Bipolar Love: A Match Made in Heaven?

Bipolar Love…A Match Made in Heaven?

It Takes More than Good Intentions to Navigate the Challenges of Romantic Relationships in the Face of Mental Illness

How’s your love life?  Going as smoothly as you’d like?

These days, romance is more complicated than it ever has been before.

The global economy has brought pressures and life changes. Couples bearing the burden of multiple jobs while being stretched to the max, and people with more need for support in a world where there are fewer able to give it.

The pressure is on!

Couples are expected to produce sexually-exciting activity for each other, plus thoroughly honest, loyal and trusting communication.

There’s a need for realistic expectations

We are expected to have high Emotional IQs and to look great on the beach.  And, don’t forget the demand to do well professionally, live in impressive houses and drive expensive cars like the make-believe world promoted by Hollywood.

All this has imposed unrealistic expectations on relationships ..and lasting love is subjected to an awfully big threat.

Add to that the hugely complex symptoms of a mental illness in either of the partners, and it can all be to much to manage.

As tough as all that is…satisfying, loving and fulfilling relationships involving a bipolar partner are not only possible, but probable.  However, success does require training, mutual growth and a deep, shared commitment to the process that’s involved.  Then, obstacles transform– and can become opportunities to grow more intimately together.

Zeal just can’t compensate for good old-fashioned know-how.

For example, the junior high school student with a great love for the Navy can’t step into a nuclear submarine and maneuver it into battle.

The kid’s zeal just has to give way to education and training, or he will never maneuver a submarine at all.

So it is in any relationship.

Zeal, passion and affection alone can’t prepare a well-meaning lover to navigate the deep waters of a romance.   And that is even more true if it is with someone who suffers from a mental illness like bipolar disorder.

Education and training are paramount.

Actually, you might say that in most cases, training makes a big difference for even the healthiest people to make a loving relationship work and endure the test of time.

As recently as twenty years ago, bipolar disorder was still enough of a mystery, that there was’t much help offered to effectively live with it.

However, with the growth of the internet as well as the advancement of science, more understanding of this illness is emerging.

We’re learning what causes its symptoms and how people affected by it can work together to manage their relationship when the going is the roughest.

Knowledge is Power

In the uncertainty of daily living, knowing what causes relationship conflicts is empowering.

The ability to anticipate ‘land mines’ between two people and having some idea how to respond to them productively, can give you an arsenal for conquering the obstacles on the road to building a loving and secure bond with your mate.

When mental illness is woven into the bond between two people, then becoming ‘experts’ on the illness can’t be promoted too much.

Assimilating information about both of these areas provides both armor and arsenal for what is possibly the most important crusade of your lives.

Shame has to go

Fundamental to the core of suffering from bipolar disorder is shame.  (Link to article on Shame)

Brene Brown, PhD,  is author of The Hustle for Worthiness, and says that there’s a huge difference between shame and guilt.  Shame implies worthlessness.

That the one who is shamed is not worthy of love.

Guilt simply says, “I did something I shouldn’t have done.”

Guilt says: “I did something bad.”

Shame says: “I am bad.”

There’s just no place for shame in a loving relationship….and the person who loves someone with bipolar disorder must understand how sensitive this loved one is to debilitating feelings of shame.

Shame doesn’t motivate, but rather demotivates.   In truth, we would all do well to utterly remove implications of shame from our vocabulary.  By doing that, we may begin to build that ‘safe place’ that is needed for trust to grow.

If you would like to learn more about shame and the role it plays with bipolars, click on the section, Shame.

Among other issues to consider, when you try to understand the upheavals that take place in a relationship with a bipolar sufferer…and one that is enormously significant, is triggers.


Ok, now…for people with bipolar disorder, understanding and recognizing the triggers (link to article on Triggers) that can set off emotional upheaval and pain, is paramount to developing the skills to pre-empt the upsetting episode.

Just as important, is having that understanding in common with the one they love and trust.

In many cases, these triggers are related to an old painful memory.

The partner cannot be expected to understand and respect such sensitive areas if she is not informed about them.

So, a brick to be laid in the foundation, one that is a cornerstone for its stability, is communication, and especially communication about triggers the sufferer may find particularly threatening and painful.

Most people with this illness have had specific painful experiences in life that became like an electrical hot button for them.   When another person makes a comment that touches that button, the sufferer has sometimes reacted with great impact before he even realizes it.   And once he reacts like that…a chain reaction happens in his brain that has been compared to a seizure.   Bystanders may be watching behaviors that appear to be ‘rude’ or ‘irrational’…but the sufferer is experiencing an anguish few other people can comprehend…and the effect on his brain has commonalities with convulsions.   These reactions…or ‘episodes’…need to be taken seriously.    And avoided when possible.

When loving a person with these triggers, communicating what those triggers are…perhaps how they came to be…and how to avoid stepping on them…are all parts of the vital communication that will mortar the foundation in place between these two people.

Communicating through Triggers

Bipolar person

If you’re the one with the disorder, give your partner the advantage of hearing about your triggers….and why they cut through you like they do…

Because of the disorder, you may feel terrible hurt, and may express it with outrage.   (Link to triggers)

Your partner may only see the rage and feel attacked for no reason.

It will help her to remember to avoid those proverbial pitfalls if you will give her information.

It isn’t necessary for you to tell every painful detail, as just reliving it can trigger the pain again and lead to a devastating episode of anguish.

Do set the ground rules for communicating about this ultra-sensitive topic.

Just explain enough so that she is equipped to avoid that pothole in the future. Tell her how you want her to listen.   Walk through it with her–then let her know how you want her to listen — Either quietly, or actively sympathetic.

She may want to tell you a story that this brings to her mind, to show you she understands; If you don’t want to be interrupted with another story, tell her that before you start.

For the partner: Show that you hear what he is describing and can empathize, but can’t possibly know how painful it must have been.

To dismiss his efforts to expose this deepest vulnerability to you may convey the message that you don’t respect his pain.  This communicates worthlessness to him…hence shame.  And shame, in turn, is crippling, even deadly.

So safeguard the setting to ensure he is not interrupted. Turn off phones and the television.  And listen.   Don’t explain or give him solutions.   Just listen.

There are psychological and physiological reasons your loved one shields these memories and the resulting feelings he bears.

For more information about these reasons, refer to The Science of Bipolar Disorder. (link to The Science of Bipolar Disorder.)

The Bipolar Individual has Responsibility, too

Attached to that terrible feeling of shame is the determination to hide his true self.  In many cases, the reactions of people around him have been conveying rejection throughout his life.   He has learned through pain and loss that his true self is unacceptable.

Therefore, authentic vulnerability  (Link to Bipolar’s Responsibility article) without pretense, is extremely difficult…but without it, there can be no authentic connection.

Authentic vulnerability is exposing our most genuine and unguarded self to another in trust.  That exposure is very difficult for many people…but especially difficult for the wounded.  But, when we do, we are allowing that person to help us in our weakness…protect us when we need it.   Among human relationships, most of the time…both partners get their turn at being the vulnerable one…and at being the protector and helper.

This is a difficult process. It requires lowering a guard that has been erected for good reason and has provided much needed protection in difficult times.  But, the guard that served as armor in time of battle, serves as a wall between two people who yearn to know and trust each other.

Dismantling that wall is vital to the intimacy and trust of the relationship. It requires that both partners be patient with the other–and with themselves–as they explore the secrets to removing the barrier that separates them.

Any event where the partner communicates that the bipolar individual has been selfish, unreasonable, insensitive, etc will most likely lead to withdrawal of trust by that person.

In relationships where there is no illness, this type of accusation is often hurtful also. But  since people who are not ill have more resilience, they might not let the partner know that the accusation was hurtful.  They erect a guard, as we spoke about earlier.  The good news about the special sensitivities of our beloved bipolars, is that accusations have to go the way of the albatross.   There is no place for them…they cause needless and often un-healable wounds.   So, loving these special people makes the lover a kinder and less self-absorbed person.  The entire world could benefit from the same lessons!

Patience, understanding and tolerance of outbursts are paramount to the survival of this relationship.

A common complaint expressed by bipolars is the baffled sense of feeling ‘misunderstood.’   In spite of their outbursts of behavior, they usually know that it isn’t in their hearts to behave hurtfully.  That the outburst comes from an event triggered in their brain…and they think, say and do things that are not in their loving nature. They count on those they trust to remember that.

With support and loving acceptance, little by little, the bipolar individual should hopefully come to reveal his true feelings: his fears….his self-loathing…. and his appreciation for the love and support of his mate.

This vulnerable authenticity equips his partner to know the triggers, to offer support at threatening times and to be otherwise cognizant of his needs.  At the same time, she enjoys the gift of knowing his deep and creative sensitivities, his capacity to love and care for her on a level she may not have found in others before.

A Match Made in Heaven?

No relationship among humans carries a guarantee.

Loving relationships between two people, when one bears this mental illness, is no exception.

It is hard work to make any relationship endure and thrive in the atmosphere of today’s society.

While many people from every walk of life are more informed about the dynamics of relationship growth than ever before in history, nevertheless, there is a strong influence in the world around us to want to be indulged our every whim.

Loving a person with this type of mental illness is not for the self-indulgent, but is a rewarding, deeply satisfying and fulfilling life for those willing to weather the storms to get there.

People with bipolar disorder tend to be highly intelligent, talented, tender-hearted, warm, expressively creative, and emotionally deep.

The waters around the experience of that depth can be rough, but the rewards are beyond what scores of other people find as long as they live.

Loving a mate with this illness is both challenging and fulfilling.

While days of upheaval can be extremely difficult, even so, through information and understanding, the empowered partner can detach from taking upheavals personally, and enjoy the depth of loving and sharing that is so much a part of this person’s heart.

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4 Responses to Bipolar Love: A Match Made in Heaven?

  1. MariaC says:

    I’ve always wondered if my diagnosis was accurate. After reading this article, I’m positive it is. I’ve had many issues with relationships due to lack of understanding of myself and of others understanding me. This article has opened my eyes. Thank you!

  2. ocavan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Maria. Bipolar disorder makes relationships tough, really tough, but not impossible. The key is getting treatment for yourself, and then you and your partner learning how to handle and work through conflict together in a way that’s productive. There can’t be confrontation….as that probably upsets you terribly….right? There has to be a strong commitment to learn productive ways of working through things on both your parts. You’ll need medication and therapy for yourself, if you aren’t already being treated. Are you taking medication?

  3. MariaC says:

    Thanks you for your response. Yes! Confrontation makes me physically sick. I actually get sick to my stomach, in addition to disrupted sleep and lows. That’s when I start getting the feelings of shame and begin blaming myself for everything. My family and friends tell me to move on, snap out of it, and see the wrong that the other person may have done. But, at that moment I don’t and as you know… snapping out of it isn’t exactly a piece of cake for us bipolars. I have been taking Lamictal 200 mg per day for about 5 years. That’s when I was diagnosed properly. Before that, I had been given every anxiety and depression medication in the book. And, then I came across a wonderful doctor at the University of Miami at Jackson who finally diagnosed me correctly. It was night and day after my first dose of Lamictal. Later, I added Abilify to the mix and then switched to Seroquel. I’m not taking either one of those drugs. I don’t like them. I gained some much weight and was tired and sleepy all of the time. I couldn’t live without coffee. And, due to the inactivity from taking those meds, I’m paying the consequences with other current health problems. I’ve noticed that my ability to control my impulses has been a bit of a challenge since I stopped taking Abilify/Seroquel. Therefore, I’m trying to excercise and read to occupy my mind. I have issues dating though. Most women can do the emotional/physical hard to get thing. I can do the physical hard to get thing. But, the emotional is very difficult for me. I get excited and wrapped up very quickly when I like a guy and not being sincere and hiding my feelings feels like lying. I’m open to any advice you can give me. I look forward to hearing back from you soon. Maria

    • ocavan says:

      Maria, my deepest apologies for missing the opportunity to reply to you promptly. My son, Caleb, began to get more and more ill at the time you wrote this post, and all these months have gone by without my response. I am sorry. As you know, life can be a handful at times when illness takes the front seat. After multiple hospitalizations he is beginning to stabilize again and I am finding my way back to those things that are important to me, like you and this blog.

      Caleb takes lithium and Lamictal, both are helpful to him together. He’s also had a tough time with seroquel, abilify and zyprexa. They’re all similar and have similar side effects. Have you tried Saphris? The side effects of Saphris seemed to be so much milder…but he still couldn’t tell much benefit.

      Exercise is so helpful, Maria. Do you notice how much smoother the day goes when you exercise? Even though we all know it’s needed as a part of a balanced life…for everyone!…and especially for bipolars, it never ceases to amaze me how much it helps. Calebs days are really helped when he has a good amount of exercise.

      Also, regarding your impulses…have you tried lithium for that? Caleb’s doctor increased his lithium for that purpose and it has definitely helped.

      Now…about your struggles with dating and relationships. I think it’s completely understandable that you have a tough time maintaining an emotional distance until you really do know someone enough to trust them. I have the impression that bipolar disorder contributes to the tendency to be vulnerable, and to want to love deeply and strongly. Bipolars love with a BIG love. They have rich wells of emotion. And with all that emotion you probably have a strong urge to want to share it and be loved to that depth in return. Of course, everyone pretty much struggles with the same thing, but the bipolar emotional structure probably makes it harder to hold back and more painful when it goes badly.

      Truthfully, I’ve noticed that Caleb seems to have been hurt deeply enough often enough, and the pain of it was so devastating, that he has learned by too much life threatening heartache, to keep his heart to himself. I wish it could have been a more merciful path for him to find that way of protecting his heart. In your case, I don’t know how to advise you. If you can recognize the valuable and precious gift that you are…and recognize that most of the people who cross your path are probably centered on themselves and not mature or developed enough to give you the love your heart aches for, and therefore don’t deserve your vulnerability, then you can protect yourself from lots of unnecessary pain. But…if you aren’t able to do that, and find that your heart just keeps falling for one after another in spite of the painful results, then that’s the road your heart is going to take. Eventually, life may just do its own work teaching your heart to protect itself. Just know that, most of the people you come across probably don’t deserve you. But eventually, if you can value yourself….give yourself time to come to peace with your own beauty and all you have to contribute…realize how gifted and special you are and by virtue of your bipolar self that you have great love to give someone really lucky…you WILL find that one who deserves the chance to love you and be loved by you. It doesn’t usually happen when we want it to…but tends to happen when we are absorbed in something else. So get on with living…and pour that love you have into YOU. No One deserves it as much as you do. Please let us know how you’re doing, ok?

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