Essential tips for living with a bipolar partner

Man holding head in hands seated at table
Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels

For 20 years we’ve been dealing with it. In the early days, we didn’t know what “it” was. We didn’t know why my spouse flew high on so many days then crashed into valleys of oblivion for many more. We didn’t know why drinking was such a problem for her.

Even when we were told “it” was bipolar disorder, we still didn’t understand what we were dealing with. We believed it might go away. Every time my spouse cycled up, we thought she was cured and ceased treatment. When she cycled down into depression we tried to reason our way through the feelings. I once tried to convince my beloved spouse she simply needed to act “normal” in order to feel “normal.”

“It” always came back. Truthfully, “it” never left. The bipolar hid from me from time to time. Other times it might show itself in brief glimpses before ducking back below the surface. Other times it would take over, though.

You might be there right now: living alongside a partner enthralled in bipolar.

I’ll be real with you: “it” is not going away. But all of this can get better.

We’ve been getting better and better in dealing with bipolar for 20 years. We don’t always have it completely managed. Sometimes the bipolar gets the upper-hand and fosters the chaos it desires. But there are so many other times we’re able to see the bipolar starting to bubble up and then put constraints in place that keep it from taking control. You can benefit from the guidelines we put in place, too. They give us hope enough to keep going… and we’re confident they’ll do the same for you.

Help for those living alongside a bipolar partner

First, take care of yourself.

People who are able to love themselves well are able to love others well. Conversely, those who don’t love themselves well… you get the picture.

Take a break when you need one. Step away when it’s too much for you. It’s important you not to try to hang with your partner to the point of resentment. Yes, your partner is hurting. Yes, you want to help. Being burned out, frustrated and resentful will not help.

Take the time to do the things that bring you joy — even if it means doing them alone. Take your walks. Spend some time with friends who understand. Get support for yourself — even if your partner is refusing outside support. Believe it or not, your positivity and strength help to fend off the bipolar symptoms. [Note: your partner’s symptoms are not a measure of your own positivity and strength. The persistence of symptoms is not an indication that you aren’t being positive enough or strong enough.]

The final act in taking care of yourself may result in you saying “I’ve had enough.” Know that you have that option. A partner who refuses to stick with a treatment plan — or refuses treatment altogether — is not someone currently capable of loving you. It’s OK to say “I’ve had enough for now.”

Second, recognize your partner is NOT their bipolar

Your partner has bipolar. Your partner is NOT bipolar. It really helps to see the bipolar as a separate entity from your partner.

If we substitute ANY other affliction or disease for the word “bipolar”, the importance of this distinction becomes clear. For example, “My wife has cancer.” No loving person would ever say “My wife is cancer.” Cancer is not who the afflicted person is. Neither is bipolar who your partner is. Bipolar is something your partner has. It’s important to make this differentiation because it is pivotal in understanding that what you’re treating is a disease — not a deficient person. Remember, you’re dealing with a disease.

Third, don’t try to reason with bipolar.

Bipolar thrives on chaos. It wants to create more chaos. So it creates illogical and often unreasonable feelings in your partner. Believe me, your partner does not want to be sad all the time — or frustrated and angry for days straight. Your partner wants to feel in control just as much as you do — but bipolar is constantly fighting for that control.

When bipolar has control, it cannot be reasoned with. Telling your partner there is no reason sad or frustrated may be truthful, but it is not helpful. Your partner knows that. But bipolar doesn’t care. In fact, your partner’s ability to realize they have little reason to feel how they’re feeling but still not being able to control their feelings gives more power to bipolar.

You’re not going to be able to reason away bipolar. You’ll need to treat bipolar.

Fourth, be part of the treatment plan.

For years, I left my spouse to see after her own treatment plan. I’ve realized that was disabling. It weakens our ability to contain bipolar.

Again, if we liken bipolar to any other kind of serious ailment, then we recognize the importance of being involved in a treatment plan. If my spouse had diabetes, I would definitely be involved in helping her regulate her nutritional plan and curbing her insulin. I would know about her medications. I would likely attend a few doctor visits with her.

My failure to participate in my spouse’s treatment plan isolated her and showed a lack of respect for what she experienced. It opened me up to misunderstandings about how to best deal with bipolar when it was in control. It provided bipolar more opportunity to create chaos and take control.

It’s important to be a partner in treatment. Keep notes on your partner's behaviors. You are likely to notice cycles and triggers that your partner does not. You can offer the first warnings to your partner that a bipolar cycle could be on the way.

This leads to the fifth tip: Look for the triggers.

Your partner is way more sensitive to stress than you are. Stress is likely the root cause of the felt chaos which triggers your partner’s bipolar. So see if you and your partner (or even just you) can identify the triggers of stress.

My partner has poor sleep habits. Some nights she’ll wake up in the middle of the night, open a couple of cans of Coke and a bag of snacks and sit in front of the TV. The drinks, the food, and the TV stimulate her brain and keep her on high alert — and not sleeping. When she suffers from a lack of sleep, it triggers anxiety. THEN, the anxiety leads to depression because she can’t shut off the negative self-talk.

We eliminate anxiety by addressing sleep habits. Healthy habits = good sleep = low anxiety = less likelihood of depression.

I can tell how good of a day we’re going to have as soon as I get up in the morning. If the TV is on and some food and soda pop cans are on the end table, I know it’s going to be a rough day. I need to look for ways to minimize stressful triggers. For us, that means limiting exposure to stressful situations. It also means I need to be proactive in making decisions — because the decision-making process is rife with self-doubt and triggering for her.

There is something at the base of your partner’s swings towards one end of the bipolar spectrum or another: poor sleep habits, poor eating habits, lack of exercise… Take a serious look into your partner’s lifestyle habits, doing so provides a proactive approach to stemming manic or depressive cycles.

Finally, avoid going through this alone.

Bipolar loves isolating people. It feeds off the loneliness your partner feels. It gets even more kicks from your feelings of isolation, too. In this age of digital connectedness, plug into a group allowing you to share your experiences.

Additionally, be upfront with those closest to you about what happens in your home. When it comes to friends and family, we often feel tempted to hide how bipolar affects our relationships (I’ve done it for years!). Take the bold step of admitting what life is like — you’ll likely find some sympathetic ears.

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