My partner has been on a journey with bipolar disorder over the past 7 years. It took me a surprisingly long time to recognize that this journey would be mine as well; that I wasn’t merely there to help her through this “phase” but that I was a part of this. That this was a part of us now. That understanding has been important. As my partner has worked to understand the challenges to her mental health, I have also had to work to understand my unique role and experiences as a partner of someone with BD.
LaRae LaBouff lives in Maine with her husband and her dog. She’s an amateur photographer and enjoys traveling, reading, writing and roller derby.Due to personal experience with Bipolar Disorder, she delved into the literature and research of the human mind. She currently writes of her own life experiences both with Psych Central and on her personal site.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
When our partners go through a period where their symptoms are difficult to manage, both partners will benefit from recognizing that the struggle may impact both partners and their relationship with one another. When we reach out to a struggling partner in love, sometimes the emotional instabilityor irritability can make it feel like our attempts to take care and provide support are unimportant or worse, unwelcome. Shifts in mood can make adapting to a partner’s needs and desires difficult. Indeed, couples where at least one spouse has bipolar disorder are at greater risk for divorce.
I think the key to working through these difficulties lies in three important processes I hope to describe here and detail in future articles. Any relationship, but especially a relationship with someone who battles the invisible monster of BD, benefits from a focus on empathy, clear communication, and self-care. This empathy is critical to any relationship, but perhaps more so in a relationship with a partner with an unstable mood. Helping them recognize their mood states and responding to them together is key to feeling cooperative, rather than combative.
The ability to imagine and understand the feelings and experiences of someone else is critical to any well-functioning relationship. As a partner of someone with BD, that empathy may manifest as recalling your own experiences with depressive or dysphoric moods, attempting to recall the acute feelings that your partner is battling. More importantly, in my experience, empathy helps reframe my own frustrations. When I am spun by a shifting mood, or disappointed by the iron grip of a depressive episode, empathy helps me remember that my partner’s experience is so much more challenging than mine, and that they’re dealing with the guilt associated with their disorder as well on top of their very real invisible battle. Empathy can help you choose to be a patient boon in those frustrating or tense moments. You will find that reducing the pressure on your partner can reduce the pressure on yourself.
Clear and honest communication, like empathy, is a foundation of any successful relationship. For our relationships, communication is critical to reducing the frustrations of ambiguity that accompany unstable moods. It is important to develop a pattern of communication with your partner that can help open avenues for empathy to grow – because the more we feel like a part of the same team with our partner, the easier empathy will be. For your partner, having a safe and comfortable space to attempt to articulate their experiences is a critical component to social support, associated with tremendous benefits in recovery from bipolar disorder. Further, clear communication can help you recognize your own emotional states and respond to them.
Because your own feelings and experiences are also critically important. It’s easy for caregivers of long-term disorders to experience health problems themselves. Being a partner and caregiver does not mean that you must constantly swallow or ignore your unique struggles. Just as those with bipolar disorder may experience physical and emotional health consequences simultaneously, caregivers of those with bipolar disorder also often encounter these comorbid challenges. Those critical skills of empathy and communication become more difficult when your resources are spread too thin, creating a potential downward spiral. Be sure that your empathy and communication flow both ways, working towards the better health of both partners.
Having a partner with BD means many different things to each different relationship. It is unavoidably a challenge, but in many ways it’s just like any other challenge relationships face. Working to care for yourself, practicing empathy and emotional communication can help build a toolbox for responding to the challenges that bipolar disorder might raise for both of you as you take the journey together.