One of the most important decisions we make is the person we trust with our hearts and choose to spend our lives with. For a relationship to not just survive but also thrive when one partner lives with bipolar, there are a few foundational requirements. Here is what I have learned so far …
We will have many different kinds of relationships in our lives, but one of the most important and impactful is having a life partner. Someone who sleeps beside us at night, shares coffee with us in the morning, talks openly with us about the difficulties of the relationship, and most of all, is supportive of their partner who has a mental illness.
My Personal Experience with Mental Illness & Relationships
Most of us will journey through a few relationships that are troublesome, upsetting, and straining on our mental health. I had these types of experiences in my life, and they weren’t easy, of course. But, in time, I eventually realized that they shaped me into the person I am today.
My ex-boyfriends were not supportive of my mental health. For instance, one stigmatized me and horrifically threatened to call the psych ward to take me away. Another left me to sleep, for days, in a depressive state and simply denied that I had a mental illness at all. Those are the kind of partners that you don’t want. It isn’t sustainable if both partners are not supportive of each other’s mental well-being, especially for the person who lives with a mental health condition like bipolar disorder.
I did not have any solid confidence during my twenties, and I had very low self-esteem during my thirties. Yet, even now, I still experience a metaphorical jaw-drop every time I ponder on my past and wonder, Why did I put up with such ridicule and neglect?
I chalk it up to a realization that I had to learn exactly what I did not want in a partnership in order to develop a clear picture of what I really needed. I don’t hang on to guilt or regret anymore, because it is not useful to hang out in such meaningless places. Instead, I reflect on my decisions and realize that I did my best with the knowledge I had at the time.
Make It a Requirement for Your Partner to Support You
We have choices to make in this world, and one of the most important is that we choose whom we allow into our hearts. I often feel that if we are not ready for a healthy relationship, then we really cannot receive someone who will be that supportive person. For instance, if we feel embarrassed about our mental health concerns and stigmatize ourselves, then how can we expect someone else to love us unconditionally? Acceptance is an inside job that needs to be worked on before we bring new people into our lives.
Supporting a partner can look different for every couple, and I would not have married my husband had he not (a) demonstrated a genuine desire to understand my bipolar disorder and (b) accepted that this is a lifelong condition. Both were required if he also wanted our marriage to work.
How to Support a Loved One in a Romantic Partnership
Every relationship is unique, and people express their love differently; that said, I have come up with some suggestions for how a partner can best support their loved one who lives with bipolar disorder or a mental illness:
#1 Take Time to Listen
Listening is vitally important in any relationship, but it is especially important when you have a partner with a mental health condition. People are quick to offer a lot of advice, and some advice for bipolar is good, but (like everyone else) people living with bipolar often don’t want to hear it.
Sometimes, we just need someone to hear us out and provide that special listening ear—someone who is there when needed. Listening to your partner about how they are feeling and especially what they need in order to be supported is the greatest gift that you can give someone you love.
#2 Patience Is Key
There can be unpleasant surprises for a partner who is with someone who has a mental illness. I know that my moods can be erratic and often unpredictable at times. It can be hard to “keep your cool” when the mood pendulum of bipolar swings from low to high in extremes—and sometimes more than once in a day. All people with mental illness have actual symptoms and they can range in severity. It is imperative to be patient with those who have mental illness because their symptoms are out of their control, but often how they react to them certainly is their responsibility.
#3 Educate Yourself
When someone lives with a mental illness, they are often well-informed about it and have learned a lot from medical professionals over the years. However, sometimes, a person may lack the facts, stats, and even the educational details,so learning about a mental illness can be just one of many things a couple can do together.
(A word of caution: Be wary of websites that provide too much personal opinion and not enough investigative journalism and/or hard science pulled from national or international organizations, well-respected medical literature, and peer-reviewed research based on evidence from studies with large sample sizes. When it comes to mental health, too many people think they are experts when they are purely full of speculation or are looking to push products onto people who in need of help or are looking for answers to complicated situations. That said, of course, personal stories and blogs are always beneficial.)
#4 Express Empathy and Understanding
It is imperative for a partner to understand that circumstances may often be inconsistent, and a person’s mental state is affected by changes in their environment, routine, and even their own thought patterns. Most of us hold some inherent biases about mental illness, so it’s important not to only be informed but also consider a time when you had it really rough, and then think about how you would want to be treated.
Cultivating a Strong Relationship
The main ingredients for a partnership to work when one person has a mental illness like bipolar are:
to be aware of their situation,
to remain understanding and respectful of the struggles that they are facing, and
to accept that the mental illness will likely be around for the entirety of their lives.
It’s also important to trust them—to take seriously their judgments and opinions—particularly when they are not experiencing an acute mood episode that might affect their thinking. When the person’s mood is stable, be careful not to undermine their personal integrity or their self-confidence by questioning their perspective needlessly.
Having a partner is an awesome thing, but it’s necessary that the partnership is built on a foundation where mental health is practiced and mental illness is understood. If we aim for these goals, then there is great hope that such relationships can not only last under difficult circumstances but thrive within them.
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