Revealing your diagnosis in a relationship can be difficult and feel risky. I prioritize honesty and try to separate reactions from my self-worth.
Romance & Revelations
Starting a new romantic relationship is often an exciting time. Experiencing new feelings, stretching horizons, and learning about each other is often thrilling, with exciting dates, a longing to see each other again, and lengthy phone calls where you feel comfortable sharing every detail about your lives.
But a person with bipolar disorder may balk at that last one. Every detail?
How does one know if a relationship can bear such a big revelation? When is the best time to have such a conversation? And what are the possible outcomes of sharing such vital information?
Because my husband and I found out I have bipolar at the same time—when I was diagnosed at age 35—I never faced such a question. But I have had revelatory conversations with employers, professors, and friends when the need for one became apparent.
The Best Time to a Disclose Bipolar Diagnosis
If the word “love” is making its way into more and more conversations with a partner, it may be time to have this serious conversation. Knowing that the relationship is beginning to get serious is an indicator that deep topics should be safe to discuss. (Research has some answers for those considering disclosure, and I have found the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI, to be particularly helpful.)
Ideally, such a conversation needs to happen when one is not suffering from symptoms. Trying to discuss your bipolar diagnosis when suffering from a manifestation of it can lead to confusion or upset on the part of a romantic partner, not to mention the added stress that trying to explain yourself when not at your best can bring on your mental health.
For instance, I had been open with my professor in my MFA program about my condition early on. Then, when I was due to speak to the class about my writing and had to have her rearrange the schedule to accommodate my being hospitalized, I did not have to deal with any rancor or confusion about why I needed the adjustment complicating my already-fragile emotional state.
When a Crisis Interferes
What if a crisis is occurring before you’ve had a chance to have this discussion?
First, let them know you acknowledge their questions, but ask for space to recover before talking. Keep the lines of communication open, but don’t feel forced into any conversation you are not ready for.
Signs That It’s Time to Share
There are some indications that the relationship is ready for such a deep conversation:
# 1 Considering Cohabitation
You are considering cohabitation. Out of fairness to your significant other, you should make that person aware of how your condition can affect your day-to-day functioning, from unstable moods to difficulty taking care of your own activities of daily living.
#2 Considering Children
You are having conversations about having children together. If you know early on that a future that includes parenting is important to your partner, then you should disclose that you have a brain-based condition that can be passed down genetically to any offspring you have.
#3 Questions Arise
When you begin to feel that your condition is affecting your relationship in any way. Explaining puzzling aspects about your daily routine such as a lot of medication or having to set boundaries with family and friends can clear the air of confusion.
Possible outcomes to having such a conversation include acceptance, confusion, or rejection on the part of your partner.
Tip #1: Avoid “Mind Reading”
Be careful to not engage in “mind reading,” that is, jumping to conclusions about what the other person is thinking. Steering the conversation to a preconceived end could result in disillusionment or disappointment on your part.
Tip #2: “Sandwich” What You Share
Some research says that such a talk should be patterned in the “sandwich” technique—giving the hard and difficult information about having bipolar disorder between two positive statements about the relationship. An example would be, “I feel so close to you now, like I can share anything with you. I need to tell you something important about myself. I have bipolar disorder, an illness that causes my moods to fluctuate between mania and depression. I am stable now, but since we seem to be on a path to a long-term relationship, I felt you needed this information. I love you and want the best for us.”
How Might They React?
Acceptance is of course the wanted outcome. We would all hope that if someone had already declared their love for us, it would be enough to continue the relationship, even after such a revelation.
I know that my fear of my husband not being able to handle such a serious diagnosis was real in my mind. The fact that he rallied with me to conquer the most devastating consequences of my illness cemented our bond and gave me so much relief from worrying about the future.
But, most likely, that acceptance will only come after a series of questions, which would be best served by being honest and open about what bipolar disorder looks like, warts and all.
Being candid up front will bring about an honest understanding of the condition; lies can be easily discovered and refuted with questions to other people who know you well, causing even more trust issues than the original disclosure may have done.
Confusion is likely the most realistic response, and that’s not always bad. Remember the feeling of shock you may have undergone upon being diagnosed to understand where your significant other is coming from.
Be patient with your partner and with yourself as you embark on this discussion—a hard and necessary discussion that can tell you a great deal about your partner if you listen to them carefully.
My parents reacted with confusion at first, feeling that they were somehow at fault for my depressed condition at the moment. I had to explain that bipolar disorder is a genetic condition and not caused by relational difficulties.
As with any important revelation, risks can present themselves.
Your partner may immediately pull back from you. Or they may slowly back away from the relationship gradually. Or they may initially accept your diagnosis and continue to love you, only to decide at a later date that the relationship has become unworkable, whether or not it is a result of your revelation.
After such a talk, reiterate your care for your significant other or romantic partner and your wish to continue the relationship if that is what your partner wants.
And continue to be honest about your condition as the relationship goes on, in whatever form it takes. Your partner may not understand all the ramifications of your disorder right away; then again, you may be surprised by the depth of understanding you are met with.
Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, in her memoir An Unquiet Mind, said that her revelation of her bipolar disorder to her lover, who was also a doctor, perfectly captured how he felt about it. His response was: “Oh, what rotten luck.”
He recognized the unfairness of it all, the seriousness of the knowledge, and the understanding that it did not diminish her worth as a person.
Remember all the elements of this response as your relationship continues—if you find your partner casting blame for your having bipolar disorder on you, downplaying its effect on your life, or questioning your fitness as a romantic partner strictly because of your illness, hard choices may need to be made concerning the future of the relationship.
Prioritize Your Well-Being
Remember—a relationship goes two ways, and having your needs for support not met can have a devastating effect on your own feelings. Prioritizing the importance of your own well-being and stability is paramount.
If your partner uses disparaging language to describe you because of your bipolar disorder or uses your diagnosis against you in any way, it should be a red flag that the relationship has become toxic.
Again, the important takeaways need to be remaining as honest as you can be about your condition and remembering that another person’s response to your disclosure does not affect your worth as a person in the slightest.
Julie Whitehead lives and writes from Mississippi. A reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, she writes on topics concerning mental health, mental health education, and mental health advocacy. Julie was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder in her midthirties in 2006. She blogs about her experiences and daily life with bipolar at the site Day by Day. She has a bachelor’s degree in communication, with a journalism emphasis, and a master’s degree in English, both from Mississippi State University. In August 2021, she completed her MFA in creative nonfiction from Mississippi University for Women. Julie can be found on Facebook and Twitter.
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