While no marriage is easy—as evidenced by the 50% failure rate in United States—challenges stack up when a mental health condition is added to the mix. The prospect of dealing with a lifelong, life-threatening condition can be overwhelming.
The diagnosis of bipolar disorder, for example, can test even the strongest of foundations. The unpredictable symptoms and behaviors of a person experiencing bipolar disorder can shake up a relationship and may scare even the most supportive partner. These symptoms can include:
- increased physical and mental activity
- exaggerated optimism and self-confidence
- excessive irritability, aggressive behavior
- decreased need for sleep
- rapid speech, thought
- increased sexual behavior and spending
- prolonged sadness
- changes in appetite and sleep
- irritability, anger, worry
- pessimism, loss of energy
- feelings of guilt and worthlessness
- recurring thoughts of suicide and death
Not surprisingly, communication is essential to supporting your partner and your union. In her marriage, Elizabeth of British Columbia makes a point to talk to her husband about her symptoms at least once a week. “Regular communication is really important,” she stresses. “We talk about what I’m feeling and things that he notices about me.” Experience helps too. You will come to realize the signs of stress, the signals to triggers and when to offer a hug or give space.
Couple’s therapy can be an effective way to develop strategies for coping with the disorder together, says David Miklowitz, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The counseling should help the couple solve problems that arise around the symptoms of bipolar disorder, and learn to communicate effectively about them,” he says.
Further, couples that view bipolar as a brain-based disorder and their partnership as “equal” seem to have the most success. Focusing on shared goals and your commitment to each other helps make your partnership work, and the more both partners know about symptoms, treatments and coping strategies, the more hope there is for recovery and the relationship.
A New Reality
As the loving partner of someone experiencing bipolar disorder, your life will take on a new “normal”—which could possibly consist of taking on increased daily responsibilities. Laurie of San Antonio, Texas remembers the exhaustion of caring for her husband and longing for the day when “someone would take care of me instead of the other way around.” The loss of a life imagined takes time and acceptance.
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.”
Caring for your own wellness is key. While it can be difficult to master, self-care is essential if you love someone with a brain disorder. Research shows that as a caregiver, you are at increased risk of becoming depressed and having other health problems if you neglect yourself. This means you must make time to restore your energy, reduce stress and deal with feelings like guilt and anger.
“Bipolar is manageable, but it takes work. All loving relationships take work and being with someone [who lives with] bipolar is no different,” adds Glo, from bphope.com. “You still need to take care of yourself. Find a good therapist or support group that will take care of your needs. That is the first step at helping your partner.”
Joanne M. Doan is the publisher of bp Magazine and esperanza Magazine, both groundbreaking publications dedicated to those living with bipolar, anxiety and depression. In 2016 she received the Folio: Top Women in Media Award in the Entrepreneurs category for meeting the challenges of growing a pioneering publication for this readership.