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A good visualization of the different levels of bipolar disorder (BP) from Sketchy Medicine.

It’s Week 4 of our exploration into mental illness and its impact on dating and relationships! We’ve covered anxiety, social anxiety, and depression so far. Today, let’s talk about bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression) is classified as a mood disorder, like depression is. However, unlike those with depression, who experience episodes of unexplained lows, those with bipolar experience episodes of unexplained lows along with episodes of unexplained highs that go beyond your run-of-the-mill good day.

The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) offers up a good overview of what bipolar disorder and what its symptoms are. The depressive episode may involve the usual depression symptoms:

  • Feel very sad, down, empty, or hopeless
  • Have very little energy
  • Have decreased activity levels
  • Have trouble sleeping, they may sleep too little or too much
  • Feel like they can’t enjoy anything
  • Feel worried and empty
  • Have trouble concentrating
  • Forget things a lot
  • Eat too much or too little
  • Feel tired or “slowed down”
  • Think about death or suicide

Those experience a manic episode, however, may:

  • Feel very “up,” “high,” or elated
  • Have a lot of energy
  • Have increased activity levels
  • Feel “jumpy” or “wired”
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Become more active than usual
  • Talk really fast about a lot of different things
  • Be agitated, irritable, or “touchy”
  • Feel like their thoughts are going very fast
  • Think they can do a lot of things at once
  • Do risky things, like spend a lot of money or have reckless sex

 

Bipolar disorder has gotten more press over the last several years due to numerous celebrities admitting to having the disorder. More and more movies and television shows feature characters with the disorder (one of the better ones is Showtime’s Homeland). A lot of actors seem to have bipolar disorder, which makes you wonder if there’s some connection between the emotional struggles those with bipolar face and the emotional “presence” you need to really act well.

In my personal experience, people with bipolar disorder have a different “feel” than those with unipolar depression. They tend to be more energetic and more “intense.” The few I’ve known personally have been difficult to be around, to the point where I didn’t want to be around them. I never quite knew how much of that was the disorder and how much was, to be blunt, the person just being an asshole. That question got mostly answered when I met Troy, a friend of mine who has bipolar but whom I really enjoy being around. Yes, he has his bad days and they scare me a little, but we’re still friends after many years. What makes him different? He’s diligent about taking his medication, he was raised by strict parents who didn’t tolerate shit behavior in any of their children, and he works hard to be a good person. He succeeds, too. He’s amazing, actually, but there are days when he has to work hard at that. My point here is that while untreated bipolar disorder (like any untreated disorder that impacts mood) can contribute to asshole behavior, it doesn’t “cause” it.

This is an important point and it comes up a lot in relationships. When people act like jerks, we tend to explain it two different ways: they’re assholes who they choose to act that way, or they have X disorder and it’s the disorder’s fault. These are oversimplified (and inaccurate) explanations. Jerky behavior is a choice, but having a disorder (especially if it’s untreated or the person doesn’t even know they have it) can make it easier to make that choice. Think about your own bad moods and how hard you have to work to bite your tongue. You bite it, yes, because it’s the right thing to do. The person with a mood disorder has to work a lot harder to do that. (But yes, they should still do it.)

 

Bipolar Disorder and Relationships

Which brings me to bipolar disorder and relationships. Having a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder isn’t easy. Those with the disorder can be unpredictable, they can suffer ups and downs in mood that are hard to navigate, and they can engage in behaviors that make a relationship difficult (e.g. strange moods, excessive spending, sexual unpredictability, etc). At the same time, it isn’t easy for the person with bipolar to be in a relationship either. They have their own battle to fight every day, much less face the needs and demands of their partner, especially when their partner can’t fully relate. For these reasons, those with the disorder may experience multiple marriages and divorces.

Does this mean having a relationships with someone with bipolar disorder is impossible? Not at all. Like with the other disorders I’ve talked about, treatment is key. This is probably truer for bipolar than it is for the others. Bipolar is a rarer but more severe disorder with a strong biological component. Those who have it can destroy their lives and relationships if they don’t get treatment. Medication is almost a requirement for managing this disorder, unless you have a mild strain of it (like any disorder, bipolar can vary from mild to severe). The depressive episodes can make it tough to get out of bed or even want to live; the manic episodes can generate destructive behaviors (e.g. sexual risk-taking, excessive spending). These struggles are difficult enough for the person with bipolar to bear, much less a partner who bears witness to it all and has little control over any of it.

I once dated a divorced man whose ex-wife was, well, a bitch. She harassed him about dating me and called me a “fucking slut” (to him, not to me). She used their sons to distract him outside while she came into his home and took a picture of me. He told me she used to spend a LOT on clothes, and that one time she bought four jackets, the same style jacket in four different colors. She also cheated on him, multiple times. He was the nicest, kindest, and most stable guy I know. Looking back, I would bet she had untreated bipolar disorder and her mania contributed to those behaviors. However, keep in mind that this is only one example from my past and isn’t meant to suggest all those with bipolar are like her. This woman had a lot of other issues, and her bipolar (assuming she had it) only exacerbated them.

The rules for managing relationships where bipolar disorder is a factor are the same as for the other disorders, but more so. If you have bipolar disorder or show these symptoms, you need to get treated, period. Your life and your relationships will suffer until you do. Take care of yourself first, and then see how great a relationship can be. When you get into a relationship, try to choose a stable, understanding partner who knows about bipolar or is willing to learn that it’s much more than being “moody” or “difficult.”

If you love someone with bipolar disorder, try to remember that they’re dealing with something serious, something there’s no cure for. Their bad days aren’t about you, even if they’re aimed at you. Urge them to get and/or stick with the treatment. It’s their responsibility to do so, assuming they want to be in a healthy relationship. Don’t tolerate shit behavior and blame it on bipolar (see above). At the same time, it’s important to be patient with the treatment process. It can take a long time for someone with bipolar disorder to accept what they have and see the impact it has on others. It can take a long time to find the right medication and dosage. There will be good and bad days. The important part isn’t that things are peachy all the time, but that your partner is making an effort to manage their disorder.

So, tell us: what are your experiences with bipolar disorder? How has it affected your relationships?

Resources

Christie’s Books

Mental Health archive