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Bipolar Relationships: What to Expect

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Ups and downs are natural in any romantic relationship, but when your partner has bipolar disorder it can feel like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster. Not knowing what to expect each day is stressful and tiring. Over time, it wears on the relationship.

Understanding why your partner acts out sometimes or becomes withdrawn is the first supportive step you can take in strengthening your relationship. Learn exactly what a bipolar diagnosis means, how it could affect your partner’s behavior and what you can do to foster a healthy, stable relationship.

What does it mean if your partner is bipolar?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition marked by intense mood changes. People with the illness switch back and forth from mania or hypomania (an emotional state of being energetic and gleeful or sometimes aggressive or delusional) to having episodes of depression.

The lifelong condition tends to run in families, although the cause of bipolar disease is unknown. However, it can often be successfully managed through treatment. There are two primary types of bipolar disorder:

Bipolar 1

Bipolar 1 is a more severe form of the illness and is defined by manic episodes that have one of these characteristics:

  • Hallucinations, delusions or paranoia
  • Hospitalization required for safety
  • Impulsive behavior with significant consequences

“When people are manic, they pursue pleasurable activities with great enthusiasm and with no regard for the consequences,” says Jennifer Payne, M.D., psychiatrist and director of the Women’s Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “They may gamble, spend excessive amounts of money, use drugs or become promiscuous.”

Bipolar 2

People with bipolar 2 experience hypomanic episodes, which still include out-of-character behavior but aren’t as extreme as those with bipolar 1. Hypomanic episodes may include:

  • Increased energy and drive.
  • Rapid speech.
  • Decreased need for sleep.

“During hypomanic episodes, a partner with bipolar 2 may obsessively pursue sex with you or others,” says Payne. “They may stay up all night and have lots of wonderful ideas they want to tell you about at 3 a.m.”

Treatment Challenges

Bipolar disorder is usually treated with a combination of medications and therapy. However, successful treatment can be a challenge since many people miss the euphoria and energy of manic episodes.

Often people with bipolar disorder view these elevated mood states as their best selves — when they’re the most productive or creative — and will stop treatment in order to experience that again. Sometimes those with bipolar disorder will even intentionally trigger a manic episode.

“Lack of sleep is a trigger of manic episodes for a lot of people,” says Payne. “Sometimes patients with bipolar disorder will deliberately skip getting the sleep they need in order to initiate an elevated mood state. For example, a person might want the high energy that comes with a manic episode to get a project done.”

The key to your partner’s successful management of the illness is a commitment to continuing treatment and ongoing communication with their psychiatrist. This can take place at therapy sessions, during regular checkups or whenever necessary to discuss troubling symptoms.

Many people with bipolar 1 do well on lithium, a mood-stabilizing drug. Those with bipolar 2 may not fully respond to medications often used to treat bipolar disorder. If that’s the case for your partner, it’s important for them to continue to work with their psychiatrist to find an effective treatment.

Being in a Relationship with Someone Who Is Bipolar

There are certainly challenges in any romantic relationship, but bipolar disorder can make things especially difficult in various aspects of life:

Intimacy

It’s common for people with bipolar disorder to desire frequent sex during manic or hypomanic phases. Your partner may initiate intimacy much more than normal, or masturbate or use pornography more frequently than usual. Those with bipolar disorder may also engage in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex or extramarital affairs while manic.

During episodes of depression, your partner may avoid sexual contact altogether. This can be confusing or feel like rejection, especially if your partner recently desired lots of sexual activity during a manic or hypomanic period. Many medications for bipolar disorder can also lower sex drive.

Work

Your partner’s ability to perform well at work can be affected by bipolar disorder. Severe mood swings, along with manic symptoms such as poor judgement and impulsivity, or depressive symptoms such as low energy and disinterest make it tough to find and maintain a job. Stressors at work may also trigger or exacerbate your partner’s symptoms. If your partner can’t hold down a job, this could put more pressure on you to provide financial support until their illness is well-managed.

Parenting

Many people consider parenting the most stressful (albeit rewarding) job of their lives. But any kind of stressor — good or bad — has potential to trigger manic or depressive episodes for people with bipolar disorder.

In addition, the erratic behavior associated with bipolar disorder can be confusing and scary to children, who look to parents to provide stability. Helping your partner get and maintain treatment to control symptoms is crucial for providing a safe and secure home for children.

How to Make a Bipolar Relationship Work

It takes effort to keep any relationship strong, but it can be especially challenging when your partner has bipolar disorder. Payne offers these recommendations:

Go to Couples Counseling

Couples counseling is essential for working through upset over a bipolar partner’s actions. It’s common for someone with bipolar disorder to hurt and offend their partner. When someone is first diagnosed, there are often relationship issues that need to be addressed. Couples counseling can help you:

  • Understand that there’s an illness involved in the hurtful behavior.
  • Forgive the behavior that happened during an altered mood state.
  • Set boundaries with a partner about maintaining treatment.

Get Involved with Treatment

Ask if you can be involved with your partner’s treatment, which may include occasionally going to the psychiatrist together. Being a part of your partner’s treatment has multiple benefits, including:

  • Gaining a better understanding of the illness.
  • Providing additional insight for the psychiatrist.
  • Learning to spot signs of impending episodes.
  • Alerting the psychiatrist about mood changes.

Even if your partner hasn’t signed off on you exchanging information with their psychiatrist, you can still report worrisome signs (the doctor just won’t be able to tell you anything). This gives the doctor a chance to make quick medication changes that may help your partner avoid being hospitalized.

Practice Self-Care

Self-care gets a lot of buzz these days, but nowhere is it more important than when you’re caring for someone with a serious illness such as bipolar disorder. It’s essential to dedicate time to your own physical and mental health, whether that’s going to a support group, talking to a therapist or attending a yoga class.

Being in a healthy relationship with someone with bipolar disorder requires not only careful management of their illness, but also setting aside time to take good care of yourself.

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