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Communicating Emotional Needs as the Partner of Someone with Bipolar Disorder

By: Courtney Davey, MA, MFT

Emotions are the foundation of a romantic relationship. They are an inherent part of the attachment we have to our partner, and our emotions surrounding the person, behaviors and events all affect are feelings about the relationship itself. When one person or both people struggle with bipolar disorder, it can add additional layers of work and challenges. The focus in the relationship may be on the hardships that bipolar creates for the person experiencing it, but it is also necessary and beneficial to look at the effects on the partner who does not have bipolar disorder. Here are a few options to help understand what is happening for the partner and to be a better partner to the person who experiences these symptoms.

Educating Yourself- If this is a serious relationship, educating yourself on bipolar disorder is going to be important to the long-term success of you and your partner. You care about the person, or else you would not be in the relationship, and taking the time to understand an innate part of them will lead you to a better understanding of them. Mania may seem like they are at their most vibrant, but it does not make it healthy for them, and depression can feel overwhelming and change your day to day activity with them. There are many resources (like on this site!) that can give you some more information on mania, depression, swings, medication and therapy.

Educating Yourself on Your Partner-All the paperwork in the world will do nothing if what you have learned about bipolar does not apply to your partner’s symptoms. Have a frank discussion about how bipolar affects them. Take the time to learn signs of mood swings, whether it’s changes in sleep, mood or motivation. For some, there are significant signs before they change into a manic or depressive episode and they may not be able to see them themselves. This is particularly important surrounding mania. For some, they may be more charismatic and there are features of mania that may be more appealing. However, this is not healthy for them, and mania is statistically the more dangerous of the two types of episodes due to the risk-taking behaviors and delusions. You should learn to be able to separate the parts of the person that you enjoy about the person generally and what is a manic episode. As well, learn about any medication they take and some of the tools they are using to currently manage their symptoms.

Finding Ways to Support- Discuss your piece of being supportive to their challenges. As their partner, you should be a source of support for various aspects of their life, and mental health should be no different. What types of things can you do if you identify some changes in your partner that may be symptoms? Set up a plan at a time where your partner is stable and not experiencing intense symptoms. How do they want you to approach them? What kinds of words should you stay away from? Identifying that you are bringing this up to them because you care and are concerned should always be part of the conversation.

Setting Boundaries, Both Ways- The difficulties of emotional intensity that go along with bipolar disorder can be exhausting for both you and your partner. It is vital to set boundaries around those emotional reactions. For someone without bipolar disorder, it can be easy to assume that all highly emotional reactions are connected to emotional instability symptoms. However, this is certainly not always going to be the case. Your partner is human, and has emotional reactions that are rational, justified, and normal. As a whole, every relationship has times where each person believes their partner is being ridiculous, but it is a much easier line of thought when your partner does struggle with symptoms of bipolar. When you start to have these lines of thoughts, stop yourself. Is what’s not right about this the intensity of the situation or excessive irritability? Or is it because you disagree that what you are having differences over is important because it is not important to you? If every emotional reaction is automatically assumed to be because they “are bipolar” or “are crazy”, you are invalidating their emotions and their understanding of a situation.

On the other hand, setting boundaries about excessive behaviors is also important. Mania can include risk-taking behaviors, decreased need for sleep, delusions of grandeur and compulsive behaviors. Depression can include the intense lack of motivation, changes in appetite or sleep, irritability and suicidal thinking. These can all be extreme, particularly if your partner has not been taking care of themselves and following treatment. It is important that boundaries are set that certain behaviors will have to be addressed. For example, it is not acceptable for your partner to be screaming for hours in a manic state because you are trying to prevent them from gambling excessively. It may happen, but steps need to be taken to prevent it in the future. This is also when it is important to share with your partner how their struggle affects you. Bipolar does not exist in a vacuum, because people do not exist in a vacuum. Working with your partner in times of stability to identify how to deescalate situations and avoid problems will benefit you in times of crisis. 

Finding Support for Yourself

Those with bipolar disorder often times feel lonely in their diagnosis. Fortunately, many places, foundations, and support groups have been founded both in person and online to form a community to decrease those feelings. However, there are less supports for partners and those who love someone with bipolar disorder. Search them out! Support groups do exist, even if it takes a little bit of finding. As well, figure out who in your life you can go to as support. Discuss it with your partner to ensure that they are okay with this person knowing about their diagnosis, because that is theirs to share. If they are not comfortable with that, still looking for support in your natural support system is important. The ups and downs that come with all relationships should always have support, because we are social creatures. Finding that support regardless of whether you name the exact issue is going to aid you in handling times of stress.

The partner of someone with bipolar disorder can sometimes be an afterthought, and is done so to the detriment of them. Caring about someone with bipolar can be challenging at times, and ensuring that you take care of yourself and the relationship with an awareness of it is vital. All relationships need care and work to succeed, and choosing to take steps to help your partner who experiences symptoms of bipolar disorder is just another piece of creating a happy, stable relationship and life. 

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