Surviving and Thriving from a Toxic Relationship
A few years ago I was in an unhealthy relationship that was borderline toxic. Luckily, we decided to split before well, shit really hit the fan. And during the period leading up to the breakup and well afterward, I did a lot of thinking and healing. With my mind a little clearer and my heart less broken, I realized a lot about the relationship and myself I could not see while I was in the thick of things.
There are a myriad of reasons why relationships can turn toxic fast. An intimate partnership is unlike any other. We live together, share vulnerabilities, emotionally bond, share professional and/or personal interests, etc. In other words, the other person absorbs much of our free time. They see us at our best and our worst. Defense mechanisms (e.g., emotional withdrawal) we employ to keep us emotionally protected against potential strife don’t really work in a relationship.
In order for a relationship to flourish, one needs to be open and vulnerable. That is how intimacy is built. But intimacy is only sustainable through trust. The wrong partner will use your vulnerabilities against you. Then there is no trust left. Then there is no intimacy. Then we emotionally withdraw. And the relationship, as we know it, is over.
The problem many of us bipolar folk have is that we cannot emotionally withdraw. Everything we feel is generally magnified. And depending on our mood, those emotions can cut deeper. For much of the time before my relationship ended, I was in a deep depression. So much so I ended up being hospitalized. I was not sure it was because I was having problems or because I was bipolar. I just know that those two together are a dangerous formula.
Notice how I am being intentionally vague regarding details around my experience. That is because I do not want to steer off from the point of this post: how to survive a toxic relationship when bipolar. So let’s focus on keeping ourselves grounded during a situation like this rather than fester in the details of what he/she said.
Below are a few bits of wisdom to remember that will help you keep objective despite any episodic spiral.
Bit of Wisdom # 1: We are not co-dependent, we are depressed.
Emotional codependency is not a common manifestation of bipolar disorder even though some aspects of it may overlap during a depression. Other mental illnesses like borderline personality disorder are known to manifest this, but bipolar folk, from what I know, typically don’t. I say this to differentiate some reasons behind our reactions to emotionally distressful situations. Take note that when someone accuses you of being codependent, you must stop and think hard before you believe it. Believing we are codependent when we are not is a confusing hit to our self-esteem and does not get to the root of a problem. Note that when depressed, many codependent behaviors can be expressed. The difference is that these behaviors are episodic (only sometimes occur during depressions) while in codependents they are chronic (are generally always present).
So here are some ways we can tell the difference:
There are more characteristics that describe codependency but these are just a few so you get an idea. Let me also be clear and say that a bipolar person can also be codependent. But being bipolar on its own does not make us codependent. That’s a whole separate issue.
I also want to drill in the fact that we are beautiful-highly-intelligent people who can strive for greatness with or without a partner. So if you are in a toxic relationship, leave. You don’t need it.
Bit of Wisdom # 2: The compatibility of arguing
This is important. In relationships we all argue, some of us fight, too. But even while arguing we need to have chemistry. Our problem-solving style in a partnership matters because problems are bound to happen and in order for the relationship to work, you have to solve them. But it takes two to solve. So you need to know:
your own style,
your partner’s style, and
the relationship’s dynamic (or how do these two styles integrate).
Compatibility simply means that your style of resolving conflict compliments your partner’s so that problems are tackled as a team rather than individually.
So let’s look at some of these so-called styles:
Etc. etc. etc.
Did you notice that while reading this list you probably identified with more than one? That’s because we are dynamic and complex. But if you had to choose one, which one are you? Which one is your partner’s?
For example, I tend to be more of the let’s-solve-it-now-in-the-heat-of-the-moment style. This is where my bipolar comes into play. When in an argument, I need to have closure immediately otherwise, due my bipolar, I will run with the issue, let it fester, ruminate, and grow until it spirals out of control. Then I am triggered into a deep and dangerous depression. Sadly, that is because for many of us, we can’t shut our brain off. Our disorder has us constantly in overdrive. So we can’t take time off of an issue.
My ex-partner, however, was more of the shove-it-under-a-rug-and-pretend-it’s-not-there style.
So this is how our minds generally worked during conflict:
His: Yeah, I’m tired. I think I should just watch a movie, FB, or play video games for now. Maybe she’ll forget about it and we’ll move on.
Mine: But what did he mean with that? Am I really that terrible of a person? I know I tend to be a little Type A but I do it because there’s so much to do. I’m exhausted and I want to fix things but he doesn’t care to fix them. He walked away. He must not love me anymore. I love me. I matter. I’m a good person. Why is this hard? I only asked him to help me with the dishes. Is that too much? Do I ask too much of him? Maybe I should just do it myself? I know he is tired. But wait, I’m tired, too. I work, too. And then I come home and do most of the chores. Ugh, what is he doing now? Maybe relationships only worked back then. Women have too much going on now. It’s hard living in the 21stcentury. What’s the point? It’d be easier if I lived alone. At least I wouldn’t feel all the guilt when I’m depressed. Let me start looking at apartments. But is this what I am bound to? Solitude? Can’t I be functional? Is it me, is it him? I hate it when they say that it’s always both. No, sometimes it’s just someone. It’s not always 50/50. Fair and balanced, ha! Really Fox News? What a ridiculous motto.
Erm, do you see now why compatibility matters?
Bit of Wisdom # 3: The Gaslighting Effect
If I had known about the Gaslighting Effect long before the onset of the downward spiral in the relationship, I would not have suffered so much. Please pay attention because as bipolar individuals we are very vulnerable to confusion and emotional abuse. So what is gaslighting?
According to Reva Steenbergen’s book The Gaslighting Effect, gaslighting is
an abusive technique used by narcissist abusers in which a victim's reality becomes re-written, judgment is impaired, and there is an undeniable shift to their mental equilibrium as the narcissist tries to break the victim’s spirit and in the most vicious game of mind control.
This sounds a bit extreme but it can start small. So why is this important to the bipolar community to know? Well, we are already perplexed by our behavior. Monitoring and evaluating every bit of what do becomes essential in order to prevent an episode. So when someone else further manipulates our realities, we have a harder time telling what is real versus what is not.
A narcissistic individual finds it difficult to take accountability for their misgivings. Instead, they find refuge in blaming others.
Let’s take a look at the situation below for greater clarity:
It’s four a.m. on a weekday and your partner’s cell phone rings. He just received a text message. Naturally, you are curious about the nature of this text message. So you ask him, “who is that?”
Rather than answer you with a name, he is evasive and says, “why does it matter, you don’t trust me?”
His evasiveness and defensive attitude raise concern for you. So you respond, “yes, I trust you but it just seems like an odd hour to be texting. And why are you evasive?”
This is where he blows up. “I’ve had it with you and your jealousy issues. You don’t respect my privacy. Your self-esteem is so low. You are always making things up and accusing me of things that aren’t real! With that attitude no one is going to want you. Fix your issues. I’m about almost done with you!”
At this point, you are so confused at the situation. You are thinking why that reaction. But his persistence and his words hurt. And because you have been living these scenarios for some time now, you start to believe it. Maybe you are too jealous? And maybe you shouldn’t be asking. Just trust him all the time. Get over yourself. You have problems.
And so you start crying. His reaction? To console you and tell you it’s okay. He forgives you.
This is gaslighting.
And it happens all the time and it’s dangerous because we start living in altered realities in which self-blame because our norm. We can’t do anything right. All of our problems in the relationship are due to our bipolar. We are crazy. So why would they want to be with us? Why would anyone?
Do you see the negative and twisted spiral? Do you know what can happen next if untreated? A deep-self-loathing depression that can lead to self-harm, suicidal ideation, attempts, and success.
Without a proper understanding of the relationship dynamic (refer to the section above on the compatibility of arguing), these issues can escalate fast. So I advise that when evaluating your situation, you do it calmly and objectively. You don’t want to mislabel someone because it fits your narrative. But you also don’t want to be emotionally abused. Be objective. Weigh the facts. Get a second opinion from an unbiased source.
And if this is the case, get help. Immediately.
Bit of Wisdom # 4: You can’t force the shoe to fit
There is a common saying we have in Spanish, “el zapato ni a fuerzas,” or “you can’t force a shoe to fit.” And that is true for relationships as well. You can’t force someone to love or for a relationship to work. Most things that are sustainable occur organically and are maintained with a little elbow grease, patience, empathy, and mutual respect. Love is implied. If one of these factors are not present, then there are major problems that should be addressed. This is why self-love is crucial. We cannot fill in all of our voids through someone else’s affirmations.
One of the issues we have in modern dating is that we expect our partner to be our all: our best friend, confidant, partner in crime, housemate, mentor, etc. But we are only one person and can wear a limited number of hats. Having close friendships and tight family circles can avoid this dependency by having others, outside of our partner, fulfill these social needs we build.
Another problem with today’s love stories is the fairytale romance we fantasize. Right after the period that romanticism surged, we became obsessed in having to love a person for all that they are, including their flaws. But how could I love my ex’s addiction to video games? Or he love my demanding personality? When rethinking this dynamic, I’m convinced that relationships would be better suited under the ancient Greek mentality that is to love our partner’s virtues and tolerate their flaws (I heard this somewhere).
So if you cannot even tolerate their flaws, then is your partner the right fit for you? It’s easy to love someone for their virtues but it’s harder to accept them with their flaws.
People don’t change at their core. They evolve and can become better of themselves. But their morals and ethics stay intact for of their life. And if you have a problem with these, then reconsider.
Bit of Wisdom # 5: Their loved ones will talk and call you crazy
Whether or not you have gone your separate ways, people will talk. People have opinions. Often these opinions are built on conjecture and are extrapolated with tinie-winnie-bits of evidence. Clearly, what others say about a situation is not entirely reflective of what has actually occurred.
It happened to me and I’m sure that in some way to you. One of the greatest frustrations I have is to be misunderstood or for my words to be misinterpreted. I try to be very precise in my communication but I am not always successful.
Since my diagnosis I have been very open about my bipolar. Initially, I thought people would empathize and understand. And some did but not everyone has the ability to look beyond themselves without casting judgment. So it was particularly hard for me when I heard that my ex’s friends and family were justifying his actions by calling me unstable and crazy. I caught wind of comments like, “well, she is bipolar, what did you expect?” or “damn, dude, I bet it was hard living with a crazy person like that.”
My instinct was to prove them wrong. I was hurt because if they actually knew what happened, they would not make those types of comments. And these are people who at one point expressed their love for me. So for about a month I was angry. Until I realized that it did not matter. I knew what happened and I had a whole team of loved ones rooting for me and my wellbeing. So if I was allowed to have people on my side, why couldn’t he? After all, he also needs to be able to sleep at night just like I do. And that was it.
So by having lived this, I am confident in saying that how others interpret your illness is their problem. Not yours.
You focus on your wellness, not on anybody else's judgement.
Tune in to OWN IT’s next episode, Loving us Right, Defined: Advice for Friends, Family, and Partners.
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The Ins and Outs of OWN IT: A Blog on How to Show Bipolar Who's the Boss
A blog for people with mental illness written by an unstable, unpredictable, and uninhibited woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder
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Disclaimer: OWN IT is a first-hand account of bipolar disorder designed to orient those diagnosed with mental illness. It by no means intends to offer medical advice. If you are diagnosed with an illness, or think you may suffer from one, please seek professional help. Otherwise, take my words lightly and have fun reading!