Navigating any romantic relationship -- whether it's dating or marriage -- can be a tricky endeavor. Add bipolar disorder with its roller-coaster ride of emotions into the mix, and relationships become even more challenging.
When Jim McNulty, 58, of Burrillville, Rhode Island, got married in the 1970s, everything seemed fine at first. "It was an absolutely normal courtship," he recalls. "We got along well."
Then the mood swings began. During his "up" or hypomanic states, he would spend huge sums of money he didn't have. Then he would hit the "down" side and sink into the depths of depression. These wild swings put stress on his marriage and threatened to run his family's finances into the ground. He eventually signed the house over to his wife to protect her and his two young children. Finally, he says, "She asked me to leave because she couldn't live with the illness anymore."
When people get into a relationship, they're looking for stability, says Scott Haltzman, MD. Haltzman is clinical assistant professor in the Brown University department of psychiatry and human behavior. He's also medical director of NRI Community Services in Woonsocket, R.I. and author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men and The Secrets of Happily Married Women. He tells WebMD that bipolar disorder can seriously complicate a relationship. "The person, particularly if untreated, may be prone to changes in their mood, their personality, and their interactions that can threaten the consistency that is the framework of a relationship."
He adds that not everyone with bipolar disorder experiences the distinct mood phases of mania and depression. But when those episodes do occur they can wreak havoc on a relationship.
During the manic phase, a person can lose his or her sense of judgment. That means spending money recklessly, becoming promiscuous, engaging in risky behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse, and even getting into trouble with the law. "When you have a spouse with bipolar disorder who gets in a manic phase," he says, "it can be extremely detrimental to the relationship because they may be doing things that endanger you or may endanger you financially."
On the other side of the curve is depression. Depression can cause the person to withdraw completely from everything -- and everyone -- around him or her. "If you're a partner with someone, it's very frustrating," Haltzman says. "That's because you want to pull them out of their shell and you don't know how to do it."