Bipolar Husband and Wife - A Marriage Made in Heaven or Hell?

Patient Expert

Kathleen writes:

"I'm curious to know if there is a way for both people in the relationship are bipolar can make it? If so, what has helped them? I heard once that if a couple with mental illness make it to 5 years in a relationship/marriage the success rate is better. How true is that?

"I have been married twice, both had mental health problems as I do and those relationships both ended in divorce. But I was much younger then and wiser now than I was back then. My current relationship with my fiance has lasted longer than both my marriages combined. We struggle but work so very hard to make it work.

"I guess my question is...can you make it work and have a life-long relationship with both partners bipolar? Any advice?"

Funny, Kathleen, that you should ask.

I have bipolar and have been in two loving relationships with bipolar women. One of these involved a marriage (my second) of three years which broke up just before Thanksgiving of 2006, the other a short-term relationship that perversely ended around the anniversary of my 2006 break-up. Just an hour or two ago, I was confiding in a friend that maybe I should call it quits with bipolar relationships. I jokingly suggested I should seek a woman with a different diagnosis.

Nevertheless, I did learn quite a bit from my failures, and I'm happy to share some of that with you.

First: Bipolar was not the relationship-killer. Both my partners were extraordinarily sensitive to my illness and my needs, and they would probably say the same about me. My "crazy" was fairly easy for them to handle, as was theirs. I'm sure someone without my diagnosis would quickly lose patience with me. Not the case with a bipolar partner.

It was also comforting being in a relationship where I was not constantly being judged.

Unfortunately, our diagnosis tends to come pre-loaded with a number of co-occurring ills and personality traits, which leads me to my second-point:

Unresolved personal issues turned out to be the real relationship killer. Everyone has personality issues in abundance, and when these fail to sync with those of your partner we have trouble in paradise. With the personality issues, in my second marriage, I kept banging my head against brick walls. Finally, I ran out of patience. In my short-term relationship, we called it quits before reaching the head-banging stage.

After the break-up of my second marriage, a good friend lent me her copy of "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail" by John Gottman PhD of the University of Washington, who conducted a decades-long study of more than 2,000 married couples. Dr Gottman's thesis is two-fold: 1) It hardly matters whether couples live in peaceful or volatile relationships, as the success/failure rate is virtually the same. 2) What matters is that couples have ways of resolving their inevitable differences.

"Volatile" couples who blow up at each other at the drop of a hat tend to make up just as quickly. Their explosions have the benefit of clearing the air. And the upside to excess emotion is unsurpassed levels of passion and nurturing.

"Validators" and "avoidants," by contrast, opt for far quieter and less intense relationships. Validating couples tend to talk out their concerns, while avoidant couples choose to let sleeping dogs lie.

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that probably all bipolar couples would fall into the "volatile" category. We have emotion in abundance and containing them is not an option. We tend to feel most comfortable around high-emotion people, even when we drive each other crazy.

Conventional wisdom is that volatile relationships don't last. Virtually all of marriage counseling is based on reshaping volatile and avoidant relationships into validating ones. But Dr Gottman contends that volatile partners have as good a shot at making their relationships work as their more rational counterparts.

The key, says Dr Gottman, lies in being able to work out one's differences. This really struck a chord with me. This is where my second marriage foundered. My wife's personality issues butted up against mine. It was like the Israelis and the Palestinians. There were occasional accords, but no possibility of a lasting peace.

In my subsequent short-lived relationship, my partner and I acted out a series of "cockpit drills," the idea being that when the inevitable fires broke out we would not be caught by surprise. Ironically, the relationship ran out of fuel before we had a chance to put out any fires.

There are no easy solutions, of course. Relationships are hard work, and living in a bipolar relationship does pose special challenges. I did learn from facilitating support groups that it is wise to be the calm one when someone else erupts, or for that matter merely suggestively rumbles. The best way to lose control of a situation is to react emotionally, no matter how justified.

Thus, when your partner explodes or simply initiates discussion, your primary duty is to keep cool. In this situation, you are the calm one, relatively speaking. Your job is to create a safe environment for your partner to raise his or her legitimate concerns or irrationally vent, whatever the case may be. In no case, in the early going, do you try to impose your viewpoint or counter-attack.

"I hear you," or "I would feel that way, too," are the type of responses you need to be working on.

It's amazing how fast a person settles down once they feel they're being listened to. Show that you're not listening, by contrast, and see what happens.

You may feel a need to vent, yourself. Save it for later, after your partner has calmed down, when he or she is in a position to make it safe for you.

Anyway, Kathleen, I am heartened by your intelligent analysis of your situation and the willingness of you and your fiance to put in the effort to make your relationship work. In all honesty, you are the one who should be giving me advice. You have every reason to be hopeful. There is nothing like a fellow bipolar to turn to for the kind of love and support and understanding we need, and volatile relationships do work.

A toast to the lovely couple ...