A lot has been written over the last year and a half about relationships; most commonly involving a bipolar partner. Even though it was one of my earlier pieces, my article on deciding to stay or not remains the most read. (Should I stay or should I go). Originally my position was that choosing to leave someone just because they were bipolar was wrong, or even a betrayal. I’ve since rethought that idea, and now realize that there is no right or wrong answer to that question. It’s unique to every circumstance, and there’s no blame either way.
But it does raise one question. The focus on all my writings and the comments I’ve received are about the supporting partner. I’m not sure if I’ve ever really considered the other side of the picture… what about the partner who is bipolar? Sure I’ve looked at my own experience, but what about the bigger picture?
Being bipolar isn’t a choice. It’s a physical illness that happens to people for no fault of their own. Even the environmental influences that often intensify or promote the illness are not optional. Admittedly, people who are bipolar do make choices that are unhealthy and make their lives worse. But these decisions are a result of having the disease, not to create it. There are consequences of course, but having the illness is not their fault.
So why should we be denied a loving relationship?
It’s difficult at best living with a bipolar person, no question. And let’s face it; in many cases it’s really impossible. But humans are social creatures, and with few exceptions we all have the need for a significant other. Isn’t suffering from the depressions and manias bad enough without adding loneliness and isolation?
We need love too.
But make no mistake; it is not the responsibility of anyone who is involved (or might become involved) with a bipolar person. That’s a personal choice, and even if they decide to stick it out and remain doesn’t mean they carry the brunt of maintaining a relationship. You could say that yes, to successfully sustain that connection requires that a person learn all they can about the disease, participate in treatment and have patience and understanding. But is that a responsibility? I think not. It’s a personal choice dependent on unique circumstances and personalities.
It’s not their fault either.
Adding to the problem is the fact that most people who are bipolar aren’t sick all the time. Usually the depressions and the manias are coupled with long periods of normalcy. And in my opinion, being bipolar often makes a person more attractive and desirable than most due to the fact that we tend to be more creative, sensitive and intelligent in general. I think that’s what happens; people get involved with someone when they are at their best, and have no idea that best is going to change for the worse. So why does that bipolar person allow that to happen? Why get someone else involved knowing that there’s a good chance it’s going to turn out badly?
Why? Because we want what everyone else wants.
Of course, many times a person doesn’t know that they are bipolar. Or if they know, they refuse to accept it. Sure, they have had issues in the past, but this time it will be different! All those troubles are in the past, so there’s no reason not to get involved, right? No, it’s not right, but it happens. In many ways, it’s just another part of the disease. It’s not always that way however. There are those of us who have accepted our situation, and are actively trying to deal with the issues. But the question remains the same; why involve anyone else knowing how difficult it can be? It’s not our fault, and we are trying to get healthy and capable of engaging in a positive partnership. Is it fair to blame us? No, there’s no blame to be had from either side.
So what can we do?
I think the first thing is to accept the illness and embrace it for what it is. It’s a given that there’s no chance things will get better if they are ignored. All that’s going to do is continue to hurt others and create failures. It’s not always possible to do this; again, it’s part of the illness. Unfortunately, these people are stuck in the cycle of failed relationships and pain.
Honesty is a big part of the equation as well. Knowing from the beginning that there may be challenges sometimes can help prepare both for the eventuality. Forewarned is forearmed, and during the good times plans can be made for dealing with the bad ones. Having both involved in treatment also increases the chances of success. It’s certainly not an obligation, but it can be extremely beneficial to both.
Ultimately though, it’s the bipolar person who has the responsibility to keep a relationship healthy. It may not be their fault, but they are the only ones who can change it. We can get help, sure. But at the end of the day, without being committed to your own treatment and honestly dealing with your illness it doesn’t matter what anyone else does. It’s up to you.
But it can and does happen.
As my own situation has improved, I’ve had several conversations with my Therapist about other people she’s treated that are maintaining normal lives. Of course she’s not sharing details, not in the least! She is a professional and would never, ever betray that confidentiality. But what she does share is that with all the people she treats, not all remain caught up in the madness. In fact, according to her there is a fairly high percentage of her patients that are maintaining good mental health. I question sometimes whether or not I’m doing as well as I think I am, but she constantly tells me that the progress I’ve made is significant, and that I really am in a good place.
What I want is a partner that I can share my life with. I need to have someone to care about, that cares about me. Caring about someone means that the last thing I want to do is cause them pain. I don’t want, or need anyone to ‘complete’ me, but I do desire someone to enhance my life and be a part of my happiness. A good relationship has plenty of ups and downs even without the complications of mental illness. But I have this illness, so I have to do all I can to keep things within those same boundaries.
Does being bipolar mean you are destined to live either with bad relationships or end up alone? It absolutely does not. We are people just like everyone else, and we have the same longing for those partnerships. Much has been said, and undoubtedly will be said about how bipolar relationships are toxic and hurtful. And that is often the truth. It doesn’t change the fact however that we want to love and be loved. Trying to have this without taking responsibility for our own illness is totally unfair and irresponsible. This will most likely result in pain and suffering to all concerned. But it’s not always about caring for and staying with a bipolar person. It’s also about a bipolar person caring for and staying with someone else. Relationships are an integral part of all our existence. And we are no different. We can have it for sure, but there’s one critical thing that has can’t be ignored.
It’s up to us.