10 Tips for Living with a Bipolar Person
Living with bipolar disorder can be extremely challenging, but living with someone who has bipolar disorder can also have its difficulties. Growing up I lived with my mother and grandfather, both of whom had bipolar disorder. For years they hid it from me, I suppose hoping I would never find out. But sooner or later it all came to the surface and everything started to make sense.
Finding out about their illnesses was possibly the best thing that could have happened in that circumstance. Living with people who have bipolar disorder and not even knowing about it can cause a lot of friction. It’s easy to jump to conclusions about their behavior.
After taking the time to do some research on bipolar disorder, I began learning how to deal with it myself. At first I made lots of mistakes and it made my life a lot harder than it needed to be. Learning how to support and live in harmony with a person with bipolar disorder isn’t easy. It takes time and effort, but it’s vital in order to maintain a healthy relationship where you can support your loved one without letting their illness affect your own life. Here are some tips for living with someone with bipolar disorder:
- Do your research.
Having bipolar disorder can be an extremely lonely experience. It’s easy to feel like no one understands what you are going through. That often makes depressive phases worse. Learn as much as you can about bipolar disorder so that you understand what they’re going through. In turn, they’ll feel like they’ve got someone on their side.
- Take note of their symptoms.
See if you can work out their cycle. While some people with bipolar disorder may have up and down periods that come in waves just once every couple of years, others may have a continuous cycle from one to the other. Keep an eye on it and you should be able to predict their behavioral patterns.
- Listen carefully.
It’s really important to listen to what someone with bipolar disorder has to say. When they’re in a depressed state, you may find it difficult to understand why they’re so sad. The best thing you can do is to listen. If you struggle to understand what they’re feeling, ask them to explain it to you. Your interest in what they’re going through may help make them feel better.
- Watch out for the mania.
Bipolar disorder involves both depression and mania. While symptoms of depression are usually quite similar, levels of mania can vary from person to person. A manic period can be surprisingly difficult to deal with. Someone in the midst of mania can be extremely enthused and not always aware that their illness is the cause. All-nighters on the computer and elaborate ideas are all part of the parcel. Try not to judge or reason with them. If you want to try to calm them, it’s best not to draw attention to their behavior, but rather distract them from it with an activity that you can do together.
- Ask how you can help.
There may be instances where someone with bipolar disorder can’t look after their children or take care of things at work. Ask if you can help. It could be something as simple as cooking dinner.
- Don’t judge.
Bipolar disorder is not something you can just switch on and off. Don’t be pushy.
- Encourage them to take their medication.
Because bipolar disorder comes and goes in waves, it’s easy for those with it to feel that they don’t need their medication. While it may make them feel better in the short run, they will probably soon nosedive into severe mania or depression.
- Talk to them about your feelings, too.
While it’s important to listen to what they have to say, it’s also important to tell the person with bipolar disorder how you feel. They need to know how their illness is affecting you just as much as you need to know how it is affecting them.
- Find your own support.
Living with a person with bipolar disorder can be difficult. Find someone you can talk to and vent your problems to. A professional counselor can help.
- Give yourself a break.
Know when enough is enough. While your support will mean the world to your loved one, you must know where your limits lie. Being around their illness all the time can take its toll on you. Keep your own needs in mind as much as possible.Couple talking photo available from
10 Tips for Living with a Bipolar Person
I still thought, at that point in my life, that happiness came from an external source. I believed that as soon as I met the right person, lived in the right place, or had the right job, I’d be happy.
My relationship with my second wife was better, but still not sustainable. We divorced after 5 years but remained friends. During our time together, I learned more about my illness and found the right medication combination, but the marriage ended because I didn’t enter as a whole person.
The rules of marriage don’t change just because I’m a person living with bipolar disorder. I entered both of those marriages trying to see what my wife could do for me. It never occurred to me that I needed to do things for her. I was emotional and stressed, but more than anything, I was incredibly selfish.
I wasn’t stable as a single person, so being in a relationship only amplified my deficiencies instead of removing them. When I realized this, I knew I had to put a lot of work into improving my overall well-being so I would be in a good position to be in the stable relationship I craved.
I was single for 2 1/2 years before I met my third wife. And this time, I had a lot to offer. I was stable, funny, and caring. I could take care of myself, and I could take care of her. We clicked because we both knew what we wanted in a marriage before we met.
We moved forward carefully. We wanted to be together not to solve a problem, but to enhance our lives — lives that were stable and fulfilling before we met.
I insisted that she take classes on mental illness and bipolar disorder. I wanted her to understand, as much as possible, what it meant to manage a serious illness for a lifetime. We had conversations about what I’d been through and what we expected from each other in terms of help and care.
Today, my plan for a happy marriage is to manage bipolar disorder separately from managing my marriage whenever possible. I ensure I’m open and honest with my spouse and insist she treats me the same. We are a team, and we care for each other. And in this marriage, I do have the love, acceptance, and stability that everyone longs for — but that’s because I found those things inside myself first.
10 Tips for Coping With a Bipolar Spouse
Coping with Bipolar Spouse Mood Swings
Here are some tips for surviving and thriving in your relationship:
Breathe. When things are tough, take a deep breath and step back. “It’s a disease — it’s not the person. So you try to remember that,” advises Mary.
Build support. Caring for someone with a disease can keep you focused on his needs, but you also need your own sources of support. Joining a support group for family members of bipolar patients can help. Working with your own therapist may also be a good idea. Support from understanding family and friends is also invaluable. Mary has never joined a support group — and says she probably could have benefited from one — but she does find support in her friends.
Get away. Mary says part of what keeps her sane is her job, for which she occasionally travels. Despite the fact that her business trips often coincide with times when her husband stops taking his medications, she values her time away. At home, when her husband’s moods are out of control, Mary acknowledges, “I try to avoid him.”
Laugh. Whether you can insert humor into the situation and get a good response is highly individual, but Mary says this tactic works for her. “I try to make him laugh, to get him out of it,” she says.
Enforce meds. Mary has made it clear to her husband that taking his medication is non-negotiable. “If you can keep them on the meds, you’re okay. It’s a fight. It’s like having another child,” she says. If he refuses to take his meds (as he often does when he is manic), she leaves, even if only to spend the night at a friend’s house to make her point. That usually gets him back on track.
Recall your love. There are hard times in marriage to a bipolar spouse, acknowledges Mary. But she prefers to see the man she fell in love with, even when his moods are unpredictable.
Know (or grow) your philosophy of marriage. Mary believes in the commitment she made when she married her husband. “You know, I married a man for better or for worse. I did not marry a disease.” While she acknowledges bipolar disorder is difficult, she also notes, “The person I fell in love with is still there. Would I want someone to leave me? I don’t think so,” she explains.
Look for triggers. “When your spouse is in a stable or more favorable mood, pay close attention to what environmental triggers precipitated and are maintaining the stability. Often there are specific environmental stressors or soothers — including relationship issues — that influence mood swings. Use the soothers to help maintain the mood that both of you are desiring,” advises marriage and family therapist Tracy Todd, PhD, based in Alexandria, Va.
Ask. Despite the mood swings, your spouse can tell you what he needs. “Have an honest discussion about what is helpful to your spouse when he is in an undesirable mood. Incorporate ideas, plans, and strategies so that there can be a minimization of harmful effects,” advises Todd.
Keep talking. There may be days and weeks when it is not easy, but communication is essential. “Communication during and between mood swings is critical to managing the accompanying stressors,” says Todd.
Ultimately, Mary’s experience has given her a unique depth of compassion, both for family members whose loved ones have bipolar disorder and for people who live with bipolar disorder. “ that I would hate to be in his head — I can’t even imagine how he feels,” she says.
Being Married to a Person with Depression or Bipolar: 6 Survival Tips
Some sobering statistics: Depression has a much greater impact on marital life than rheumatoid arthritis or cardiac disease. It is suggested that about 90 percent of marriages where one person is bipolar ends in divorce (Marano, 2003).1 Persons diagnosed with bipolar disorder appear to be more likely to divorce than those without the disorder (Walid & Zaytseva, 2011).
This is all to communicate this message: marriages in which one person suffers from depression or bipolar disorder can be extremely fragile.
I know, because I’m in one.
Here are six tips that have helped us and other couples I know defy the statistics.
1. Cut Through the Crap
If you are married to someone who is in denial, you have quite a job ahead of you. “I’m not crazy.” “There is nothing wrong with me.” “I am not taking meds.” These statements do little to move your marriage into the happy zone. In her book, “When Someone You Love Is Bipolar,” psychologist Cynthia Last, Ph.D. dedicates a chapter to the subject of denial and what you can do. She suggests giving your partner a book that he can relate to and providing literature on the topic.
You could also try a scientific approach and provide some evidence in the form of feedback from his friends and family, a list of compelling symptoms (embarrassing photos are great), or a rundown of the disorder in his family. He could balk at that, and tell you that you dress like his mother for even implying such things; however, you’ve done your job to try to educate, and that’s really all you can do.
2. Find the Right Doctor
I consider shopping for the right doctor much like buying your first house. Many components need to go into the decision — it’s not enough to like the bathroom tiles and the bedroom closet — and some bickering is to be expected. If you rush the decision, you might wind up living in a house that you hate for a long time except for the great bathroom tiles. Good doctors save marriages. Bad doctors destroy them. Good doctors help you get better. Bad doctors worsen your condition.
If your partner is bipolar, this is especially important because the average patient with bipolar disorder takes approximately 10 years to get a proper diagnosis. About 56 percent are first diagnosed with unipolar depression (also called clinical depression or just plain depression). I know this topic well. I went through seven doctors and a ton of diagnoses before I found the right fit. She saved my life and my marriage.
3. Enter into a Triangle Relationship
In any other situation, I hate threesomes. Someone always gets left out and people play dirty — at least they do at my daughter’s play dates. But for marriages that involve illnesses such as depression or bipolar, a triangle relationship with a doctor or mental health professional is essential. It keeps your partner honest, or at least required to unfudge the truth. He reports:“ Feeling perfect. Meds really kicking in. All is going better than it ever has.” Then wifey comes in and spills the beans. “He has been curled up on the couch in tears for the last two weeks, not taking calls from any friends and skipping important meetings at work.”
The triangle relationship also allows you some education about his condition. For example, you might not be aware of what a hypomanic episode looks like until you hear the doctor describe it. In some cases a mutual understanding of symptoms is enough for a couple to avert a full-blown manic or depressive episode because together you can take steps to change the course.
4. Abide by Some Rules
My husband and I have several rules: I call the doctor after three days of incessant crying or no sleep. I tell him when I’m suicidal. He stays with me when I’m a danger to myself. However, the most important rule is this: I have promised him that I will take my meds. It’s like how Jack Nicholson told Helen Hunt in the movie “As Good As It Gets” that she makes him want to take his meds, she “makes him want to be a better man.” The truth is that many marriages get stuck on this one.
Without a doubt, the biggest challenge we face in treating bipolar disorder is medical adherence, according to psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison. “I’d like to make the obvious point that I don’t think is made enough, which is that it doesn’t do any good to have effective medications for an illness if people don’t take them,” she said at the Johns Hopkins 21st Annual Mood Disorders Symposium. Approximately 40 – 45 percent of bipolar patients do not take their medications as prescribed. Come up with some rules, and be sure to include in there “medication adherence.”
5. Learn the Language of the Illness
Sometimes I forget how hurtful my words can be when I’m expressing how anxious or depressed I feel. “I just want to be dead.” “I don’t care about anything.” “If only I was diagnosed with cancer and could make a graceful exodus out of this world …” Oh, no offense. Thankfully my husband knows that it’s my depression speaking, not me. He has been able to separate his wife from the illness. That is the result of lots of research on his part and a few conversations with my psychiatrist.
6. Keep Yourself Sane
Spouses of persons with depression and bipolar unwittingly become caretakers for major chunks of time. And caretakers are at high risk for depression and anxiety. Researchers at Yale University School of Medicine have found that nearly one-third of caregivers who are nursing terminally ill loved ones at home suffer from depression. A study in Great Britain found that one in four family caregivers meets the clinical criteria for anxiety.
Pay attention to these symptoms: feeling tired and burned out much of the time; physical signs of stress such as headaches and nausea; irritability; feeling down, deflated, reduced; changes in sleep or appetite; resentment toward your spouse; decreased intimacy in your relationship. Remember that if you don’t secure your oxygen mask first, no one gets air. If my husband didn’t take time to run and play golf he would be hospitalized alongside me.
1. This comes from an un-referenced article on Psychology Today that claims that 90 percent of marriages where one person has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder will end in divorce. We could not find this statistic in any research study, however.
Being Married to a Person with Depression or Bipolar: 6 Survival Tips