Sex and Relationships: Partners with Bipolar
(Column: Sex and Relationships)
A relationship between someone and her bipolar partner
Question: I have been dating a bipolar boyfriend for a little over a year now. The hardest for me to figure out is whether his reaction and/or behavior are reflections of: a) his original character, b) the side effect of his medication or c) the disease itself. Oh, and there is d) just temporary (and normal) mood swing which has nothing to do with a), b), or c). For example, when he is extremely irritated, it can be his bad temper or the missed dose of mood stabilizer or his hypo-manic episode creeping in, or, just that he’s having a bad hair day. Please help me find the clues to figure out how to respect his personality yet mindful for any sign of the “episodes” without ruining our relationship. I love him dearly and would love to be as supportive as possible, but right now I’m feeling somewhat lost.
Lance: What an insightful question. I’m reminded of the dreaded SAT tests! I know many bipolar friends who happen to be more emotionally giving than “normies.” Most carry such a perspective way beyond their years. Perhaps you have witnessed this.
In our early years coping with this condition, we [with bipolar] have had to deal with tremendous upsets where [losing] relationships and jobs were a common occurrence.
The conflicts probably stemmed from a mixture of nurture vs. nature, a side effect of the meds and being bipolar. As Andrew Behrman’s book Electro Boy: a Memoir of Mania, states: “Am I more myself on them or less? There’s no sense in trying to determine which me is the real me—in the end, I need the medications if I’m to lead a balanced life. I have a chronic illness and I can’t survive without them.” If your boyfriend is missing too many doses of meds in a row, keep some distance, but urge him to see the doctors and therapists who he should be seeing routinely at least once a month. Should he ever become physically abusive to you, walk out and do not go back, period. If he is mentally and socially abusive, it gets complicated. I urge you to call him on it and express that this must be discussed when he calms down. Meanwhile explain that we officially have a date to talk about this in a half hour from now. Rudimentary? Yes! Easy? Perhaps not. Effective? Very! During this adult “time-out,” I urge you to recall all the endearing things about why he is in your life. Have you learned a lot and been inspired [thanks to] him? Are you proud of his resilience and abilities whilst he carries this hidden challenge? Wait, who’s asking the questions here? Too many relationships I see have not had the hard discussions concerning conditions or ‘boundaries.’ These discussions are most effective before tensions ensue. The “lost feeling” will suddenly be more focused having had initiated ‘an once of prevention conversation.’ How do these conversations start? “Dear, when you do this…It makes me worried…you get mad and fearful…therefore, I get insecure…What shall we do if it happens?” What will be best for the two of you to do?
Michelle: This is an extremely difficult question. I have a mental illness and I’m always afraid that people will discount my emotions as symptoms instead of treating them as legitimate reactions to my experiences. The best advice I can offer you is to keep all of the factors you mentioned in your head when dealing with him but not to say anything unless you feel he’s gotten really out of hand. In general all of his emotional reactions will be influenced by the actual situation, but he may respond in a more extreme way because of his disorder.
It can be especially difficult to deal with irrational anger; I struggle to prevent myself from going overboard when I’m under a lot of stress or short on sleep. When I find myself snapping at people over nothing or feeling so impatient that any delay becomes intolerable, I try to take a step back and figure out where the emotion is coming from. I tend to react negatively when someone points out that my behavior is irrational; it’s easier for me to control myself if I come to that conclusion on my own. However, I can understand that it’s hard for someone witnessing the behavior to do nothing. In a situation like that I would suggest that you tell him that you realize he’s under a lot of stress, but that he doesn’t seem to be handling the situation rationally. Hopefully, he’ll be able to recognize that what you’re saying is legitimate and will appreciate your concern. If he can’t deal with this kind of criticism you’ll have to ask yourself whether or not you can stand by and watch him behave in this way.
One of the best ways of tackling these issues is to discuss them with your boyfriend; it’s great that you’ve sent us this question, but it needs to be a question you ask him as well. I’m sure he questions his emotions constantly and is also, like me, afraid that other people don’t see them as authentic. If you can talk to him about this without devaluing him, it’s a worthwhile conversation to have. You’re asking because you care about him and you want to understand where his reactions come from; he should be able to respect you for asking.