Romantic relationships often need consistency and communication in order to be successful. Each person brings their own background, experiences, and personality to the dynamic of the relationship. When someone has a mental illness, extra work often needs to take place, including stronger communication and specific boundaries. Mental illness, such as Bipolar Disorder, can be a difficult obstacle for partners, but is possible to manage if both parties have access to appropriate resources. Other mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, while debilitating, may offer some level of consistency in their presentation. Bipolar Disorder, however, can appear and feel more chaotic. If you are wondering, “am I dating someone with Bipolar Disorder?”, there are few things to specifically look for and patterns to consider; not only to help your partner, but to help yourself.
Bipolar Disorder is a mental disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. These shifts in moods are typically referred to as mania and depression. Bipolar Disorder formerly has been called manic depression due to the presence of both mania and depression in it’s presentation. Most people are more familiar with depression and its symptoms. Depression commonly looks like:
- Feeling very sad, “down,” empty, worried, or hopeless
- Feeling slowed down or restless
- Having trouble falling asleep, waking up too early, or sleeping too much
- Experiencing changes in appetite and weight
- Talking very slowly, feeling forgetful
- Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Feeling unable to do even simple things
- Having little interest in almost all activities, a decreased or absent sex drive, or an inability to experience pleasure (“anhedonia”)
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having thoughts about death or suicide
Mania is not as common as depression, and can often be misunderstood. The term “bipolar” is often used colloquially when describing someone who seems happy one minute and sad the next. This is inaccurate and can be detrimental to de-stigmatizing mania. Mania is described and diagnosed by characteristics including:
- Feeling very “up,” “high,” elated, irritable or touchy
- Feeling “jumpy” or “wired”
- Having a decreased need for sleep
- Loss of appetite
- Talking very quickly and about a lot of different things
- Feeling like thoughts are racing
- Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Feeling like you are unusually important, talented, or powerful
- Thinking you can do a lot of things at once
- Engaging in risky behaviors that may show poor judgment, such as eating and drinking excessively, spending or giving away a lot of money, or having reckless sex
Bipolar Disorder presents as cycling between these symptoms to a varied extent. When both manic and depressive symptoms (also called episodes) are present, this is diagnosed as Bipolar I Disorder. Some people may experience hypomania, which is the presence of symptoms of mania, but to a lesser degree. This is considered Bipolar II Disorder. These symptoms can increase opportunities for discontentment or stress in any kind of relationship, let alone a romantic relationship. Other ways that dating someone with Bipolar Disorder can show up is in intimacy, work, and parenting. Someone with Bipolar Disorder may want more sex during a manic episode, and want less sexual activity (or avoid it altogether) during a depressive episode. The shifts between mood states can make it difficult for someone to keep attending and performing their job consistently. And, if parenting with a partner who has Bipolar Disorder, children observing and erratic behavior can be scary or confusing to children.
If you suspect you are dating a Bipolar person, or wondering how to navigate Bipolar Disorder and relationships, here are a few helpful tips to consider. First, it can be helpful for you and your partner to use correct language that does not insinuate mental illness as a label. For example, it is more appropriate to say that your partner “has Bipolar Disorder” versus “is bipolar”. The shift in this language can help your partner feel less like Bipolar Disorder is their identity, and more of a condition that they can treat and learn about. People with Bipolar Disorder in relationships may also want or need help and support around initially receiving and continuing treatment. This likely includes medication, therapy, and a plan to address manic and depressive episodes.
Couples counseling can be an incredibly helpful, if not a necessary intervention, for working through a partner’s actions when in a manic or depressive episode. It can be common for someone with bipolar disorder to unintentionally hurt and offend their partner. You and your partner can benefit from couples counseling as it can help both to understand the illness behind the hurtful behavior, forgiving the behavior that happened during an altered mood state, and setting boundaries with your partner about maintaining consistent treatment. Understanding your partner’s triggers and warning signs of mania or depressive episodes can be incredibly helpful in managing bipolar behavior in relationships. Individual therapy will likely also be necessary, but the addition of couples counseling will directly address how Bipolar Disorder impacts the relationship.
It is also incredibly important when dating someone with Bipolar Disorder to set boundaries for yourself. There can only be so much one person in a partnership can do without having a significant impact on your own mental health. Identifying and practicing self-care is a necessity. This can include attending your own therapy, taking some time alone or with people other than your partner, exercise, meditation, etc. Prioritizing your own health is just as important as supporting a partner with their struggles.
This blog post is meant to be educational in nature and does not replace the advice of a medical professional. See full disclaimer.
Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). Bipolar Disorder (Manic Depressive Illness or Manic Depression). Retrieved August 30, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/bipolar-disorder-manic-depressive-illness-or-manic-depression-a-to-z
National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.-a). NIMH » Bipolar Disorder. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder/index.shtml
Payne, J. (n.d.). Bipolar Relationships: What to Expect. Retrieved August 31, 2020, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/mood-disorders/bipolar-relationships-what-to-expect#:~:text=Being%20in%20a%20Relationship%20with%20Someone%20Who%20Is%20Bipolar&text=Those%20with%20bipolar%20disorder%20may,may%20avoid%20sexual%20contact%20altogether.