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.