Marriage counseling for a couple with a bipolar spouse

Updated April 17, 2017

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness driven by extreme mood swings. An individual with bipolar disorder may have bouts of severe depression followed by erratic, manic, behaviour. One of the most challenging aspects of bipolar disorder is its unpredictability. Affected individuals cannot always identify when they are going into a manic or depressive episode nor can they say how long the episode will last. Marriages where one spouse suffers from bipolar disorder have more challenges and a greater likelihood of ending in divorce than do marriages without a bipolar spouse.

Bipolar Impacts on the Individual

Individuals suffering from bipolar disorder may not always realise what drives their extreme mood swings. Many people with bipolar disorder go through their entire lives never having been diagnosed or treated. Bipolar can impact an individual in a number of negative ways. During manic episodes, a person can become erratic, engaging in risky behaviours such as promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse. Someone in the grips of a manic episode often overspends, destroying budgets, and risking going into debt. In a depressive episode, the individual will start to completely withdraw from everything and everyone. Both extremes in mood and temperament can cause issues with jobs, as well as relationships with friends and family.

Bipolar Impacts on a Marriage

Marriages are partnerships where both people work together, growing in their relationship with one another as well as a family. When one spouse has bipolar disorder, the partnership becomes unbalanced. The husband or wife who is not bipolar often has to take on all of the financial responsibility as well as the responsibility of day-to-day life such as household chores and child-rearing. The bipolar spouse may overspend, depleting the household finances, become dependent on drugs or alcohol, or have one or more infidelities. Normal issues between husbands and wives are compounded by the bipolar disorder; communication between the two can be difficult if the bipolar spouse has a habit of becoming enraged or overly emotional during a conflict.

Counselling the Marriage

The most important part of counselling a marriage suffering as a result of a bipolar spouse is to first diagnose the disorder and then commit to a treatment plan. It is difficult for a person suffering from bipolar disorder to have an accurate grasp on his or her own behaviour, let alone how that behaviour is affecting others, so it is important that the couple find a marriage counsellor experienced in treating bipolar individuals. A therapist who does not treat people with bipolar disorders may compound the issue by using therapeutic techniques that do not help the couple work together or communicate. It is very easy for the spouse who has to deal with a bipolar husband or wife to become angry and resentful, and a therapist unfamiliar with bipolar disorder can unknowingly increase the resentment and anger, potentially dooming the relationship. Therapists who work with bipolar patients can help ease resentment by explaining what is driving a spouse's behaviour, offering suggestions on how the other partner can protect himself or herself emotionally, and providing an outlet in which to express feelings in a way that can be heard and understood by the bipolar individual.

Treatment for the Marriage

Bipolar disorder is not an mental illness that can be made better through talk therapy alone. Marriage counselling cannot keep a marriage plagued with bipolar disorder from falling apart if the bipolar spouse is not seeking treatment for the condition. Talking through the highs and lows of bipolar disorder can help a husband or wife better understand what the spouse is suffering through. But if the highs and lows cannot be contained, the marriage has a 90-percent probability of failing. In a marriage, bipolar disorder no longer impacts just one person. The husband or wife married to the bipolar individual is often at the mercy of the extreme shifts in mood and temperament, and almost always ends up having to save his or her own sense of self and sanity by leaving the relationship. Treating the bipolar disorder and gaining control over the extreme shifts in temperament increase the probability of success as the couple start to rebuild their relationship through marriage counselling.

Building a Successful Marriage

Marriages that are plagued with bipolar disorder have a significantly greater likelihood of ending in divorce, however, it is not impossible to have a successful marriage despite one spouse having the disorder. Treatment for bipolar disorder is a must so that the extreme shifts in moods can start to be contained. Working with a marriage counsellor familiar with bipolar disorder helps increase the probability of success because the therapist can open a dialogue between the couple about the disorder and how it impacts the relationship as well as provide tools that will help a husband or wife cope with the spouse's mood swings. Identifying triggers and signs of an impending shift in mood can also help lessen the impact and duration of the episode.

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About the Author

Sabrina Ehlert has been a writer and blogger for more than five years. She has been published in Longmont's Daily Times-Call on a number of occasions.