Earlier last year, while I was pregnant, I started reading the illustrated memoir And Now I Spill
the Family Secrets by Margaret Kimball. This memoir is about Kimball’s relationship with her
mother who has bipolar. Because I was becoming a parent, I wanted to understand how children
are impacted by their parent’s bipolar through a first-hand account. Kimball shares her
experiences with her mother experiencing mania, depression, and being hospitalised. After
reading some very triggering content, I finally had to stop reading the book.
The reason I found the content so triggering wasn’t because of Kimball’s honest portrayal of
being a child of a parent who has bipolar. Instead, I felt triggered because if you’re a person
who experiences bipolar or are in a relationship with someone who is bipolar, you might often
hear or internalise the stereotype that people with bipolar are difficult to be in a relationship with.
For example, many researchers and studies suggest that people with bipolar have higher rates
of divorce than the general population.
Two Ways Bipolar Can Impact Your Relationships
What these studies don’t tell you are two of the common reasons why relationships can be
negatively impacted by bipolar.
1. The person with bipolar in the relationship is undiagnosed and/or untreated for their condition.
Untreated bipolar can lead to feeling like you and the other individual are on a rollercoaster.
However, when bipolar disorder is treated with methods like medication, talk-therapy, and
exercise, then there is a higher chance of having a stable and healthy relationship. So, going
back to the higher divorce rates in relationships where one or both partners have bipolar,
factors like undiagnosed or untreated bipolar need to be accounted for. These factors
(such as lack of insight and treatment), rather than having bipolar itself, might be major
causes of divorce.
2. Interdependent vs. caregiver relationships.
Oftentimes, a major source of tension in a relationship is when the person without bipolar in the
relationship takes on the role of a “caregiver” while the person with bipolar becomes “the
patient.” For example, in a study conducted by researchers at the Sainte Marguerite Hospital in
France, one of the negative impacts of bipolar on the partner without bipolar takes on the role of a caregiver. Caregiver relationships lead to:
● Caregiver burnout. This is when a person stops wanting to help the person with the
condition like they used to. The person who takes on the role of a caregiver may also
lose their ability to empathise with the individual with the condition.
● Power imbalance. This is when a person with bipolar begins to feel incapable of taking
care of their responsibilities. They may also become dependent on the other person.
The goal of any healthy relationship is to be interdependent. That means each individual has
their own responsibilities that lead to a healthy and stable life for all the individuals involved.
Learning About What Works For Your Relationship
When it comes to bipolar or any other condition, it’s important to learn about what has worked
for others. It’s also important to learn about what works for you and your relationship. One way
to do this is to have transparent and honest conversations.
It’s also important to do the work that it takes to have healthy relationships– reading books,
counselling, group discussions with folks in similar situations, etc. Ultimately, the goal is to find
out what works best for you and your relationship.