Five Rules for Bipolar Relationships

Patient Expert

Following is a slightly longer version of the slideshow, Five Rules for Bipolar Relationships ...

Valentine's Day falls in February. As we all know, living in a loving relationship poses considerable challenges. Add bipolar to the mix and the degree of difficulty suddenly gets a lot more difficult. How difficult? Imagine Yo-Yo Ma performing a Bach Cello Suite blindfolded while pedaling a unicycle backwards on a tightrope over Niagara Falls. That's how difficult.

Nevertheless, despite all the complications, bipolar can enormously enhance a loving relationship, and enrich the lives of both parties. But we do need to be extremely mindful of the hazards. Following are five simple rules I have gleaned from life experience. ...

Rule Number One: Never engage in a dialogue with the other person's amygdala.

The amygdala is that part of the brain's limbic system which activates fight-or-flight. The amygdala fires up in response to stress or perceived stress. When that happens, the thinking parts of the brain - the cortical areas - go off-line. This is a perfectly normal response to potential danger when we need to act quickly - essentially react - with no time to think.

But in a normal brain the thinking parts of the brain soon reassert themselves, sound the all-clear, and the amygdala quiets down.

Life is far more complicated in a bipolar brain. The amygdala may go off for no reason or may over-respond. Meanwhile, the cortical areas fail to reboot properly. The all-clear message gets lost. We freak out and lose it. Or we may become immobilized. In this state, we are totally irrational, beyond reason. There is no sense in trying to reason with us.

But on other occasions, the "normal" partner may be over-heating. Either way, it is the "rational" partner's duty to calm down the other party. Now is not the time to win the argument or resolve the relationship issue. That amounts to throwing oil on the fire. Three simple words:

Okay, that was more than three, but I trust you get the drift.

Rule Number Two: Do not judge.

People with bipolar have very different ways of perceiving the world than the rest of the population. The only reason this is not considered normal is because we are not in the majority. The brain science strongly suggests that bipolars are adept at non-linear thinking, which would account for our high creativity. But our non-linear processors can also get us into trouble.

One example is that we may perceive danger well before a "normal" person perceives it. We see ourselves reacting normally to an abnormal situation. We cannot contemplate how the other party can possibly be so clueless and unfeeling. The other party, of course, sees it a lot differently. They see us as freaking out for no reason.

But then our nonlinear processors can reverse the situation. This time we see the solution to an intractable problem. We have the situation under control. Our non-linear partner is the one who is freaking out for no reason. They see us as being clueless and unfeeling.

In either situation - be it the bipolar individual acting out or the "normal" one - we need to suspend judgment. The other party is reacting to the world as he or she sees it. So are you. Same world, two entirely different views. Do not judge. Take stock, determine where each of you are coming from. Resolve to work your way to an understanding.

Rule Number Three: Think very carefully - uh, never mind.

Part of living with bipolar involves our brains running away from us. Or it can work the other way around. Our brains shut down. Either way, we may spend the rest of our lives dealing with the consequences.

The brain science reveals that the prefrontal cortex acts as a modulator of our emotions. When we're not thinking right, bad things happen. But there is this important twist: We also need our emotions to think. Any decision we make is based on whether it "feels right" or "feels wrong" to us. As counter-intuitive as it seems, the thinking parts of the brain can be tricked into making terrible choices.

Bipolar essentially turns up the heat: On one hand, our non-linear brains imbue us with the type of intuition that borders on psychic. On the other, we have a tendency to jump to ridiculous conclusions.

When do you go with your head? When do you go with your heart? How do you justify your decision to your partner? Our only guide is a lifetime of experience, which inevitably involves a history of wrong choices. Mistakes are inevitable, but they may also give us the wisdom to move forward. Says the Dalai Lama: "When you lose, don't lose the lesson."

Rule Number Four: You should never have to put up with abuse.

This applies with equal force to both parties. The stress we put our partners through can be interpreted as a form of abuse. Likewise, so can the apparent indifference from our partners.

Each partner has the right to set their own boundaries, make their own rules, interpret abuse as they see fit. And ultimately each has the right to leave the relationship if their needs are not being met.

Each party also has the right to expect certain accommodations, even if they make no apparent sense to the other party. If a bipolar partner expresses the wish to leave a crowded room right now, this means right now, not five minutes from now. Conversely, the "normal" one who pulls her partner from the room right now, this very minute, has a very good reason for doing so.

Naturally, whether bipolar or "normal," we do not wish to put our parties through unnecessary suffering. But we may find ourselves in situations where our partner can no longer put up with us. We may be "too bipolar." They may be "too normal."

Too often, things deteriorate beyond the point of reconciliation. The saddest - and wisest - choice we may make may involve acknowledging the inevitable.

Rule Five: You are entitled to happiness.

The bipolar diagnosis should never be interpreted as a form of house arrest that cuts us off from humanity. Our illness imbues us with an insight and wisdom that tends to leave the rest of the world for dead. We think and feel deeper and wider. We light up those around us. We have empathy in abundance. It goes without saying that we are a gift to the right person.

Thus, it is not a question if whether or not we are right for our would-be partner. The real question is: Is our would-be partner right for us? Do they truly appreciate the qualities we bring to a relationship? Or does our passion and intensity and intelligence and humor baffle or even frighten them?

True, we do not want to inflict our "craziness" on an innocent bystander. But it also works the other way around - we do not necessarily want "normal" inflicted on us. Be selective. Then act. In the words of the Wise Man: "Hey, Jude, don't be afraid. You were made to go out and get her ..."

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