More on Bipolar Relationships - The Altruism Achilles Heel

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Are we the victims of our own altruism? In a recent post on loving relationships, I noted that:

    Our personal suffering makes us far more sensitive to the needs of others. We are attuned. We are accepting. We reach out. We respond with compassion. Crazy thing, we the “crazy” are natural healers and nurturers. ...

    But there is a tremendous downside. As Tabby observed, in response to my piece:

    I'm a good person and a loving person and I care deeply for people.  People just do not, in return. And whereas I'm willing to go through the drama, the stress, the chaos of their lives with them and put up with their mistreatment of me (like I did with my ex-husband and his abuse for 20 years) so many just run and bail out on me, when things grow dark or topsy-turvy.

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    Funny you should mention this, Tabby. I just finished reading Barbara Oakley’s “Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend.” One of Dr Oakley’s points - and I’m vastly over-simplifying here - is that “the successfully sinister” feed off of altruists. She suggests that there may have even been something of a Darwinian arms race as new generations of the two camps developed adaptive upgrades to their respective coping mechanisms.

    Imagine, if you will, our frontal lobes bulging with ever newer and more sophisticated social radar for our own protection and survival.

    The arms race may have begun, Dr Oakley speculates, with the introduction of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, and with it the beginning of densely-populated settlements and sophisticated social structures. These settlements would have been to the successfully sinister what swamps are to mosquitoes and malaria.

    So picture an opportunistic minority exploiting a trusting and naive majority. Easy pickings. The sinister manage to rise to wealth and power and, with it, acquire the opportunity to breed in vast numbers. So in the space of a few generations they become the majority. But here’s the catch - there are few altruists left to prey upon. Moreover, the altruists have picked up their own new set of coping mechanisms. The balance shifts back in their favor.

    Back and forth it goes.

    I would contend that we are living in an era where the successfully sinister have the upper hand, but that is the topic for another piece.

    Let’s see if we can apply Dr Oakley’s theme to relationships, but first the black box warning: Bipolar hardly equates to altruism. Indeed, the illness may turn some of us into victims, perhaps “the unsuccessfully sinister.” But enough of us, through the terrible privations we endure, experience the kind of awakening that makes us better people than we were before.

    So here we are, the altruistic. We listen, we care, we go out of our way to help others. One guess: Who are the type of people we are bound to attract?

    Tabby, I know exactly where you are coming from. This seems to be the story of my life. A woman comes along who lets me know I’m the best thing since sliced bread. I fall for it. I reach out, as is my nature. She is emotionally sucking me dry, as is hers. When it’s over, I am left with a feeling of having been abused and violated. I swear I will never allow this to happen to me again, but of course it does.


  • Mind you, I have met some wonderful women where things just didn’t work out. Perhaps if one of these situations had I would have been spared some bad experiences.

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    Is the pain worse with our bipolar as a complication? Who knows? In my case, for my own sanity, I need to put a lot of space between relationships. I crawl under a rock and isolate. Eventually, I come up for air. That is kind of where I’m at right now. Will I be wiser when the next tango begins? Of course not. Will I be luckier? Here’s hoping ...

    Seeking Your Wisdom and Insight

    We are all here to learn from each other. I wrote the above piece in the spirit of food for thought and to start a conversation. Please feel free to join the discussion. Comments below ...  

Published On: November 14, 2011