A while ago I received a lengthy email from the relative of someone with bipolar disorder. The person wanted to know whether it was possible to discriminate between ‘bipolar and non-bipolar behavior'. Then, within the context of bipolar, a central question emerged as to whether there was ever a point where someone with bipolar could ‘cross the line' with how they behave.
I've noticed similar questions come from people in fledgling relationships where often little or nothing is known about bipolar disorder. The questions are understandable and they say something about fear and defensiveness. There are concerns about starting a relationship with a Jekyll and Hyde character and what may escalate as a result. There is the fear of the unknown and the shock of the unexpected. How much can reasonably be expected, or tolerated. ‘He's just hit me - was it him or was it bipolar doing this?'
There seems little doubt that if a loved one or friend is well most of the time it is easier to adapt to the situation and understand it for what it is. As the gap between health and ill-health narrows so the situation becomes more complex for everyone involved. For example, some partners lament the fact that during depression they become a parent figure. A state of hyperactivity may include spending and sexual activity outside the relationship which is stressful and often destructive.
One of the most immediate threats to a relationship is when anger spills over into violence. It has to be remembered that the vast majority of people with bipolar are not violent. Acts of violence are nearly always tied into states of depression or mania and coupled with drugs or alcohol or both. During mania, anger may be turned outwards and during depression it may turn inwards, sometimes leading to suicide.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to questions about ‘crossing the line'. As with any relationship what constitutes ‘the line' varies. I think it's fair to say that an abusive relationship, whether resulting from bipolar or not, is still abusive. Communication is the key to establishing the parameters of acceptable behavior within any relationship.