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If you are a person dating someone with bipolar disorder, it is important to remember that the person you care for has a mental health disease, and that they will have this for the rest of their life. They will be required to take medication, will always be vulnerable to stress, and will require that any person who cares for them understand their illness and support them in managing it. This is provided that they have accepted the disorder and are working toward managing it with medication and treatment.
What if it was Cancer?
When dating someone with bipolar disorder, a good rule of thumb when making decisions about how to act and what to do is to think of what you would do if your loved one had cancer.
Unfortunately if your loved one had cancer, there would also be people rallying around you to help.
If your loved one had cancer and was irritable or yelled, or indicated that they needed help with their stress, you would try to be consider of their condition and help them.
You would attend doctor appointments learn about their illness and do everything within your power to be supportive.You would understand how their illness might impact their ability to maintain a job or social relationships. A bipolar disorder relationship should be viewed in the same way.
Where to Draw the Line?
But if you’re loved one had cancer and physically assaulted you would you understand? If they constantly complained and were negative and blamed everything on their illness would you support that? Deciphering what behavior to be compassionate about and when to hold someone accountable is also tricky when you are in a bipolar relationship. It is important for you to decide what you will tolerate and what you will not.
1. Recognize that stress can trigger episodes of instability and assist your loved one in recognizing that too.
For example if you have a loved one with bipolar in college, and it is finals week,they are at risk! Bring up the fact with them that they are at risk for stress, they need to ensure they are sleeping and eating and staying on a schedule. Also to not add additional unnecessary stress during this time.
2. Learn how to communicate effectively and assertively and make that the standard for your relationship.
Verbal and emotional conflict will exacerbate the illness. Everyone should live this way regardless of whether they are in a bipolar disorder relationship or a relationship with a person who has no illness.
3. Learn and understand the symptoms of mood episodes.
You need to consider your loved ones state when deciding how to handle interactions. If they are manic or depressed, you will not necessarily behave towards them in the same way as when they are stable. Very often I will work with clients who are experiencing a tremendous amount of stress, or in a depression or mania, and their family or loved ones seem unaware.
4. Differentiate when it is their illness that is affecting their mood and when it is their personality or behavior.
People who have bipolar disorder need compassion, but also need to be held accountable for their behaviors. Adults with bipolar should not be able to use it as an excuse if they are making poor choices that are unrelated to their mood state.
5. Support their efforts to manage their illness: i.e. exercise, nutrition, routine medication management, sleep hygiene, abstaining from drugs and alcohol
6. Learn about the medications they take and the side effects. Help them to manage their medication if necessary.
7. Attend psychiatrist appointments with them.
If they will let you it can be very valuable to attend the psychiatrists appointment and offer your observations.
8. Attend therapy with them.
Therapy can provide you with insight into your loved ones illness and also can help the bipolar person to feel supported. Just like if your loved one had cancer, the more support they have the better the outcome.
9. Know when to leave
Often I hear from spouses or partners of someone with bipolar disorder who is actively using drugs, denying their illness, and refusing to get help. These situations can become violent and abusive. If you are with someone who is refusing, despite offered help, to manage their illness, if you can, leave.
If you can’t leave, remember that there is only so much you can do to help someone who is not helping themselves.
10. Take care of yourself.
Whether you are a parent, a spouse or a friend of someone with bipolar disorder, being in a bipolar relationship can be stressful and exhausting. You need to make time for yourself. Take care of your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Try to find a support group for others with loved ones who have mental illness.
Check out this great article in the Atlantic about bipolar disorder and work relationships.