Guest Post: Living With a Bipolar Husband
My wife, Kathy, has written this week’s blog post. Please enjoy. -Daniel
My husband has bipolar disorder. I knew this before I married him. However, I don’t think I really understood what that meant for his life until after we had lived together for some time, after our marriage. . I remember reading somewhere that in a marriage, you see both your partner’s weaknesses and strengths as if through a magnifying glass. You see them at their very worst, and their very best. We’ve been married for five years now, which I suppose isn’t all that long in the grand scheme of things. In one sense, I can only comment on my own marriage, since every marriage is different, just as no two bipolar people will have exactly the same symptoms, However, I have tried to give some thoughts according to various categories.Don’t compare. This is very hard for most people, and something I struggle with in many areas of my life, not just my marriage. There is always the temptation to rate your own marriage (or happiness, or success) based on what you see of your friends’ and neighbours’ lives. I think it’s important for any marriage not to start comparing, but particularly if your partner has a chronic condition such as bipolar disorder. It’s hard when it seems like your friends’ husbands spend their weekends renovating the house and taking the kids out, while your husband spends the whole morning in bed. The reality is that bipolar disorder will affect your husband’s ability to function at his best. It’s important to realize that he is dealing with a chronic illness, not a moral failing. What’s important is to think in terms of yourselves as a couple: what do you each need to be functional and happy, and how can you achieve those goals? For example, instead of thinking, my husband needs to get out of bed and help with the kids, think: I would like some help with the kids. Maybe he could take them out later in the day, or maybe I can find a babysitter, friend or family member to come help in the mornings.
And for those of you who still find it hard to stop comparing, remember this: you see all the hardships in your own marriage, but most people are very good at hiding their struggles from others. Any of your friends whose lives seem perfect probably have problems of their own that you don’t know about (and aren’t your business anyway).
Erratic Sleeping Habits
This is one area that can cause a lot of day-to-day frustration. I myself have simply had to accept that barring a major mandatory event, my husband is just not very functional in the morning. This basically means that as long as our kids are young, I am not going to get to sleep in (excepting the possibility of weekends at grandma’s house). Also, my husband sometimes will need to spend some time napping in the afternoons. This can frustrate me if he has previously agreed to watch the kids while I get a nap or get something else done. But I don’t think there’s really much to be done about it, except talk it through and take a rain-check on the free time.
Finding Free Time and Finding SupportMarriage and raising kids are great, fulfilling activities, but they can also be physically and emotionally draining. As a stay-at-home mom, I’d have to admit that I don’t have as much free time as I would like. I don’t think working moms have it any easier. I think this is true of a lot of moms, even those whose husbands don’t have bipolar disorder. It’s important to realize when you’ve reached your limit, and find some time to do whatever it is that makes you feel relaxed and recharged. For me, this usually means having a nap and reading a book, or going for a walk *alone*.
It important to negotiate with your partner how much alone time you each need, and how you are going to get it. When we first got married, I had this expectation that weekends would be for all-together family time. The reality is that we have spent many weekends tag-team parenting while the other person has a nap. And you know what? It works better for us then fancy outings. Also, don’t feel like it’s a failure of your marriage to hire a sitter so that both of you can sleep. Often it feels like there’s an expectation that sitters are only for when both parents have to be somewhere else. Well, if you both need a nap, then you both need to be somewhere else, don’t you? There’s a saying quoted often that goes “it takes a village to raise a child”. Well, it takes a community to support a family. We have had a lot of child-care help from grandparents and close friends.
Being Emotionally Supportive
I think this is one area where dealing with someone with bipolar disorder really has proved to be different from “normal” people. I have been involved in both work and volunteer organizations that have focused on peer support and conflict resolution, and have taken some communications training. The basics of this type of training usually include acknowledging a person’s feelings, discussing your own feelings, and using “I” statements to discuss your own needs. With my husband, sometimes his emotions can become very intense and trying to sympathize with them only seems to fan the flames. And then it gets tricky, because instead of simply listening, I start to think he’s way out of line and trying to “correct” his feelings – which is a big no-no in communications training, and rightfully so – he then thinks I am not listening to him or not taking him seriously. So, the communications training has been useful, but I think that if the emotions get too intense, for us, it has worked out for me to say that things are getting really intense and I need for him to calm down a bit before we can talk some more. And my husband is pretty good about choosing to go out for a walk.
Another thing that’s important is to remember that you are not your husband’s therapist. If he feels he would benefit from therapy, then he should seek out someone qualified. I think most people don’t want to be “improved” by their spouse’s armchair psychology.
For us, one thing that I hadn’t expected was that my husband simply doesn’t really discuss his emotional states with me. I know many people consider knowing someone else’s feelings to be an essential need in order to feel close to that person, and this is one area that bipolar people might be different. My husband feels that his emotional states are often more related to the serotonin imbalance in his brain than to reality, and so he doesn’t want to start using his emotions as the basis for his decision-making day-to-day. A part of me feels a bit cheated by this, since I do love helping people by hearing their feelings, and especially since, somewhat ironically, he is the most emotionally supportive person in my life in precisely this way. He always listens to my feelings and he always takes them seriously, and has been the best support imaginable to me when it comes to working through my own feelings and making decisions for my life. It’s one of the reasons I married him.
Dealing With Highs and Lows
HighsI don’t think I have ever seen my husband in a true manic episode. When he gets hypomanic, he usually either becomes very irritable, or very excited and productive. In the first case, I usually try to stay out of the way, or I do mention to him that he is being particularly irritable. He’s pretty good at acknowledging this himself. In the second case, life can be exciting, and occasionally, a bit worrying. It’s exciting to see him write an academic paper from scratch in less than 48 hours, and have it accepted at a major national conference. It’s exciting to hear him come up with ideas for a new business venture (I happen to think that most of the ideas he comes up with are really good ones, although I’m told hypomanic people are also very good at being charming and persuasive). It’s a bit worrying when he thinks he would like to drop everything he’s doing to pursue some new venture. In those cases, I usually hold my breath and wait. So far, he hasn’t actually done anything drastic, and I know that I would speak up first if I really thought he was going to try.
Before we were married, my then-fiancé warned me that about once every 3 weeks, he had a really low day and the best way to deal with it was to just spend the day in bed, and he would feel better the next day. I’m glad I was warned about this, and communicating needs like this is really important. When this happens, I basically try to take the kids out and leave him alone.
Also, sometimes, after a particularly busy or stressful period of time, he will have a “low” where he doesn’t seem to get much done for several weeks. This happened a few times when he was writing his dissertation – he would work very hard to meet a deadline for a chapter, and then spend a few weeks sleeping a lot afterwards, before getting back into the swing of things.
I’m lucky that my husband has never gone on a bipolar spending spree, such as is mentioned in pretty much every book or website about bipolar disorder. In fact, he has pretty inexpensive tastes, and most of his free money goes to burritos and comic books. I’m lucky. There’s only so many burritos you can eat, and comic books are about $3 each. But we do have a set amount of spending money that we have agreed we can fritter away each week, and we (both) have been pretty good at sticking to it.
One thing my husband does, which is apparently common to bipolar people, is to develop very intense interests. When he gets interested in something, he goes out and buys a lot of books on the subject, and it can start to take up inordinate amounts of his free time, to the point that I have to negotiate with him to scale back so that I’m not widowed by the interest. And I have only recently begun to convince him that books can be taken out from the library rather than purchased. We’re also lucky to have a bargain bookstore in the neighbourhood. One plus side of all this is that I am the type of person who loves to learn about just about anything, and I’ve been able to learn interesting things from a lot of his hobbies.
Scary StatisticsThe last aspect of being married to a bipolar person that I want to mention is dealing with my own fears. The stats about bipolar people that you find are online or in books are pretty scary: high rates of breakup, divorce, scary behaviours, suicide. This is where the “don’t compare” philosophy has really become important to me. Statistics are what they are, but people are individuals. I try to base my faith in our relationship on his actual behaviour, not what the numbers say. I think I am lucky because my husband, as far as I know, seems to manage his illness pretty well. Since this is a public article, I feel the need to add that if your bipolar spouse is engaging in truly destructive or dangerous behaviour, you need to assess how to protect yourself.
In a Nutshell
If you have skipped to the end of this article, I suppose it could be summarized in three main points.
- Be sensitive to each other needs, and especially to the fact that being bipolar is a chronic illness, and your spouse may have greater needs than average.
- Be ready to get outside help and support when you need it.
- Live your own life – stop comparing with others.