Writer and broadcaster

My girlfriend is bipolar and dependent on me and I feel smothered. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

I’ve been with my girlfriend for two years. We live with our respective parents. It’s been a very strong relationship but I am worried it could soon fall apart.

I am quite a sociable person but afraid of confrontation and conflict. Too often I cave in to the wishes of others to avoid arguments.

My girlfriend has been bipolar since her mid-teens, which is now under control through medication. She is a shy person, very generous, kind and loving, but very dependent on me. She doesn’t seem to like her own company and gets annoyed if we don’t see each other regularly. So far I have accommodated and pandered to this. 

However, I’m starting to feel smothered. I have built up an expectation by giving in to this in the past so now it’s hard to break that pattern and get my own space back. 

Because I’m no good at conflict I find it hard to say I need my own space. Her reaction also makes it difficult: she gets offended easily and often overreacts to the simplest of things. She is quick to get angry and shout at me for such things.

I’m also stopped from expressing negative feelings. If I get annoyed or angry at something she has said or done, then the response is for her to get angry at me for being angry. It then all becomes about her and resolving her anger and making her feel better. So I never get to express myself.

I also find she belittles my reaction – if she sees me getting upset she says “you’re being over-sensitive”. It’s as though there is one set of rules for her and another for me.

We are looking to move in together, which I think may resolve things (or at least help).

I know this is a very negative letter but when the relationship is good, it’s full of love and support. I really want it to work, but with my ostrich complex and her angry over-compensation, is there any hope?

I can sense that you are torn, because I was too. Part of me wants to tell you to walk away from this relationship and the other part thinks things can be worked on. Not least, I think you need to resolve your fear of conflict. That said, I kept thinking: what if this letter was sent in by a woman, writing about a man?

There are aspects of your girlfriend’s behaviour that are controlling and that concerns me. Sometimes, people with mental health or psychological issues may try to control the outside world because inside can seem so scary and out of control. Maybe she’s young and needs to grow in confidence. Then I came to the conclusion that you just cannot be in a relationship where you can’t be yourself and express how you feel. Sure, we all need to bite our tongue at times and pick our battles, but you can’t be so utterly compromised as to feel sacrificed.

I showed family psychotherapist Karen Holford (aft.org.uk) your letter. She thinks there are elements of love and affection in your relationship and wonders if you could build on them.

On the conflict and confrontation front, Holford wonders: “When do you talk about conflict well?” She suggests you think about things such as “What do I need to say and how do I say it well?”

Sometimes so much is in how we present things, but that takes practice and, frankly, your girlfriend has to do a bit of work too. There is nothing wrong with starting a conversation honestly with: “I find it really hard to talk about this, but …” Or what about writing down how you feel in a letter to your girlfriend so she has time to digest it and not react immediately?

Holford also wonders who would be there for her if it weren’t for you? Who else comforts her? Can she comfort herself? It seems she may need to learn to do that, alongside you learning to say how you feel, for this to work. What resources are available for her, and her family and what help for her to manage her bipolar disorder?

But Holford also wants you to think about this: “What if this was always how it was going to be. Could you live with that?”

I wonder if you really are like this (scared of conflict) with everyone. If so, then this will likely recur in other relationships. Is there anyone you can really be yourself with? Is it a trait you recognise in your girlfriend that you are programmed to react to? Who else in your family do you react to like this?

Ultimately, your girlfriend needs to own her behaviour and be responsible for it, and you for yours. If you can’t resolve this, you need to walk away. And in the short-term, please think carefully before moving in together.

This article first appeared in The Guardian family section on 14 November 2014.