I want to hear from the (happy) partners of people with bipolar disorder.
August 7, 2009 9:53 AM   Subscribe

I have looked at several posts on bipolar disorder and have not found this exact question addressed. I would like to hear from people who are in good, functioning, long-term relationships with people who have bipolar disorder. I don’t want to hear from people who have been burned, or whose lives have been shattered, or whose partners were not being treated or medicated. I’ve read all of those stories and I’ve lived it myself. I’m familiar.

After a few years of incredible instability due to manic-depression, my ex-girlfriend is now taking medicine, attending a dialectical behavioral training (DBT) group, and has a therapist. She seems to be a lot more stable. We are considering resuming our relationship at some point in the future, after both of us have our lives a bit more squared away.

I want to know what I can expect, how I can do my part in making it work, what are the unanticipated difficulties, benefits, etc. of being in a long-term relationship with someone who is diagnosed bipolar and is in constant treatment for it.

Any thoughts or advice are much appreciated.
posted by kensington314 to Human Relations (9 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I do not have bipolar and I am not in a relationship with some one who is bipolar.

However, I do have a dear friend whose husband is bipolar and on medication. They have been married 18+ years and have three beautiful boys. What I have learned from her is that there will periods of stability - years even. And then there are times when the current medication(s) begin to not work so well and her husband tends to spiral down and rather quickly. They are both very vigilant to be on the look out for the first signs of a downward spiral and can intervene quickly with getting his medications reassessed. ALSO, during this time they drop EVERYTHING. All extracurriculars (like church assignments, visiting friends, etc.) are put on hold and they all focus on getting him better. It's a stressful time for the entire family - wife, husband, children - and that's why they tend to drop every unnecessary distraction - to add those extras into the mix is just too overwhelming.

My friend's husband is now coming out of one of these downward spirals - his medications are what they should be. I've been seeing more of my friend - she's not so worn out these days and is able to continue life. But for those few months when they were figuring things out - trying to get him well again, I hardly saw her. But I was aware of the situation and tried to help in little ways - bringing dinner when I could, or just dropping her an email, but staying out of her way while her family worked through this.

In short, there will be ups and there will be downs. There will be times when all your energy will be tied up in her ups and downs and that's all the both of you can do - just survive. And that's ok.

If I were you I'd read up and get discussions started about the signs of bipolar - so that you, too, can play a part in early intervention. If you're both looking out for the signs chances are you'll catch it before it get too bad.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:07 AM on August 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

i AM bipolar and am currently in a long-term relationship. i am on meds, etc, and am, for the most part, stable at this point. BUT i do have days. i still have mood swings. i have to work on myself, the way your ex is.

the thing about bipolar is there will always be manic times and depressed times, and sometimes mixed episodes. if she is stable and doing well, of course, these times will be few and far between, but you need to know they will still happen.

the best thing about my partner is that he knows this, and he accepts it. he doesn't expect me to be perfect, and he knows there may come a time when i relapse completely. when my meds cut out on me and i have to re-adjust.

at the same time, if i have a bad day, he is very careful not to blame it on the bipolar (which is one of the most obnoxious things you can do to someone who is bipolar -- blaming EVERYTHING on the disease). instead, he just says "lisp, you are having a bad day. everybody has bad days. everybody breaks down. you are just being normal." i can't tell you what an effect that has had on me, in getting outside of my head.

he also knows what to look for in me though, the warning signs. AND he makes it safe for me to come to him and say "i am feeling kind of dangerous right now" -- having that safety net has been huge for me, because a big part of my problems stem from NOT having a safety net and being unsure if i can be one for myself.

there is SO much to be said on this subject -- feel free to email me here if you want to talk about it.

that said, good luck!
posted by unlucky.lisp at 10:28 AM on August 7, 2009 [4 favorites]

I don't have Bi-Polar. I do have a loved one who has successfully managed his Bi-Polar through medication and as needed therapy. I am a social worker with experience in Wellness Recovery Programs, Case Management for people with serious mental illness, and with Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

Here's a link to a Wellness Recovery Workbook.

With some google-fu you should be able to find others that might fit the specifics of your friend's needs better. If you do get back together, I would suggest that she discuss the use of Wellness Recovery strategies with her therapist. If she commits to and completes a Wellness Recovery workbook, she may choose to share it with you. This can help you and she work together to identify triggers, signs, and symptoms of relapse or cycling (mania or depression). The cool thing about Wellness Recovery is that the individual is able to document what she might want a loved to do or say in order to help in the event of illness or relapse. It's kind of like a contract with herself for how to prevent illness and stay on a path of recovery.

I wish your friend lots of luck. Recovery from mental illness is a long and difficult but rewarding road to take. DBT is a pretty rigourous therapy route and it can be so incredibly beneficial. My experience is that most people do not fully commit to DBT the first time around and require a second (or multiple) forays into it before they really start to incorporate the skills into thier daily life.

As for my advice for you. Decide what your boundaries are before you recommit to a relationship. You might want to read Stop Walking on Eggshells. Its intended to help people whose loved ones are diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder but the strategies it teaches are useful for dealing with a loved one with Bi-Polar, too. I think if you just leaf through the book, you'll find lots of coorelations, communication strategies and boundary setting guidelines that will help immensely. Keep in mind the book's intent, though and don't be tempted to diagnose your friend as Borderline. Bi-Polar disorder can look alot like a Borderline Personality Disorder, but they are definitely NOT the same thing.

Also, get thyself to a therapist. If you recommit to a relationship with someone with a serious mental illness, you will need a third party with whom to process. She (your friend) will be pretty darn wrapped up in her own process and she'll (at first) not fully be able to commit to your needs in regards to her recovery.
posted by dchrssyr at 10:48 AM on August 7, 2009

My husband has bipolar disorder. We've been married for 16 years. In no particular order, these are some of the things I've learned that have made our relationship work -- and have helped to keep him relatively stable. (No hospitalizations in about 10 years now... knock on wood!)

* One thing that REALLY helps is having a very stable and predictable private life. Even if things are going a little crazy at work, our home is pretty much an oasis of calm and that is a huge help in defusing any stress that might lead to depression or mania. You're not apparently talking about living with your girlfriend at this point but you can still help her by being stable and predictable. (Not in a boring way -- just in a way that helps your girlfriend stay on an even keel.)

* Encourage her to employ the services of the very best psychiatrist she can find. Counseling alone simply won't do it for bipolar. She needs drugs and, as others have mentioned, it can take time to find the right combination. Even then, a combination that's worked for a few years can, for whatever reason, STOP working. She needs a creative doctor who is up on the latest research to get her meds fine-tuned to a point where she's not emotionally dead but neither does she have very wide mood swings.

* Learn to recognize the early symptoms of depression or mania. Especially with mania, she may not realize that she's "not quite right" until she's already fairly well into a full blown episode. If you can recognize early that she's possibly going manic (or depressed) and can talk to her about it, she will be able to get to the doctor for a med check before things get out of control. And this leads to...

* Develop a trusting relationship. She needs to trust you when you tell her she's not behaving normally. And she needs to trust you enough to promise to tell you if she feels like there's a problem developing.

* Even a person whose bipolar is under pretty good control will have brief "episodes" of weirdness from time to time. It's CRITICAL that you not take these episodes personally. If she becomes irrationally angry or crabby remember that IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU. I wasted a lot of energy early in my marriage trying to reason with my spouse when he was in one of those "moods". There's no reasoning. The smartest and healthiest thing is to just leave her alone (unless she's suicidal, of course) for a few hours until it passes. (Understand, I'm not talking about full-blown manic or depressive stuff that can last weeks or months. I'm talking about an "out of the blue" crankiness that might last for a few hours.) Just let it pass -- and remember it's not about you.

* I think one of the reasons a lot of "bipolar marriages" don't last is because the non-bipolar spouse just can't disconnect their own emotions from those of their partner. So, when a depressive mood swing comes on, the healthy partner finds himself just getting dragged right down with the bipolar. DON'T LET IT HAPPEN. Be aware of that danger and take positive steps to separate your own emotional life from what's going on with your girlfriend. This has been somewhat easier for me than it might be for others as I'm, by nature, an emotionally subdued kind of person.

There are probably a bunch of things I'll think of later, but hopefully this much is helpful. Feel free to email me (can you do that through this site?) if you have any specific questions.
posted by rhartong at 11:24 AM on August 7, 2009 [8 favorites]

While it's not about bipolar disorder specifically, this post written by Jon Armstrong (husband of Heather Armstrong, aka Dooce) is, I think, filled with great advice for anyone who has a partner living with a chronic mental illness.
posted by keever at 11:42 AM on August 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

My mother is bipolar and will soon be celebrating her 20th anniversary with my stepfather. My stepdad is a veritable saint. He's patient and calm and creates that oasis of stability that rhartong mentions. He takes care of the bills, because my mother has a tendency to overspend when she's manic. He has good boundaries for himself so he can be solid in the face of her rages (which are infrequent since she's on medication). He's very confident and happy so he doesn't get drawn into her depressive episodes. He has a deep religious faith that acts as an anchor for him. He has interests apart from her, as well as things they do together. He makes sure she takes her medication and encourages her into inpatient treatment when it gets to be too much to handle at home.

Me, I couldn't do it, but my perspective is very skewed by having grown up with her while she was unmedicated.

P.S. NAMI is a very good resource for learning more about bipolar and supporting loved ones of those with bipolar.
posted by desjardins at 11:46 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have somewhat mild bipolar/manic depressive disorder, and am in a very good 6+ year relationship. I am seeing a psychiatrist and have found a combination of meds that work well for me for now. I have never been hospitalized for it, but I have been an inexplicably sour-faced prick or a disconcertingly elated man-child on more than one occasion.

The biggest and most obvious hurdle--one that you two have passed already--is acknowledging the problem. Things were infinitely shittier before I sucked it up and sought help.

Someone has already warned against trying to reason with a manic/belligerently depressed person---I second that fully. Don't be Winston Churchill, be Neville Chamberlain: appeasement is key. Unlike Nazi Germany, a bipolar person will eventually snap out of it.

My girlfriend recently started doing this--just saying "I'm really sorry" if I snap at her, rather than fighting back. That gives me nothing to continue fighting about, and soon my feelings of arbitrary belligerence are replaced by the realization that I was being an unbidden jerk.

Words can't express my gratitude to her. She seems to have learned to dissociate that me that rears its ugly head from time to time from the me that she and I both prefer.

I shy away from saying that your girlfriend and I and those like us are totally different people when we're like that. That's a bit too figurative, and I'm not sure if complete amnesty for untoward behavior is necessarily the best thing for folks like us. But I can with certainty say that, in those bad spells, we have lost control. Or, at least, we have seriously misplaced it. Control over, that is, the ability or will to act like the good people we see ourselves as being behind the morass of our unfortunately wired brains.

Identify the aberrant behavior, appease or evacuate, welcome with open arms when it's over.

You can't imagine the power that last step has.
posted by Darth Fedor at 2:18 PM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have experience with this I would rather not detail.

Bipolar disease is of course a spectrum disorder, and presents "atypically" rather . . . typically. No anecdote will precisely emulate your situation, or your perhaps-not-so-ex's particular version of the disorder. You know that, obviously, and there is some really helpful thinking in this thread (rhartong, that was an amazing comment).

But I would recommend that you and she meet with her primary therapist over the course of several visits to discuss this question, if she is comfortable (let her set the limits both beforehand and in the moment, however). I would also recommend a course of therapy yourself with a psychiatrist who treats bipolar disease as a specialty (not just in the meds management sense, but with therapy). Explore what went down the first time you split up; explore your own issues as these may intersect with her symptoms; explore the latest thinking about living with bipolar disease and what may be on the horizon. Explore issues like whether you feel you can have a family with this person.

Your ex sounds like she's serious about managing this beast, and that's great news for her and for you. But anyone who knows (and you do yourself, it seems) will tell you that it's never a done deal. You will have struggles and unusual stresses on your relationship. You also don't need to be told that lots of people get this thing under control and learn to surf the waves without wiping out (too often). It can get more or less severe over the long run. But know that your love will be tested. Make sure you love her that way, and that much.

Good luck to you both.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:06 PM on August 7, 2009

I have a family member who I believe has bipolar disorder. Family member declines to seek diagnosis and/or treatment. This thread gives me hope.
posted by theora55 at 10:29 AM on August 8, 2009

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