Living with Bipolar Disorder can make relationships unstable and difficult to maintain.
"Nothing can be taken for granted when you have Bipolar Disorder and that’s something I’ve come to terms with over time".
It can be hard for those around you to understand what you are going through and to know how to help. The symptoms of Bipolar Disorder can make you act in ways that are out of character; it can be hurtful and worrying for family and friends to see someone they love acting in a way that they might not recognise or seeing their moods fluctuate between extreme lows or highs.
My support system helps me thrive
Despite this, connections to other people in your life become even more vital when you struggle with your mental health. You need that support system in order to really thrive. It’s about learning to work together as a team so that you can keep the relationships in your life strong.
I’ve been married to my husband for four and a half years now and we have grown stronger as a couple as we learnt to navigate my Bipolar Disorder together. It has ultimately made us closer and given us the tools to deal with anything that comes our way. There are five main ways that we keep our connection strong while dealing with my Bipolar Disorder: honesty, trust, communication, respecting boundaries and humour.
These things are vital in any marriage or relationship but become even more important when you’re dealing with a mental illness.
We need to be extremely honest and open with each other about how we are both feeling so that he can understand how I'm feeling and experiencing and what I might need. Doing this also help me to understand how my mental health difficulties might be affecting him and offer my support in turn.
Being open about what I am going through not only on a day to day basis, but also with regards to my treatment, my medication, anything that I might need to attend therapy for, not only brings us closer as a couple, but it also allows us both to feel that we are tackling this together. It means that I don’t feel alone. Although he can’t understand exactly how I feel because he hasn’t experienced those symptoms himself, I feel that we are part of a team; he wants to understand as much as he possibly can. Being in this together makes me feel stronger, knowing that I have someone supportive on my side even when things are at their toughest.
Experiences of mental illness bring a new dynamic to the usual trust that one would ordinarily expect in a relationship.
My husband must trust that I am going to let him know if I am in crisis or in danger, if I need him to come home from work; he must trust that I am able to read my own moods and now have the tools I need to know when I need to reach out. By trusting in that, and knowing that we will get through a crisis together, it reduces the worry on his part for my safety and allows him to get on with his own day to day life, to enjoy his life and not have that weight carried with him. I must trust that if I reach out to him, he will be by my side as quickly as possible and will be there for me no matter what, which is a wonderful thing to have.
This isn’t something that came easily; when I am less stable it’s a far more difficult thing to maintain, but we are on a journey together and it’s something that is vital for both of us to keep working on and developing. This disorder can be so hard for loved ones, it doesn’t just affect the individual, and so coping strategies need to work both ways in order to keep relationships strong.
Communication is of the utmost importance. My husband and I talk about everything: what I am going through, what he is going through, and how we both feel about each other's concerns. When things inevitably go wrong, we look back on that situation and work together to establish what we could have done differently - kind of like a debrief to inform future responses.
With a condition like Bipolar Disorder things may not be predictable. Learning from past experiences, looking back at them with a constructive eye, helps us to be and feel more prepared.
Having a husband who respects my boundaries means a lot to me. When there are things that I might not want to talk about, if I’m feeling low and need time to myself, my husband respects that and just lets me know that he’s there if I do want to talk. Without that pressure to have to talk about it, usually I end up talking to him about it later: it allows me to feel supported rather than pressured.
It it vital that my husband trusts me when I express that I don't need help - even if he might feel differently. It’s important to me that I maintain independence, that loved one’s respect that I’m my own person and that my illness does not define me. If I refuse his help then that’s the end of that; having my boundaries respected is invaluable to me.
These boundaries go both ways. If there are things that my husband doesn’t feel ready to talk about, sometimes in relation to my mental illness, I make sure not to put pressure him. This understanding that even if you feel that you know what is going to help a loved one from an outsider's perspective, you must respect their decisions. Being there for someone unconditionally and offering your advice without the expectation that they will always take it is the best way to foster trust and openness.
We still try to maintain these boundaries when I am actively in crisis. If I don’t want to talk about the way I am feeling or feel unable to articulate myself, my husband will not push it but he will keep a close eye on me ready to put our crisis plan into action if need be. If he feels that I am at risk and incapable of making decisions for myself, he will take the lead and make care decisions of behalf of me which I have communicated in advance; this is the only time that I consent to my boundaries being violated - it's for my own safety. Trust is central to giving someone responsibility to make decisions for you and it is not something I take lightly. To trust my husband that he will stick to the crisis plan we have prepared together in advance is a big deal, but I do trust him implicitly.
Humour is a huge part of how we get through difficult times. We find things to laugh at in almost any situation. It keeps our spirits up and makes things that little bit easier even if it's short lived.
Once, during an episode of hypomania, I decided to start my own business. I invested time and money into the business venture - making and selling handmade jewellery. Thousands of business cards later, pieces of jewellery made, money spent, and time given, I came back down to earth with no time or desire to follow up with it. It’s an ongoing joke that one of our cupboards in our very small two-bedroom flat is now bursting with handmade jewellery. We now have handmade Christmas and birthday gifts for everyone we know, sometimes almost a year ahead of these occasions. If I didn't laugh about these kind of incidents I would feel embarrassed about them. Finding humour and being able to laugh at myself - and being able to laugh at each other - makes things so much easier to deal with.
These strategies aren’t things that we need to think about actively anymore, they just come naturally and are embedded into our lives. It doesn’t feel like a chore, these tried and tested coping strategies are just part of how we get through things together. It’s been a learning process and always will be.
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Building a future
When we are planning our future together we must consider the impact of my disorder and how changes may affect its symptoms. Nothing can be taken for granted when you have Bipolar Disorder and that’s something I’ve come to terms with over time.
Things like family planning, moving to a new house, changing jobs; these big changes can be triggers for a change in mood and can be tough to cope with. We are realistic about the potential effects of these events and always make sure to keep an eye on my mood. Being realistic means we must be aware that my crisis plan may have to be enacted. We also take care to plan before we do things so that I have time to get used to the idea and to prepare myself for it, if need be.
As a team I feel like we can handle anything. These strategies could be applied to any relationship when you’re dealing with a mental illness, or even without. Respecting boundaries, being open with each other, really taking care to listen, and valuing honesty are good ways to approach any connection in your life.