Marriages that succeed are ones based on mutual respect and understanding. You don’t get a pass because you have bipolar disorder.
I’m on my third marriage. Because of previous issues with hypersexuality, mania, and very poor impulse control, I’ve had a lot of bad outcomes in the love department.
If I was the sole data point, it would be easy to conclude that bipolar disorder leads to divorce. And, unfortunately, the actual data shows that my experience is not uncommon. The majority of marriages involving a spouse with bipolar disorder will, ultimately, end in divorce.
The answer to the question above should, ultimately, be “yes.” However, I feel that society takes too broad of a stroke when concluding that bipolar disorder leads to divorce. I’ll use my life to explain.
How bipolar disorder factored into divorce #1
I met my first wife in high school. I was 18 years old when I first laid eyes on her, while she was dating my friend. After their relationship ended, she pursued me.
We were married two weeks after she graduated high school. We ran off to another state and were married on a beach. It was romantic, against our parents’ advice, and very dramatic. Exactly the kind of behavior expected from young love.
Statistically, we had a 59% chance of divorcing based on our ages. In other words, the majority of high school sweethearts don’t make it. Because I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder soon after the end of our marriage, the blame easily shifted from “young love has an uphill battle” to “blame the guy with bipolar disorder.”
Make no mistake, I’m not saying that me having untreated bipolar didn’t contribute to our divorce. I know that life with me was awful. I wouldn’t want to be married to the person I was when I was married to wife #1.
But was it the sole contributor? In sickness and health was in our vows and I was certainly sick. She was as ignorant as I was to the symptoms of bipolar, so she never got me help. Had one of us known and I received treatment, perhaps we’d still be married today.
We were young, we didn’t understand mental illness, and I was untreated. All of that contributed to the end of marriage. But not all of that is often discussed. What is discussed is that I had bipolar and the marriage ended.
How bipolar disorder factored into divorce #2
I met my second wife while manic. I don’t believe either one of us was in the proper place to lay the groundwork for a solid relationship, but I absolutely wasn’t.
Early on, the woman who became my second wife saw that I was suicidal and took me to the emergency room. I was admitted to the psychiatric ward and, during my stay in the hospital, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Over the next four years, she was my champion and my caregiver. During that time, we got married.
There is a name for what we were experiencing: Florence Nightingale effect. This is when caregivers fall in love with their “patients.” From my vantage point, I was so relieved to be receiving help and care that I mistook those feelings for romantic love. Specifically, the kind of love that leads to a successful life together.
During the early years of our marriage, almost everything we did was in service to treating my illness. After I got well, we realized we had different values, different life goals, and our marriage couldn’t recover from the power differential that had been created by me being the patient and her being the caregiver.
Was that the fault of me having bipolar or was our divorce the fault of getting married under such strenuous circumstances? How many marriages survive when entered into under such circumstances?
But, given that I have bipolar disorder, none of those questions were asked. The narrative simply became, “They divorced because Gabe has bipolar disorder.”
Wife #3, bipolar disorder, and final thoughts
The difference between my previous two marriages and this one has everything to do with how the relationship began. I entered into this marriage as a mentally stable and mature adult. My wife and I are equals, it was deliberate, and I hold myself to the identical standard I hold her. We are both accountable for our own actions and for each other.
Marriages that succeed are ones based on mutual respect and understanding. I don’t get a pass because I have bipolar disorder. If I do something wrong—even if it was related to a symptom—I apologize and make amends.
So often I hear people say, “But it wasn’t my fault, it was my illness.” I can certainly relate to this line of thinking, but those people have forgotten something very important: It wasn’t the other person’s fault, either.
Taking responsibility for bipolar disorder, and therefore my life is what has allowed me to move forward in a positive fashion.
Unfortunately, if this marriage ends, no matter the reasons, the narrative will quickly focus on the fact that I have bipolar and nothing else.
Using my first two marriages as an example, I can tell you for an absolute certainty, bipolar disorder was a factor, but it was far from the only one. There is a solid argument to be made that, at least for my second marriage, it wasn’t even the primary factor.
It’s hard to sustain a marriage when the partners have different values and life goals—and that isn’t because I’m living with bipolar. It’s because I chose the wrong spouse.
Gabe Howard is a professional speaker, award-winning writer, and mental health coach who battles bipolar 1 and anxiety disorders every day. Diagnosed in 2003, he has made it his mission to put a human face on what it means to live with bipolar disorder.
Gabe was the recipient of the 2014 Mental Health America Norman Guitry Award, placed second in HealthCentral's LiveBold competition, a PsychCentral 2014 Mental Health hero, was a 2015 WEGO Health Awards Finalist in the Health Activist Category, and received a Best of the Web - Blog award.
Gabe is also the creator of the official bipolar shirt. He can be reached via gabehoward.com or by e-mail Gabe@GabeHoward.com.
Mood symptoms such as overspending, hypersexuality, anger attacks, and self-isolation hurt those around us. A simple apology is just the starting point of making things right. When Our Actions during Bipolar Mood Episodes Harm Others Olivia S. of Colorado got up one morning to unexpectedly find two of her four grown children in her living...
I’m an expert in bipolar management, yet I still have frequent mood swings and deal with symptoms regularly. Shouldn’t I have “solved” this by now? Shouldn’t I have “recovered”? Bipolar Disorder, Expertise, & Mood Management I’ve been writing books about bipolar disorder management since 1998, and my webpage started in 2002. How is it possible...
Many of us can remember it in perfect detail: the exact moment when we realized that we were living with bipolar disorder—and, in my case, not depression. Here I unravel my pre-diagnosis misconceptions, “mistakes,” and hypo/manic misadventures—and that pivotal moment of recognition. My Magic/Manic Moment of Metacognition … The Musical Who wants to open up...
This time of year, I actively resist the urge to overspend. I love giving gifts, going to holiday parties, and dressing up to celebrate. In the past, mania “managed” my wallet and festivities for me. It just forgot about, well, everything else. Thankfully, I’ve learned some lessons to manage my money, my moods, and the...