I don't love you, don't call" statements by saying something like "I think you are depressed so I'm not accepting that today. I'm going to wait until you are not depressed." But be careful, this can equally easily antagonise you partner further.

If you are able to do all the above, I suggest that you get all the support you can. Ask whoever is available, your friends or your partner's friends and family. Don't go for the tough minded independent action. Remember that your partner's friends and family will also be worried, so the support may actually go in both directions and you may all feel better.

You also can't keep up a focus on your partner every single day of the week; you'll burn out. Make time at least once a week to go out with other friends for a drink and some laughter.

I have a standard line that I ask C. to remember when I am depressed. It's "I love you, but I can't show it right now." As you interact with your partner, remember they are in the same situation too.

Some other things to consider

Verify Depression

My descriptions / suggestions have been mostly for someone who is depressed. If your partner is manic, you need a different way of handling the problem.

Check this. Your partner can be either depressed, manic, or relatively normal. Use the descriptions for depression or mania to see which describes how your partner is acting. Not all the descriptions / symptoms may be present, or they may appear at a lower intensity. Check with other people to see what they think.

Or your partner could be normal in which case she would come across as feeling looking and acting pretty normal (funny that - and in which case the discussion about the relationship is beyond my realm).

You are Intruding on your Partner's Space

What I am suggesting does not fit under the usual concept of polite. You partner is trying to get you to leave them alone, and you are ignoring the request.

Nevertheless, part of the reason I'm suggesting this is that the standard rules for the couples / partners / dating game doesn't work very well with us bipolar people. If you try to abide by these rules, it may well work against you and your relationship. Sometimes you have to change the rules to fit the situation.

What about respecting your partner's wishes? Well, as half of a partnership, you do have some rights too, and one of those is the ability to initially ignore a request for separation, or space, or a time out. In fact, all of the above is based on your privilege as one half of a relationship to claim space and time from the other half.

It's also perfectly acceptable to conspire with parents and friends. If you haven't been able to get in touch with your partner, call their family or friends and find out what is going on. And ask for information and help too - this may not be time to hold a sense of independence or strength.

If you are not certain that your partner suffers from bipolar disorder or depression, it is okay to ask someone like a parent or close friend. Make sure to phrase the question so that you come across as wanting to know because you love your partner rather than as an inquisitor.

What you are doing is trying make sure that a good relationship survives for the benefit of both you and your partner.

Right. Having said that that it's okay to brazen this out, let me offer a few other words that can also be used for what I am suggesting - pestering, annoying, harassing, stalking.

Because there is a fine line between support and harassment, you are going to have to monitor what you are doing and how your partner is reacting. While it is okay to override your partners wishes initially, at some point it is not going to be acceptable to do so. You are going to have to make the judgment call.

If you know a close friend of your partner's, I'd suggest that you ask for help, and also ask them to help you determine when you are indeed becoming a pest.

If You Can't Visit

I'm don't think that telephone calls or texting or e-mail are a substitute for being physically present. They are too easy to ignore, so your partner may not answer the phone or return the text or the e-mail.

My experience has been that I do not even listen to voice mail or read mail when I am depressed. You might be saying that you love your partner, but they aren't even getting the message, much less replying to you.

Even if I do listen or read the messages, it can be complicated or difficult to think of a reply, so I don't. If you aren't hearing from your partner, this may be why.

The messages can also be irritating, so leaving frequent ones can actually make any interaction worse. If you show up in person, you are both difficult to ignore and easier to deal with.

I suspect that trying to prop up a relationship with someone who is bipolar when you cannot visit frequently because you live across town or in another city is somewhere between difficult and impossible.

Nevertheless, if you cannot visit in person, use them because they are better than nothing at all.

When Your Partner is Coming Out of Depression

If your partner has come out of depression, you can bring up relationship issues. You'd need to do it diplomatically, etc., and they will still probably feel a bit stressed, but they should be able to manage dealing with it.

Now that things seem to be moving, one point to keep in mind. If later on you find that even though your partner is feeling better / normal, they are refusing to discuss their mood swings, this is a big problem. The mood swings will always be there and will have to be dealt with as part of the relationship. If you both cannot discuss the mood swings in the open and work out ways to accommodate them, then chances are the current cycle of being together / attempting to break up will continue to occur.

If your partner is up and around enough to go out with other people, they aren't that depressed any longer and they can have the discussions.

If You've Already had the Breakup Argument

If you've started checking out the 'net only after your partner said the relationship is over, then this whole scenario gets complicated. You could try the actions above, but there is no guarantee that the relationship can be repaired.

You can exploit ambiguities in the breakup statement. If the breakup was "I can't continue this with you / I'm not good enough / You are better off without me" then you can simply insist that you are perfectly happy with your partner as you take the actions above. If you partner said "People change and I don't love you anymore" then you say "I still love you and I'm not giving up without a fight." Be creative on how you get around the breakup statement.

Treat the breakup as just a nasty argument rather than a breakup. Assume that you are still in a relationship. You may irritate your partner further, but I figure that if the relationship is technically over at the moment, things can't get any worse. You might as well try.

Alternatively, you could try simply waiting until they are in a reasonable mood, but I'm not sure this will work. However, if you wish to try this, you can improve your chances by putting a post card under your partner's door (simple post card not in an envelope) saying that you still love your partner and if they want to get back together you are willing to do so. Keep the note simple, two or three sentences.

Decide in your mind on how long you would be willing to wait (two months or so?), and tell a friend about it. Realise that if you do this, you'll be a complete wreck between now and the final date hoping to hear from your partner, so consider carefully before taking this action - and remember there are still no guarantees.

It also only makes sense to consider waiting for your partner if

(1) You have past experience in how long your partner's depression episodes last, so you have an idea on when to expect some real feedback from your partner.

(2) Based on your experience of your relationship in the past, you think you have a reasonable chance of getting things to mend if your partner is in a reasonable mood. You should ask a close friend or two what they think - they may be able to provide a clearer idea than you since they are not directly involved.

And even while you are waiting, don't stay away from your partner. I still recommend that you show up now and then with dinner.

Or, you can move on. You'll be broken hearted, because, well, you know. But there are other really nice people out there - just as good as your partner is. Really. You can spend time and effort hoping for a reconciliation with your partner, or you can spend the same time and effort looking for someone new - and you'll probably find someone. Not the same, but equally perfect.

In case you are wondering, if you are still courting, you do have the option to walk away from a partner who is depressed with no obligations. You may be worried about them and wondering what you can do to help, but remember they survived perfectly fine without you before the relationship. They can do it again. You are not your partner's guardian angel.

Remember though, there is no best solution here. When love is involved, we all tend to follow our own path regardless of advice others give us.


If the relationship really does fall apart, this is not your fault. The breakup really is a symptom / side effect of depression. Do not feel that if you could somehow have done something, then everything would have been all right. Do NOT feel that this is somehow your fault.

You are who you are - which is marvellous, wonderful, special. You aren't perfect, but nobody else is either, so don't ever feel this is a bad thing. Feel good about yourself because you deserve it.

To Summarise

The advice above is how to weather the current storm in the relationship, so that you can continue it again when the sun shines. Until your partner is pretty stable, you are in a holding pattern. This is the rough period because you won't be getting much signals as to where the relationship will eventually end up, or you'll be getting wildly conflicting signals.

However, the holding position is important because as your partner comes out of depression, they may look for someone new. However, if you are physically present during that period, they will not be able to ignore your presence.

Well, that's the hope anyway.

I have no guarantee that this will work, but it is a substantially better scenario that being politely absent. Your physical presence matters and it's always a good time to visit someone to share a pint of chocolate chocolate chip ice cream.