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Forming Relationships with Bipolar Disorder

By: Courtney Davey, MA, MFT

Relationships can be full of ups, downs, stress, excitement, and everything in between. From family relationships that have been lifelong, to platonic friendships that withstand the test of time, to romantic relationships that take us to a new level of emotional intimacy, relationships require above all an awareness of self and the other person. Being in tune to your emotional needs and desires as well as the needs of the other person is the foundation to having a successful relationship. For someone living with bipolar disorder, this may include an additional challenge. The extremes that can occur in mood swings and a lack of coping skills around them may make it difficult in being able to identify personal needs and tuning in to the needs of the other person.

Given these challenges, persons living with bipolar may sometimes struggle to form relationships, but this does not mean that forming relationships is impossible. Here are a few suggestions on how to approach forming relationships.

1. Look Inward. People tend to focus on building romantic relationships on what they want in a partner, whether it be intelligence, a good sense of humor or good looks. However, this tends to lead to focusing entirely outside of themselves in favor of these traits. Instead, take the time to review what emotional needs and wants you currently have. Do you need or want someone who you feel emotionally supported by? Do you need someone who is willing to challenge you to be your best self? The needs that we each have in relationships change with time, but being aware of how it affects who and how you form relationships sets the foundation for the rest of the relationship. As well, identify a few things that you need from supportive people in your life when you experience symptoms. Some need visible support, and some need fewer expectations during those times. What will best help you in your times of struggle that your partner can do?

2. Be honest with yourself. Check in on how you are managing the symptoms of bipolar that you experience. Starting a new relationship while struggling with extreme mania or depressive symptoms may put an undue strain on the relationship. Is this a healthy time to start a romantic relationship? The euphoric highs of starting a new romantic relationship are well-known, and they can also encourage or exacerbate a manic or hypomanic episode. Similarly, if something doesn’t go right with this relationship, unmanaged symptoms could be exacerbated into a depressive episode triggered by the stressors of the relationship. Recognizing that stability in managing symptoms will be key in keeping yourself healthy and safe as well as giving the new relationship the best chance possible to succeed works best for everyone involved.

3. Coping Skills! One of the best parts of longtime relationships is the person is likely to have learned information about you that you are not aware they know, from where your grandmother lives to where the behaviors you have when things begin to swing towards a depressive episode. New relationships lack these types of “tells”, as they are currently learning about you for the first time. This makes it even more important that you listen to yourself when symptoms of bipolar start to occur and to use the coping skills you currently use in your every day to manage them. Whether it’s feeling extremely irritable, racing thoughts and rapid speech or a lack of energy, feelings of hopelessness or struggling to concentrate, taking care of yourself is what will allow you to take care of your relationship. Breathing exercises, journaling, thought stopping, talking to a support or whatever coping skills work for you will become more important with the different changes that occur when starting a new relationship. This also means taking medication as prescribed if you see a psychiatrist, attending therapy if you are seeing a therapist, and having supports in other parts of your life to help you maintain healthy lifestyle choices. 

4. Reality checking. It can be difficult starting a new relationship no matter where you are in managing bipolar symptoms, as there are many new variables in your life that were not there previously. For some, this can be overwhelming on its own. Then, your new partner mentions something about your behavior or mood that you recognize as an aspect of living with bipolar. Don’t panic! This person is learning about you, and can see from an outside perspective. This does not mean that this will end the relationship immediately. Take in the input and reflect on the accuracy of it and what you would like to change about it. Maybe this means focusing extra time away from the relationship for a few days to take care of you. Maybe it means bringing up the change noticed in your next appointment with the psychiatrist or therapist. However, remembering that this does not mean the end of all relationships for you.

5. Communication. It is cliché, but all good relationships have some sort of effective communication between people. This does not mean necessarily immediately telling your partner that you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, though that information is yours to give when you are comfortable doing so. However, communicating around what you need from your partner during mood swings will be important to setting the tone for the relationship. Taking a little bit of space or asking to take a walk with them to get yourself out of bed are both differing ways people handle their needs during times of symptoms, and figuring out what you need (see #1) and communicating that to your partner can be done with or without saying that it is due to bipolar symptoms.  

Relationships are like plants. You need to take care of them the most in the beginning; digging, planting, watering and watching to see it grow and bear fruit. Taking care of yourself and managing your bipolar symptoms is most important for you, and it will be the most beneficial thing you can do when forming new relationships. Utilizing all of the same skills you use throughout your daily life while being more sensitive to changes in your mood and behaviors will give you the potential to form a strong new relationship.

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