What Impact Does Bipolar Disorder Have on Relationships and Family?

Bipolar disorder is characterized by a pattern of changes in mood from mania or hypomania to depression.  These changes can occur in a matter of weeks or months or with someone with rapid cycling bipolar disorder within the same week.

Medication and psychotherapy are effective treatments for someone with bipolar disorder, but at times, someone who has bipolar disorder will feel like they don’t need to take their medication so their symptoms can return.

It is important that someone with bipolar disorder receives effective and importantly, ongoing treatment generally throughout their lives.

Living with someone with bipolar disorder can take a toll on those closest to the people around them.  It can be difficult for friends, relationship partners, and family members. It can also be a positive experience filled with being with a friend, family member or partner that is loving and devoted to them and has a strong sense of familial bond.

How bipolar disorder can affect relationships

Friends can feel like they are always giving

Friendships can suffer from being friends with someone with bipolar disorder because the friend can feel like they are giving a lot of emotional labor to their friend and they need to sacrifice themselves to help their friends with their mental health.

While all friendships are generally thought to be a mutual give and take relationships, friends with people with bipolar disorder can feel like they are always giving.

A partner can feel like they are giving a lot of themselves to support their partner with bipolar disorder

It can be difficult for them to discuss their own mental health needs with their partner because they can feel like they are burdening their partner with their own concerns.  This can lead to the partner without bipolar disorder shutting down or retreating to their own friends and family for the support that they would normally receive from their partner.

The partner may need to seek out their own mental health therapy or treatment to cope with the strain it can take on them supporting someone with bipolar disorder.

They may need a safe space to process their feelings that is not detrimental to their partner’s treatment.  It can be helpful to the partner to have the support of their own when dealing with their own confusion or hurtful feelings that may arise when their partner is in a manic or depressive state.

The partner without bipolar disorder may not fully understand the disorder when they start the relationship.

The partner may be confused about the behavior of their partner or the partner with bipolar disorder may have told their loved one what can happen during mood disruption, but the partner does not fully understand the depths of how these mood swings with affect the relationship.

In some ways, it can be a surprise and shock to the partner and there can be hurt feelings or feelings of not being given full information.

People in a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder will need to learn their own coping skills for their own mental health.

They will need to learn when to say no to their partner and when to look inside themselves to discover their own needs.  They will need to be strong and firm with their boundaries. This can affect the relationship because the partner with bipolar disorder may be hurt when their partner does set boundaries with them.

It can cause a strain on the relationship, especially if their reaches a breaking point where one partner was not continually getting their needs met and ask for time away or time to themselves suddenly.

It’s important that both partners know their own triggers and their own needs and what boundaries they need to set with each other to take care of their own mental health.  There may be hard no’s in the relationship of how far each partner is willing to go with their support of their partner.

The partner without bipolar disorder is put into a support role for their partner.  

This can take the form of emotional support above what’s normally given in a relationship or even financial support when their partner finds it difficult or is unable to work due to a depressive or manic state.

This can take a toll on the relationship and can create hard feelings from the person giving support especially if they did not realize the amount of support their partner would need going into the relationship.

It’s important to be clear with expectations in a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder, but also be less rigid with the expectations the partner going through a mood change.

How bipolar disorder can affect family members

Family members give emotional, legal, and financial support

A family member living with someone with bipolar disorder are often put in the position of supporting that person either through emotional support, legal support or financial support.  It can be the family member that reminds their child to take their medication or pick up their medication from the pharmacy.

When a child is diagnosed with bipolar disorder at a young age or as a teenager it is most often the parent who bears the responsibility of determining their child’s mental health needs and finding care for their child.

This can put a toll on the parent who may have to miss work for appointments or be fearful for if their child is currently suicidal or will become suicidal in the future.

It can be difficult for family members to see their family members, especially children succeed and do well and then if they have a mood disturbance, become unstable again.  This can create fear and concern with family members above what is normally expected.

Family members will worry about suicidal tendencies

They may not have the resources to help their loved ones or they may feel helpless to continue to help their family members.  This can create a distant level of fear in the back of the family members mind and can affect the relationship.

If it is a current period of active suicidal ideations family members can be very fearful for their loved ones or even exhausted taking care and being watchful over their loved ones.

Family members need to find mental health services whenever needed

This can be especially stressful on the family members given the lack of mental health resources available and the cost of inpatient mental health treatment.  Family members may be exhausted from a pattern of their loved one seeking treatment and then relapsing again because of changes in their mood.

It can be especially difficult sitting with a family member that has psychotic symptoms due to mania or depression.  It can be scary and frightening for the family members almost as much as it is for the loved one with bipolar disorder.

Family members may become irritated if their child, parent or sibling is refusing treatment

The family member may be living with bated breath wondering when something will change and affect the family. Family members may pull away from their loved ones with bipolar disorder because they can’t see any other options for keeping their own mental health stable.

This can be hurtful when a family member feels they need to pull away from their loved one due to their illness to both the person pulling away and the family member with bipolar disorder. It can affect the familial relationship for the rest of their life.

Family members may need to attend their own support group meetings or have their own mental health care

Much like Al-Anon for family members of alcoholics, NAMI, the National Association for Mental Illness runs support groups in most cities for loved ones of people with mental illness.  These support groups are free and can be a wonderful space for family members to process their own needs while supporting their loved ones or recovering from a distant relationship with a loved one with bipolar disorder.

Being in a relationship or being a family member of someone with bipolar disorder can certainly affect the relationship. Some of the important keys to remember are for the loved one to create boundaries and find support for their own mental health.

It’s important that family members, friends, and partners are as mentally healthy as they can be to so they can support themselves as well as their partner. If you are living with or the family member of someone with bipolar disorder, you are not alone.

There are others who have been where you are there are a myriad of ways to find your own support including support groups, therapy and learning more about bipolar disorder and how it affects your family member or partner so you can be better prepared for the impact the illness has on you and your relationship.

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Katie Leikam specializes in working with anxiety, relationship stress and helping people with their gender identity. She is also a speaker, educator, author and consultant for other therapists for their business goals.