Relationship Guide

Blogger Natasha Tracy has bipolar disorder type-II (rapid-cycling), and has noticed that the most common pattern in relationships is fear in terms of what her condition could do to the other person, or to the relationship.

“I know my bipolar disorder can be scary and I know it can make people leave and I’m always scared people will leave me because of it,” she said. “It has happened in the past that people have left me quoting the reason ‘bipolar.’”

Her condition affects so much of her life that she tells anyone new she meets about it pretty quickly.

“In fact, it’s almost impossible for me not to. The way my life revolves around bipolar disorder symptoms, medications, side effects and just general coping, not mentioning it is like cropping out half my life,” Tracy said. “Additionally, I would much rather know that the person can’t handle it up front. If they can’t handle that I’m sick, they’re not the person for me and it’s best I find that out as soon as possible.”

The process of dating has had its share of heartbreak, and Tracy learned some pretty stark realities about her condition—that others may use it to their advantage by using her bipolar disorder against her. Still, Tracy is hopeful that she will find someone who can offer her the right kind of support, the kind that everyone needs.

“The best thing a person can do for me is provide loving support. It is best if they can be there, listen and share a hug,” she said. “Unfortunately, the person can never ‘fix’ my illness but by being there in a kind and loving way, they are helping me more than I can express.”

Disclosing Your Disorder

You don’t have to tell your newfound love interest about your condition on the first date.

You should, however, let the person know early in the relationship. If it’s a deal breaker for him or her, it’s better to get it out in the open right away. Besides, the best beginning to a successful relationship is an honest one.

As a general guide, in personal relationships, Dr. David M. Reiss, a psychiatrist in private practice and interim medical director of Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke, Mass., recommends discussing the issue of the bipolar disorder when and if the relationship has reached a level of closeness or intimacy where there is talk of some type of commitment, such as exclusivity.

“I suggest preparing to discuss bipolar disorder in as unemotional terms and as much ‘plain language’ as possible,” he said. “No need to go into biochemical or psychodynamic explanations—unless a relationship has reached that level of intimacy/closeness.” 

What to Expect

One of the biggest challenges bipolar disorder can create in relationships is the uncertainty and uneasiness of mood swings, Dr. Michael Brodsky, medical director of Bridges to Recovery, a residential treatment facility, said.

The low levels of enjoyment and withdrawal during the depression, and the inattentiveness and self-focused behavior during the mania can be discouraging to a partner, especially during the early parts of a relationship, Dr. Brodsky said.

During the mania, there is also a chance for a person with bipolar disorder to become promiscuous or hypersexual, but that isn’t a guarantee the person will.

Mania can also mean the person can be more spontaneous, creative, charismatic, inspirational, and energetic, Dr. Brodsky said.

The most important things a partner can have for someone with bipolar disorder is patience and tolerance, Dr. Brodsky said. A successful relationship involves a partner who is willing to tolerate uncertainty, learn to help the other person modify negative behavior, and is willing to let go of control.

“Trust is big,” he said. “They’re not going to be able to have the ability to control everything.”

When a partner becomes a partner in treatment, he or she can gain a better insight into how a person feels, how therapy affects them, or how to spot the changes in mood.

Make a Contract

You don’t have to sit down with a lawyer like you’re going through a prenuptial agreement, but you should set aside some time to make an agreement over things related to your bipolar disorder.

“Absolutely we are looking to come to an agreement and some ground rules,” Dr. Brodsky said. “Whether the contract is written or not is the least important issue.”

Some of these guidelines include guidelines for when a partner needs to intervene on potentially destructive behavior, and what a partner can do to enforce the contract, Dr. Brodsky said.

If you’re well in tune with your disorder and can feel the shift from mania to depression or vice versa coming, tell your partner. That’s when it’s important to stick to your contract.

There Will Be Problems

Every relationship has its problems, no matter how perfect it seems to be. A large part of relationships when one partner has bipolar disorder is distinguishing when a problem is a normal problem, or when it stems from something related to bipolar disorder.

Say, for instance, you have an argument over whose turn it is to do the dishes. That’s a normal problem. Tracy, like many other people with bipolar disorder, learned to distinguish what is a normal relationship problem, what is a serious problem, and when she’s being blamed for something. She’s learned when people use her illness as an excuse, and then it’s off to the curb with them.

“People will blame your bipolar disorder for their bad behavior. While with other illnesses it is much less acceptable to leave someone for, say, cancer, but it’s perfectly okay in some people’s minds to leave someone because of a mental illness,” she said. “And, for some, it’s perfectly okay to treat someone badly because of a mental illness too. And it’s also okay to blame every behavior you don’t like on your partner’s mental illness. What I wish I knew is that even though I never use my illness as an excuse, other people will.”