How should you react to physical or verbal abuse from a bipolar spouse? Imagine you’re in a relationship with a person and you notice their behavior is changing gradually. They’re becoming more impatient — they may have a shorter temper. One day, you remind them of a project they said they’d do today and they react with anger and indignance, calling you names or even physically hurting you.
When a person with no history of this type of behavior suddenly becomes abusive, it can be unexpected and traumatic. It can also be a sign of a serious mental health condition, such as bipolar disorder. Whether you knew about the condition previously or the changes are coming without warning, you may not know where to turn. At FHE Rehab, we’re here to tell you that you need to get help, no matter the circumstances.
The issues discussed in this piece are sensitive. We’re not drawing conclusions about any single relationship where mental health and abuse are significant factors. We’re also not saying there’s any instance where a condition like bipolar disorder should be used as an excuse for domestic violence or that anyone should stay in an abusive relationship.
The Effects of Bipolar Disorder on Relationships
Bipolar disorder (BD) is a mood disorder that causes the person affected to fluctuate between manic periods of high energy and excitement and depressive periods of low energy, sadness and other symptoms commonly associated with depression. It’s a chronic brain disease that demands lifelong treatment, often involving medication to control changes in mood.
When your spouse or another close family member receives a bipolar diagnosis, it can be difficult to take. It may feel like the person you once knew isn’t there anymore, replaced by someone erratic and unpredictable. Living with someone who has bipolar disorder is difficult, but it’s important to remember: In many cases, with the proper treatment, they can live life in control and as the person, you know them to be.
The Prevalence of Physical or Verbal Abuse With a Bipolar Spouse
That being said, it’s impossible to ignore the statistics about domestic violence when one partner is suffering from bipolar disorder. One study performed in Sweden found that across the board, people suffering from mental and behavioral health conditions were more likely to perpetrate abuse against their partners. An article published in Psychiatric Times found specifically that people with BD are more likely to be violent toward other people in their lives.
But what does this link mean? A few explanations have to do with the behavioral changes that occur with BD.
Perceiving Support as Confrontation
As we’ve explored in the past, people with bipolar disorder are often in denial about changes in their behavior or personality. This may cause the person affected to see a partner’s attempts to be supportive of their condition as confrontational, causing them to lash out verbally or physically.
Uncontrollable Mood Changes
Most people who’ve been in a relationship understand how it feels when their own bad mood makes them easily annoyed by their partner. We might look back on arguments later and wonder what started them. For people with BD, this dynamic is taken to an extreme.
When a bipolar person is experiencing a manic episode, they may experience feelings of happiness and motivation, but this sudden burst of energy can also manifest itself in a negative way.
The same applies to behavior during a depressive episode. When a person is feeling low or depressed, they may experience apathy and stop caring about other people’s feelings temporarily, which may lead them to say something hurtful they wouldn’t otherwise say.
The delicate nature of a relationship is part of what makes it so amazing when people can share trust and love. However, when one partner is struggling to control their mood and behavior due to an untreated mental health condition, it can put the relationship’s stability on a knife’s edge.
Why Is It So Important?
If you’re in a relationship affected by a bipolar partner, your next steps should be made with your own best interests in mind. We would never recommend reconciliation in a case where one person is being physically or emotionally harmed by their partner.
With this in mind, it’s important that the abuser gets the help they need as well, especially if their behavior is unique to their bouts with severe BD. Here are a few of the main reasons why help is needed:
Avoid the Vicious Cycle of Mental Health and Abuse
There’s an explanatory link between relationship abuse and bipolar disorder. The Psychiatric Times article mentioned above cites that around 80% of people with bipolar disorder experienced one or more traumatic events earlier in their lives. This shows that abuse isn’t only the result of some cases of mental illness — it’s also the cause.
Additionally, there’s a stigma that psychiatric patients are violent people, which harms the cause of raising awareness for these types of disorders. In most cases, patients not inherently violent or dangerous; they just need an increased degree of support.
Jails Can’t Support the Needs of People With Mental Health Conditions
Mental illness causes issues with impulse control and behavior. Physical and verbal abuse by a bipolar spouse often end up involving law enforcement, but the justice system doesn’t have the resources to support the needs of mentally ill people and get them the treatment they require.
As a result, mentally ill inmates tend to stay incarcerated longer. When they do get out, they find it more difficult to get a job or secure stable housing and as a result, often end up being rearrested.
Getting Treatment for Bipolar Disorder
When a bipolar spouse verbally abuses or hurts you, it’s a serious matter. If you don’t feel your issues are something counseling can fix without further harm to your physical or emotional well-being, you should leave. Additionally, your partner shouldn’t be able to use their condition as an excuse — domestic abuse is never okay and should always have consequences for the perpetrator.
But those consequences should look different based on the best interests of everyone involved. At FHE Health, our priority is making sure people struggling with the effects of bipolar disorder — either on themselves or the people around them — can access the support they need to live a healthy life.