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Bipolar Disorder and Relationships: 5 Ways to Help Your Loved Ones Help You

If you’re struggling to live with a friend or family member because of clashes rooted in your bipolar disorder, you’re not alone. About 2.8% of Americans have a bipolar disorder diagnosis, and there are others who remain undiagnosed. Some of the symptoms of the disorder itself (such as hypersexuality and excessive risk-taking) can have a negative effect on our relationships, especially if those around us don’t understand what we’re going through.

However, there’s a lot you can do to protect your relationships when you live with bipolar disorder. In this post I offer five tips that might help.

1. Get Educated About Your Bipolar Disorder

The first step for anyone who loves someone with bipolar disorder is to educate themselves, both about the disorder more generally, and about the specifics of their loved one’s version of the disorder. Here’s what I mean by that.

We all think of “ups and downs” when bipolar disorder gets mentioned, but that’s not a very accurate sense of what the disorder is like for most people. Furthermore, there are four different types of bipolar disorder. Although clear changes in activity levels, energy and mood characterize each of them, they are otherwise very different.

People with bipolar I disorder experience manic episodes for at least seven days at a time, and/or manic symptoms severe enough to land them in the hospital immediately. These people may also have full-blown depressive episodes, or mixed depressive/manic episodes. People with bipolar II disorder show a similar pattern, but lack the full-blown manic episodes that someone with bipolar I experiences.

Cyclothymic disorder or cyclothymia is a variety of bipolar disorder characterized by at least two years of many hypomanic and depressive symptoms, going back and forth. This version differs from the others, though, because the symptoms fail to meet the diagnostic criteria for depressive and hypomanic episodes. Finally, “other specified and unspecified bipolar and related disorders” is a catch-all term for bipolar disorder symptoms that don’t fall into any of the other three categories.

Most laypeople aren’t aware that there is so much variation among people with bipolar disorder! Help your loved one understand, and then give them lots of specifics about the way your diagnosis is for you.

2. Learn Trust and Trade

Sometimes, especially if you’re in a depressive phase, it’s hard to understand what your partner sees in you when you know your bipolar disorder can sometimes make things harder. You imagine they see all of the negative things you feel about yourself; you misread their reactions.

Learn to trust each other past whatever your current mood is and involve your partner in the process. Tell them that sometimes you have a tough time understanding how they’re feeling or what’s motivating them — because it’s so hard to see anything through the veil of a depressed mood.

Once you’ve had this important conversation, act on it, step by step. For example, maybe your partner wakes up and cooks breakfast alone when you’re depressed, which makes you feel insecure. Your partner can practice telling you that they got up because they wanted to let you rest, enjoy some self-care and feel better. You practice communicating your insecure feeling and letting it go without a fight as you realize your partner’s true intent. Each time you navigate the issue successfully, you build more trust.

3. Make Rules, Plan for Emergencies — Together

Always have a plan of action ready for when you get sick, and make sure that plan is well-known to your loved ones. Your strategy should include a list of symptoms, written or recorded somewhere, because although you may know them inside and out, even people who love you can forget the details. Agree which symptoms or when and how they occur triggers a call to the doctor or a visit to the hospital.

Part of your plan must also include dealing with life-threatening emergencies, even if you’ve never been suicidal. Don’t make this lurking fear hang out at the back of your partner’s mind; get it out into the open by planning for it, just in case. Include a list of whom you can call for help, both professionally and personally. Know which hospital the doctor works with, and understand in advance how your insurance works, for everything from hospital visits on down. If all of this is part of a written plan, you won’t need to remember any of it when you get sick, and your loved ones can take care of you without extra stress.

4. Ask for Help With Your Treatment

You already know your loved one cares about you and wants your relationship to work. One of the best ways to navigate through both the relationship and the bipolar disorder process is to ask for help with your treatment and allowing your partner to become involved. This gives you much-needed support, educates them and builds your mutual bond.

There are plenty of things even a layperson can do to help. They can help you find doctors, support groups, therapists and other resources that take your insurance or otherwise will accept you as a patient. They can come with you to appointments; sometimes it’s overwhelming, trying to remember to ask every question and remember every detail, no matter who you are.

Ask your loved one to help you manage your meds or track side effects. They can also help you monitor your mood — it’s trickier than it seems when you’re doing it alone. Finally, just ask them to stick with you. Need to talk? Want to hit the gym or a movie? Keep doing those healthy things with your loved ones for support and reinforce positive habits.

5. Tell Them to Practice Self Care

Remind your loved ones not to feel selfish or cruel for taking care of themselves. In fact, it’s easy to see they will be in no position to help you — or anyone else — if they don’t practice self care.

If there have been rough patches between you due to your illness, remind them you know and remember that. For example, if you’ve behaved erratically in the past and caused them to lose friends or money, talk about it. Let them know that you understand they don’t want that to happen again, and neither do you.

Remind them even though you both know what bipolar disorder is, it’s easy for people around the person to feel shame or guilt. But bipolar disorder is a biological disorder of the brain with a strong genetic component. It’s not something caused by another person’s actions or inactions — they didn’t do anything wrong, nor did you.

The Final Analysis

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition. The great news is that bipolar disorder is also very treatable. You can create an individualized treatment plan to manage your mood swings and other symptoms — and you’ll have the most success if you engage your loved ones as part of your plan.

Getty image via Ridofranz