If a partner with bipolar disorder “cheats,” it is important to distinguish what the underlying cause is—relationship problems or hypersexuality.
I was standing next to my partner’s hospital bed when he told me he had slept with someone (he had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder on the day before). I was stunned. The behavior didn’t fit who he was as a person. We had always been open about our feelings and agreed we would tell each other if we wanted to be with someone else. His “cheating” didn’t make sense. I went into the hall and crumpled onto the floor. I cried and cried from the stress and shock of the situation. When a nurse found me and said the following, my life changed: “Julie, bipolar disorder has a symptom called hypersexuality. It may be impossible to see this now, but he was not doing this to cheat on you. He was sick.”
Life is ironic. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder II the next year and my own pattern of hypersexual behavior was easy to see in retrospect. We met while I was hypersexual and manic. I moved in with him after knowing him a week. I was young and single at the time and my behavior was simply called wild and strange. Bipolar was not discussed openly over 20 years ago. We were together for 10 happy years before we decided we were more friends than partners and ended our romantic relationship.
When I heard that hypersexuality caused my partner to sleep with someone else, it made sense to me. It never happened again and we moved on. We were lucky. Both of us had insight and accepted help for our bipolar disorder symptoms. Life was always a challenge, but hypersexuality was out in the open and we managed it together.
You may be in a different situation. When bipolar disorder is untreated, hypersexuality can cause deep and difficult-to-mend situations for any relationship. The question becomes one of control. I hear this often: “Julie, my partner keeps getting manic and cheating on me. I know this is part of an illness. Is this cheating?”
“Cheating” implies a choice. To me, “cheating” means a person knows exactly what he or she is doing. I can tell you that when I was hypersexual due to mania, I was NOT in control. I know it was the same for my partner when he had sex outside our relationship. We were undiagnosed and not in control of our moods.
I never held it against him that he slept with someone else. I knew who he was as a person and I knew he was not in his right mind when the sex happened.
If you’re a partner of someone who had sex with someone else while in a manic episode, I believe you are in a different situation than if someone willingly chose to cheat. Please note, manic episode is singular here. If your partner had sex with someone during one manic episode, then it can easily be about the illness and have nothing to do with choice. It gets tricky when it happens more than once.
Please know I’m not saying that sleeping with someone else when in a committed relationship that assumes fidelity is OK. It’s not; but if it is a result of hypersexuality due to a manic episode, it needs to be handled differently than a situation where someone is simply unhappy in a relationship and went looking for sex with someone new.
Julie, how can I tell the difference? My partner swears he didn’t mean to cheat on me, but what if he is lying!
Here are two suggestions to help you find clarity…. a few ways to help you figure out if a partner “cheated” due to bipolar disorder or if the behavior is actually a sign there are deeper problems in your relationship.
The sexual behavior is out of character. This means the person who “cheated” is very, very confused by what happened and usually very ashamed and often mortified. Hypersexuality from bipolar disorder can be deeply embarrassing for those of us with bipolar disorder and we will tell you this when the episode is over.
Your partner has asked for and accepts help. This means that the sexual behavior was during an episode and it did not continue once the episode was over. Your partner can see he or she was hypersexual and this has led to wanting help so that it doesn’t happen again.
Your partner acts as though it was not a big deal. Even if the sexual encounter was due to bipolar, you were still affected. I don’t think it has to be talked about over and over again, but a good discussion with an acknowledgment of how it affected you is essential.
It happens continually. If your partner uses bipolar disorder as an excuse for recurrent sexual behavior outside the relationship and if you feel your physical health is in danger from their behavior, you are in a situation that requires relationship work and not just bipolar disorder management.
Your thoughts and feelings matter. If the situation happened before a diagnosis or due to an obvious mood swing, there is no reason a couple can’t talk it out and move on even stronger. But if someone you love who has bipolar disorder has problems with fidelity, bipolar disorder is not the issue.
I have bipolar disorder. I deal with hypersexuality. I know what it looks like—I know how the initial “fun” feeling usually ends in chaos and I choose to treat bipolar first. Couples can find a way to manage the symptoms of hypersexuality.
Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. She is a columnist and blogger for bp Magazine, and she won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lilly Reintegration Achievement Award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for ShareCare, a site created by Dr. Oz and Oprah. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners, on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis, and Depression." You can find more about her work at JulieFast.com and BipolarHappens.com.
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