So you’ve just learned that your partner has bipolar disorder or you have just experienced an episode and are coming out of shock enough to want to know what you’ve gotten yourself into and how are you going to survive. Scary huh?
Bipolar is a serious mental illness that can make relationships, especially long-term relationships like marriage, extremely difficult.
There are people who have bipolar disorder and are afraid or simply refuse to seek out appropriate treatment. There are some who have tried and had such bad experiences with doctors or medications that they don’t want to have anything to do with it. There are some who are doing everything they can and are still not able to control the episodes. If you are in love with one of them, you already know that the cards are stacked against you and it’s not going to be an easy relationship.
There are people who have bipolar disorder and are working with a psychiatrist and a therapist. They may have found some medications that are helping and may even have some time of stability behind them. Maybe they only have a minor glitch from time to time and it looks like you’ll have to be mindful of their disorder, but it’s not that important. And it could be true–but you never really know when an episode might break through or the medications might stop working. You can live a normal life together, but you have to be on your guard.
But that’s life in a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder. If you want the marriage to survive and thrive, there are specific steps that you can take to make things a little less stressful and a little more stable. I’ll describe these in more detail in separate articles, but here’s my list:
1) Establish boundaries to protect yourself from the symptoms of bipolar disorder before they hit. Make a plan now for what you will do if there is any abusive behavior, not to punish or control, but to keep yourself safe physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You do not have to stand there and take it. You can walk away or hang up the phone or call a time-out. While things are quiet is the best time to decide what sort of behavior will trigger you to call the psychiatrist or the police. When it’s time to make that call your emotions could get in the way if you don’t have a plan. Have a plan.
2) Learn to detach and ignore any hurtful words. You know that those words aren’t true and it is just the bipolar talking. Keep that in mind and take it to heart. Detaching is a lot like forgiving. It doesn’t take the responsibility away from the person who hurt you, but it frees you from the position of victim. Some people have suggested that detaching means that you don’t care. That’s not entirely what I mean here. For me detaching means thinking it through rationally and accepting that the words don’t come from a place of truth, but from a place of confusion and chaos. I do believe that the person who says them should be held accountable and should do something to make things right–either by a heartfelt apology or other means. It hurts less when I know where it comes from, but it is still hurtful and I still care and if we are going to have a relationship we have to come to that agreement.
3) Work as a team. Your partner is not the enemy. Bipolar disorder is the enemy and if you are working together to keep the bipolar under control, you won’t have the time or the energy to fight with one another. Learn all you can about symptoms and triggers and medications. Learn to react quickly so that symptoms have less time to progress. Learn to trust one another so that if either of you feels that something is wrong you can work together to correct it instead of wasting time arguing about it. Accept that sometimes bipolar isn’t the problem. Everyone has issues, sometimes it’s you.
4) Trust the doctor. A psychiatrist is specially trained to deal with mental illness and the drugs that treat it. If you find that the doctor is prescribing things that don’t make sense, ask questions. Sometimes there is information about a medication that the doctor is aware of but it isn’t in the literature. Sometimes the best drug for the job is one that is usually used for something totally different. If the doctor can’t answer your questions and things seem to be getting worse, consider a second opinion and see where that leads. If the doctor prescribes whatever you or your partner suggest it could be a problem because the doctor might be able to make better choices if he or she weren’t trying to please you. If you don’t trust your doctor, find another doctor. (For example, my husband was left on an antidepressant when it was no longer working for him because he was sure that if he discontinued it he’d slip into a depression. When he finally did discontinue it he was actually more stable. The doctor continued the prescription to keep him compliant. The doctor made the best choice he allowed her to make.)
5) Do not “walk on eggshells” to avoid a confrontation. There is nothing more annoying to a stable person than to have someone treating him or her like a spoiled child. You don’t want people treating you like you might have a tantrum at any moment–it’s condescending. And when a person is in an episode, nothing you can do will be good enough to avoid a blowout anyway. Treat one another with respect at all times and expect the best from one another. Sometimes you may get an irrational reaction, but that’s life with bipolar in the mix. If you protect your boundaries and demand your legitimate rights you may actually get some respect and avoid a lot of the abuse.
6) Keep your expectations realistic. This is not a “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” disorder. There is no cure and the treatment is not perfect. No matter how long a person has been stable on a certain medication regimen, there can be breakthrough episodes or it can suddenly stop working altogether for any reason or no reason that you can uncover. Have a plan for dealing with mood swings and episodes that you work through with your partner and the psychiatrist. The doctor may prescribe a medication that can be taken or the dosage changed in case of specific situations. There may be lifestyle changes or relaxation exercises that can be done. Be aware of your partner’s triggers so you can help to avoid them or suggest countering them with the prescribed medication. Be aware of the symptoms that occur when a mood swing is starting so that you can follow your plan for that as soon as possible.
7) You are reading this last because I want you to remember it first: Take care of yourself. If you allow yourself to get run down and trampled you won’t be in any condition to take care of anyone and somebody has to run this show. Deal with your own stress before it piles up. Take long baths or long walks or read cheap novels or do crafts or art or whatever it takes to wind down when you are wound up. It’s an investment in your own sanity and it’s an investment that pays off immediately and in the long term. Give yourself a break. Don’t expect perfection. It’s okay if you sometimes lose your temper or your composure. It’s alright to cry. This disorder is bigger than all of us and when you find that you can’t do anything that helps, accept that maybe there’s nothing you can do. You aren’t God. (unless God is reading this, my apologies)
I’ve just been told that I’m not an expert. I’m not sure I believe that. I have spent 26 years in a bipolar marriage without even knowing that was the situation for the first twenty years and six years doing research on what it means to have a bipolar spouse and how to make it livable and happy. I’ve managed to work out a lot of it for myself, I’ve learned all kinds of things from other people in support groups and through books and articles, and I’ve shared the information with people who have found it helpful. It may not be my career and I may not have a medical degree, but I’ve definitely put in the hours and made it a passion to help as many others as I can. I don’t believe that writing a book makes me an expert, but doing the research needed to write the book just might qualify.
Check out the eBook LOVE HAS ITS UPS AND DOWNS and see if it was written by an expert in bipolar marriage. You decide.