Bipolar disorder can cause significant shifts in mood and changes in behavior in a person. From very high highs to very low lows, someone suffering from bipolar disorder will present challenges to those around them – whether that’s friends, family, or a loved one.
What is bipolar disorder like?
Bipolar disorder is a really confusing condition, not just for the person suffering from it, but especially for someone viewing it from the outside. A person who’s got it may be really reluctant to share how they feel or feel ashamed by it.
To an outsider, bipolar disorder looks like a condition with emotional highs and lows, where a person may be full of energy or overly excited one day (or minute), then extremely sad and depressed the next. Bipolar disorder comes in many forms, and the range can be from mild, to moderate and severe. Understanding the spectrum of the disorder can help deal with it and learn to spot signs of its episodes.
Just because the person looks happy and elated, doesn’t mean that they won’t exhibit the complete opposite behaviour, seemingly out of nowhere. A bipolar person may also be highly charismatic, or chatty to the point where they fill a room with their presence, and don’t let anyone else speak.
These characteristics can quickly become overwhelming to them and others – and be seen as impulsive, selfish and erratic. A person suffering from the disorder will have manic episodes, which are hard to overcome without the right medication or support.
The disorder may also lead to the person getting really angry, spending money impulsively, sleeping long hours, disappearing and running away, drinking too much or taking drugs. Despite the person being aware of their destructive behaviour, they probably won’t know how to control it.
What does it mean for relationships?
People are social animals. They want to love and be loved in return. Living with a diagnosed disorder like bipolar can only make love and relationships much harder. Because of the extremity of the episodes, people affected by it will highly likely struggle to maintain strong loving relationships – with relatives, friends or romantic partners.
They may change partners often, don’t show up for dates, forget to call, or break up just to be left alone and not have to deal with anyone else.
Bipolar episodes often result in sleeping for long periods of time, not keeping track of commitments, inability to show up for appointments and work, and inability to keep in touch with other people.
All of these difficulties present real challenges when it comes to being in a relationship, whilst suffering from the disorder.
What if you are in love with someone with bipolar disorder?
If you’ve encountered bipolar disorder, you are probably thinking that it’s a lot of work, it’s too stressful, too disorderly, too complicated for you to stick around? You are probably right, but bipolar disorder despite not being curable, is definitely treatable.
If you truly love someone, you will want to help them overcome the difficult episodes and be there for them through the highs and lows. Read on if you’d like to find out how to love someone with a bipolar disorder.
What can you do?
There are certain things you can do once you become aware that your love interest is suffering from bipolar disorder. The first step on your journey of loving and supporting them is simply educating yourself. It may sound simple, but without this step there isn’t much chance you will have a clue as to what to do.
Fortunately, there is a ton of literature out there which describes the condition, defines the manic episodes, and offers solutions and individual approach. Reading about the condition is your first and most important step – it will also tell you whether you want to be involved with this person, and potentially how severe their disorder is.
As harsh as it may sound, you’ve got a choice to make – stick around and love them despite the disorder or move on. One thing you cannot do is choose to stay but blame them for it, every time they have a difficult episode. You need to be aware from the get-go as to what you are dealing with, and how best you can support them.
There are also good movies out there which capture the condition your loved one has. Movies such as The Silver Linings Playbook, Touched with Fire, or episode three of Amazon’s Modern Love all depict the complexity of living and loving someone with bipolar disorder.
Of course, movies and TV shows should always be taken with a little grain of salt, as there is always an element of exaggeration and fiction for the benefit of the storyline. Regardless, the information available to you should make it clear as to what you could expect.
Communicate with your partner
Step two in loving someone with this condition is all about communication and finding out everything about their individual situation. No two bipolar people are the same, so don’t act like you can skip this essential step. You need to arm yourself with patience and time to listen without judgment.
Talk to your partner and ask them to describe a recent bipolar episode, or their toughest experience in the past. What are they like when they are at their lowest, as well as at their happiest?
You may want to ask about their past relationships too – if it’s not too sensitive of a topic, this will certainly show you what you may have to deal with in the future.
Another effort you will most certainly have to make is simply learning to spot the signs that they are about to feel really sad, or really elated? How should you act in such situations to best support them and be there for them? This will surely be a really hard conversation, but the more you understand these complexities, the more you can anticipate what they will be like.
Knowing what bipolar disorder is like for the person you love means you need to be really patient with them. There’s no fast track to fixing it or dealing with it. You will just have to live with it, if you love them and that’s the choice you’ve made.
Your partner’s moods will shift often, and as a result your dating life will not be as linear or predictable as you may be used to. Plans will have to change, and it will cause friction and frustration. When the situation is really tough, remember to breathe and not direct your frustration at them – it’s their disorder, not them that makes it hard, make sure you don’t define them by it.
Remember that you also need to make space for yourself, in the midst of it. It can be really hard to distance yourself but there will be situations where you might not be able to take it. Instead of shouting or crying, or feeling helpless around them, make sure you make time for yourself too – see some friends or take a long walk to clear your head. It will help bring things into perspective.
It’s important to learn to look after yourself, so you can look after them better, as they say, “put your oxygen mask on first.”
That being said, you will also need to be open with them, and let them know how their disorder makes you feel – thus helping navigate their feelings about it too. Again, whatever you do – do not blame them, or blame yourself for not being able to help more.
The best chance your loved one has in battling this disorder is by being strict with their treatment plan, sticking to their prescribed medication and avoiding the slippery path of substance abuse. Bipolar disorder may cause a wide range of issues for them – like self-harm, continuous depression, suicide thoughts or attempts, losing their job or being kicked out of school.
These stressful life events are hard to deal with when you feel on your own, so being there for them and ensuring they follow the path of sobriety, attend psychotherapy and take their medication is crucial.
Beyond the bipolar disorder
When it comes to love, the heart knows no boundaries – it’s important to remember that your relationship is more than your partner’s disorder. Yes, there will be hard situations, days, maybe even months, but there will also be happy moments and it’s important to focus on those, and how to have more of them.
Sometimes this might require some support for you too – dealing with this disorder as an outsider can be draining and exhausting, make sure you have someone to talk to about it, someone you trust who can give you sound advice when you need it the most.
Remember that you absolutely can have a healthy relationship with someone suffering from this condition, but you need to adapt to the “new normal” this challenge will present. Bipolar is manageable, but it does take hard work.
Other things you can do
Things that are known to help people with bipolar disorder will come handy to you, so we’ve summarised a few of them in the short list below. Give them a try and try to build them into permanent habits.
1. Keep fit together
The benefits of exercise and keeping fit are more than proven to help for a wide range of illnesses and conditions and bipolar is no exception. Build a habit of getting fresh air together – perhaps going for a run in nature or playing sports together – make sure you share these moments with your loved one to help keep a positive mood, for both your benefit!
2. Reduce stress around them
A person suffering from bipolar disorder is already in an extremely tough situation trying to manage their emotions and make sense of their high and low episodes, without hurting those who care about them. Make sure your shared time or home together is as stress free as possible. Don’t bring drama into the relationship, especially if you can avoid it.
3. Avoid getting drunk with them
Substance abuse is a slippery slope for people with bipolar disorder, as they won’t be able to know when to stop if they are in the middle of an episode. This may lead to being highly energetic and excited whilst drinking huge amounts of alcohol, which then leads to self-pity and sadness the following day once the hangover has subsided.
As they won’t be able to tell what’s good or bad for them in such moments, it will be your job to introduce limits, as hard as that might be. This will be a lot easier done if you are alone with them (or you’ve talked about it before going out), rather than in a group of friends where they may feel shamed if you comment on how much they are drinking. Make sure you are tactful and avoiding blame.
4. Set realistic milestones
It’s good to set milestones for your relationship or future together that you are both working towards and excited about, whether it’s a big trip together, or buying a house – give them a purpose to work towards, and you may see some positive changes in their behaviour.
5. Watch your language
The biggest changes you might have to make are just learning how to speak to them, in a reassuring, non-judgemental, patient kind of way. Here are some of the phrases you really should avoid using with them, as they can do a lot of harm to a person already suffering:
“You are just overreacting!”
“Why are you being like this again?”
“You always do this!”
“You don’t love me!”
“You are acting crazy today!”
“You are a psycho!”
Using derogatory and blame language will do nothing to help the one you love (or make you feel better) but actually further push them away. Instead, try and use any of the following phrases often and mean them – not just when they are in the middle of a bipolar episode:
“You are really important to me.”
“Your life matters to me and to others.”
“I see your pain and I am here to help you.”
“You are not to blame for having bipolar disorder.”
“I may not fully understand what you are going through, but I am here for you and want to help.”
“It may look tough now, but you can feel better with treatment.”
There are many things you can say to someone who’s suffering from bipolar disorder. Perhaps half of them won’t look like they are helping at the time, but you need to believe that the person you love cares for you too and loves you back. Language is powerful and can help make a difference in the long term.
The last thing you need to think is that they are doing this on purpose. Making their condition about you is a sure path to anger, resentment and breakup, so make sure you avoid it.