By: Courtney Davey, MA, MFT
There’s nothing quite like having a long-term relationship. After you have moved past some of that initial nervousness, it can feel great to have a steady person in your life to be a friend, lover, and support. Knowing their patterns and knowing how to predict interactions and conflicts can create a sense of stability. However, falling into a false sense of security with this can leave one person, both people, or the relationship neglected. When struggling with symptoms of bipolar disorder, being able to communicate your needs will be vital to maintaining a healthy relationship. Here are a few suggestions to communicate around bipolar symptoms for the long-term:
Have a conversation. It is your choice as to when you discuss that you experience these symptoms. In some relationships, they may not last long enough to require the conversation. However, in relationships that are long-term, involving years of time together and especially lifelong relationships, it is nearly impossible for your partner to not notice changes in your mood that are directly or indirectly related to bipolar. That’s part of being an attentive partner! Choosing to have a conversation puts you in the position of control surrounding your bipolar.
Discuss mania/depression and your symptoms. Unfortunately, we are all exposed to inaccurate information about mental health in today’s society. Your partner may have a basic understanding of what bipolar disorder is, or they could have the wrong idea of what it means. Be your own advocate in your relationship. You should have some awareness of what mania and depressive episodes are when you discussed it with whatever practitioner identified bipolar disorder for you (and if you did not have this conversation, do so! It’s your health). Let them know that naturally you move through the extremes of mania or hypomania and depression. Even more importantly, talk about what your symptoms look like, as no two people experience it exactly the same. They may know what it looks like for someone else, be it a family member, friend or a stranger, but if the relationship is long-term, knowing what that means for you is important to understanding how it will affect both of you and the relationship.
Discuss stigma. As well as inaccurate information, we are also exposed to negative representations of mental health challenges and bipolar disorder. These can affect interactions in both positive and negative ways. There can be a big difference between someone who is without any sort of treatment and someone who is actively taking care of themselves via therapy and medication management. Educating your partner on this and other forms of stigma that occur for bipolar disorder as well is necessary. It may be exhausting to do so, but you are your greatest advocate and letting those who care about you know about these additional difficulties and how they affect your daily life is invaluable to a positive relationship.
Set up boundaries for conflict. With or without mental health being involved, being called “emotional” for men or women can be quite the insult. It suggests that you are not using “rational” thought and are therefore wrong in your reaction. This can be exacerbated for those struggling with bipolar symptoms due to the natural change of emotions involved in mood swings, even when being controlled and treated. Have an open discussion about what emotional reactions are and where the difference between that and bipolar symptoms are for you. If you are upset that your partner continuously ignores you for their cell phone at every meal, feelings of hurt and anger would be a normal but “emotional” reaction. Make clear that this is not a sign of bipolar, and that bipolar cannot and should not be blamed for every emotional disagreement you have. This is a long-term relationship, so conflict will inevitably happen. Setting up the understanding that assuming everything is related to bipolar is insulting and wrong will create a stronger foundation for you to get through the conflict in a healthy manner.
Set up a way to say “Hey, I need some help.” On the opposite side of the coin, symptoms of bipolar can and most likely will creep into your life and relationship at times. This is why having conversations in stable times is so important. When discussing all of these points, knowing yourself is going to be vital to teaching someone else about you. What are your triggers, symptoms and signs? Do you begin to isolate or sleep for longer periods, or compulsively shop or increase risk-taking sexual behaviors? Take some time to write down two lists: one with what should they look for when you are heading towards mania, and one with what they should look for when you are heading towards depression. These can be phrases, behaviors, triggers, changes in expectations or anything else that happens for you.
Discuss this with your partner, and make a plan for how they can approach you. It can be hard to hear that someone thinks you are experiencing an episode if you do not see it, but from an outside perspective, it may be easier to see. Know that this should be coming from a place of love and care and knowing early may make it easier to cope with the episode and decrease its intensity. Pick a phrase or way that they can use that you will try to meet without resistance, do a check-in on whether what they are suggesting is accurate, and move forward accordingly. Since this is a long-term relationship, they will see various cycles. Communicating how they can help you by identifying it or by being emotionally available in the way you need helps strengthen your relationship by taking some of the guesswork out of it. Long-term relationships involve significant amounts of work in all aspects, but choosing to communicate honestly and being open to feedback around bipolar symptoms will lead to a healthier, happier and stronger relationship.