When you have a serious mental illness like bipolar disorder, navigating relationships can be difficult. Not only is it difficult to overcome the self-limiting factors those with bipolar disorder may place on themselves, but it’s difficult to get over the limitations that may externally be placed on a person with bipolar disorder. These are challenges that can feel impossible to overcome but people with bipolar disorder can have social and intimate relationships, and what’s more, doing so can even improve their mental health.
Internal Struggles of Those with Bipolar and Relationships
If you have a very serious illness that requires daily care, this impacts your ability to make connections with others. This statement is obvious to many, but few people have thought about it through the lens of a mentally ill person.
The first thing that may challenge a person with bipolar disorder to create relationships is self-stigma (or internalized stigma) leading to self-created isolation. Self-stigma is where a person internalizes the negative messages he or she receives about those with mental illness. It is a state wherein people feel bad about themselves and have low self-esteem because society’s messages about bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses tend to be so derogatory. When a person feels bad about him or herself it can be very difficult to initiate connections with others. People with bipolar, then, may avoid relationships simply because they don’t feel good enough for other people. Sometimes these feelings even come on quickly and cause those with mental illnesses to push away others in existing relationships. This can lead to social isolation.
The second thing that may impact the ability of a person with bipolar disorder to have relationships is routine. Those with a mental illness may rely heavily on a routine for wellness. This may mean going to bed early, sleeping longer than average, scheduling meals precisely, not being able to skip exercising and more. A strict schedule containing many of these components may force the person with bipolar to forgo nighttime gatherings, parties, places where alcohol is served, and other events that don’t fit into his or her timetable.
It’s also important to remember that the symptoms of a mood disorder – uncontrolled periods of severe mood changes – can also cause breaks, either temporary or long-term, in relationships.
External Struggles of Relationships and Bipolar Disorder
Moreover, not only do some people with bipolar disorder feel bad about themselves because of the negative societal messages about mental illness, but others may feel that those with bipolar disorder are lesser-than as well. Prevalent messages about those with bipolar disorder include:
- People with bipolar disorder can’t be trusted.
- People with bipolar disorder can’t be sexually faithful.
- People with bipolar disorder are violent or dangerous.
- People with bipolar disorder are unpredictable.
- People with bipolar disorder are manipulative.
- People with bipolar disorder can’t control their anger.
These messages and so many others may make people look at those with bipolar disorder as unsuitable for relationships of any type. These myths place a wall between those with bipolar disorder and others. This can lead to:
- Forced isolation from peer groups.
- Relationships being abandoned once a bipolar disorder diagnosis is discovered
- Every problem in a relationship being blamed on bipolar disorder.
- Social pressure not to be in a relationships with a person with bipolar disorder.
- Discrimination against those with bipolar disorder.
- Abuse against those with bipolar disorder.
So not only are people with bipolar disorder faced with feeling bad about themselves, but they are also faced with others’ prejudice against them as well. In this environment it’s no wonder that those with bipolar disorder find relationships difficult.
The Benefits of Relationships for Those with Bipolar Disorder
Nevertheless, this does not mean that people with bipolar disorder don’t want relationships. Many with bipolar disorder do want social connections with others.
Additionally, putting effort into relationships is definitely worthwhile for a person’s health. Social relationships are known as protective factors when it comes to health. In fact, studies actually show an increased risk of death among those with few social relationships. One study found, “lower levels of social embeddedness and social support increased the relative rate of suicide attempt.” Both short- and long-term effects from relationships are felt on mental health, health behavior and physical health.
So What’s a Person with Bipolar Disorder to Do About Relationships?
It’s not easy to overcome the hurdles of relationships presented to those with bipolar disorder.
The key thing to remember is not to generalize and that those with bipolar disorder cannot be judged as a group any more than any other group. One person with bipolar disorder may have trouble controlling his or her anger, but this doesn’t mean that all with bipolar disorder do. One person with bipolar disorder may have a string of relationships in which he or she hurts the other person, but certainly, not all people with bipolar disorder do. Internalizing the idea that you will hurt others because of a mental illness is simply false and defeating, as is the notion that someone with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder will hurt you simply because of a medical condition.
No one would suggest that those with cancer make substandard social connections because of their illness and no one should assume that might be the case because of a mental illness either.