4 Thoughts on Marriage, Long-Term Relationships, and Bipolar Disorder

Everyone needs love in their life. Like many mentally ill people, I have experienced a great deal of turmoil in all facets of my life, including romance. I’ve been engaged twice, but never married. I was diagnosed and started on my recovery path around the same time that my second engagement ended.

I distinctly remember her expressions of pained confusion as my mind melted down. At the time I was diagnosed, I decided to just stay single because I was tired of dragging people I loved through pain and misery with me. But, after three years working on recovery, I began to see that it was certainly possible to have a long-term, happy relationship as a mentally ill person. The problem is that a lot of the advice and information out there is aimed at a generic, lowest common denominator “typical” person.

The following thoughts are derived from my own recovery, as well as listening to the woes of several married couples where Bipolar Disorder is present. Your mileage may vary.

1. Accept that not everyone can handle mental illness.

You don’t have to look far to find articles about how people with mental illness need kindness, compassion, and understanding. That is true. However, it’s also true that not everyone has a thick enough skin to handle mental illness. It can be frightening, disturbing, and confusing. Not everyone can handle that, and that’s okay.

It is worthwhile to consider what kind of experience and opinions a potential partner holds about mental illness. Have they ever been emotionally close to a mentally ill person before? Do they accept it is a medical problem, an illness? What kind of challenges have they faced in their lives? Will this person fall to pieces if they are confronted with the worst your mental illness has to offer?

I find that there are a lot of people that want to be understanding and compassionate, but the extremes of mental illness are just so different and unsettling that they don’t understand how to be.

2. The traditional tropes of partnership don’t necessarily apply.

A traditional idea of marriage sees two people joining their life together in many ways to be partners in this life. I know it’s a heart-warming, romantic notion to many. In a relationship involving Bipolar Disorder or other mental illness, there has to be at least some degree of space between the partners.

I’ve heard the following scenario dozens of times.

Husband has Bipolar Disorder and is the primary source of income. Husband swings manic, cleans out the bank account, and bails on wife and children. Husband may be a fantastic guy when well and balanced, but for the next several months, he’s teetering on the edge of out of his mind while mania does what it does. Wife is forced to cajole, coerce, or literally beg husband to keep their family afloat and a roof over their heads, not always succeeding.

In my well, placid state of mind, I would never want that for my family. Any half-decent person with a conscience wouldn’t want that for their family. So, I would never want to fully intertwine my financials with a long-term partner, because who knows what I might think is a good idea when I’m out of my mind? Separate bank accounts, avoid cosigning for things if it can be avoided, maybe a mutual bank account for paying bills and rent at the most. Need to build or rebuild credit? Get yourself a Secured Credit Card instead of cosigning a debt.

Not everything needs to be meshed together. And in my opinion, it definitely shouldn’t be. Boundaries are necessary.

3. Patience. Take your time developing the relationship.

Personally, any time I start to feel too good, I just assume I’m escalating until I can confirm that I’m not. Hitting things off well with another person can certainly be a escalation trigger for Bipolar Disorder. In fact, the following scenario is the most common that people write to me about.

Person A meets Person B and there is immediate chemistry. Person B lives with Bipolar Disorder. The relationship takes off hot and heavy. They’re my soul-mate! It’s intense, it’s passionate, everything seems to be perfect for about three to six months. Then, things change. They change because Person B triggered into mania, the cycle runs its course, and they crash hard into depression. Person A is confused, they want the person they fell in love with back!

Well, that’s what they think they want. In reality, the person they fell in love with may not actually exist. Mania can be a distortion of the person with Bipolar Disorder. It can also create totally fictional feelings and beliefs, making it not real at all. So many people are looking for this romanticized notion of a soul-mate. They think they find it in manic Person B because mania isn’t anything like what they’ve known before, unless they’re actually familiar with Bipolar Disorder, in which case they would know that it’s not a good thing at all.

Patience is a virtue that everyone needs more of. Date for at least two years before making any major decisions like getting a place together. This is good for both parties. It prevents the person with Bipolar Disorder from acting on fictitious emotions they may not actually feel and it gives the partner a chance to see a wide sampling of the mood swings and how things can be.

If you meet a person and you’re flooded with all of these overwhelming feelings of perfection, love, beauty, and purity of passion; assume it’s mania until you can prove otherwise. A lack of doubt is a major warning flag for escalation.

4. Do not hide your mental illness to achieve a relationship.

People come and go in life. Living with mental illness, we often see a number of people go. Friends are nowhere to be found, relationships crumble when drastic unwellness hits. It can be tempting to want to hide this facet away from a potential partner, but that’s a mistake.

You can’t build a healthy, loving relationship on distrust and partial information. Healthy relationships aren’t built that way. Sooner or later the partner will find out, and they will be hurt and feel betrayed. You’ll be setting yourself up for failure from the start.

The matter of mental health does need some partnership to it. If you’re going to spend a large amount of time with a person, it would help both parties out if they could communicate and work together to overcome the inevitable hurdles that the mental illness will contribute. I’ve talked to both mentally ill people and their partners who think that it can just be the sole domain of the mentally ill person, that it can be kept from affecting the partner. That’s naive, wishful thinking at best.

When’s the best time to have that discussion? Earlyish. It doesn’t have to be immediately, but somewhere before love and serious relationship sets in. I prefer sooner so I don’t waste our time.

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13 Responses to 4 Thoughts on Marriage, Long-Term Relationships, and Bipolar Disorder

  1. Laura K. says:

    Thank you Dennis, for your wonderful writings!
    God Bless You this holiday season!
    Laura K.

  2. Millie W. says:

    You tackled bunch of serious relationship issues very well. I am the mother of a bipolar daughter whose relationship fell apart. She is intelligent but does not recognize her problem. Under these circumstances I don’t see how she can succeed in a relationship.

    • Dennis says:

      Thank you, Millie. Hopefully she figures it out sooner rather than later. Making a relationship work is hard enough as it is, trying to do it with a mental illness is much harder, if not impossible over the long run. Not with any happiness anyway.

  3. Da4810 says:

    Thank you so much for this sharing. My husband has bipolar disease and OCD. He is in this mid 20s and still having a hard time to accept his mental illness and get help. He mostly blames me and his family for his badly turned life and also facing DUI jail time next year. I still love him and don’t want to leave him but last over 3 years has been quite a roller coaster for us. How can I get him help? He has been through mental hospital and still embarrassed about it and never got full recovery because he does not believe that mental illness exist. Now I am emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted and don’t know how to talk to him, or trust him and be with him. My torture is that I want to be with him but scared and traumatized from his sudden mood swings and never happy or satisfied with anything.
    Anything will help
    In Deep Breathe and Merry Christmas!
    All I want for this Christmas is a Miracle Healing for my husband to be in a complete health in all forms, be at peace, and free from suffering and be Happy no matter what.

    • Dennis says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Please note, since you used a distinctive name and I have no idea if it’s your real name or not, I went ahead and edited it so search engines wouldn’t associate your post with it, in case someone Google’s you in the future.

      The situation you’re describing is unfortunate. The problem is that you can’t help someone that doesn’t want to help themselves. That’s just the way it is. Until he accepts that mental illness is a problem and that he can be affected by it too, he’s going to be riding that rollercoaster. That could take years, decades, or might not ever occur.

      So, regardless of how much you love him, you MUST take care of your own mental and emotional health, even if that means walking away from an abusive relationship. There really are no good answers for that kind of situation.

      And Merry Christmas to you, too. I hope your husband finds some peace soon.

  4. Krissy L. says:

    You express yourself so well – having had a relationship with a bi-polar guy, I most certainly had empathy with the emotions and course of relationship development you describe. I hope you are feeling well right now, and enjoy the Christmas period in whatever way you celebrate it. Thankyou.

    • Dennis says:

      I’m doing well! Thank you very much, Krissy. I hope the holidays find you well, as well.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  5. Ayissa says:

    I’m a mental health/substance abuse professional with Bipolar disorder & find comfort in your posts. I’m in my late twenties and at first I did not want to admit that something was wrong with my mood because I saw the same symptoms in previous clients. Mental illness & substance abuse runs in my family, so the last thing I wanted was the same to control me. Well I went through some traumatic things as most of us do at some part of our lives. I know the trauma triggered my mental health issues…anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder. It all fell like a ton of bricks.
    I know mental illness is still stigmatized & at this moment I take comfort in teaching clients & families that it shouldn’t be this way. At the moment I work for a substance abuse facility that doesn’t exactly deal with dual diagnosed clients; but a majority of them have mental health issues as statistics show. It’s difficult for me not to empathize with them because I go through the same thing day in & day out sometimes unwilling to get out of bed to show up to work. Bipolar disorder is real & I often feel like many don’t have an outlet. This blog helps me more than you know, I’m constantly forwarding blogs to close family & friends that are trying to understand it for themselves. My significant other also finds comfort in knowing he isn’t still around in vain…or that’s how I see it sometimes, he’s be drug around for over a year learning my moods & cycles. The one thing I’ll never forget him saying is… I’ve fallen in love with all your moods & all of you. Ughhh…relationships and love are possible even with mental health issues if you have a partner that is understanding and willing to educate themselves. Thanks for your posts they help tremendously!

    • Dennis says:

      Hello, Ayissa. Thanks for taking the time to comment and for the kind words about my work and efforts! I appreciate it.

      There is one point I can give you on relationships that you may find helpful, since you know and accept that you have mental health issues that screw with your emotions and perceptions. Let your significant other make the decision for themselves. The Depression and Bipolar Disorder can try to convince you that you’d be doing the other person a favor by breaking up, but honestly that doesn’t need to be a choice for you to make. That way when those thoughts creep in, you can just tell yourself, “No, I’m letting my partner make that decision for themselves. They know what they can deal with.”

      I can relate to your partner’s sentiment of falling in love with all of you though. I’ve loved a couple different severely mentally ill women even before I was diagnosed. The way I perceived it is that “everyone has problems of some type, this is just a different type of problem.” And some people are better than others at handling mental illness.

      Be sure he understands to not take it personally if he can’t make you “happy” in a traditional way. I find a lot of supporters think they are somehow failing if they can’t make their partner what they view as traditionally happy. That’s a pretty tall order through Bipolar Disorder and depression.

      and thank you for all the work you’re doing to help the mentally ill and their families. Just do the best you can, take things one day at a time, and be sure to take good care of yourself, too!

  6. Deborah says:

    Hi. I stumbled across this site and then blog while looking gor articles to help me understand my boyfriends condition. The last five years have been a roller coaster and he has broken up with me twice. He at a low point now that has lasted since October. He does take all meds and follows the doctors guidance. My question is a simple one and would mean the world to a person who loves someone with bipolar depression. He says he can’t love anything right. Please tell me…..how do I know if he just doesn t love me and we should end this or if he really wants me to stay around? Is it the episode that has stopped his feelings or should I just leave? Please advise.

    • Dennis says:

      It’s really not possible to know without actually knowing what is going on in his mind at the moment. However, it’s not unreasonable to think it’s the depression if he happens to be in a depressive cycle right now. Severe depression severely hinders a person’s ability to feel emotions. You don’t mention directly if he has broken up with you right now or not. If he hasn’t, I would hold off on making any major decisions about the relationship until he cycles out of it. Do encourage him to talk to his doctor about his severe depression if he hasn’t already. If it’s been ongoing since Oct, he may need a medication adjustment.

  7. Marianne says:

    I am in the middle of a separation right now, initiated by me. My SO actually has BPD, which has many overlapping points with bipolar disorder, but it isn’t the same thing. He is not pursuing treatment in a significant way, instead he uses his self-sabotaging behavior as some sort of drug. The hit will make him happy for a while, then guilt and pain ensue, and he starts the cycle again.

    I wish he could help himself, but as you always remind your readers here, it’s something they have to do for themselves. It’s absolutely heartbreaking that help needs to be given at arm’s length, as emotional involvement will cost. And sometimes we simply cannot pay that bill.

    Thank you for all your work here, Dennis – you deserve to be stable and happy.

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