Being In A Relationship With A Person Who Has A Mental Illness

Photo by Witthaya Phonsawat

Photo by Witthaya Phonsawat

Human relationships are terribly complicated. There will always be conflict, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings at one point or another. This can be even more true when a person lives with a mental illness. This doesn’t mean that people who live with mental illness are incapable of loving, being loved, or being in a relationship, but it makes it more difficult when a person lives with one.

Some obstacles couples may encounter if one has a mental illness are:

  • Being pushed away
  • More arguments
  • Troubles with finances (especially when manic)
  • Hurtful words/actions
  • Additional stress

As a person who lives with a mental illness, I have experienced this first-hand. I have been in relationship for about five years now with a man who I am to marry this fall. I will definitely be the first to say that it hasn’t been easy. I have a habit of pushing him away (not physically) during my rough times which can end up in an argument, making the situation even worse. I don’t exactly know why I push him away, but I believe it has to do with the discomfort I am feeling within during that time. I want him around and for him to comfort me, but at the same time, I don’t. It’s an interesting feeling and it definitely confuses and frustrates my fiance when I do this. I often find that I hurt his feelings when I do this as well. Sometimes he is left feeling helpless because nothing can soothe me or make it better. I would say about 75% of our arguments or disagreements are due to my mood swings and my condition. Another obstacle we have encountered is that I can become dependent on him. Some days I won’t feel up to doing anything due to my mood so he may have to take care of me by making food, running some of my errands, etc. I feel bad when this happens because I don’t want him to start feeling resentful or annoyed by me. I also feel bad because it appears that I am just lazy or a mooch and I don’t want him or anyone to think that of me either. I often feel like a huge burden at times and I would do anything to feel independent.  In addition, there are also times where I have said some extremely hurtful things to him. This tends to happen most when I’m feeling irritable or depressed. When this occurs, sometimes the best thing to do is to just be alone and distant oneself from the situation because it can turn into an unpleasant argument resulting in hurt feelings.

Relationship issues are common with bipolar disorder. It seems it’s one of the most difficult aspects about having this disorder because the moods can greatly affect the partner too. Not every person you meet is able to handle these obstacles because it can be overwhelming and stressful for the other person involved. It definitely takes someone who is open-minded, patient, and is willing to learn. The partner must also know where to draw the line and not get too involved to the point that they are dragged down as well. In addition, there is only so much a partner can do for their loved one with bipolar. It is important for them to know when it’s something they can or should help with and when it requires a professionals help. If a situation ever gets too out of hand, it is advised and recommended that a professional is called.

Tips for couples:

  • Attend couples counseling and psychiatric visits together – Though not fun, couples counseling can be a great outlet because it gives you both an opportunity to grow and learn together which will ultimately strengthen your relationship. He/She can give you tips on how to handle and work through mental illness. It can be beneficial for spouses or mates of a bipolar individual to have their own therapist or outlet if needed. Both should consider attending appointments to the psychiatrist to gain a better understanding of what is going on and what the plan is. The partner of a person with bipolar should develop a relationship with the psychiatrist as well.
  • Educate your partner about the illness and what to expect, how to help, etc –
    The internet and books can be a real helpful tool. One of my favorites is Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder. There are many resources that can be found to help a loved one with bipolar disorder if you know where to look. You can also check out the Helpful Links page which offers more resources as well.
  • Talk – I can’t stress how important it is to communicate with your partner. It is important to communicate your needs because your partner cannot read your mind and won’t know what to do unless you ask. It’s also important to be up front and honest as well.
  • Have a plan – It is a good idea to have a plan set in place for when things go wrong to avoid any arguments and to prevent anything worse from occurring or escalating. It may take some time to figure out what types of things work that will resolve a certain situation. Sometimes the same plan won’t work every time which is important to keep in mind as well. Always have the psychiatrist’s or therapist’s number close by, just in case.
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  1. I am so thankful for people’s honesty online. I have never read this blog or actually any forums about support for those in relationships before this week and it’s very comforting (though in some ways more depressing) to see that so many people are experiencing what I am.
    I’ve been with a guy for nearly ten years. He was diagnosed around 2.5 years ago, has been on meds since and is currently in his first major episode since diagnosis.
    I missed a few warning signs and we had a couple of stupid fights that escalated. He was also not sleeping much and drink was a factor. We had a disagreement via text (always worse) and he said he was going to his parents to reset/recharge. He also said he planned to finally speak to them about his illness. I was ok with it, on the condition he didn’t freeze me out – I didn’t want to just suddenly be cut off. Unfortunately, that’s what happened. He is clearly in a depression but is using our relationship as the reason he feels as hopeless/unhappy as he does. I’ve tried to show him all the things he’s saying/feeling are typical of a depressive episode, sometimes I seem to get through to him, sometimes he just gets angry.
    He’s been away from me for 9 days. I’ve seen him once, but I don’t feel able to support him if he won’t see or speak to me. I’ve also tried to reassure him he’s not alone, I love him and this isn’t his fault.
    To the persons point about general respect and treatment, I also share these feelings. It can feel abusive and personally I’m not willing to indulge the behaviour most of the time. Right now, however, I just want him back to himself. I don’t feel we can have an adult conversation about our relationship until he’s well again. My fear is that if he doesn’t seek help, this will continue and our relationship will be destroyed.
    I would love any tips on how to reach him and stop him from seeing me as the enemy. I love him dearly and this is the most painful thing I’ve been through, including the times he was manic, binge drinking, not coming home and racking up debt. Even then, we went through it together.

    • Hi! I am really happy to hear that you appreciate my post and that you found it helpful. I am sorry to hear what you are going through though. It can be a difficult situation at times. From what I’ve read I think you are handling everything extremely well. I am the bipolar one in my relationship and I can admit that I become irrational and take things out on my fiance when I become depressed. It is common for those with bipolar to see their spouse or whoever they are close with (parents, friends, etc) as an enemy. I tend to blame my fiance sometimes too, but once I feel better, I don’t even understand how I could have thought this way to begin with. So, yes, I think you are definitely correct to say that he is experiencing some depression. I must also note that it is difficult to show a person who is depressed that they aren’t thinking clearly because what they are feeling is reality to them and sometimes when pointed out, it can cause some anger or irritability. Also, sometimes relationships can have some abuse in them and I agree with you that it shouldn’t be tolerated or be indulged in. In any relationship, there are most likely some sorts of emotional abuse (even mine), but sometimes it’s best to leave the room or walk away before things escalate any further or get heated. And yes, it is extremely difficult to have an adult conversation when the other person is depressed because they often aren’t thinking clearly or rationally during that time. My hope is that he will soon feel better and be able to communicate with you.

      Also, I think it’s good that you try to reassure him and remind him that you care. The hard part is just waiting for him to come back and for the current episode to fade. From my experience, I eventually come back around after an episode. It’s just difficult to predict when for some people with bipolar because each person has different lengths in episodes and various symptoms.

      Something I would recommend is to talk with him about seeking treatment when he is feeling well again. I would express how important it is to you and how much it will benefit him. You could even try to explain that you’ve talked with me (or read my blog), a person who also lives with this illness, agrees it was hard to seek treatment at first, but it changed my life for the better overall, which is so true… Maybe by hearing it helped another person with bipolar, he may feel more apt to seek treatment.

      It honestly is difficult to get anywhere or make certain points to a person who is depressed or even manic. I would let him know that you fear for your relationship if he doesn’t seek help and then explain why to him. I would definitely explain to him what you’ve written here in your last paragraph. I feel that is something he needs to know.

      I hope everything turns around for him and you soon. It sounds like you both have the potential to have a really great relationship. For now, maybe just allow him his space, but do send him a text or a phone call every so often to remind him that you are there for him and that you love him. Even though it may be hard to give him space, sometimes it may be the only thing you can do at certain points. If he still remains at his parent’s home for a while, maybe even ask him if he would like to go to a movie or dinner for an evening so that you two can still have your time together.

      I hope what I’ve wrote in response to your comment is helpful. I understand how difficult this can be, but hang in there. He will feel better in time. <3

      • Hi Kait,

        Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment, that was good of you.

        Unfortunately, what I predicted has now happened. After just over two weeks of being away, refusing to see/speak to me, being hostile and rude when he did, we are currently no longer together. He is no longer hostile but is in a very low, dark place where he can’t see a way to have a ‘normal’ life or make me happy. He says he doesn’t want to hurt me or live in guilt for what he’s done or fear of the future. I don’t believe I could have done more to try and reach him or support him.

        I feel extremely frustrated, as well as obviously heartbroken. To me this is someone clearly in a depressive episode and therefore who’s mindset will, inevitably, change. He hasn’t spoken to his Dr. I know that how he feels is real to him and I cannot (and will not) argue him out of it, so I am having to let go and take him at face value. This is what he wants so it’s happening. Moving out, telling our friends and family etc. all the while I feel wretched. I did not want his illness to kill us. I knew when the diagnosis came through that it would be tough as hell sometimes, but I decided it was worth it for the times ‘in between’ and because when you love someone, you do whatever you can. Sadly, nearly ten years of mostly happiness has come to an end and it wasn’t given a chance to recover. We didn’t even get a chance to work on anything.

        If I can offer any lessons learnt, it’s to be honest and communicate. If you’re with someone with bp make sure they accept it and manage it, they take responsibility. Talk about what you both want to happen if and when episodes occur. Know their doctor. Talk to them about how they feel – don’t assume they’ll tell you, because I’ve heard some grievances that were not on my radar at all.
        Finally, it will be the hardest thing whether it works out or not. This is an evil illness that turns people on themselves, and I know it’s always worse to be in that reality. I just hope to be able to one day be at peace with losing the life I love and wanted due to circumstances beyond my control, out of my reach.
        It’s extremely helpful just to express all of this. I think you’re doing a great thing with your blog and I hope your relationship continues to thrive.
        Thank you

    • Wow. This is almost exactly the situation that I am currently in. My boyfriend had a severe manic episode and I did not know he was bipolar before. His best friend and I took him to the hospital but his parents, who don’t believe in mental illness, are cutting us out and telling him to do so as well. he seems to be complying with them and just broke up with me/shutting me out of his life completely. I would love to know what happened in your experience? Does he return to his normal state of being? We have a very stable relationship but I feel like his parents are manipulating the situation to blame everything on the relationship instead of facing the disorder.

  2. I am so thankful for this post right now. I am currently on a break (/broken up with? I have no idea what is going on…) from a very long relationship with a man with bipolar disorder. He describes exactly what you have described. I recently have gotten in touch with a therapist and am trying to work through things without him. He broke it off very recently and repeatedly stated that he loved me, wants to be with me, cares about me but is unable to be with me right now because he feels he will hurt me and thinks I deserve better. I repeatedly explained that I have been through things with him before, I love him, he has not hurt me, and I want to be here for him – though I know that this does not matter right now and that what he hears internally is louder than what I am saying to him. It has been the toughest thing I have ever been through and I hope that he gets help (I have told him this and he got very emotional and agreed, though I don’t know realistically if he will seek treatment) and I hope we can be together some day again. I am hurting very bad and its hard to understand because he is too – he has been an emotional wreck, crying frequently, and wants to see me though he says he “shouldn’t” and that he “can’t.” I’m trying to be supportive though distant – I have repeatedly said I love him, care about him, and hope he sorts himself out, that I’m here for him though I have stopped talking to / texting him. I’m leaving it in his hands and I hope he comes back. I’m scared he won’t and, selfishly, I’m scared he’ll be fine without me. I really wish I could get a sense of whether we will be together and get through this and the uncertainty is the scariest part. It’s weirdly comforting to know he’s scared too so I feel less alone in it. I really needed to read this post and I’m glad I found it.

    • Hi and thank you for reading and commenting on my post here. I’m sorry to hear of the troubles you are experiencing at the moment with your boyfriend. I can understand and relate in many ways with what you wrote. As the bipolar one in my relationship, I have also threatened to leave or left for a while due to the changes in my moods. I also thought to myself many times that my fiance deserves better and that he shouldn’t have to put up with this. One thing I can tell you for sure is that these situations, though they may come up often, don’t usually last. I get upset and leave sometimes, but I always return because, in the end, I love my fiance. I am hoping this will be the same in your boyfriend’s case too. By what you’ve explained to me here, I can tell he still loves you, but he doesn’t want to hurt you is all. I know that it also does hurt for him to become distant and walk away though too.. Honestly, I think it’s awesome that you reach out to him and let him know that you are there for him and that you care. You sound like a wonderful girlfriend and I know he probably appreciates it too. When dealing with a depressive episode, I find it hard to believe that anyone (even my fiance) could love me and I feel so alone. It truly helps me when someone reaches out to me and reminds me of how much they care. So, don’t give up just yet. I think you are handling this very well actually. And yes, there is a bit of uncertainty that occurs when in a relationship with someone who has bipolar because the moods can be so unpredictable. I would just try to remind yourself that this is the illness right now and that your boyfriend does really care for you and want to be with you. Sometimes it really is a difficult thing to separate the illness from the person.

      I hope my response helps some and I hope he is able to see how much you love him and that you two will be together once again. It will be okay <3

  3. Hello Kait,

    Tthere are quite a few things in your post that are rather disturbing.

    “I want him around and for him to comfort me, but at the same time, I don’t.”

    “It’s an interesting feeling and it definitely confuses and frustrates my fiance when I do this. I often find that I hurt him when I do this as well.”

    “In addition, there are also times where I have said some extremely hurtful things to him. This tends to happen most when I’m feeling irritable or depressed.”

    “Sometimes I wonder why my fiance sticks around through all this,….”

    “Not every person you meet is able to handle these obstacles. It definitely takes a special person and some patience.”

    From the point of view of a person without mental illness, this does not sound like a healthy relationship. You admit to saying hurtful things to your fiance. You recognize that your behavior confuses & hurts him. You wonder why he’s still there. You essentially praise him for taking it. You say that a person with mental illness needs someone “special” who is “open-minded” & patient. I’m not sure if “special” is the proper word. I’d be really curious to read his candid description of how he feels about handling these “obstacles.” Has your fiance ever contributed to your blog? For most people, the things you say he deals with sound like emotional abuse. This is the reason that many partners of mentally ill people wind up in therapy & on meds themselves. I’ve read many of your other posts & I see you also have one telling people not to be afraid of dating someone with mental illness. Again, it would be great to get your fiance’s perspective. Apparently things are great because you have been lucky enough to find someone who is willing to sacrifice his own happiness & emotional comfort & security for you. Who benefits most from this situation/arrangement? Out of curiosity, how many times have you broken up & gotten back together?

    It’s ok to be accepting of mental illness but being accepting of being mistreated, intentionally or not, is not. Where do you draw the line?

    • Interesting post, I’d love to hear the author’s perspective on this.

    • love to hear as well..

      i get all this good words from my boyfriend (or ex boyfriend sometimes/many times) and he always tell me to be strong. I think i am or no choose coz I’m decided to support him but its really draining. I seriously think its very dangerous to date when you we know we can be abusive in whatever part.

      i am seriously suffering struggling and losing myself being strong understanding and loving. what else kind of human will help or what love or kindness or support and understanding and medicines he needs or situation or life cycle before he can adjust as well.

      if one cannot control themselves and destructive and this the relationship you contribute to this world – i am strong but i don’t want any person to be in my shoes. yes i wish he let me go than loving me or making me love him. and i wish he just stop coming back 🙁

  4. Pingback: Why You Shouldn’t Fear Dating Someone Who Has A Mental Illness - Weathering the Storm: Overcoming Bipolar Disorder

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