Bipolar & Relationships: Coping with Change as a Couple
Even in a great marriage, handling major life changes while also managing bipolar disorder is challenging. Step back, take a breath, persevere!
The return to our beloved Colorado last spring after 17 years happened quickly, though we had been planning it in our hearts for some time. It was a matter of my husband finding a solid job in our desired town, and then of course undertaking the mountain of stuff required to make the thousand-mile move. Together we made it happen, and we were excited to start anew. My husband had only about a week’s time off before jumping in to work that demands new focus, more hours, and a longer commute.
I had this fantasy: My husband needed me. I’d step up. I imagined I’d be the one in the supportive-spouse role, making a great home for him to come to at the end of a long day, a place of warm serenity. Our new town is beautiful, so we’d go out in the mornings for walks together, and have coffee on our deck as the sun rose. I’d manage the household without issue, and listen to him talk about his exciting job. I’d smile a lot. And because we had come back to a place we love so much, my bipolar symptoms would be better controlled. Just. Like. That.
Of course not. Within a week of arriving, amid powerful spring storms, morning fog, and dismal trips to get driver’s licenses and laundry soap, my mood tanked, anxiety swelled, and anger spewed. We were both exhausted. We battled daily for weeks, and I cried in-between rants on how “insensitive” he was to my needs. He said he “could barely take it anymore.” The blackness that befell me left me unable to care about what was going on with him, his job, and the fact that he is now the primary provider and the reason we are able to be here in the first place.
My expectation that I could somehow put away bipolar like I can put away laundry soap in order to sensibly support my husband was simply not reasonable.
We backed off from one another, taking a few days to just be calm. And then we realized something: Over the past two years, my husband and I have undergone five significant major life changes—I had a bad car accident and surgery; I was awarded disability; he had a serious motorcycle accident and surgery, which led to terrifying cardiothoracic surgery; then this move. All this plus my not-so-predictable-and-yet-oh-so-predictable rapid-cycling bipolar II events.
Perhaps we are gluttons for punishment. Or maybe life has just really been tough the past few years. Regardless, the fact is that in-between every event there hasn’t been much time for emotional healing, including the times in-between my mood swings. And my expectation that I could somehow put away bipolar like I can put away laundry soap in order to sensibly support my husband was simply not reasonable.
In hindsight, he and I both see that we have been touchstones, rocks for one another over the years, and absolutely have been each other’s hero in emergencies, in life-and-death scenarios, and in long-range battles, like the fight for my wellness. We switch back and forth in our support for one another when it truly matters.
What we’ve also realized from this latest big life event is that the last few months leading up to the move really did us in, and exhaustion and stress took their toll: I got sick, he got mad, it was Game On. Once we took a step back, looked at the scene, and found perspective, we saw that we would need to work together to get through it. As always.
We are learning, as a couple coping with bipolar disorder, that being able to recognize not only symptoms of the illness, but also other things going on in life that affect us both, helps each of us to see better ways of working through issues. It’s not easy. For us, agreeing to walk away and take a breather, trusting that we’ll come back together later to talk it through, is our thing. And we’re far from perfect at it. I am keenly aware of what I need to do to manage bipolar symptoms. I also have been reminded (again) that regardless of what my fantasy may be, there are limits to what I can and cannot do to support my husband, and vice versa.
These days, we’re calmer, more settled, healing … and enjoying the view from our deck, watching the sun dapple on the mountains and the life changes of beautiful trees in autumn.
Printed as “On Second Thought: Coping with change as a couple,” Fall 2016