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Finding Love with Bipolar Disorder: Those Nasty Perceptions of Damaged Goods

By Russ Federman, Ph.D., ABPP
Created May 15 2011 - 3:25pm

One of the more challenging issues for young adults with bipolar disorder involves the prospect of finding a fulfilling and enduring love relationship. Self-esteem is difficult enough when you're having a hard time sustaining emotional stability. Add to this, the impact on others from your episodes of hypomania or acute depression and we see that sustained positive feelings about self often feel impossible for the bipolar individual.

In the context of future love relationships bipolar young adults have a difficult time believing that they will find a romantic partner, or at least that their partner will remain through the rough times. This was evident in a recent meeting of the bipolar student support group that I lead where most participants had the perception that they were "damaged goods" on the market place of relationships.

It's not easy to dispel this belief by simply offering words of reassurance.  After all, people's experience often tells them otherwise. Recently, one of my patients went out with a guy for a third time. She was hypomanic and on her way up. She had also been at baseline when she first met him. But by their third date she had become more intensely expressive than she had been when they initially met. The guy really liked her emoitonal depth and intensity, thinking it was a reflection of her feelings for him. And it was, in part.

The next day she decided to let him know what was going on with her. He said he was fine with her being bipolar, but she didn't hear from him again. Yes, she definitely felt like damaged goods. She also retreated into her prtective shell, resolving that it was going to be a long time before she let any guy know about her disorder again.

If someone has led an uncomplicated life without much struggle or emotional pain, it's realistic that he or she might feel scared off by someone who discloses having a psychiatric disorder. Often people are afraid of that which is unfamiliar or unknown. At the same time, there are many people out there who have known struggle and emotional pain. They've been depressed or anxious. They've become too involved with alcohol and drugs. They've faced tragedy or some kind of sustained hardship. They've lived life with all the variability and complexity that's part of the human condition.

Indeed, many people feel damaged, even if they've never been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. And to the extent that people can identify with emotional struggle, then having bipolar disorder doesn't necessarily put you on a different planet. If someone is attracted to you beyond the superficial elements of your physical appearance, they're attracted to those aspects of you that they find interesting and desirable. You might even consider that your bipolar intensity is what attracts as opposed to it being something that frightens others off.

But for those of you living with bipolar disorder there will also be times when your intensity goes too far. It becomes more than something attractive. Or you plummet into a depressive funk and you don't pull up for another two months. That's the down side of living with bipolar disorder.  You don't get a guarantee for emotional stability.  So do we then presume that because of recurrent extremes, those who are attracted won't stay the course?

That might be true for some. But we can't say with certainty that it applies to everyone. There are those out there with bipolar disorder who do experience sustained, committed love relationships. This doesn't mean their relationships haven't been put to the test by manic intensity or depression. Nor does it mean that bipolar disorder is an inevitable deal breaker on the marketplace of relationships.

When I was a child I had polio. I recall as an adolescent feeling anxious about finding a girlfriend who would want to be with someone who wore a brace and walked with a limp. When I was 20 an athletic trainer told me that I probably wouldn't end up with a girl who wanted to run hand-in-hand down the beach with her boyfriend. He was right, but that doesn't mean I didn't find a relationship despite the limitations of my disability. And now, due to some of the late effects of post-polio I use a wheelchair. While I'm sure this hasn't been fun for my wife, I'm also clear that a successful relationship isn't just about the fun. It's about supporting each other through difficult times and accepting the reality that we all come with our own fair share of damaged goods.

It's easy enough to think that if you're bipolar, no one will want the goods you have to offer. We saw my patient retreat to that position following a painful third date rejection. If she remains stuck in that protective posture then it's doubtful she'll allow anyone close enough to experience the connection she desires. I encourage you not to go that same route. I encourage you not to preclude the possibility of a sustained loving relationship. After all, so many out there really are looking for the same thing. It would be a shame to remain sitting on the sidelines watching others because you assume you're not adequate enough to participate.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Russ Federman, Ph.D., ABPP is Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Virginia. He is also co-author of Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult's Guide to Dealing with Bipolar Disorder (New Harbinger Publications). www.BipolarYoungAdult.com



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