A mood episode can cause your loved one to say and do horrible things, but it’s not personal; it’s a medical condition.
Bipolar disorder is a medical condition that manifests in behaviours that look like personal choices. It’s hard for partners to understand this as the symptoms feel so personal. When a person with bipolar spends a child’s college fund, makes horrible accusations, cuts down all of the trees in the back yard, refuses to listen to reason, and comes close to destroying a relationship, it’s hard to step back and think, This is an illness, but it needs to happen.
I eventually understood that bipolar made Ivan say and do horrible things while he was sick. At the time, I didn't have this insight and was just as confused as any partner. I vividly remember looking into his eyes in the hospital and saying, “Ivan? Where are you? Are you in there? What is wrong? Have I done something to deserve this? Are you trying to punish me?” I was scared he would never return back to his sweet and wonderful self—but he did.
I've been through it all. And we survived. Your relationship can survive as well.
It’s often hard for partners who have been on the outside looking in on a big episode to articulate what they need, especially if the emphasis is on getting the person with bipolar stable. I can tell you from being on both sides that the person with bipolar needs to know the partner sees bipolar as an illness that changes behavior. And the partner needs to know that the person with bipolar is going to get help. Here is a script partners can use as a foundation to talk with someone who has bipolar:
I’m confused and hurting right now. We each had a different experience when you were sick. I know you don’t remember some of the really terrible things that happened, but I remember them all. I want you to know that I’m working on understanding how an illness can change a person’s behavior so drastically and how I’m supposed to move on knowing that this might happen again. I don’t blame you for what happened. And even though it’s hard to say this now while we are still working on getting you better and figuring out how this happened, I can move forward. I need time to process what I went through. We don’t have to make big decisions now. I need you to get help with the bipolar so that you can get stable and we can talk about the future when both of us are in a good place. I don’t want to punish you and I don’t want to make decisions I’ll regret. You need time to heal, and I ask that my needs are addressed as well. We can do this together.
Can the relationship be repaired? Of course it can, but it can’t go on the same as before. The biggest mistake couples make is ignoring the bipolar, assuming medications are the answer, and thinking life can return to how it used to be. There now has to be an awareness of the illness and how if left unmanaged it can cause chaos in a relationship, over and over again. Couples who work together to manage bipolar can form a bond that is stronger than a typical relationship simply because many of the issues that people often avoid—including arguing, children, substance abuse, and lifestyle choices—have to be out in the open. Yes, a relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder can succeed. But only if you work together at both the relationship and the bipolar.
Printed as ” Fast Talk: Loving Someone With Bipolar”, Winter 2016