Bipolar and Relationships: What to Expect and Tips
Bipolar disorder is a significant mental illness affecting about 1.3 million people in the UK alone. 1 in 5 people diagnosed with this condition takes their own life. Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most famous and globally recognised artists, also suffered from bipolar disorder and committed suicide at the age of 37. March 30th, his birthday, has been chosen as World Bipolar Day. Along with its mission, we want to raise awareness of bipolar disorder and hopefully contribute to eliminating the social stigma surrounding it.
The condition is mainly characterised by powerful mood swings, consisting of extreme emotional highs and lows. Switching between episodes of mania or hypomania and depression can hold a tight grip on individuals’ entire existence, impairing their ability to perform well in their daily roles as family members, friends, coworkers, or romantic partners when left untreated. If you’ve watched the series ‘Succession’ (no spoilers!), you might see some of these signs in Kendall’s highs and lows in the third season.
Can someone with bipolar have a normal relationship?
Becoming romantically involved and striving to maintain a healthy relationship is a beautiful journey, including the challenges it poses. When you combine bipolar and relationships, this somewhat rocky ride can quickly grow out of proportion and turn into an emotional rollercoaster. Navigating it is unarguably tricky, yet not impossible. The key to success boils down to the continued commitment to the treatment, awareness of the bipolar disorder, open communication and mutual support.
How does a bipolar person act in a relationship?
The main characteristic of bipolar disorder is the powerful shift in mood between mania, hypomania and depression, which naturally alter an individual’s behaviour.
Bipolar and Relationships: Manic Episodes
During manic episodes, people with bipolar tend to be impulsive, overly energetic, enthusiastic and reckless. You can tell if your bipolar partner is experiencing a manic episode if they speak faster than usual, stay up very late and have a heightened sex drive.
A manic episode can take a massive toll on a relationship and is not to be taken lightly. The consequences of poor judgment, specifically overly enthusiastic pursuit of pleasurable activities are by far the most problematic. Examples include:
- Spending an excessive amount of money,
- Overusing drugs and alcohol,
- Being promiscuous,
- Getting in trouble with the law.
Bipolar and Relationships: Depressive Episodes
After every high of mania comes the low of depression. That’s the cyclical nature of bipolar. If your partner has bipolar, then it’s possible that the reason they limit contact with you for a while is because they’re struggling with:
- Low energy
- Immense sadness
- Disturbed sleep pattern
- General disinterest and withdrawal
- Guilt, shame and regret regarding their behaviour in the manic phase
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Bipolar disorder relationship patterns
Sometimes your bipolar partner might desire all your attention and then, it might feel like they switch up on you, not wanting to go out, pick up their phone or respond to your messages. It might feel like they’re completely ignoring you. However, even though recognising the bipolar pattern and finding your way to navigate it can be confusing, it is doable.
What to do when a bipolar partner ignores you?
When your bipolar partner cuts off all contact, try not to blame yourself as it’s nothing personal. They’re probably struggling with an intense period of the disorder, and removing themselves from your life might ease the management of the symptoms.
What they need right now are your unconditional love and compassion. Give them time and space to work through their issues. They might feel too depressed to talk right now, but maybe they do read your messages. Let them know that they can count on you and that they’re on your mind. Put their mind at ease with a couple of supportive texts such as:
- “Hey, I’m thinking of you and sending you my love. I’ll always support you.”
- “I can only imagine how difficult this period has been for you. Just remember that even the lowest low will pass too. Things will get easier.”
In these more intense periods, take your mind off of worrying. Instead, generate positivity in your life: spend time with your loved ones or engage in your hobbies.
Lastly, reach out to your bipolar partner when the timing is right, and they seem more emotionally stable to discuss how their behaviour affected your feelings.
Why do bipolar relationships fail?
In any couple, there are obstacles to overcome. However, severe mood swings pose another challenge for bipolar and relationships. As a partner of a bipolar person, you don’t know what to expect. Hanging in such limbo can cause stress, anxiety and emotional strain.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. According to WebMD, “as many as 90% of marriages involving someone with bipolar disorder reportedly fail”, which might be due to:
- Lack of diagnosis
- Stopping/refusing the treatment
- Lack of mutual effort and dishonest communication
- Lack of education on the bipolar disorder
- Sacrificing one’s goals for the sake of the bipolar partner
- Experiencing chronic conflict, stress and burnout
How to manage your bipolar relationship?
There are many actions that both bipolar person and their partner can do to support their relationship. Let’s break it down for each side:
Tips for the partner of a bipolar person:
1. Support your partner’s treatment:
As a partner of a bipolar person, get involved in their treatment and show support. Buy their medications at the pharmacy, drive them to the therapy sessions or propose attending with them. If your presence in therapy sessions is appropriate, then this can help to:
- gain better insight into the nature of your partner’s illness
- understand their struggle better
- Prevent their hospitalisation by sharing your observations with their psychiatrist
Together, you may also consider relationship counselling.
2. An open line of communication:
The key to any successful relationship is honest and respectful communication from the very beginning. As a person with bipolar disorder, try disclosing your diagnosis before committing to your partner. Getting so vulnerable can be a nerve-wracking experience. Try to make sure you feel safe and comfortable with another person. Later on, addressing some issues and explaining how you feel will help everyone navigate the hardships along the way.
When receiving such news, make sure to express your support and acceptance.
As the partner of a bipolar person, aim to speak about your experience rather than blaming them or their disorder.
3. Educate yourself:
Recognising the nature of bipolar and the challenges it poses can help you not only make sense of your partner’s struggle but strengthen your bond. Start by finding out more about their struggle with this article about Bipolar Disorder.
4. Be patient:
Bipolar disorder is cyclical, meaning that even the most difficult periods do eventually pass. Being patient, loving and engaging in acts of kindness towards your partner amid their depression or mania is the best gift to offer. Whenever frustrations arise, take a walk in a park or spend a couple of days in solitude to calm down.
5. Take care of yourself:
The well-being of your bipolar partner isn’t more important than your own. Know when to take a break and restore your energy. Remember that it’s okay to distance yourself and prioritise your own happiness.
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Tips for the bipolar person
1. Commit to the treatment:
To maintain a healthy relationship, it is crucial for the bipolar person to undergo treatment. Taking medications, going to therapy and staying in touch with one’s psychiatrist and psychotherapist helps with recognising bipolar patterns and applying healthy ways to manage them. That, in turn, will support your relationship.
2. Be open and honest:
As a person with bipolar disorder, try disclosing your diagnosis before committing to your partner. Getting so vulnerable can be a nerve-wracking experience. Try to make sure you feel safe and comfortable with your significant other. Later in your relationship, don’t hesitate to address some issues and openly explain how you feel. It will help everyone navigate the hardships along the way.
3. Inform your partner about your triggers:
Monitor your moods and recognise the warning signs preceding an episode, such as disturbed sleep or changes in activity. The more aware you are of your cycles, the more control you gain over them. As soon as you observe a shift in your mood, let your partner know so that you can both be prepared.
4. Practice self-acceptance:
It’s easy to feel like the underdog of the relationship because of your mental health condition. Remember: you are not your disorder.
Yes, undeniably, it is a part of your life, so work with it, not against it. Treat yourself with acceptance, respect and compassion. After all, you are a unique person with a lot to offer to others. Be proud of that.
5. Engage in self-care:
Our overall well-being is a sum of many small choices we make daily. Taking care of your body will positively affect your mind. Support your health by:
- Eating healthily
- Exercising regularly
- Maintaining a proper sleep hygiene
- Engaging in things you’re passionate about
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Cresting the waves of bipolar and relationships can be draining at times, especially when done alone. Make sure to surround yourself with loved ones, friends and mental health professionals. Do not hesitate to prioritise your well-being and get help from a qualified therapist or counsellor.
If you’re struggling, give us a shout: Contact us for a free 15 min consultation here.