Living with bipolar disorder can be a roller coaster of highs and lows, with moods constantly shifting between euphoric happiness and unusually deep sadness. While occasional mood swings are common for most people, the emotional ebbs and flows experienced by bipolar sufferers can be so deep and all-encompassing that they can interfere with daily functioning.
Once known as manic depression because of extreme moods, bipolar disorder affects an estimated 4.4 percent of adults in the United States at some point in their life (National Institute of Mental Health). These manic and depressive states may continue for periods of months or even years, while in between episodes the sufferer may experience relatively stable moods.
Bipolar disorders are typically chronic conditions and require lifelong attention, with treatment aimed at managing the symptoms.
The video below illustrates how debilitating living with bipolar disorder can be:
Behind Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar is characterized by the following:
- Manic episodes
- Depressive episodes
- Mixed episodes
“When people are manic, they pursue pleasurable activities with great enthusiasm and with no regard for the consequences,” says Jennifer Payne, M.D., psychiatrist and director of the Women’s Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “They may gamble, spend excessive amounts of money, use drugs or become promiscuous.”
Perhaps known as a “high highs,” these manic moments may include:
- Increased physical and mental activity
- Exaggerated optimism and self-confidence
- Excessive irritability, aggressive behavior
- Decreased need for sleep
- Rapid speech and thought
- Impulsivity and partaking in risk-taking behaviors such as increased sexual activity, excessive spending or binge drinking
According to Psychology Today, “People experiencing a manic episode are often described as excessively cheerful or ‘feeling on top of the world.’ Often, however, the dominant mood during a manic episode is irritability.”
As a contrast, the moments of “low lows” for the bipolar suffer may include:
- Prolonged sadness
- Changes in appetite and sleep
- Irritability, anger, and worry
- Loss of energy
- Feelings of guilt and hopelessness
- Recurring thoughts of suicide and death
These depressive episodes will result in lower levels of communication, self-esteem, and a lack of interest in life itself. In this depressive period, the euphoria and elation are long gone and have made way for hopelessness and sadness. These feelings may reduce a person’s sex drive and ability to be affectionate and connect. Some sufferers say the depressive episodes may make it feel nearly impossible to get out of bed, eat, or answer the phone.
In the mixed episode moments, a person with bipolar disorder may exhibit symptoms of mania or hypomania and depression simultaneously. This can prove to be highly confusing or stressful for their partner, who may not know what kind of behavior or reaction to expect.
Bipolar Disorder & Romantic Relationships
Navigating the dating scene, long-term relationships, and marriage each come with their own challenges. As we learn to fully commit ourselves to another, we experience moments of unbridled joy, heartfelt devotion, coupled with periods of frustration and learning to compromise. Romantic relationships require commitment, time, and hard work, but the addition of a mental illness such as bipolar disorder can create another layer of complexity.
The typical highs and lows of bipolar disorder may affect the way an individual thinks, feels, behaves, and communicates. The very nature of bipolar disorder produces such a wide range of mood swings, which could result in unpredictability for both people in the relationship.
“It can be a day-to-day challenge knowing what to do to support your loved one without being consumed by their depression and mania, says David A. Karp, professor of sociology at Boston College. “Indeed, caring for someone who has a mental illness can be more draining than caring for someone with cancer,” he explains. “They may even feel their own identities are being buried—they are losing themselves or jeopardizing their own health.”
Given the characteristics of bipolar disorder, how does this affect a person’s love life?
In the dating phase or at the beginning of a romantic relationship, we typically want to showcase our best selves. Whether it’s wearing our finest clothing or paying extra attention to our appearance, it’s human nature to try a little harder to impress the other person. That in mind, knowing when and how to share the details of a bipolar disorder can be a struggle for some sufferers.
A woman with bipolar disorder shares her experience with dating in the video below:
Long-Term Relationships / Marriage
Depending on the nature, severity, and length of time in between episodes, a sufferer’s bipolar symptoms might manifest in the following ways:
- Irritability during a manic episode can sometimes lead to hostile tirades and lashing out at those around them, particularly if an attempt is made to interrupt them
- The high potency for risk-taking activities such as heavy spending, gambling and sexual indiscretions (i.e. unprotected sex or extramarital affairs) could create tension, uneasiness, and mistrust
- A person experiencing mania may exhibit extremely high energy and distractibility – often their thoughts race faster than they can be expressed – leaving his/her partner trying to “keep up” with this upswing in mood. Thus, effective communication in the partnership can be compromised
- Disinterest in life might appear as a lack of interest in his/her partner and the relationship, which could lead to feelings of insecurity or rejection
- Lack of communication by the sufferer could create uncertainty, tension, or additional issues
- The sufferer’s low self-esteem may reduce his/her sex drive or desire to show affection
- It can be difficult for a sufferer’s partner to know what to say or do to help
Additionally, severe mood swings coupled with manic symptoms such as poor judgment and impulsivity, alongside a number of depressive symptoms like low energy and disinterest could affect a sufferer’s ability to hold down a job or parent effectively, adding more pressure to his/her partner.
Tips for Healthy Relationships Despite Bipolar Disorder
This video shows how real-life couples, Mehri and Logan Coulter have adapted to her bipolar disorder diagnosis and continue to enjoy a happy and healthy marriage.
With the proper treatment and attention, bipolar sufferers can lead happy and highly functioning lives, inclusive of intimate relationships.
If you have someone with bipolar disorder in your life, here are some tips to handle these often unpredictable and delicate relationships:
1. Encourage the bipolar sufferer to seek and continue professional help.
Bipolar disorder is highly treatable, typically with medication and psychotherapy. “The key to your partner’s successful management of the illness is a commitment to continuing treatment and ongoing communication with their psychiatrist. This can take place at therapy sessions, during regular checkups or whenever necessary to discuss troubling symptoms,” according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Offer to participate in a therapy session so that you can learn how best to support their treatment program.
2. Seek couples counseling.
Regular communication is a must, and many experts suggest partaking in couple’s therapy as a way of coping with the disorder together.
Dr. Payne says, “Couples counseling is essential for working through upset over a bipolar partner’s actions. It’s common for someone with bipolar disorder to hurt and offend their partner. When someone is first diagnosed, there are often relationship issues that need to be addressed. Couples counseling can help you understand that there’s an illness involved in the hurtful behavior, forgive the behavior that happened during an altered mood state, and set boundaries with a partner about maintaining treatment.
3. Practice self-care.
The challenges that may arise from a bipolar relationship can be overwhelming. Loving someone with a brain disorder takes a lot of patience and commitment, which means caring for your own wellness is crucial.
Without realizing it, you are now a caregiver for your loved one with bipolar disorder, which means you are at an increased risk of becoming depressed and having other health problems if you neglect yourself. That said, it’s extremely important to dedicate time, energy, and resources to your own mental and physical well-being. This means seeking the comfort of a support group, therapy, meditation or stress-relieving outlets like exercise or a favorite hobby.
4. Separate your loved one from the disorder.
Those that suffer from mental illness don’t want to be defined by their disorder, so in the case of your loved one, it’s important to remember what drew you to your partner in the first place.
Says an anonymous woman whose husband suffers from bipolar disorder, “You must be able to separate the mental illness from the person who is suffering from it. This is perhaps the biggest lesson that my relationship with my husband has taught me — the physical body is a slave to nerve endings and neurons and blood chemicals. The spirit, however, is completely separate. It is truly difficult to explain, but if you cannot fall in love with the spirit of a person through the noise of biology that a mental disorder creates, then you should immediately let that person go. The relationship will not go well for either of you.”
Challenges are a part of any intimate, loving relationship. Regardless of one’s bipolar disorder, with communication, compassion, and commitment to a treatment plan, it is possible to find love that is lasting, fulfilling, and healthy.