Does Bipolar in a Marriage Always Lead to Divorce?

Last Updated: 9 Dec 2020

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.

About the author
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 or by e-mail
  1. Thank you Gabe for such a well written, insightful article! I’m on my fourth marriage. I live with bipolar. So does my current husband. I’m so grateful that we’re NEVER ill at the same time! We do our best to keep the lines of communication open and offer one another emotional support. Loving kindness and empathy have brought us this far. Whatever we go through we do it together.

  2. This is my second (&last!) marriage. The first ended not just because of my bipolar, but also because we simply weren’t meant to be. We had nothing in common, and our marriage counselor actually advised us to divorce. We were young. He wasn’t mean to me, and I was not mean to him. I have always wished him well and we both moved on. I’ve been remarried for 30 years now. He’s tried to learn about me, and I try to not use my diagnosis as an excuse. It may be a reason, but it’s not an excuse. Our marriage works, through all the ups and downs each of us has. Not always easy or fun, but worth the effort. Keep on trying, my friends. It doesn’t have to end in divorce

  3. what you said about #3. nailed it. that should be the criteria bipolar or not. bless you both & thanks for sharing!

  4. nice post!

  5. I am married to my third husband. My first was a high school romance, of course it didn’t last! The second, I did not know I was bipolar, he was crazier than me, and mean as sin, I escaped with my life. When I started dating my husband, I tried just about everything to to get rid of him, I was afraid I would just make a wreck out of his life as mine was such a mess. I did not know I was bipolar, but obviously I was nuts! He just hung in there and never left! We have been married almost 32 years and have 3 grown daughters. He is the absolute love of my life. We married in 1989, I was diagnosed in 2004. It certainly hasn’t been easy. There have been talks of going our separate ways. Our strong faith in God, our faith in each other and our friendship have pulled us through. I have Bipolar 1. Mania and rage were a normal part of my routine for many years until i was completely out of my mind. Then depression hit, i had never been depressed before and that is when i was diagnosed. It took a few years, lots of medication trials and much therapy to figure it all out. I no longer work. I was a nurse, and, i worked nights! No wonder I was manic all the time! But, we are a happier couple, I enjoy my new life as a grandma, wife and keeper of the farm. I miss mania to an extent, but I don’t miss the rages. And I pray that I never have depression so dark ever again. I thank God for my husband. He really has been there for better or worse, in sickness and in health.

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