In recognition of World Bipolar Day, this blog aims to bring awareness to how bipolar disorder impacts romantic relationships, both for the person living with bipolar disorder as well as their partner.
This blog will help people who are in a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder better understand what the disorder is by dispelling some of the common misconceptions that are out there. In addition, this will bring awareness to how bipolar disorder can affect relationships. Lastly, this blog addresses ways for people living with bipolar disorder to disclose their diagnosis to people they are dating.
What is Bipolar Disorder vs Myths?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, my partner and I watched the show, Homeland, which depicts the life of a CIA agent who is living with bipolar disorder. While we were watching, my partner and I discussed bipolar disorder and she mentioned that she misunderstood what bipolar disorder was before watching the show.
She was embarrassed to admit that she thought people with bipolar disorder were “crazy” and simply had mood swings all the time. However, in the show, she realized that people with bipolar disorder are not “crazy,” and can be high-functioning adults. She also learned what the highs of a manic episode and the lows of a depressive episode looked like based on the show’s depiction of the disorder.
My partner is not alone in having misconceptions about bipolar disorder. I cannot tell you how many clients that I’ve heard say they think their partner is bipolar because they change their mind all the time, are crazy, or always have mood episodes. So, it is important for people dating with bipolar disorder to understand what is fact versus myth.
One of the biggest myths is that if someone has daily mood swings, then they have bipolar disorder. However, in reality, the highs and lows occur over an extended period of time.
Bipolar 1 disorder requires someone to experience a manic episode for at least a week, followed by a major depressive episode over the course of two weeks. The DSM-5 characterizes a manic episode as “a distinct period of abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood and abnormally and persistently increased goal-directed activity or energy, lasting at least 1 week and present most of the day, nearly every day.”
During a manic episode, people function with minimal sleep and display erratic and impulsive behavior that can have significant consequences in some cases. This manifests in shopping sprees, dicey business investments, or increased sexual activity with multiple partners. People also experience racing thoughts and may begin multiple large projects or engage in activities that seem odd or hazardous.
An example might look like someone spontaneously dropping out of college to invest all their money in a start-up business and cryptocurrency, or going on a spur-of-the-moment cross-country road trip. The risky behaviors also can lead to serious consequences, such as loss of employment, legal issues, strained relationships, and in severe cases involuntary hospitalization.
After the manic episode occurs, then someone with bipolar disorder experiences a major depressive episode, which manifests the same ways it would for some diagnosed with major depressive disorder. People may experience a loss of interest in daily activities, changes in appetite and sleep, depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and in some cases suicidal ideation.
Bipolar 2 disorder differs from bipolar 1 disorder in those people with bipolar 2 disorder experience a hypomanic episode. This lasts a shorter period of time than a manic episode and does not impair functioning to the same extent as a manic episode.
The other myth that people with bipolar disorder are “crazy” is simply not true. Calling people crazy is meaningless and hurtful because it contributes to the stigma surrounding mental illness but does nothing to help better understand the situation. While the effects of a manic and depressive episode can have severe consequences, many successful people are living with bipolar disorder. If people with bipolar disorder receive medication in conjunction with therapy, as well as develop healthy routines, then they can live healthy and productive lives.
How Does Bipolar Disorder Impact Relationships?
Living with bipolar disorder, especially when it is untreated, presents unique challenges when it comes to dating and relationships. People with bipolar disorder have higher rates of divorce than the national average in the US.
The partners of people with bipolar disorder can experience emotional distress from the sudden changes or erratic behavior that occurs during a manic episode. Additionally, during a manic episode, people living with bipolar disorder may engage in unsafe behaviors that have consequences that impact their entire family. These may be related to more tangible issues, such as financial losses or legal issues, as well as emotional costs, such as loss of trust.
Similarly, some partners may experience anxiety related to worry that their partner will experience a manic or depressive episode in the future and what the consequences of that might be.
One way to ensure a healthy relationship with a bipolar partner is for everyone involved to become better educated about it. Working with a psychiatrist for medication management in conjunction with seeing a therapist and family support is the most effective approach to treatment. While relapse happens even with people who receive treatment, bipolar disorder can be managed through this multifaceted approach.
Maintaining a healthy relationship also requires that the partners of people with bipolar disorder seek their own care as they may experience increased stress that can lead to burnout or even depression.
Support groups are an extremely helpful resource for the partners of people living with bipolar disorder. NAMI Chicago offers peer support groups for the loved ones of people living with a mental health condition as well as free educational classes to learn more about mental illness. Similarly, some agencies and practices offer therapeutic groups for the loved ones of people with bipolar disorder led by a licensed therapist.
In addition, individual therapy can be a helpful outlet for people to process their emotions, learn ways to set healthy boundaries, and practice self-care. Lastly, couples therapy is another option for people with bipolar disorder and their partners to improve boundaries and communication as well as for couples to come strategies to sustain the relationship.
How and When to Disclose Bipolar Disorder in a Relationship
For people living with bipolar disorder, it is challenging to decide when is the appropriate time to disclose their diagnosis to someone they are dating. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of misinformation and stigma related to bipolar disorder. Therefore, some people living with bipolar disorder worry that potential romantic partners may be scared off when they tell them they have bipolar disorder.
When I talk to my clients with bipolar disorder or any other mental health diagnosis, I do not suggest telling people they are dating about their diagnosis right off the bat. The reason is that they need to decide if they like the individual first and want to invest their time and effort in a deeper relationship.
I also process with my clients how to disclose this information to people they are dating and even role-play this conversation with them. This can help lessen the anxiety as well as help them create a plan on how they want to address this with their partners. They may even have their partner sit in on a session with their therapist so that they can have a better understanding of what to expect.
While living with bipolar disorder can create unique challenges, it is possible to have healthy and fulfilling romantic relationships when treated and managed with medication, therapy, healthy routines, and a solid support system.
Written By: Sam Donham, LCPC, MEd, NCC
At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff who specialize in therapy and psychiatry services. To learn more about how we can support your mental health, call Clarity Clinic at (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.