How Bipolar Disorder Affects Relationships

Published on: 05 Jan 2018
Clinically Reviewed by Amy Cirbus Ph.D, LMHC, LPC
man sitting on bed looking down with woman behind him

Updated on 9/29/21

Bipolar disorder can sometimes seem devastating, not only for the person who’s diagnosed with it but also for their friends, romantic partners, and family members. Bipolar is a brain disorder that affects moods by causing extreme highs and lows that can be difficult to navigate. 

A bipolar disorder diagnosis can result in a struggle to maintain more than just daily life functions. It can affect relationships too. But with the right treatment, you can manage your bipolar disorder and relationships. Read on to learn how. 

Is It Hard to Maintain Relationships With Bipolar Disorder?

Though bipolar relationship patterns may seem more challenging when one partner has bipolar disorder, they’re not impossible. 

There are a number of ways to develop healthy patterns so bipolar relationships can be fulfilling and satisfying on both sides. It may take some work, but all relationships need effort and care, and this is no different.   

The most important part of establishing functional bipolar disorder relationships is keeping the lines of communication open and being willing to do the work. Being honest and upfront and making an effort to learn are key components in creating a positive, trusting dynamic. Whether it’s you who is bipolar or you have a bipolar partner, the following are important aspects to keep in mind:

  • A combination of treatment and medication for bipolar disorder is typically very helpful.
  • Being able to recognize symptoms of mania, hypomania, bipolar depression, and mixed mood episodes are essential. Learn the difference between bipolar disorder vs. depression or borderline personality disorder vs. bipolar disorder.
  • Discovering (and looking for) triggers before they happen can be a game-changer. Triggers are circumstances that can encourage or increase the likelihood of a depressive or manic episode
  • Having a support plan in place can help manage bipolar disorder symptoms. Support plans can detail activities and list out contacts. For example, you should have a therapist or psychiatrist who would be helpful in the event of a manic or depressive episode. A support plan can also predetermine each person’s role and ensure you both have the tools you need, like how to alter daily routines if necessary.

“When someone experiences bipolar disorder symptoms, it is important for their support system to be involved and in frequent communication. People diagnosed with bipolar disorders can benefit from having a therapist, a psychiatrist, and if they are in a relationship, even a couples therapist.” 

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSW-C, CMHIMP  

Internal struggles of having bipolar disorder in a relationship

For those that have bipolar disorder, you may face internal struggles that can end up affecting your current or future relationship.

Self-stigma

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 a mental condition. It is a state where people feel bad about themselves and have low self-esteem because society’s messages about bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions tend to be so derogatory. 

When a person feels bad about themselves, it can be very difficult to initiate connections with others. A bipolar person may avoid relationships because they don’t feel good enough for other people. Sometimes these feelings come on quickly and cause those with mental health conditions to push away others in existing relationships. This can lead to social isolation.

Routine

The second thing that may impact the ability of a person with bipolar disorder to have relationships is routine. Those with a mental health condition 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

A strict schedule may force the person with bipolar to forgo nighttime gatherings, parties, places where alcohol is served, and other events that don’t fit into their timetable.

Mood change

It’s also important to remember that the symptoms of a mood disorder – uncontrolled periods of severe mood change – can also cause breaks, either temporary or long-term, in relationships.

Bipolar Relationship Patterns

There are a number of bipolar relationship patterns to be aware of. Each of these can have a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of your partnership. Parenting issues, intimacy, and work stresses can all be affected when you have a bipolar partner.

Parenting issues

Parenting can be stressful at the best of times. Since stress can trigger a mood episode, parenting may be a factor when one parent is bipolar. Learning to spot triggers and having a plan in place to manage stress will be important when kids are part of the equation. 

Intimacy issues 

Intimacy issues are very common in relationships when bipolar disorder is present. Sex drives can increase dramatically during a manic episode and a hypomanic episode. Also common is an increase in the urge to engage in risky behavior, like unprotected sex with multiple partners. Sometimes this can even include the inclination to go outside the relationship for sex. 

Alternatively, depressive episodes may result in a decrease in sexual desire. Understanding this from the beginning can help avoid some of the fears that typically might result after an interruption in sexual norms in the romantic relationship. Finally, it’s incredibly important to note that some emotional regulation medications may decrease sex drive, as well. 

Work stresses

Mood swings and other symptoms related to bipolar disorder can have a negative impact on work environments and relationships. Symptoms specific to manic mood swings (like impulsivity or an inflated sense of self-worth) or depressive swings (like lack of energy and motivation) can lead to difficulty in maintaining stability at work. These types of stressors at work can also trigger a hypomanic episode or a depressive episode. 

“Understanding mood swings and other behavioral patterns can help the person cope with work stressors and reduce negative self-views. A good way to identify or keep track of your moods is to keep a journal. Write down your emotions, events, interactions with others, medication and side effects, etc. Mindfulness, meditation, exercise, and maintaining a good diet and sleeping habits can also make a difference in our mood.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSW-C, CMHIMP

How to Manage Relationships With Bipolar Disorder

The single most important part of making a bipolar relationship work is being willing to put the time and effort into managing the condition and nurturing the relationship. There are numerous healthy ways to go about this. All of the following suggestions are strategies that can help each of you successfully navigate your platonic or romantic relationships.

Counseling

Therapy in the form of couples counseling is exceptionally helpful in guiding bipolar relationships. Understanding each other’s point of view and having an unbiased mediator who can help both of you see the other side is beyond just helpful. It can be the difference between maintaining successful bipolar relationships or not. Specifically, counseling can help you identify hurtful and destructive behaviors that may have occurred in the past, find ways to forgive those behaviors, and finally, set firm boundaries for your relationship moving forward, so you don’t continue to repeat the same bipolar relationship patterns

If the relationship isn’t romantic, then both parties may benefit from individual therapy to learn how to navigate the relationship.

Self-care

Self-care is important in any relationship, but it’s even more necessary when one person has bipolar disorder. Taking time for one another, working out together, journaling, meditating, eating healthy, taking regular date nights, and maintaining a healthy sleep pattern are all things that can benefit any couple, including bipolar relationships.  

Additional treatment

Getting treatment is critical in managing bipolar and relationships. In an ideal situation, both people will be motivated to remain involved in a treatment plan. When two people are both invested in treatment for bipolar disorder, the results are beneficial and striking. A better understanding of the symptoms, insight into how to communicate, and a better ability to see triggers are all positive results from seeking treatment together. 

What Treatment Options Are Available?

With the right bipolar disorder treatment, it’s easier to navigate the good times, and the difficult ones. Both of you will be able to gain a better understanding of bipolar disorder and relationships on a higher level. Treatment typically needs to be an ongoing commitment, and it can include a number of different styles and approaches. In some cases, a combination of treatment techniques is the best option. 

Medication: There are several options for treating bipolar disorder using medication. 

    • Antidepressants must be used with caution, as they’re not always effective and have been known to trigger mania for some.
    • Lithium can be an effective mood stabilizer used to curb the highs and lows that are common with bipolar disorder. 
    • Second-generation antipsychotics (SGAs) are also common and are typically used with other emotional regulation medications such as mood stabilizers. They can be helpful during a manic episode and depressive episode.
    • Anticonvulsants are yet another mood stabilizer that may be prescribed. 

Any medication needs to be used with caution and under the guidance of a licensed mental health care provider or psychiatrist. There are side effects you should be aware of, and you should never stop taking bipolar medication without the supervision of a doctor.

Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is almost always recommended when seeking treatment for bipolar disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people with bipolar disorder recognize negative thought patterns to replace them with more positive, effective coping techniques.

Psychoeducation and family-focused therapy: Making an effort to learn about bipolar disorder can be hugely beneficial for both people in a bipolar relationship. Not only can it help you understand more about the realities of the condition, but it can also help you be able to identify issues more quickly. 

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT): ECT works by sending rapid electronic impulses to the brain. While it’s not as common these days, sometimes ECT is still used as a short-term treatment for treat bipolar disorder when other types of therapy and medication haven’t worked. 

Getting Help for Bipolar Disorder

Whether you have bipolar disorder or you’re in a relationship with someone who does, finding help doesn’t have to be difficult. The first step is learning more about what bipolar disorder looks like. Then, you can find a therapist you both trust and make a commitment to sticking to treatment. 

A few other resources available include finding a local or online support group, getting a referral from your primary care physician, reaching out to a mental health clinic in your area, or considering in-person or online therapy

With the right support and guidance, your bipolar disorder relationships can thrive. You can live the life you’ve always wanted in a successful, loving, mutually supportive relationship. 

In a relationship and wondering how to know if you are bipolar? Take our free bipolar disorder test to get started. 

Sources:

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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