Searching for Answers: Dear Stacy, I live with my partner of many years and they have constant mood swings which have progressively gotten worse. I have done some research, and think they may have bipolar disorder. I am not sure what to do next since every time I try to talk about it, they become defensive and shut down. What do you recommend?
Stacy: Dear Searching for Answers, living with someone who has undiagnosed and unmedicated bipolar disorder can be very frustrating and confusing. It can feel like you are constantly walking on egg shells because you never know what their reaction is going to be.
Dealing with the extreme ups and downs can be exhausting and emotionally draining for all who are around them. “In the United States, 2.6% of males ages 13-18 and 2.9% of males ages 18 and older have experienced bipolar disorder, according to a national survey. There are multiple types of bipolar disorder defined by duration and intensity of the mood types, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).” (Sun Houston, 2021). According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an estimated 2.8% of U.S. adults had bipolar disorder in the past year. Past year prevalence of bipolar disorder among adults was similar for males (2.9%) and females (2.8%), and an estimated 4.4% of U.S. adults experience bipolar disorder at some time in their lives.
The good news is people with bipolar disorder can be stabilized with counseling, medication and behavior modification — coping skills. You are on the right track since you have already begun to research the disorder and are trying to understand the behaviors so that you will be better equipped to support your partner. You are showing patience, which is very important, because people with bipolar disorder do not usually want to get help because they feel they may be a burden to others. I am not sure what barriers your partner has, but continuing to encourage them to get help is key.
Caring for someone with bipolar can take a toll on your own mental health, so you want to make sure that you do not neglect your own needs, “so it’s important to find a balance between supporting your loved one and taking care of yourself.” (HelpGuide.org, 2021). The hardest part will be to convince your partner to see a doctor since they lack the insight into their condition. The main thing is not to argue about it. One tip is to encourage them to get a regular routine check-up with their medical doctor where they can address one symptom they are experiencing (fatigue, insomnia, irritability, etc.), then you can call ahead to share your concerns with the doctor.
Once your partner sees a doctor, then you can agree to be their partner in treatment. Support is the biggest factor in bipolar recovery. “People with bipolar disorder do better when they have support from family members and friends. They tend to recover more quickly, experience fewer manic and depressive episodes, and have milder symptoms.” (HelpGuide.org, 2021). Sometimes creating a set of boundaries/rules along with a contract around your partner’s treatment goals can be helpful and keeps you headed in the right direction. There may be a need for couples counseling as well. As in any treatment, there is a process and nothing will happen overnight. Practicing mindfulness, self-care and forgiveness will help you continue to make your bi-polar relationship work.
“Living with a person who has bipolar disorder can cause stress and tension in the home. On top of the challenge of dealing with your loved one’s symptoms and their consequences, family members often struggle with feelings of guilt, fear, anger, and helplessness. Ultimately, the strain can cause serious relationship problems. But there are better ways to cope.” (HelpGuide.org, 2021)
Here are some resources on the topic that you may find helpful: