Bipolar disorder is hard on relationships. Ninety percent of marriages in which one partner suffers from bipolar disorder end in divorce. But just because having a successful and happy relationship with bipolar disorder is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Whether it’s you or your partner who suffers from bipolar disorder, it’s going to take a concerted effort from both of you to make the relationship work. If you’re the non-bipolar partner, you need to educate yourself about bipolar disorder in general and your partner’s symptoms specifically. Make sure your partner is getting the right medical care. Work together to help your partner manage his or her illness, but make sure you take time to care for your own needs, too.
Remember That Your Partner Is More than His or Her Illness
Some people who suffer from bipolar disorder take issue with the use of the word “bipolar” as an adjective, such as in the sentence “Suzy is bipolar,” because they say it’s hurtful to reduce the sum of a person’s identity to his or her mental illness. While your partner may or may not be this particular, it’s important to remember that your partner is not an illness; he or she is a person with an illness.
Try not to reduce your partner to a stereotype. Don’t assume that you know what he or she is going through, how he or she feels, or what behaviors are symptomatic of his or her illness unless he or she specifically tells you. While bipolar disorder is certainly a big part of your partner’s life — and your own, as long as you choose to remain in the partnership — stereotyping your partner will only lead to miscommunication and hurt feelings.
Make Sure Your Partner Gets Good Medical Care
Bipolar disorder is often misdiagnosed as major depression, also known as unipolar depression, because the symptoms of a depressive episode are just like those of major depression. Most people with bipolar disorder feel so good during hypomanic or manic phases that they may not see the need to seek psychiatric help. It’s not until the bipolar person is curled up in a ball, weeping uncontrollably, for days on end that he or she decides to seek help.
When a person in the depressive phase of bipolar disorder finally does see a psychiatrist or family doctor, he or she may not mention manic or hypomanic symptoms, often because the person doesn’t see them as problematic. For this reason, it can take an average of 10 years for a person with bipolar disorder to get a proper diagnosis and good treatment.
If you think your partner has bipolar disorder and hasn’t been diagnosed, you may want to give him or her some books about the disorder, preferably some that he or she may identify with. Present your loved one with evidence, either photographic or otherwise, of his or her bipolar mood swings. This can help you cut through your partner’s denial.
All people with bipolar disorder must take medications like Seroquel every day, for their entire lives, if they hope to gain any control over the symptoms of their illness. Forty to 45 percent of people with bipolar disorder have problems with medication compliance, meaning they don’t take their medication as directed. Encourage your partner to take his or her medications as directed.
Form your own relationship with your partner’s treatment team. When your partner reports to his or her psychiatrist, you should also give the doctor your own version of recent symptoms, privately. This can help your partner’s psychiatrist get a clearer picture of what’s really going on and can keep your partner accountable. Talking with your partner’s psychiatrist can also help you understand your partner’s symptoms better.
Establish Ground Rules
While your partner will need your support in coping with his or her illness, it’s important that your partner do his or her share to control bipolar symptoms. Sit down with your partner and establish some ground rules that you’ll both follow to keep your partner’s illness in check. For example, you may ask your partner to agree to:
- Take his or her medications as directed
- Let you know when he or she feels a bipolar episode coming on, if he or she has that level of self-awareness
- Call his or her psychiatrist after two to three days of either depressive or manic symptoms
For your part, you might in turn agree to:
- Stay with your partner if he or she is feeling suicidal
- Intervene to stop potentially destructive or risky behavior
- Verify that your partner has taken his or her medication
You should also agree on some steps you can take to enforce these rules, if necessary.
Take Care of Yourself
You’re not going to be of much help to your partner if you’re feeling stressed out and overwhelmed yourself. As many as one-third of people caring for a chronically ill family member develop depression or anxiety. Make sure you get plenty of sleep, eat well, exercise regularly, and make time for the things you enjoy. You might benefit from talking to a therapist or understanding friend who can offer support when things at home get tough.
Bipolar disorder has destroyed many a relationship, but it doesn’t have to. Understanding the illness and using medication to treat it is half the battle; the other half is working closely with your partner to manage the illness as team, so it doesn’t tear apart the life you’ve built together.