Bipolar & Married: 9 Ways to Make It Through Tough Timesby Therese Borchard Health Writer & Patient Advocate
We vow to love our spouse in sickness and in health. But we never really know what’s coming down the pike. Today 40 to 50 percent of today’s marriages end in divorce. Studies show that marriages in which one spouse has bipolar disorder are twice as likely to unravel. How do bipolar marriages stand a chance? Here are some strategies for tolerating the turbulence and remaining strong together.
Treat the Disasters as Incidents
Sir Harold George Nicolson once said, “The great secret of a successful marriage is to treat all disasters as incidents and none of the incidents as disasters.” While you should confront problems when they surface and work toward solutions, fretting over every bump along the road will deplete your reserves. Let’s face it, the bipolar marriage is quite the rollercoaster ride. A better strategy is to fasten your seatbelt, put your hands in the air, and stay as calm as possible.
Be on the Same Side
It may feel as if you are at war with each other. But, you are allies fighting against a common enemy, or condition. This means holding your tongue when you want to lash out, not blaming your spouse for the emergency of the hour, and acknowledging the many things he gets right instead of focusing on the few he gets wrong. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I first learned the concept of non-violence in my marriage.” Imitate the Indian activist and put down the weapons.
Forgive and Forget
Marriage forces us to own our mistakes, be accountable, and to ask for forgiveness. Bipolar marriages are especially full of oops moments. However, the mess is not as important as how two people rebound from chaos. Get honest. Communicate your hurt. Then let go and try to see your spouse with fresh eyes. Nothing deteriorates a marriage faster than harbored resentments. “You come to love,” says American philosopher Sam Keen, “not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly.”
Separate the Illness From the Person
You may hate the apathy and irritability of your spouse’s depression. You may despise the irresponsibility and aberrant behavior of her mania. Curse at the symptoms of your spouse’s bipolar disorder all you want, but love and respect the person who has the illness. To thrive in a bipolar marriage means to distinguish between the person you married and her condition.
Know Each Other’s Love Language
All of us need to feel loved and appreciated, especially persons in a bipolar marriage. Be deliberate in how you express your feelings because each of us absorbs affection differently. Folding the laundry may say much more to your spouse than a gushy love letter. According to pastor and author Gary Chapman, emotional needs are met in five ways: words of affirmation, quality of time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Learn your spouse’s love language and fill up her love tank over and over again.
Abide by Some Rules
Every playground demands a set of rules. So, too, does a bipolar household. The guidelines will vary according to the personalities of the couple and the severity of the illness. However, here are a few to consider: Determine the number of days you will tolerate symptoms of depression and/or mania (and how acute they need to be) before the doctor is called. Come up with a compliance plan to ensure that medication is taken as prescribed. Outline criteria to decide when a spouse should accompany the bipolar spouse to the doctor.
Don’t Take Anything Personally
Feelings often get injured with bipolar disorder. Why? Hurt people hurt. However, the insensitive words and actions of your bipolar spouse have less to do with you and more to do with her experience of pain. For example, her not wanting to have dinner with you doesn’t mean she no longer loves you. It indicates her difficulty engaging with any person, place, or thing at the moment. Free yourself from hurt feelings by resisting the temptation to take everything personally.
Keep Your Own Identity
Marriage vows don’t signify that two people merge into one blob. Doing so would be especially detrimental for the bipolar marriage. In her classic Gift by the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindberg likens a loving relationship to a double-sunrise shell, comprised of two symmetrical shells joined at the center. Each person in a bipolar marriage needs the space to maintain their own identity and grow emotionally. This separateness leads to deeper intimacy and appreciation.
A marriage therapist recently told my husband and me that we needed to have more fun. So we spent an afternoon at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., followed by a leisurely lunch. For couples with demanding kids and jobs, it’s easy to stop dating. However, nurturing your friendship with your spouse and laughing together are critical threads that bind you together and protect against the fraying that can occur over time. Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “It’s not a lack of love, but lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”