Bipolar relationships? What does that even mean? Is this the right way to describe a personal connection where at least one person has bipolar disorder?
Thirty years ago it was a term from international relations, describing a situation such as we had during the Cold War where two states, the US and the USSR, had the majority of geopolitical power because they were the only two real players. For the Ancient Greeks, it was Athens and Sparta whose relationship was bipolar.
Frankly, the older interpretation might make more sense. After all, is it the person who is bipolar, or is it the relationship?
Regardless of these semantic problems, let’s go with the first definition and discuss the issues that arise in relationships with people who have bipolar disorder.
It can be difficult to find good resources on the subject. Much of what is online is anecdotal and often badly misinformed. A great article did appear in bp Hope, showing that these relationships can succeed: Marriage and Bipolar Disorder.
Another problem with a lot of Internet “information” is that the people concerned have not necessarily been diagnosed by a psychiatrist so the issues discussed may have nothing to do with bipolar relationships.
We are not going to deal with self-diagnosis here.We are ONLY discussing people who have had an expert psychiatric diagnosis. Likewise, we are not going to talk about the unsatisfactory boyfriend or girlfriend YOU have labelled as “bipolar”.
There are two possible scenarios. Both parties in the relationship may have the disorder, or only one person may have the disorder.
Two people who both have bipolar disorder marry more often than many would imagine.
It is actually more common than you may think for two people in an intimate relationship to both have bipolar disorder. There is a phenomenon known as “assortative mating” which shows a strong pattern of people with bipolar marrying each other to a statistically disproportionate degree.
Aside from significant others, relationships where more than one person has bipolar disorder may occur a lot within families as the illness has such a strong genetic component. If you have the disorder, chances are high that you will have a sibling, parent, grandparent, uncle, cousin etc who does too. Obviously, the dynamics within a bipolar family can be very dramatic and intense. The ideal situation is for everyone to have an accurate diagnosis and be receiving effective treatment, but sadly this is all too rare.1
Obviously if both parties have bipolar disorder, the potential difficulties multiply exponentially.
On the other hand, where both parties are properly diagnosed and treated, the outlook for a better than average relationship exists because both people will have more understanding of the disorder.
The bipolar spouse
I AM a bipolar spouse. Also, I am a bipolar spouse with a failed marriage and a (currently) extremely successful marriage. This has led me to much study, research, and reflection on the topic.
1. Non-bipolar spouses are generally more supportive, understanding and tolerant of depression than they are of mania. The implications of this are that if bipolar has not been diagnosed and is not being treated, it is the mania that is more likely to trigger conflict, confusion, heartache, and possibly divorce.
2. This tracks with causes of marital breakdown in general. The main reasons given for divorce are adultery/infidelity, domestic violence, the onset of a “mid-lfe crisis”, substance abuse and other addictions such as gambling, and finally, workaholism. Think about it . . . aren’t these all behaviors that are common manifestations of untreated mania?
3. The implications of the above are that an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment go a long way to relieving the difficulties associated with bipolar relationships.
Bipolar and divorce
This is such an important topic that bipolar and divorce is discussed separately on Bipolar-Lives.com.
The main points to understand are:
1. Divorce rates are no higher in marriages where one spouse has bipolar disorder than they are in marriages where one spouse is seriously depressed.
2. Some research does suggest a higher divorce rate than across the general population for couples where one spouse has bipolar disorder.
3. The single and the divorced are more likely to have bipolar disorder when compared to people who are married or never married.
My first marriage broke-up because of my undiagnosed bipolar disorder. My current marriage is the most stabilizing thing in my life and has helped me manage my bipolar so that I have not had a serious episode since 2005.
4. Despite the above, there is no empirical research that shows a CAUSAL relationship between bipolar disorder and marital status.
We still know relatively little about marital bipolar relationships.
Recently I read a very compelling, evocative essay about bipolar relationships. The writer used the metaphor of a fire in the brain for bipolar, and described the way that spouses, family and friends may all get “burned up” as fuel.
It can be very difficult to turn around and cross back over those burning bridges. Often there is nobody more aware of the hurt and damage they have caused than the person with bipolar disorder themselves.
Once an episode is over and we are “ourselves again”, coming to terms with our bipolar behavior is very difficult and produces huge shame and sometime a crippling cognitive dissonance when we try to reconcile what happened when manic with how we are when we are well.
Bipolar disorder is NOT multiple personality disorder. But in a sense there are several bipolar selves, and understanding this can be a powerful tool in better managing bipolar relationships:2
1. Our normal, well, or real self.
2. Our manic self.
3. Our depressed self.
4. Our higher and better self – that idealized version of the self that is the best person we can be and that we all (hopefully) aspire to.
A person with bipolar disorder must be very careful not to confuse number 2 with number 4. The self-infatuation that some of us experience in mania is not grounded in reality and we are unlikely to be as brilliant, sexy, and enlightened as we may feel during these periods of grandiose delusion.
It is important to carefully examine this self-deception when well again in order to be more likely to recognize when a manic episode is starting. Also, it is important that when well we work towards becoming number 4, not the manic self we may enjoy because of the feelings of confidence and achievement.
On the other hand, it is also important to let go of the manic and/or depressed self once well. They are sick phantoms – caricatures of the real you. Examine them to build knowledge and guard against relapse, but then banish them! Your goal should be stable moods with few and only minor relapses, and these demons should not be given an on-going role in your life or perceived as an inescapable part of who you really are.
Perhaps in this sense our most important bipolar relationships are those we have with ourselves!
Bipolar relationship resources
There is a shortage of quality resources about bipolar relationships. Two that I have found valuable are:
1. Bipolar Significant Others: “information and support to the spouses, families, friends and other loved ones of those who suffer from bipolar disorder (manic-depression).”
2. The best book I know of is When Someone You Love Is Bipolar: Help and Support for You and Your Partner by Cynthia Last. We have benefited from it in our home.
Finally, please check out the related webpages on Bipolar-Lives.com because there are tools and advice on using Treatment Contracts, Wellness Plans, and other means to ensure loving, safe, rewarding relationships for all.