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Learn more about bipolar disorder and relationships by reading our relationship blogs.
Bipolar disorder wears many faces. There are as many experiences with bipolar disorder as there are people with bipolar. These experiences run the gamut from wonderful and exciting to confusing, disappointing and devastating. This article addresses some of the issues that can arise when dealing with a spouse with bipolar disorder.
Like all individuals, people with bipolar disorder have many good attributes, but at times, they also display less desirable qualities, such as being withdrawn, irritable, moody, and depressed. They may be affectionate and loving sometimes and then cold and distant at other times. The person may welcome and enjoy sex one day, while rejecting affection the next day. These erratic behaviors can be quite challenging for all concerned, especially spouses.
At times the person with bipolar disorder may experience manic or hypomanic episodes (manic but more controlled and less extreme) during which they can be fun, interesting, talkative, upbeat and full of energy. At other times, the person may experience depression that effects them physically, spiritually and soulfully. The spouse might feel confused, not knowing how to deal with certain behaviors.
The tricky part comes up when neither you nor your spouse knows bipolar disorder may be behind the tension and trouble between the two of you. Often the individual doesn’t even know she has bipolar disorder. People can go years and even decades without a diagnosis or treatment. It might take you to get them in for a diagnosis.
If your spouse has experienced debilitating periods of sadness, followed by periods of high excitement and activity, he or she may have bipolar disorder. Below, you’ll find a list of typical behaviors exhibited by those with bipolar disorder. If your spouse or significant other has been unusually excited or active for a week at a time and displays three of the symptoms listed below, talk with your healthcare provider about bipolar disorder.
- Racing thoughts, rapid speech
- Easily distracted, can’t concentrate well
- Exaggerated optimism and self-confidence
- An inflated perspective about abilities and qualities
- Impulsive and reckless behavior
- Poor decision making, rash business decisions
- Shopping sprees, excessive money-spending
- Irresponsible driving choices
- Sexual promiscuity
- Delusions (holding untrue beliefs)
- Hallucinations (seeing and/or hearing things that aren’t there)
Another way to determine if a person has bipolar disorder is to consider his or her childhood. The lives of teens struggling with mood disorders can be marred by poor decisions and/or ineffective, misguided attempts to cope. Teens with mood disorders may experience the following symptoms and/or behaviors:
- Academic struggles
- School suspension or expulsion
- Destruction of property
- Social isolation
- Drug and alcohol use
- Frequent misunderstandings
- Inability to finish projects
- Reckless behavior (speeding, unprotected sex, over-spending)
- Extreme defiance
- Poor social skills
- Controlling behaviors
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
Keep in mind that adults with bipolar disorder may have experienced a childhood in which they were aware that their moods and behaviors were different from their peers, resulting in a sense of being different, disconnected, or outcast. As a result they are likely to develop poor coping skills that do them an injustice as adults. Some of these coping mechanisms include:
Disconnection: When young people with bipolar can’t understand or predict others’ moods and behaviors, they may cope with feeling disconnected by withdrawing, usually interacting with one or very few people who can meet their needs.
Controlling Behaviors: When you can’t predict someone else’s behavior, one way to feel safe is to learn to control others. Control is a subtle art, and often controlling people have been practicing it for decades. A portion of the bipolar population becomes “controlling.” This at first can show up as a talkative and outgoing, but soon suggestions and discussions become manipulative. Examples of controlling statements include:
- “Why would you do that?”
- “Does that really make sense?”
- “Only an insecure person would think that way.”
These habits can be so ingrained that they are difficult to change without professional help.
Drug/Alcohol Abuse: The feelings someone with bipolar disorder experiences can be so overwhelming, they might think the only way out is with street drugs. A significant proportion of those who abuse alcohol and narcotics have an underlying mood disorder, particularly bipolar disorder and depression.
Overspending: During mania or hypomania, someone with bipolar disorder can find all sorts of reasons to rationalize spending gobs of money on whatever their hearts desire. Some people who know they struggle with this choose to let their spouses control the money, particularly when they recognize a manic episode coming on. This may involve the other spouse keeping the credit cards or even the car keys.
Irritability: People with bipolar disorder and even those with depression can experience uncontrollable irritability. A spouse often serves as an outlet for their overwhelming anger, but so can children, other drivers and other family members.
Grandiosity: The imbalance of chemicals in the brain can cause those with bipolar disorder to have an inflated images of themselves. They may feel they’re more talented or more psychic than most. They may think that they’re needed take care of governmental or world-wide problems.
Try to remember that the person suffering from bipolar disorder does not directly control most of these behaviors (although they can learn to work on them in therapy). They are influenced by the balance or imbalance of chemicals in their brain.
What Does It Mean for Our Marriage if My Spouse Has Bipolar Disorder?
There are two answers to this question. If you spouse fully accepts the diagnosis and resolves to get treatment, you could begin working together and make the marriage stronger than ever. Many people with bipolar disorder have happy, successful marriages.
If, on the other hand, your spouse refuses treatment, you must learn to protect yourself from abuse. Abuse can take the form of
- Verbal abuse (rampant blaming)
- Financial abuse (spending money; taking on massive debt)
- Emotional abuse (controlling, cruel behavior)
- Physical abuse (when irritability spins out of control)
Read our article on Encouraging a Loved One to Get Help for tips on discussing bipolar with your spouse. And see our article on Finding a Good Therapist for when they are ready to take that step.
We offer a variety of resources to help those with bipolar disorder and their loved ones. One of these is our free e-book, Healthy Living with Bipolar Disorder, which covers all of the basic information you need to know about bipolar. View a list of the rest of our programs here.