Here's a photo of me and my future wife, Sariah, while we were dating in 1994. I told her about my bipolar disorder and history of manic psychosis on our first date. She decided to keep dating me. This year (2017) we will celebrate 22 years of marriage. It has not been easy. Both of us say the most important element in our success has been our total commitment to God.
Dating Someone with Bipolar Disorder; What to Look For
Thanks for asking me about what you should know as you start dating a man with bipolar disorder. I'm impressed that you are willing to give him a chance and not just dismiss him based on fear or stigma. Here are some of my thoughts.
Statistically in the USA, around 90% of marriages where one of the spouses has bipolar ends in divorce. I've seen the Stat as high as 95%. Having said that, I do know some marital relationships that are making it. Let me tell you about two I am very familiar with.
The first is a couple I have known pretty much my whole life. The wife had an episode of psychosis at around 30 years old and has lived with strong symptoms her whole life. She is now in her upper 60s and has come a long way, however even today, she is unable to differentiate between illness and religion, reality and manic fear and obsession. She uses religion as a control method in her marriage and won't even consider that what "God is telling her" may be just manic obsession or a means to escape her fears. Believe me "God" tells her some pretty controlling things. She also continues to believe in and act on manic, obsessive fears—even when others who love her and who understand the situation well tell her that there is no danger. There's no middle ground or rational discussion when manic obsession takes control and the husband had to make a choice to give her complete control or leave. He chose to accept it, to love her, and to stay with her. He doesn't try to change her mind or the way she is. He just lets her be in charge and it works for them. His escape is work. He turns 70 this year and I am unaware of any plans for his retirement.
The other couple who is making it that I am very familiar with is my own marriage. Most of the time we are very happy to be together. There are times, however, when we are tested to the core. I’m still learning about my symptoms and how to control them instead of letting them take control. So is my wife. We're making it though, and we continue to rise higher and higher in love. The incredible trials we have been through together continue to teach us and bring us closer together. Here are some of the things we went through and learned together.
Early on, when we were first married, I still was very out of touch with my bipolar symptoms (I have mental illness symptoms other than just bipolar. I believe mental illness is a more accurate diagnosis than just bipolar, and I know most people with mental illness have a variety of symptoms outside the diagnosis they are given.). Irritability meant obsessive, angry thoughts at my wife. Yelling and fighting isn’t my personality, but I used guilt manipulation to "help" my wife become who I wanted her to be. In my mind she was the one with the problem and she was the one who needed to change. I believed that if she would do and be who and what I wanted her to be, then she would be happy and so would I. It took years to realize and accept that the problem was in my head and not her. She will admit there are things in her personality that she would like to change, however, it has never been my job to point them out and dictate what they are.
We’ve been married for 20 years and counting now. Although my bipolar and other mental illness symptoms still affect every minute of my life, I am learning to identify them for what they are and to control them with medication and healthy mindfulness strategies. It has taken years to get to this point where I can observe the emotions of constant guilt, worry, anxiety, obsessive and ruminating thoughts, irritability, and all the other symptoms as simply illness and not the people or situations around me.
Looking back, here are some things I would watch for as you date this man who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder:
- Is he willing to talk openly about "his" illness. Does he act on symptoms, or is he able to identify them—as if from a distance—without them taking control?
- If he is on medication, does he understand its importance and does he take it responsibly? Is he in touch with his emotions enough to recognize how the medication affects his emotions and moods? Does he accept that he could be on medication for a lifetime?
- Is he willing to trust the ones he loves and the mental health professionals more than his own mind? That's one of the biggest obstacles for people with mental illness. To everyone else the reality of the illness is plain as day, but to those who refuse to believe and trust those who care for them, the fears, anxieties, depression and all the other symptoms are their reality. This mentally-ill reality can only be changed if they choose to trust others to help find true reality.
- Does he battle addiction? Addiction of any harmful nature is a big red flag. It shows that he isn't facing his illness head-on, but is simply trying to escape from it. Drugs, alcohol, permissive sex, and porn are the obvious no no's, but there are countless other, more subtle escapes like gaming or internet addictions, music, TV, or movie addictions. Even seemingly good things like religion, reading, or hobbies can be methods of escape that go to the extreme and can be harmful to relationships.
Side note: Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between passion and manic obsession or escaping behaviors. Passion is a beautiful thing and manic energy can actually be harnessed and directed for much good, incredible production and powerful creativity. The danger with bipolar disorder is that good can become too good, and psychosis, addiction, or life-shattering or relationship-ending behaviors can follow. The way to discern between good and too good is balance in all things and healthy sleep. Sleep is an excellent indicator of mental health. Depression can cause a person to oversleep (another escape behavior) and mania causes insomnia and an over-abundance of mental and physical energy late at night.
- Does he believe in a higher power or a greater cause than himself? For my wife and me, the biggest influence for success in our marriage is our personal conviction to a Higher Power. I don't want to get preachy, so I'll leave it at that and pray you feel in your heart the depth of what I mean. I'd be happy to share more with you about this if you ask.
I didn't do many of these things well while dating and early in my marriage, but we survived it. Please don’t feel that he has to do all these things perfectly in order for a relationship to work. The most basic qualities to look for are simple humility, a willingness to admit when he needs help, and an open mind that what he feels and what really is aren't always the same. The biggest trial I hear over and over from couples struggling with bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses is, “He won’t admit he needs help,” or, “I can’t get her to listen to me,” or, “He can’t see how bad it is,” and so forth. All of these comments indicate that the person cannot be reached or helped until he/she is willing to admit and accept that help is needed.
A couple final things to remember are first, bipolar disorder affects everyone differently and there are varying degrees of it. So my symptoms and experiences may be different than his. Also, different people react differently to medication. For those like me, it is a lifetime must. For others, counseling, education, or healthy self care can be enough.
On my bearcanyonpress.com website, on the "Mental Health" page, you can hear my book: Bipolar Disorder in Truth. It is my personal story. (You can also order the book on Amazon.) Part of the story is how a girl I loved and dated for 5 years rejected my desperate proposal of marriage because of how poorly I was handling my bipolar disorder. A year later, on the first date with my future wife, I told her about my disorder. She talked to her parents, prayed, and then told me it just felt right. I'm forever grateful that she saw potential (and didn't expect perfection) in me and chose to love me despite the lifetime of challenges my disorder brought to the relationship. I don’t think she understood what she was committing to when we got married, but she was willing to work hard and give her all to making it work. So was I.
Best wishes as you meet this man and start dating. I hope it turns out well for both of you!