Bipolar Disorder And Relationships: Understanding The Challenges And Possibilities

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated June 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Mood swings can be normal in relationships as people experience emotional ups and downs. In relationships, mood swings can serve as an experience for both partners to navigate the emotional territory. However, if the mood swings become frequent and extreme or affect an individual’s relationships, it may be an indicator of a mood-related mental health condition—such as bipolar disorder. Early intervention can be helpful in managing bipolar disorder. A mental health professional can provide advice, diagnosis, and guidance, helping determine the best course of treatment given an individual’s symptoms. 

For partners of individuals with bipolar disorder, it can be overwhelming to watch a loved one go through mood swings. While loving someone with bipolar disorder can come with challenges, there is also a possibility for love and a healthy partnership.

Is bipolar disorder affecting your relationship?

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is generally defined as a mental health condition that was previously known as manic depression. People who have bipolar disorder might experience extreme shifts in their mood, behavior and energy levels. They can shift between the two “poles” of the mood spectrum; which can include a manic episode (indicated in most via feelings of joy, jubilation and a grand sense of importance) or a depressive episode—which can be indicated by feelings of intense desolation and sadness. These shifts between the two ends of the spectrum can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life. 

Mood swings associated with mania and depression can last for days, weeks or even months of an individual’s life without proper support and treatment. These episodes may also have a significant impact on relationships, as the behavior of people with bipolar disorder can be challenging to understand. 

For example, manic episodes can bring about reckless behavior, increased energy and lack of sleep, whereas depressive episodes can bring extremely low energy levels and possible loss of function. In both states, it is possible for the symptoms to be severe enough to impact daily life. 

At this time, the exact cause of bipolar disorder is generally unknown—but is hypothesized to be a combination of genetic, environmental or neurological factors. According to a medically reviewed American Psychiatric Association article, 80-90% of people with bipolar disorder have a relative with a mood disorder. Additionally, certain neurochemical imbalances have been linked to the condition. 

It is generally important to seek treatment for bipolar disorder because it is possible for it to impact the individual’s relationships, jobs, and overall life without a treatment plan in place. For a person with bipolar disorder, a medical or mental health professional can provide screenings and determine whether further testing, medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment are necessary. This can be an important first step in creating an effective long-term treatment plan.

What are possible challenges related to bipolar disorder?

Living with bipolar disorder can present numerous challenges for the person living with the disorder and their partner(s). The person living with bipolar disorder can experience a lot of stress when it comes to core components of their experience—such as managing manic or depressive symptoms, maintaining stability, adhering to a treatment plan, and finding coping mechanisms that work for them. A person with bipolar disorder may experience comorbid mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders or substance use disorder. There are also several medical conditions associated with bipolar disorder, including type 2 diabetes, circulatory disorders, multiple sclerosis, and thyroid disorders. 

Individuals with bipolar disorder also tend to face a lot of stigma around their condition, which can affect their overall well-being. Therapeutic intervention can be helpful in addressing this element of the condition. In the context of bipolar relationships and partnerships, partners may experience difficulty in keeping up with extreme mood swings or unpredictable behavior that can be prompted by this condition. 

However, for the person living with the condition, it can be challenging to control the rapid mood swings. Sometimes, the most helpful thing can be simply taking on the challenges as they come and adjusting as a team. Forbes writes about ways to accommodate those with mental health conditions and specifically calls out how to support someone who is living with bipolar disorder saying: “It’s typically important for someone with bipolar disorder to keep their schedule consistent, such as their sleeping schedule. They might need to fly out a day early rather than take a flight that requires them to get up at 4 a.m.” 

Small lifestyle adjustments like this can make a difference in the quality of life that both partners can have in a relationship, despite the possible challenges that are associated with bipolar disorder.

Exploring the possibilities: Loving someone who lives with bipolar disorder?

So, what is the impact of bipolar disorder on relationships? And how can you nurture a healthy relationship with someone who lives with the condition? Loving someone with bipolar disorder can be rewarding. Despite the possible mood swings and the potential for ups and downs, the possibility of experiencing a deep emotional connection and having a fulfilling relationship is possible and attainable for many. 

Partners of individuals who live with bipolar disorder, for example, might have the opportunity to learn about the condition and what specific struggles their partner might be facing because of it. Staying informed on mental health news topics, reading studies on bipolar disorder, and asking questions can help an individual connect with a partner experiencing bipolar disorder. In this way, they can understand how to love them in a way that will resonate with their specific needs. They can also assist their partners in seeking advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  

In most cases, people who live with bipolar disorder might appreciate excellent communication skills. When this occurs in a romantic relationship, partners might end up forging a strong and intimate bond because of the vulnerability the disorder can require. 

Loving someone who lives with bipolar disorder can also allow their partner to explore compassion and empathy within themselves. This experience can provide a chance to deepen one’s relationships and grow as a person. 

Seeking extra help

While it is important for individuals with bipolar disorder to seek medical advice, diagnosis, and care, it can also be helpful for their partners to pursue mental health support. Caring for a partner who has a mental health condition can be challenging at times. Therapy can help participants develop skills like communication, conflict resolution, and active listening. Many partners can improve those skills in a more convenient way by participating in online therapy. 

How can online therapy support partners who love someone with bipolar disorder? 

Online therapy can be available in anyone’s home or safe place, possibly offering more scheduling flexibility than traditional therapy can. This can be beneficial for those who are partners with someone who experiences bipolar disorder, as certain phases of the condition may make it difficult to attend regularly scheduled in-person appointments. 

Another benefit of online therapy for individuals with bipolar disorder can be the care continuity that is generally found in the online therapy setting. Maintaining consistent treatment and mental health resources is generally important for anyone with a mental health condition, including individuals who live with bipolar disorder. For example: Online therapy can be reached while traveling or if the client is ill and can’t be around other people.

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Is bipolar disorder affecting your relationship?

Is online therapy effective? 

Scientific studies have suggested that online therapy is an effective means of support, both for the people who live with bipolar disorder and their partners. 

One such study aimed to compare the use of different intervention modalities with patients with serious mental illness (including bipolar disorder) during the first wave of the pandemic and found that: “Receiving teletherapy during stressful periods, when in-person sessions are not possible, appears to be a protective factor against hospitalization, particularly in the medium-term. This concurs with previous findings suggesting that over-the-phone and videoconferencing interventions have levels of clinical effectiveness similar to those of in-person therapy.” 

Though the study was focused on the feelings experienced during the pandemic, the feelings of uncertainty, fear, helplessness, and vulnerability could also apply to someone coming out of a bipolar disorder-related episode. Online therapy could also be a valuable tool for individuals living with bipolar disorder (and their partners)—allowing them to feel more confident in how to handle the condition and its symptoms more effectively.

Takeaway

Bipolar disorder can be a complicated experience for all members of the relationship. With this in mind, it can be important for individuals to seek professional help to develop a treatment plan that works for them, especially if they want to maintain healthy personal relationships. With the right treatment options, knowledge about the condition, and a supportive community, it can be possible for individuals with bipolar disorder to overcome relationship challenges and maintain a healthy, loving partnership. 
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