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6 Tips for Navigating Love With a Mood Disorder

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Following a disagreement with my boyfriend last night, (mostly due to mutual miscommunication) I felt compelled to post vaguely on Facebook about how my disorder makes me hard to love. I stopped myself for three reasons. One, it’s not anyone else’s burden to read my dribble unless they feel compelled to click the link (which you have). Secondly, my grandmother would say, “That’s tacky,” and she’s probably right. Finally, it’s because I have got to stop blaming every social misstep on my disorder. Not only is this counterproductive to what I’m trying to convey to my community as an advocate, but it’s counterproductive to the way I would like my life, and by extension, my love life to exist. As a woman nearing 30, I’ve got to make space to take a little responsibility in my life.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I feel like it’s a good idea to get this out of the way immediately: I have never, and will never, knowingly use my diagnosis of a mood disorder as an excuse to get out of trouble. The hard truth of it is my disorder does greatly hinder my life and my ability to function like a “normal” human being sometimes. The only time I feel “normal” is when I’m writing about mental health. There is a moment immediately following any misstep where I do feel compelled to cross-check the interaction or sour situation with my mental illness. Rather than immediately blame whatever happened on my mental illness, I’ve started building the habit to determine if what I’m doing or saying is an entirely “normal” human behavior. All humans are selfish sometimes. All humans miscommunicate what they really mean. All humans have the capability to feel extreme emotions when they’re agitated, hurt or disappointed.

While enjoying my own company this morning (I swear that’s not a euphemism for masturbation … this time) over a pot of coffee, it dawned on me that always finding a way to bring my bipolar disorder into conversation was not only counterproductive to what I was trying to do with advocacy, but it also had the potential to really push someone away. I’ve gotten so used to romantic partners falling in love with some of the positive symptoms of bipolar disorder (a sense for spontaneous adventure, showering them with love when I’m feeling happy and a knack for deep conversation to name a few), it can sometimes leave me feeling pretty distraught when they don’t immediately co-sign the negative side. Just like my happy can be really, really happy — my mad can be really, really mad. That’s our curse summed up in simple terms.

I’ve mentioned before I’ve recently developed a mantra I feel could benefit anyone struggling with a mood disorder: I can’t help what my mood disorder makes me feel, but I can control the way it makes me act. With a pending divorce under my belt, I’ve already seen what parts of my disorder can greatly hinder an attempt at love. When a severe mental illness is involved as a third wheel to any relationship, there are specific rules that need to be designated to make sure things are going as swimmingly as possible. In the aftermath of my disagreement with my loved one last night, I felt it would be a good idea to make some notes on how we, as the people with mental illnesses, could adjust our behaviors, and what I feel are necessary compromises our partners should consider for an overall healthier relationship. It should be mentioned I think these tips are helpful for romantic relationships as well as family relationships, and the relationships we share with our close friends. When I use the term “loved ones,” it’s meant to be all-encompassing.

1. Just breathe.

If you’re struggling with a mental illness and you feel that is a factor in a less-than-favorable interaction with your loved one, you should first and foremost take a moment to just breathe. Acknowledge everything you’re feeling is totally valid, and your immediate emotional reaction really can’t be helped, especially if you’re struggling with a mood disorder. This is one of those things I wish I could change about what we collectively experience, but it’s what really sets us apart in the first place. Remember, you can’t control what you’re feeling, but you can control what you decide to do with that feeling.

Taking a moment to honor your emotions and decide how you’d like this to turn out is very important. If you want this interaction to end in a fight, you need to evaluate what factors are at play to make you feel that way. I think we can all agree that most (neurodivergent or otherwise) people feel a sense of dread as an argument escalates into serious territory. If you want to avoid that, there are key steps that can be taken to “keep the fight clean.” I’m learning how to turn my initial reaction of, “but I have a mental illness and I can’t help it!” into, “I have a mental illness and need to consider that as I try to communicate with this person I love.”

2. Remember they are your partner, not your therapist.

It’s crucial you recognize your loved one isn’t obligated to be your therapist, or hold your hand through your melt down. If you’ve got a good partner, they’re going to go the extra mile on their own accord to adjust the way they address what’s making them unhappy, because they’re aware you’re going to process things with a little static. However, if you love them, recognize that sometimes they’re just plain exhausted. While trying to hone in on your self-awareness, you’ve got to eventually come to terms with the fact that yes, you are going to be a little more difficult to “love” sometimes.

Ultimately, finding the right partner who has respect for you and what you’re struggling with is going to be a key factor here. You’ll know the foundation of which your relationship is built on is strong if you can put your loved one’s needs before your own when it’s appropriate and acknowledge  you’re going to be difficult sometimes. This isn’t meant to incite guilt, it’s just one of the harder aspects to accept when you have a mental illness and want to be more self-aware. Here, I would take a moment to recognize the positives and negatives of who you are, including your disorder.

3. Respect their boundaries.

I personally struggle the most with the anxiety of an impending disagreement (due to my own past traumatic experiences) and then the correlating behavior to just “word vomit” all over the place. The feeling of not knowing what my loved one is feeling absolutely kills me sometimes. I constantly wrestle with the drive to smother my loved one in a discussion they just might not want to engage in sometimes. I’m learning this right now, but I acknowledge that a huge step to self-awareness is to give your loved ones space when you’ve crossed a boundary. Evaluating human emotion is my passion, and my favorite test subject is, well, me.

Hopefully this example makes sense to everyone: when you say something flippant or harmful and immediately recognize what you said wasn’t helpful, and worsened the situation. That moment of “Oh shit, I shouldn’t have said that,” I think, is a natural thought for anyone who is arguing with someone they love. If we, as a species, could learn to immediately apologize and acknowledge what we said was wrong, we’d save ourselves a lot of vague Facebook posts and building resentment. I believe in our journey to end the stigma surrounding mental illness, it’s especially important for us to learn that our own behavior can be incredibly stressful for our loved ones, and sometimes they need their space to process what was just said, or what just happened, without us there to egg them on and further push them in the direction of thinking we’re unable to manage ourselves.

4. Acknowledge we process things differently.

Ultimately, I could go on and on about what we should be doing to counteract the damage our disorders can cause in our personal lives, but I’d like to point out some accommodations that loved ones can make during an argument or disagreement. If you love someone with a mental illness, and you want to navigate the drawbacks as effectively as possible, it’s important to accept your loved one is processing their emotions differently than you are. Everything you’re feeling is absolutely valid, but what they’re feeling is the cold, hard truth of their diagnosis and that’s just as valid, even if it comes out a little differently. It is their responsibility to work toward being the absolute best version of themselves, but it’s your responsibility to recognize you might not have the same starting point. This is especially true in people with processing issues (such as autism, bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder).

I often wish my loved ones could feel what I feel when I’m digesting emotions. For me, a small occurrence that should just result in feeling annoyed can immediately put me into fight-or-flight mode. Recognize and accept navigating emotional response is going to be especially difficult for someone with a mental illness, so acknowledge when they’re trying.

5. Don’t be afraid to call us out (gently).

I might not always like the result of this next point, but don’t be afraid to call us out when we’ve overstepped your boundary. Just do it gently. The sad truth is there are always going to be people with mental illnesses who refuse to become self-aware, or waffle back and forth on working to better themselves. If you feel your loved one is staunchly against working toward achieving the best version of themselves, you need to value your own time and energy and know when to say enough is enough. However, if you feel like your loved one is trying to better themselves for the sake of your relationship, providing helpful feedback is going to be a huge asset. This is often easier to do when the argument has subsided, which brings me to my next point.

6. Remain open to discussion when the storm has passed.

I think this is a vitally important step to any disagreement or argument between any two people who love each other. Willing to engage in a follow-up conversation is a sign of not only care for your loved one, but care for yourself. We all know leaving things unsaid can leave us feeling anxious, and potentially turn into resentment. At the risk of sounding like a kindergarten teacher, it’s helpful to carefully navigate this conversation with your “I” statements:

“I feel (blank) when you say things like (blank).”

“I want to (blank) to avoid (blank).”

Additionally, ask your loved one what they’re feeling, and what their goals are. This is a great opportunity to re-establish your boundaries and inquire about what accommodations you can make (within reason) to help the other person feel more comfortable when a disagreement (inevitably) happens again.

It boils down to this: if you love someone, take steps to show them you care, even when things aren’t going as great as they usually do. If you want to keep someone in your life, make accommodations to the fact everyone is different. Their behaviors are going to indicate something different than what your behaviors do. Their reaction to a disagreement might be different than your reaction. This goes for everyone, whether it’s love between two neurodivergents, two neurotypicals or one of each. Acknowledge everything they’re saying and feeling is totally valid, but what you’re feeling is just as valid, no matter which side of the fence you’re on.

I struggle to relate with society sometimes, because I can’t wrap my head around why people do things we know are counterproductive to a happy life. This isn’t meant to indicate I’m better than anyone else; it’s actually quite a burden. Why do we say one thing when we actually mean something else? Why do we feel compelled to hurt the ones we love the most? Most importantly, why do we fail to say the things we really want to say? It’s my burden that when I feel, I really feel … and “that’s my secret Captain. I’m always feeling.”

As I mentioned more than once in this particular post, it’s my responsibility to accept things aren’t always going to turn out the way I want them to, and no amount of feeling is going to change that. I struggle with boundaries, as we all do sometimes, but with care and consideration, we can keep our loved ones close by continuing to accept and validate our differences.

Photo by Jesi Cason

Originally published: December 6, 2019
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