How can bipolar disorder affect relationships?

Mental Health
Bipolar disorder is a manageable, long-term condition that affects a person’s mood. The highs and lows characteristic of some forms of bipolar may affect the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves. This includes how they act in romantic relationships.

People with bipolar disorder experience severe high and low moods. These are called manic (or hypomanic) and depressive episodes. However, with the right treatment, many people with bipolar have healthy relationships.

This article discusses how bipolar disorder may impact relationships. It also gives relationship tips for a person with bipolar and their partner.

Bipolar disorder and relationships

Couple holding hands while discussing bipolar and relationships
People with bipolar may worry about their symptoms affecting relationships.

Well-managed bipolar disorder need not be a barrier to healthy, long-term partnerships.

It is likely to be the symptoms of bipolar disorder, not the condition itself, that may cause relationship problems.

There are many ways to treat bipolar. A combination of medication and psychotherapy often successfully reduces symptoms.

With the right treatment, people with bipolar disorder may have long periods during which their mood is stable. Or, they may only have mild symptoms, which are unlikely to significantly affect their relationship.

Manic episodes

Without effective treatment, manic episodes may cause a person with bipolar disorder to become irritable. A person with bipolar may disagree with their partner more easily during a manic episode.

Risk-taking behaviors, such as spending sprees or binge drinking, may happen during a manic episode. These behaviors may create tension within a relationship.

Depressive episodes

If the person with bipolar disorder experiences major depressive symptoms, they may be less communicative during a period of depression. They may become tearful or feel hopeless and pessimistic.

Having low self-esteem may reduce a person’s sex drive, or they may feel less affectionate.

It can be difficult for a person’s partner to know what to say or do to help. They may feel rejected, mistaking symptoms as a lack of interest in the relationship.

Mixed episodes

During a mixed episode, a person with bipolar may have symptoms of mania or hypomania and depression at the same time. This may be confusing or stressful for their partner, who may not know what kind of reaction to expect.


Tips for when your partner has bipolar

All relationships take work, and being in a relationship with a person with bipolar disorder is no different. A healthy partnership requires empathy, communication, and self-awareness.

There are many ways to build a strong relationship with a partner who has bipolar, including by:

Learning about the condition

Learning about bipolar disorder can help a person understand what their partner is experiencing.

Reading reputable, well-sourced health information websites can help give a balanced view of the condition.

Asking about triggers

Workplace stress or lack of sleep can trigger bipolar symptoms.
Workplace stress or lack of sleep can trigger bipolar symptoms.

Triggers are events or circumstances that could disrupt the mood state of a person with bipolar disorder. This could increase their risk of experiencing a manic or depressive episode.

Triggers could include dealing with a stressful work scenario, not getting enough sleep, or missing doses of medication.

Not everyone with bipolar will have triggers, but if they do, they may have learned about them through their own experience with the illness.

Asking about personal triggers can help someone support their partner when those events or circumstances arise or help them avoid triggers. However, many mood changes can occur without triggers.

Asking about behaviors

Asking what behaviors are typical for a person with bipolar disorder during high or low periods can help someone recognize their partner’s shifts in mood.

Some behaviors may be a warning sign for one person but not for another. For example, for a person with a high sex drive, wanting to have sex often may be normal. For others, however, it could be a sign of a manic episode.

Likewise, for those whose libido is usually low, showing little interest in sex may not coincide with a low mood. However, for someone whose sex drive is usually high, losing interest in sex may indicate a depressive episode.

Learning which behaviors are usual for a loved one and which indicate a shift in mood can be very helpful. This enables the partner of a person with bipolar disorder to distinguish usual behaviors from bipolar symptoms.

Supporting treatment

To support a person’s treatment plan, start by discussing what the plan involves. This may help reduce any anxiety in the relationship.

While some people appreciate being asked about how their treatment is going, others may find it intrusive or paternalistic. It is crucial to talk about how best to support treatment and whether there are aspects of treatment that a person does not want to discuss.

Creating a support plan

Creating a support plan is a useful way for a partner to learn how to help a person with bipolar when they are unwell. This might include planning activities, making a list of useful contacts, such as a trusted relative or therapist, and making adjustments to daily routine.

A support plan reassures both partners that they will know how to respond to a very high or low period. This can reduce anxiety around the idea of the person with bipolar becoming unwell.

Communicating feelings

High or low periods may be emotional for both partners. For this reason, open communication is crucial. A partner should explain how the behavior of a person with bipolar makes them feel, without judging them or stigmatizing the condition.

Talking openly can be a powerful way to reduce the negative impact that certain behaviors may have.

Practicing self-care

It is vital for the partner of a person with bipolar disorder to support their own mental health by practicing self-care.

Through self-care, a person can strengthen the relationship. It can also improve their ability to care for their partner.

Some ways a person can practice self-care when their partner has bipolar disorder include:

  • talking to a friend or family member about relationship issues
  • practicing a hobby
  • getting regular exercise
  • seeing a therapist
  • not being the partner’s only support
  • practicing stress-relieving techniques such as mindfulness or meditation

Tips for people with bipolar

Below are some additional relationships tips for a person with bipolar to consider:

Sharing the diagnosis

Happy couple in love holding hands and smiling
Regular and honest communication is essential for a healthy relationship.

A person with bipolar disorder may feel empowered by sharing their diagnosis in a new relationship.

Sharing this information may not be first date territory for everyone, but it is important to discuss in the early stages of a relationship.

Not everyone will understand how bipolar disorder can affect a person’s life. Telling a partner about bipolar disorder and noticing how they respond is one way to gauge whether they are likely to be supportive.

Being consistent with treatment

Being consistent with treatment is the best way to reduce symptoms, but which treatments work best may vary between individuals.

A combination of therapy and medication works for many people. Regular exercise, yoga, mindfulness, or journaling may also help support a person’s overall well-being.

Sharing mood changes

Sharing any changes in mood with a partner can help both parties recognize and respond to a high or low period before it escalates.

Telling a partner what to expect during manic or depressive episodes, as well as recognizing and telling them about warning signs, can help ensure that they do not blame themselves.

For example, if a person with bipolar is starting to feel a low mood, telling their partner early not only helps the partner be supportive, but it can also prevent them from thinking that the low mood indicates a lack of interest in the relationship.

Listening to feedback

If a partner tells a person with bipolar disorder that they have noticed signs of a mood change, it is vital to listen to them.

Listening to and discussing feedback without being defensive can improve intimacy. Of course, not all mood changes are due to bipolar. It is human to feel happy or sad in response to life’s events.


Takeaway

Having a diagnosis of bipolar disorder does not mean that a person will have relationship problems. However, without effective treatment, bipolar disorder symptoms may cause relationship tension.

By sticking to a good treatment regimen, a person with bipolar disorder may have long periods with few or no symptoms.

All relationships require empathy, communication, and emotional awareness. These qualities help a person be a supportive partner to someone with bipolar disorder. People with well-managed bipolar can build healthy, long-term relationships.

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