Bipolar Love…A Match Made in Heaven?
It Takes More than Good Intentions to Navigate the Challenges of Romantic Relationships in the Face of Mental Illness
How’s your love life? Going as smoothly as you’d like?
These days, romance is more complicated than it ever has been before.
The global economy has brought pressures and life changes. Couples bearing the burden of multiple jobs while being stretched to the max, and people with more need for support in a world where there are fewer able to give it.
The pressure is on!
Couples are expected to produce sexually-exciting activity for each other, plus thoroughly honest, loyal and trusting communication.
There’s a need for realistic expectations
We are expected to have high Emotional IQs and to look great on the beach. And, don’t forget the demand to do well professionally, live in impressive houses and drive expensive cars like the make-believe world promoted by Hollywood.
All this has imposed unrealistic expectations on relationships ..and lasting love is subjected to an awfully big threat.
Add to that the hugely complex symptoms of a mental illness in either of the partners, and it can all be to much to manage.
As tough as all that is…satisfying, loving and fulfilling relationships involving a bipolar partner are not only possible, but probable. However, success does require training, mutual growth and a deep, shared commitment to the process that’s involved. Then, obstacles transform– and can become opportunities to grow more intimately together.
Zeal just can’t compensate for good old-fashioned know-how.
For example, the junior high school student with a great love for the Navy can’t step into a nuclear submarine and maneuver it into battle.
The kid’s zeal just has to give way to education and training, or he will never maneuver a submarine at all.
So it is in any relationship.
Zeal, passion and affection alone can’t prepare a well-meaning lover to navigate the deep waters of a romance. And that is even more true if it is with someone who suffers from a mental illness like bipolar disorder.
Education and training are paramount.
Actually, you might say that in most cases, training makes a big difference for even the healthiest people to make a loving relationship work and endure the test of time.
As recently as twenty years ago, bipolar disorder was still enough of a mystery, that there was’t much help offered to effectively live with it.
However, with the growth of the internet as well as the advancement of science, more understanding of this illness is emerging.
We’re learning what causes its symptoms and how people affected by it can work together to manage their relationship when the going is the roughest.
Knowledge is Power
In the uncertainty of daily living, knowing what causes relationship conflicts is empowering.
The ability to anticipate ‘land mines’ between two people and having some idea how to respond to them productively, can give you an arsenal for conquering the obstacles on the road to building a loving and secure bond with your mate.
When mental illness is woven into the bond between two people, then becoming ‘experts’ on the illness can’t be promoted too much.
Assimilating information about both of these areas provides both armor and arsenal for what is possibly the most important crusade of your lives.
Shame has to go
Fundamental to the core of suffering from bipolar disorder is shame. (Link to article on Shame)
Brene Brown, PhD, is author of The Hustle for Worthiness, and says that there’s a huge difference between shame and guilt. Shame implies worthlessness.
That the one who is shamed is not worthy of love.
Guilt simply says, “I did something I shouldn’t have done.”
Guilt says: “I did something bad.”
Shame says: “I am bad.”
There’s just no place for shame in a loving relationship….and the person who loves someone with bipolar disorder must understand how sensitive this loved one is to debilitating feelings of shame.
Shame doesn’t motivate, but rather demotivates. In truth, we would all do well to utterly remove implications of shame from our vocabulary. By doing that, we may begin to build that ‘safe place’ that is needed for trust to grow.
If you would like to learn more about shame and the role it plays with bipolars, click on the section, Shame.
Among other issues to consider, when you try to understand the upheavals that take place in a relationship with a bipolar sufferer…and one that is enormously significant, is triggers.
Ok, now…for people with bipolar disorder, understanding and recognizing the triggers (link to article on Triggers) that can set off emotional upheaval and pain, is paramount to developing the skills to pre-empt the upsetting episode.
Just as important, is having that understanding in common with the one they love and trust.
In many cases, these triggers are related to an old painful memory.
The partner cannot be expected to understand and respect such sensitive areas if she is not informed about them.
So, a brick to be laid in the foundation, one that is a cornerstone for its stability, is communication, and especially communication about triggers the sufferer may find particularly threatening and painful.
Most people with this illness have had specific painful experiences in life that became like an electrical hot button for them. When another person makes a comment that touches that button, the sufferer has sometimes reacted with great impact before he even realizes it. And once he reacts like that…a chain reaction happens in his brain that has been compared to a seizure. Bystanders may be watching behaviors that appear to be ‘rude’ or ‘irrational’…but the sufferer is experiencing an anguish few other people can comprehend…and the effect on his brain has commonalities with convulsions. These reactions…or ‘episodes’…need to be taken seriously. And avoided when possible.
When loving a person with these triggers, communicating what those triggers are…perhaps how they came to be…and how to avoid stepping on them…are all parts of the vital communication that will mortar the foundation in place between these two people.
Communicating through Triggers
If you’re the one with the disorder, give your partner the advantage of hearing about your triggers….and why they cut through you like they do…
Because of the disorder, you may feel terrible hurt, and may express it with outrage. (Link to triggers)
Your partner may only see the rage and feel attacked for no reason.
It will help her to remember to avoid those proverbial pitfalls if you will give her information.
It isn’t necessary for you to tell every painful detail, as just reliving it can trigger the pain again and lead to a devastating episode of anguish.
Do set the ground rules for communicating about this ultra-sensitive topic.
Just explain enough so that she is equipped to avoid that pothole in the future. Tell her how you want her to listen. Walk through it with her–then let her know how you want her to listen — Either quietly, or actively sympathetic.
She may want to tell you a story that this brings to her mind, to show you she understands; If you don’t want to be interrupted with another story, tell her that before you start.
For the partner: Show that you hear what he is describing and can empathize, but can’t possibly know how painful it must have been.
To dismiss his efforts to expose this deepest vulnerability to you may convey the message that you don’t respect his pain. This communicates worthlessness to him…hence shame. And shame, in turn, is crippling, even deadly.
So safeguard the setting to ensure he is not interrupted. Turn off phones and the television. And listen. Don’t explain or give him solutions. Just listen.
There are psychological and physiological reasons your loved one shields these memories and the resulting feelings he bears.
For more information about these reasons, refer to The Science of Bipolar Disorder. (link to The Science of Bipolar Disorder.)
The Bipolar Individual has Responsibility, too
Attached to that terrible feeling of shame is the determination to hide his true self. In many cases, the reactions of people around him have been conveying rejection throughout his life. He has learned through pain and loss that his true self is unacceptable.
Therefore, authentic vulnerability (Link to Bipolar’s Responsibility article) without pretense, is extremely difficult…but without it, there can be no authentic connection.
Authentic vulnerability is exposing our most genuine and unguarded self to another in trust. That exposure is very difficult for many people…but especially difficult for the wounded. But, when we do, we are allowing that person to help us in our weakness…protect us when we need it. Among human relationships, most of the time…both partners get their turn at being the vulnerable one…and at being the protector and helper.
This is a difficult process. It requires lowering a guard that has been erected for good reason and has provided much needed protection in difficult times. But, the guard that served as armor in time of battle, serves as a wall between two people who yearn to know and trust each other.
Dismantling that wall is vital to the intimacy and trust of the relationship. It requires that both partners be patient with the other–and with themselves–as they explore the secrets to removing the barrier that separates them.
Any event where the partner communicates that the bipolar individual has been selfish, unreasonable, insensitive, etc will most likely lead to withdrawal of trust by that person.
In relationships where there is no illness, this type of accusation is often hurtful also. But since people who are not ill have more resilience, they might not let the partner know that the accusation was hurtful. They erect a guard, as we spoke about earlier. The good news about the special sensitivities of our beloved bipolars, is that accusations have to go the way of the albatross. There is no place for them…they cause needless and often un-healable wounds. So, loving these special people makes the lover a kinder and less self-absorbed person. The entire world could benefit from the same lessons!
Patience, understanding and tolerance of outbursts are paramount to the survival of this relationship.
A common complaint expressed by bipolars is the baffled sense of feeling ‘misunderstood.’ In spite of their outbursts of behavior, they usually know that it isn’t in their hearts to behave hurtfully. That the outburst comes from an event triggered in their brain…and they think, say and do things that are not in their loving nature. They count on those they trust to remember that.
With support and loving acceptance, little by little, the bipolar individual should hopefully come to reveal his true feelings: his fears….his self-loathing…. and his appreciation for the love and support of his mate.
This vulnerable authenticity equips his partner to know the triggers, to offer support at threatening times and to be otherwise cognizant of his needs. At the same time, she enjoys the gift of knowing his deep and creative sensitivities, his capacity to love and care for her on a level she may not have found in others before.
A Match Made in Heaven?
No relationship among humans carries a guarantee.
Loving relationships between two people, when one bears this mental illness, is no exception.
It is hard work to make any relationship endure and thrive in the atmosphere of today’s society.
While many people from every walk of life are more informed about the dynamics of relationship growth than ever before in history, nevertheless, there is a strong influence in the world around us to want to be indulged our every whim.
Loving a person with this type of mental illness is not for the self-indulgent, but is a rewarding, deeply satisfying and fulfilling life for those willing to weather the storms to get there.
People with bipolar disorder tend to be highly intelligent, talented, tender-hearted, warm, expressively creative, and emotionally deep.
The waters around the experience of that depth can be rough, but the rewards are beyond what scores of other people find as long as they live.
Loving a mate with this illness is both challenging and fulfilling.
While days of upheaval can be extremely difficult, even so, through information and understanding, the empowered partner can detach from taking upheavals personally, and enjoy the depth of loving and sharing that is so much a part of this person’s heart.