What are the common reasons why bipolar relationships fail? The answers are rarely straightforward since there are many variables to consider.
Navigating a relationship can be challenging by itself, and bipolar disorder can add additional hurdles to overcome. Consequently, bipolar disorder breakups are not rare, although that doesn’t mean there aren’t many strong, fulfilling, and long-lasting bipolar relationships.
Before we move to describe the effects of bipolar disorder on relationships and why bipolar relationships fail sometimes, let’s define bipolar disorder first.
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition characterized by extreme shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and concentration. The mood fluctuations go from periods of extreme happiness, irritation, or energized behavior (also named manic episodes) to periods of extreme sadness, indifference, and helplessness (known as a depressive episode).
Bipolar I disorder involves periods of mania that alternate with depressive episodes.
Bipolar II disorder consists of alternating depressive and hypomanic episodes (periods of elevated mood and energy milder in nature than manic episodes)
In the video below, Kati Morton, a licensed therapist, discusses in detail what is Bipolar II disorder.
Cyclothymic disorder is expressed by brief periods of hypomania taking turns with short depressive symptoms (both less intense and shorter compared to the first two types).
The shifts a person suffering from bipolar disorder experiences are more dramatic than one would usually encounter. Although there can be symptom-free periods (known as euthymia), the mood fluctuations can significantly impact a person’s day to day functioning. This could be one of the reasons why bipolar relationships fail.
9 Common reasons why bipolar relationships fail
1. Dramatic changes in mood and behavior
Although the symptoms of bipolar disorder exist on a spectrum, both hypo/manic and depressive episodes are present with this diagnosis. One of the reasons why bipolar relationships fail is related to dramatic changes in the mood and behavior that come with the episodes.
For example, during manic episodes, a person seeks more pleasure through heavy drinking or partying. On the other hand, during a depressive phase, they might withdraw from the partner due to the heavy onset of hopelessness and despair.
Living with someone with bipolar can be challenging as it requires the spouse to find ways to cope with the experience of these tense and sometimes extreme fluctuations.
2. Emotional ups and downs
It is natural to be worried about your partner when they are experiencing hypomania or mania since they can be quite impulsive and unlike themselves during those times.
When their mood changes towards the depressive spectrum, it can be upsetting differently, especially if the partner mentions suicidal thoughts. This can take you through an emotional rollercoaster, leaving you confused, worried, and feeling helpless.
3. Irritability and anger
One of the misconceptions about bipolar disorder is that a person is happy when they are experiencing mania. Manic periods are better described as periods of elevated mood, including irritability and anger.
Living with someone with bipolar disorder can be challenging when they are irritable (or anyone irritable for that matter) because it can lead to communication problems and conflicts. The negativity and criticism expressed can take a toll on the relationship when not dealt with.
4. Sole focus on the person with bipolar disorder
Dealing with any illness induces stress. In a bipolar disorder relationship, the focus is often on helping the person struggling with the illness, although the other partner is experiencing stress and needs care as well.
Helping a loved one cope with the consequences of a mental disorder can take a toll. Although you choose to do it, you don’t always have the answers as to what is the most appropriate form of help. Often you might feel lost and in need of support yourself.
One of the reasons why bipolar relationships fail is forgetting to concentrate on the person without the diagnosis as well. The attention needs to be given to both partners since only when they are both doing well, the relationship will flourish.
5. The stress of managing the symptoms
Treatment can help when continuous and focused effort exists. However, successful treatment can be a challenge because many people miss their “up” periods and the euphoria of manic episodes, so they might seek to induce those periods of elevated mood.
It might also be that they see those periods as times when they are being their best selves and decide to stop the treatment to having it again.
Choosing to stop taking medication affects their partner too. Together they have worked towards establishing a symptoms-free period, and this act can be perceived as a betrayal after everything they did to help their loved one feel better. You can imagine how that can impact the relationship.
6. Destructive behaviors
Although depressive episodes are hard to cope with, mania brings other challenges that can be just as destructive.
In a heightened mood, people with bipolar disorder are prone to risky behaviors such as overspending, excessive alcohol abuse, gambling, etc. These behaviors can have consequences that can take a serious toll on the relationship, with or without the bipolar in question.
Infidelity can break apart any couple. Many people struggle to regain trust once it has been broken, and the same goes for bipolar disorder relationships.
One of the consequences of bipolar disorder can induce is the person engaging in infidelity as an attempt to reduce their feelings of depression and boredom. Infidelity can be more common in situations when people have not yet been diagnosed, or they stopped using their medication.
8. Strict routine
People with bipolar disorder may rely heavily on routine to preserve periods of euthymia. They may have to stick to a strict schedule of sleep, diet, and exercise to keep symptoms in check since, for example, lack of sleep can trigger a manic episode.
This can affect the relationship as partners may need extremely opposite things at times. It may lead the partner with the diagnosis to choose an early bed routine, preventing them from late-night gatherings or places where alcohol is served (as it can also trigger an episode or interfere with medicine).
This may seem like an surmountable obstacle, and often it is. However, the more severe the symptoms are, the more restrictive the routine can become, and this affects the relationship.
9. Self Isolation
Self isolation is usually because of the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder. The sufferer receives negative criticism from people, internalizes them and drifts into a state of self stigma.
Just because of the derogatory remarks of the society, the person goes mental illness further and that causes them to communicate less and be involved in the relationship to the minimum.
Do all bipolar relationships fail?
There are many misconceptions when it comes to Bipolar disorder or any mental illness for that matter. One of them is that bipolar and relationships are not a good match, and eventually, the disorder ruins the bond.
However, it is important to recognize that it is NOT a fact that bipolar destroys relationships. Dating or living with someone with bipolar may produce additional challenges stemming from battling the mental disorder. However, this does not mean that ALL bipolar relationships fail.
Another common misconception is related to what people perceive as reasons why bipolar relationships fail. Many would attribute the bipolar breakup to the illness itself or the consequences of managing the symptoms. They might believe that syndrome is always the root cause of bipolar marriage breakdown.
However, relationships end for various reasons, and thinking that diagnosis is the key or main reason is fortifying the stigma that exists regarding mental illnesses. The truth is that the diagnosis is only part of the equation for the bipolar breakup.
How to cope with bipolar disorder effects on relationships
Bipolar disorder affects relationships in a complex way; hence there isn’t a blanket approach or solution. However, there are some guidelines that can be helpful, nonetheless.
1. Date the person, not the diagnosis
In the search for why bipolar relationships fail, we need to remember that what breaks apart most couples (bipolar or not) is making assumptions. When couples start attributing everything to the diagnosis instead of searching for ways to overcome problems, they enter a hopeless mindset.
They might think “diagnosis is for life, and so there is no purpose to keep trying.”
Many couples are dealing with mental illness, and they make it work.
The key is to remember NOT to generalize!
One person with bipolar will have trouble controlling their anger; another won’t. Someone else may experience extreme irritability during hypomania or mania; another won’t. A mental condition, although called the same, will have many faces.
If you are seeing the person through the lens of their diagnosis, you are not seeing the true them. This approach won’t help your relationship since your partner will feel judged and categorized. If you want to make this relationship work, be ready to get to know them and see past the labels.
2. Educate yourself
If you learn your partner has bipolar disorder, most likely, the first thing you will do is google to learn more.
When you try to educate yourself, remember why and for whom you are doing this. You can learn everything there is to know about the condition, but you still won’t’ have all the answers because they are hidden inside a conversation with your partner.
Once you learn more about how the disorder can affect a person, talk to your partner to hear about their experiences. Don’t assume you know what they are dealing with because you did your research.
Approach with kindness and an open mind so you can discuss what to expect and best manage the symptoms together.
3. Consider couples counseling
The additional challenges that the mental illness can put on the couple can be overcome. Some people struggle to keep the relationship, while others navigate intimacy with few problems.
Sometimes, the challenges brought by the illness can bring the couple closer. Indeed, any relationship takes effort to be fulfilling and stable. It is no different when your partner has bipolar disorder.
Communication and conflict resolution can be improved in any relationship, and counseling can help you with that. Couples counseling can provide bipolar relationships help in becoming more self-aware, open, and honest with each other, and learning to manage the symptoms better.
4. Accept who they are
The key to making the relationship work is NOT trying to fix them. Otherwise, you will be sending them a message they are not good enough the way they are, and that won’t help with recovery.
We all see potential in the person we love, but falling in love or staying with someone because of their potential is the common reason why bipolar relationships fail (or any other).
When you are focused on who they can be, you are not dating the person they are. That means you’re pushing them to become someone they might not be ready to become yet and missing out on being present and dealing with problems at hand.
They are not perfect, but no one is really. Instead of aiming for perfection, learn to accept them for who they are, and help them become better in areas they want to improve.
5. Focus on continuous treatment
For successful management of symptoms, a person needs to be committed to continued treatment and ongoing communication with a mental health specialist. As their partner, you can provide the support and encouragement required to have regular checkups.
Additionally, as someone who knows them well, you can notice any troubling symptoms when they first appear so they can schedule an appointment right away. When addressed promptly, an episode onset can be prevented, and a symptom-free period can continue.
Sometimes it is a matter of changing the medicine or the dosage.
6. Practice self-care
“You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
If you are to be there for your partner, you need to take care of yourself too. One of the reasons for bipolar relationship breakups, or any other that involves any type of illness, is forgetting to take care of the caregiver (not that you are always in that role).
Surround yourself with the support of people who can understand what you’re going through and regularly practice self-care. For each person, self-care will mean something different, of course.
The key is not to forget to check in with your needs regularly, not only when you are exhausted.
Keep calm and remember bipolar is treatable
When we ask why bipolar relationships fail, we need to also ask why do some succeed.
What breaks apart one couple can make another stronger. It all depends on the way they approach the situation and how they handle the problem resolution.
Bipolar disorder can put additional hurdles to the relationship; that much is true. But a diagnosis of mental illness of a partner is not a death sentence for the relationship.
Many couples make it work and live a happy, fulfilling life together. Focus on the person in front of you, not their diagnosis, make a point of NOT approaching a problem as a result of the illness instead, look for other causes and focus on continuous treatment and self-care.
Navigating a romantic relationship can be challenging, but we do it every day!
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Rachael Pace is a noted relationship writer associated with Marriage.com. She provides inspiration, support, and empowerment in the form of motivational articles and essays. Rachael enjoys studying the evolution of loving partnerships and is passionate about writing on them. She believes that everyone should make room for love in their lives and encourages couples to work on overcoming their challenges together.