Preventing Catastrophic Damage In A Bipolar Relationship

I am regularly asked about a particular situation that involves the perspective and decision making of a Bipolar person. In this situation, the Bipolar person appears to be doing reasonably well, but they eventually swing into mania or depression. If they swing into mania, they can do a number of different things that are damaging to the relationship. If they swing into depression, they may feel they have no emotions at all for their partner or they are not worth loving.

I find this situation comes most often from people who are diagnosed but do not understand the Disorder, the undiagnosed who clearly need to speak to a doctor about what they experience, and older folks (40+) who are used to making decisions a certain way. That statement being based on the one or two emails a week I get asking about some variation of this situation. Your mileage may vary.

So let me address the common points.

1. Does my Bipolar loved one love me?
Supporter: The closest point a Bipolar person comes to their true emotions is when they are at a point of stability. Chances are pretty good you can identify the ups and the downs even if you don’t know how to put a name on it. There are likely to be other times of relative peace and harmony. Those are the periods you want to use to gauge their true emotions. Some civil strife is normal in relationships. The over-the-top and abnormal are what indicate unwell periods. During those periods the Disorder is lying to your loved one and warping their perception.

Bipolar: You MUST learn that you cannot trust your brain while you are unwell. You MUST learn to hear your loved ones and trust them when you are unwell. If you learn to identify when you are in an unwell cycle, you can stop yourself from making important decisions. An example. “I was fine last week, I feel miserable and numb now. I feel nothing for my wife; so it must be her fault.” Feeling numb and apathetic are depressive symptoms. It has nothing to do with the wife and everything to do with the fact that YOU HAVE A MOOD DISORDER.

And I hear you asking- “But Dennis, what if I really don’t love my wife anymore?” This is where you have to start realizing that what you experience while you are unstable is not real emotion. It absolutely feels real but it’s manufactured by the Disorder. That is why I beat the drum so loud to not make life-altering decisions while you’re in an unwell cycle; or if you have to, involve people you trust to help you figure things out.

What do you do? You call your doctor and tell them what’s going on. You do NOT make major decisions while you are in an unwell cycle. If the loved one is the actual problem, you’ll still feel that way when you come out of the cycle. If your relationship was loving and good while you were balanced, your moods and emotions should return to that baseline after the unwell cycle.

2. You cannot take a Bipolar person’s words at face value during an unwell cycle.
Supporter: Learn your Bipolar loved one’s unwell symptoms so you can identify when they are getting sick. Once you are able to do so, you must then learn to let their unwell words slide off of your shoulders. That does NOT mean you should put up with abusive or destructive behavior. It does mean accepting that the person is probably going to make bad, foolish decisions they normally would not make while they are balanced and well. Accepting that and not being emotionally invested in their unwell decisions will save you a lot of stress.

Bipolar: Use your loved one as a filter. They spend more time with you than anyone. They likely know your moods and mentality better than you do because they are a third party whose perspective is not skewed by the Disorder. If you’re unwell, run your thoughts and ideas through people that you can trust to see whether it is actually a good idea or if it’s the Disorder fucking with you. Don’t embrace and act on your thoughts while you are unwell. Talk about them and get outside perspectives on them. If you can’t do it with family, look into local or online support groups that provide a safe place to communicate. Outside perspective is invaluable.

3. Ending the cycles of destruction.
Apologies, loved ones; but I have to finish this piece with the mentally ill because this is on us.

Each of us is engaged in a personal war- and that’s not a metaphor. What else do you call an entity that deprives you of happiness, well-being, stability, and peace of mind? What else do you call an entity that strips you of relationships, careers, and friendships? You call it an enemy as only an enemy would do that to you. So you have to fight it like an enemy until you’re standing with your foot on its throat.

Look at everything you’ve lost to it in your life! Your life story is your own road, but our roads run parallel. And I’m 100% sure your road is just as littered with the burnt out husks of what used to be your hopes and dreams as mine is.

You want to beat this shit? You have to learn to stop following the decision making processes that have been fucking you since you started cycling. It doesn’t matter if you’re 20 or 50. I don’t give a shit if you feel “too old to change”. Better to continue on the cycle of destruction and being perpetually fucked?

No. You’re strong and resilient enough to have made it this far in life with mental illness. You are definitely strong and resilient enough to face some changes that will ONLY benefit you.

Take control. Educate yourself. Work on communication with the people you trust. Identify your depressive and manic symptoms so you and your loved ones can spot your unwell cycles with ease. Once you do- stop making life-altering decisions during an unwell cycle!

You can do it.


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16 Responses to Preventing Catastrophic Damage In A Bipolar Relationship

  1. Christy Staufenbeil says:

    I would like to learn more!

  2. franiel32 says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve been trying to get into a relationship with a guy who has started and stopped our relationship 5-8 times in 2 years. He told me he had Bipolar, but I was unaware of why it really meant to BE Bipolar until recently. At first I thought he was just being flaky, but after the last few breakup/reunions, I’ve started taking the effects of seriously. I’m not sure if our relationship will survive, but with information like yours it just might.

    • Dennis says:

      Is he seeking any kind of help? I don’t think I would focus too heavily on getting anything serious going due to his starting and stopping; that indicates he is unstable which will impact you in a more drastic way depending on how intertwined the two of you are.

      And if you two do move forward with things? Keep your finances separate and don’t co-sign for shit. I cannot stress that enough. You do not want to get wiped out because of a manic cycle- which happens a lot.

  3. Marianne says:

    Dennis, how do you let someone know they are escalating into hypomania without risking damaging trust and your relationship? Because hypomaniacs seem to think they’ve got it all under control when going through it, you probably sound like a nag when you point out they are behaving in odd and hurtful ways. I know my loved one listens to me to a certain point, but the feeling of being invincible and on top of his shit gets the better of him.
    He ends up giving more attention to people he only knows superficially, and I can’t help but think he does it precisely because they don’t know him well enough yet to start avoiding him once they can’t deal with his moods and personality. He then runs the risk of perpetuating the cycle of temporary and shallow friendships that do more than damage than good.
    I can sense that he’s going to crash soon and I don’t know how to help cushion it, since I don’t think preventing it is really possible.
    Thanks for your posts, please keep them coming!

    • Dennis says:

      Hello, Marianne. There is always risk in every action you take. An unwell mind can take any event and warp it to fit whatever perspective it wants. Thus you want to aim for truth and reality as much as possible. That’s what you can point back to when they finally balance off. “I’ve been straight and honest with you… here are the examples.”

      The best thing you can do is point out the physical symptoms the person has that they associate with their unwell cycles. For me? No sleep and not tired is a sign 9 out of 10 times. Just say pointedly and directly, “I think you’re getting hypomanic, here’s why…” and list off your reasons. The person may get angry or upset; so you want to be sure you’re in a good enough place mentally where you can stay calm. If they are getting hypomanic then their reactions will probably be irrational.

      Once he crashes and starts to level off again, encourage him to talk to a doctor about this under control. I know you’d like to be able to cushion the blow but the only person that can really do that is the Bipolar person themselves by being proactive in their management and treatment. A better goal for you would be to do what you need to do to minimize the potential damage that he can do to you and the relationship in general.

      Point out maybe once a day that you think he’s getting unwell for the reasons you stated. And don’t argue about it. Let him say whatever he’s going to say and let it go. You’re planting seeds that can germinate in his mind. While laying awake at 3 in the morning he may realize “Well fuck, I am hypomanic.”

      • Marianne says:

        Thank you, Dennis. Instinctively that is what I had already been doing: saying as calmly and gently as I can that perhaps doing this or acting like that is not such a great idea. And instead of confrontation and calling it hypomania, I go for “you need to relax and calm down, there’s a lot going on etc”. It still annoys him a bit (“killjoy!”) but I can see that a few days later he takes some of my advice. So at this point I am just hoping I will be able to help him manage this cycle so it doesn’t get out of control. At the same time, I guess you’re right about trying to limit damage to our relationship. I have opted to take a step back while he is this way, though he knows I am here for him.
        I was reading this and some of it pretty much describes what I see in front of me.
        The problem with mania is that at first it doesn’t look like a problem at all. People gravitate towards the hypomanic and they are the life of the party until they escalate into an agitated, obsessive and narcissistic state and the party starts dissolving around them. Thanks for listening, Dennis! Your words are always appreciated.

        • Dennis says:

          The problem with mania feeling good is why I often stay away from those good feelings as an indicator with dealing with people. I stick to physical pointers. Are you not sleeping but still energetic? Is your mind and thoughts racing? What about all these poor decisions you’ve been making lately? That way I feel that I minimize the chance for that person to latch onto the “good” feelings that come with mania. And if they point out it’s not a problem, “Yeah, not now. What about in 3 or 4 weeks?” and attempt to ground their thoughts back into reality. The longer a manic cycle can go the stronger it will get. So getting them to realize it early on is the best way to shorten it or hopefully get them to do something about it before it becomes too strong for them to overcome.

  4. Marie says:

    Hi Dennis

    I have come to your website after ‘googling’ unstable and unwell. My friend has used those words to describe himself on a few occasions. He also refers to it as his ‘instability’ and that he only lets himself out of the house when he feels well or at least able to pretend that he is well.

    Does this sound like undiagnosed bipolar?

    We were in an on/off relationship for over a year and I called it off as I found his behaviour so very confusing and downright exhausting. One minute he’d be making plans to catch up, go on holiday, buying me expensive wine etc, we’d go out and have so much fun, then next minute he’d be ignoring my texts and not calling me for days, weeks even. I do know he drinks a lot but he always refers to it as his ‘instability’.

    Can moodswings occur that quickly. I am talking with in a day sometimes. One day he’s just great the next he ignores me and disappears for a couple of weeks.

    It’s hurt me time and time again and to be honest I’m burnt out and completely lost as to where to next. I can see he needs help, I am just not sure I’m the one to give it. I know he has to want to help himself and if it is bipolar how can I possibly suggest it to him?

    Thank you for your time, I appreciate it.


    • Dennis says:

      Hello, Marie.

      I suggest looking up some literature that talks about the general symptoms for the Disorder or encourage him to talk to a professional. The fact that he’s self-aware enough to know that there are times when he should avoid being around other people is actually a good thing. It means he identifies there is something potentially abnormal about his behavior. Reinforce that his life doesn’t have to be the chaotic mess that it seems to often be if he were to seek help. It may be something that can be controlled and allow him to function in a more typical way that won’t undermine his stability, personality, and relationships.

      When I went for my diagnosis, I wrote a 15 page dissertation on all of the shit I could recall from my life that had fucked me over due to my own thought processes and actions resulting from. Encourage him to do the same, talk to his general practitioner first, and see if his doctor recommends seeing a mental health professional.

      Subtlety sucks for dealing with the mentally ill. Just say what’s on your mind, point out a clear path, and the potential good that can come from it. Hopefully he will be inclined to listen and pursue it.

      • Marie says:

        Thank you Dennis, your advice is much appreciated. I have since read a lot on your website and blog. You write so well! I am really grateful to find so much information from someone who has been through all you have and so willing to help complete strangers. I do hope I am able to help my friend reach a level of stability that he can be happy with. Thank you so much again.

        • Dennis says:

          You’re very welcome, Marie and thank you for the kind words. I hope your friend finds clarity and some peace of mind with what they deal with.

  5. Nancy says:

    Hi Dennis!

    I’m re-reading these blogs of yours as I need constant reminders that my loved one needs compassion and understanding from me about this illness. At the same time I too need to remember to be compassionate with myself. When you say that we need to let thing he says while unwell ‘roll off ‘ that too is something I need constant reminder of..
    Because lately it’s been very hard. I love this man, and I’m also getting very tired of the cycles. How do I love but put my love on hold when he’s unwell?’s impossible to do…I still love but don’t feel loved until he’s well again..or is it just hypo mania masquerading as ‘well’. I hate this illness…but I love him. I feel trapped at times…dont want to stay but dont want to go…sometimes not knowing what to do…other times just really sad. Then I pick myself up and remember again how hard it must be for you all too..

    I did start a communications course for families and friends whom have loved ones with mood disorders (primarily Borderline..but in my opinion it can and does help anyone)…it’s extremely helpful!…It’s that one I showed you called the Tara Method. its founder Valerie Porr is a gem and the most tireless and compassionate advocate for patient (and their families) it’s in NY and focuses on how to communicate with skill and compassion…I highly recommend it.

    Anyway…I guess I’m just thanks for listening


    • Dennis says:

      It’s hard to let things roll off, Nancy. Not everyone is as equally equipped to be able to handle that kind of emotional turmoil. And by all means, do not gloss over abusive behavior. Compassion is good to a certain point. But like everything in life; there are limits to how far we should all go on these points.

      It’s not an easy situation to deal with. Swallowing one’s own moods and emotions to try and navigate another’s is incredibly shitty, I know. Hopefully they will get it figured out before you get to the point where you can’t do it anymore. Everyone has their limits.

      I do recall you telling me about the Tara Method and did look briefly at it when we talked before. Can’t say I remember any specifics. But! There’s certainly nothing wrong with expanding one’s understanding and knowledge. If it helps you out, regardless of what is geared to, then it’s worthwhile. Glad you’re finding some success with it.

      Take care of yourself, Nancy!

  6. LSN183918 says:

    One of the more interesting things about having a loved one with bipolar type 2 is it has shed a light on how unhealthy I can be relationship wise. I’m someone who has to be right, I will let things build up before addressing them, I can be emotionally manipulative, etc.

    When hypomania hits and he does something hurtful, I have a part of me that needs my hurt recognized RIGHT THEN. It makes everything worse and not wanting to worsen his already bad state has made me examine my own behavior. I have my own issues, it’s not all him and it’s not all his bipolar.

    I need articles like this because I want to be that supporter… Honestly, I don’t want that monster in his mind to win. It doesn’t get to claim our relationship, it doesn’t get to claim his life, it WILL lose, we are that strong together. He deserves someone to stand with him and draw a line in the sand, reclaim his life and his mindl. I will learn to control my communication in order to avoid making a bad episode worse.

    Most articles I come across don’t give me an honest solution, a way to communicate effectively during a swing. It’s mostly what to look for (I don’t need that, I’ve learned what they look and sound like), I need a how, something practical to implement because even with meds, swings still happen and medication sometimes needs adjustment. I have to weather those storms and not be resentful when the guilt sets in.

    When I met him he was diagnosed not medicated and I had no idea what the diagnosis actually meant, I had a rather oh everybody is a little bipolar, lol mentality. I have stayed through medication being reintroduced, adjusted, adjusted more, added to, etc. It’s because he wants to be treated that I stayed with him after the first hypomanic/depressive ride. His even personality is amazing, I am truly blessed with who he is most of the time.

    You taught me to be a little better than I was before reading this and for that I am eternally grateful.

    Best wishes.

    • Dennis says:

      Note: I changed your display name because I didn’t know if you were using your real name or not. You don’t want Google associating your name with this kind of thing. Use an alias and vague details in public spaces, if you’re not already.

      It sounds like you’ve gained a great deal of your own self-awareness. That’s really great. Considering you’ve identified these problems in yourself, you really should considering visiting a therapist to work on addressing them and fixing them. A therapist is a great resource for this kind of work. Furthermore, they will also be able to help you navigate the situation with your boyfriend more.

      The reason that you’re not finding honest solutions in articles on the internet is because there are none that are universally applicable. Everyone is different. Advice that works for Person A may get you punched in the face by Person B. So it would be grossly negligent to put people like yourself, in trying circumstances, in a position where you may be harmed or make the situation worse. So, you’re probably not going to find many specific answers you’re looking for in articles on the internet.

      I can confirm this much for you: you’ll never win in anger fueled arguments with a mentally ill person. You just won’t. Anything you through at the situation will be twisted, bent, warped, and thrown right back at you. You may have already figured this out already on your own. Any progress you can make on keeping your cool in conflicts will undoubtedly help you, both in this relationship and in life.

      And yes, most people don’t realize how serious of a mental illness Bipolar Disorder is who don’t have it. And even quite a few that do have it.

      Do consider looking into a therapist. You may also want to ask a therapist about and look into books about deescalation. Deescalation encompasses techniques on how to read potentially hostile situations and defuse them through words, body language, and maintaining one’s own emotions. It may be the solution you’re looking for.

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