Living with a husband or wife who has bipolar disorder can be difficult. Try these tips for coping with the inevitable mood swings.
If you’re married to someone living with bipolar disorder, you already know it’s a rough ride sometimes. The mood swings can make your days together sometimes exhilarating and other times frustrating. Yet you and your bipolar spouse can beat the dire statistics that predict the end of many of these marital unions.
New Orleans resident “Mary” has been married to her husband for 25 years. Almost halfway through their marriage, he was hospitalized at age 42 and received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The diagnosis was not surprising due to a strong family history — but it helped to clarify the situation, says Mary, age 51.
“The diagnosis made it easier, because you know the reason, but it doesn’t change anything. It is a roller coaster. You can have months that are perfectly fine and then all of a sudden it will come from nowhere,” she says.
Mary says she knows the statistics showing higher rates of divorce and abuse in marriages that include one spouse with bipolar disorder. She describes her husband as a “rapid cycler” (“On a day to day basis you never know what it’s going to be,” she explains) and says there are many days and weeks when she is tired, frustrated, and wondering why she is still married. After so many years of marriage and successfully raising a daughter together, she has developed a philosophical and compassionate view of her husband and her relationship.
Coping with Bipolar Spouse Mood Swings
Here are some tips for surviving and thriving in your relationship:
- Breathe. When things are tough, take a deep breath and step back. “It’s a disease — it’s not the person. So you try to remember that,” advises Mary.
- Build support. Caring for someone with a disease can keep you focused on his needs, but you also need your own sources of support. Joining a support group for family members of bipolar patients can help. Working with your own therapist may also be a good idea. Support from understanding family and friends is also invaluable. Mary has never joined a support group — and says she probably could have benefited from one — but she does find support in her friends.
- Get away. Mary says part of what keeps her sane is her job, for which she occasionally travels. Despite the fact that her business trips often coincide with times when her husband stops taking his medications, she values her time away. At home, when her husband’s moods are out of control, Mary acknowledges, “I try to avoid him.”
- Laugh. Whether you can insert humor into the situation and get a good response is highly individual, but Mary says this tactic works for her. “I try to make him laugh, to get him out of it,” she says.
- Enforce meds. Mary has made it clear to her husband that taking his medication is non-negotiable. “If you can keep them on the meds, you’re okay. It’s a fight. It’s like having another child,” she says. If he refuses to take his meds (as he often does when he is manic), she leaves, even if only to spend the night at a friend’s house to make her point. That usually gets him back on track.
- Recall your love. There are hard times in marriage to a bipolar spouse, acknowledges Mary. But she prefers to see the man she fell in love with, even when his moods are unpredictable.
- Know (or grow) your philosophy of marriage. Mary believes in the commitment she made when she married her husband. “You know, I married a man for better or for worse. I did not marry a disease.” While she acknowledges bipolar disorder is difficult, she also notes, “The person I fell in love with is still there. Would I want someone to leave me? I don’t think so,” she explains.
- Look for triggers. “When your spouse is in a stable or more favorable mood, pay close attention to what environmental triggers precipitated and are maintaining the stability. Often there are specific environmental stressors or soothers — including relationship issues — that influence mood swings. Use the soothers to help maintain the mood that both of you are desiring,” advises marriage and family therapist Tracy Todd, PhD, based in Alexandria, Va.
- Ask. Despite the mood swings, your spouse can tell you what he needs. “Have an honest discussion about what is helpful to your spouse when he is in an undesirable mood. Incorporate ideas, plans, and strategies so that there can be a minimization of harmful effects,” advises Todd.
- Keep talking. There may be days and weeks when it is not easy, but communication is essential. “Communication during and between mood swings is critical to managing the accompanying stressors,” says Todd.
Ultimately, Mary’s experience has given her a unique depth of compassion, both forfamily members whose loved ones have bipolar disorder and for people who live with bipolar disorder. “[I’ve said before] that I would hate to be in his head — I can’t even imagine how he feels,” she says.