When the Love of Your Life Has Bipolar

by Sheila M. Eldred Health Writer

Every relationship has its ups and downs, but when you love someone with bipolar disorder (BD), the emotional roller coaster can cause upheaval for both of you. “It sometimes puts relationships on the brink of collapse,” says Igor Galynker, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Beth Israel and director of the Zirinsky Family Center for Bipolar Disorder in New York City. Still, the divorce rate among bipolar marriages is no higher than relationships in the general public, and that’s excellent news. Here, experts—therapists and couples who’ve been there—share the advice that’s helped them most.

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Advocate for an Early Diagnosis

BD can be tricky to spot because symptoms don’t usually start until adulthood—and it takes an average of 10 years for people to get a correct diagnosis. “If you can manage an early diagnosis, you can prevent a lot of damage and depression,” says Dr. Galynker. That’s because each episode changes the brain in a way that makes the next episode more difficult. Symptoms of bipolar can include feeling depressed or euphoric, trouble sleeping, and serious disruptions to work, family and social life. If you recognize these symptoms in your partner, encourage them to get evaluated.

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Get Open Consent from the Get-Go

Open communication among all family members and a therapist is in the patient’s best interest, Dr. Galynker says. It’s much easier to build trust when everyone knows what’s going on. But it’s common for patients with paranoia—a symptom of BD—to request that therapists keep their sessions private, which is their legal right. However, you can sign consent forms at the beginning of treatment that spell out exactly how information will be shared and with whom. In fact, counseling staff at the Zirinsky Center view this as so important that they only take families—not individuals—who agree to this.

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Walk in Your Partner’s Shoes

Trying to understand a difficult situation from your partner’s point of view may be the most helpful (and toughest) item on this list. When Islin Munisteri, 31, in Elizabeth, CO, was in a manic phase, she’d go on massive spending sprees, says her husband, Lucas Munisteri, 33. They'd end up fighting as a result. What Lucas didn’t understand was that, in her mind, the spending was justified. Now he knows that to someone with BD, “Everything seems to be possible during the manic phase,” he says. He also knows there are ways you can help your partner deal with these episodes, like...

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Learn About the Disease

When Nataki Fitzgerald, 44, was diagnosed with BD, her husband, Matt Fitzgerald, 48, was relieved. They live in Oakdale, CA. “I was very naive,” he says. “I hadn’t had a lot of experience with mental illness. I wanted a simple, clean solution. I thought meds would fix it, and we’d live happily ever after.” But thinking there was one simple solution was a mistake, he says. He wishes he would have spent more time learning about different treatment options. For example, the drug that eventually helped his wife causes significant weight gain, so it wasn’t presented as an option initially.

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Take Time to Figure Out Your Role

As Matt Fitzgerald learned more about bipolar disorder, he discovered it wasn’t helpful for him to over-manage. In the beginning, he says, his wife was resistant to accepting the diagnosis. “She didn’t like the idea of taking meds or the side effects,” he says. “And I was very heavy-handed, making sure she’d taken her meds and badgering her—which was very counterproductive.” Over time, he learned how to balance when to be proactive vs. when to make room for her to navigate her own way through the disease.

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Remember That You’re Still Partners (Even When It Doesn’t Feel That Way for Either of You)

Islin Munisteri is incredibly grateful for her husband’s support. “He’s been there for me this entire time,” she says, noting that he changed careers and took a hefty pay cut so they could be closer to family. One challenge? She relied on him so much it created an imbalance in their relationship, she says. She viewed him as a father figure, and he viewed her as a project. The solution? Couples therapy. Now, they are doing better at seeing each other as husband and wife again, she says.

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Advocate for Your Partner

After a particularly violent episode in which Matt Fitzgerald called 911 (for his safety, and his wife’s), Nataki was taken to a hospital she’d never been to. “When I went to visit, I showed up right when she was meeting with the psychiatrist,” Matt remembers. “I just busted into the office and bared my soul. I told him how desperate we were and begged him not to do what had happened the previous six times.” Which was hospitalize her for days on heavy meds, then send her home. “And I got through to him.” That’s how they found the medication that stabilizes her.

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Know This: You Might be Depressed, Too

As many as two thirds of caregivers develop depressive symptoms themselves, according to a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders. That’s not surprising: Therapists rely on caregivers to stay on top of symptoms that might be signaling a change in a person’s mania and depression cycles, says Kathryn Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, CA. And that’s on top of managing everything else. If you feel like you’re struggling, it’s important to prioritize your own mental health, too.

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Remember to Take Care of You

Caregivers may need therapy or antidepressants, Dr. Galynker says. Dr. Moore adds that caregivers/partners of those with bipolar “really need to build up their coping skills and self-care.” And that’s not something you have to do on your own. A therapist can help, and so can having a network of social support. Connecting with other partners of people with bipolar can be especially helpful. The National Alliance on Mental Illness runs family support groups nationwide, and the group can be an excellent place to start.

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Find Your Marathon!

Matt Fitzgerald had always been a runner, so “when our world got turned upside down, there was no question running would be something I used,” he says. He started consciously pushing himself in training, hoping to gain both physical and mental strength that could propel him not only toward the finish line but also forward in his life. So far, he’s completed more than 40 marathons. That’s what worked for him. For you, it could be creating artwork, volunteering, or taking a cooking class. The point is to have something in your life that’s just for you.

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Is Happily Ever After Possible? (Hint: Yes)

Both Matt Fitzgerald and Lucas Munisteri say that for them, one factor tipped the scales in favor of staying in their relationships: Their partners were 100% on board with treating their illness. “If the person you’re with is trying to get better, then sticking with them through the journey is all you can do,” Lucas Munisteri says. Matt Fitzgerald made a deal with his wife early on, he says: They had to work together. Though there were some pretty tough times along the way, he says, since she’s been on her current meds, “We’re now going on six years of our happily ever after.”

Sheila M. Eldred
Meet Our Writer
Sheila M. Eldred

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a graduate of Columbia’s School of Journalism and a former newspaper reporter. As a freelance health journalist, she writes about everything from life-threatening diseases to elite athletes. Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, Nature, FiveThirtyEight, Pacific Standard, STAT News, and other publications. In her spare time, she and her family love running, cross-country skiing, and mountain biking in Minneapolis.