Decoding Bipolar Disorder and Relationship Patterns

By Anand Singh

When Internet favourite, Kanye West (Ye) had another public meltdown earlier this month, fans were quick to admit to something they should’ve admitted a long while ago – it’s getting out of hand. While rapper Kanye West’s ongoing struggle with bipolar disorder has long been a part of the water cooler zeitgeist, this is the first time his condition is being seen as an actual problem, a malady. West sparked genuine concern amongst fans with his recent Instagram rampage, in which he made public posts against everyone from long-time friend and producer Kid Cudi (Scott Mescudi) to ex-wife Kim Kardashian and her alleged boyfriend, comedian Pete Davidson. Some of these were benign (and poorly cropped) memes from the Internet, while the others included actual text message conversations between West-Kardashian and West-Davidson. Kardashian has since gone on record to express her anger and disdain for West’s actions.

Clinical psychologist Amrita Achrekar believes the Internet’s perception of West and his condition is plagued by a fundamental, semantic problem. “I think it’s unfair to call him a narcissist because narcissism is a personality trait. Kanye’s behaviour towards Kim (Kardashian) and his other well-wishers is a result of his predicament (bipolar disorder); it’s hard to look beyond yourself when you keep swinging between extreme mania and depression.” 

Counselling psychologist Divija Bhasin builds onto this by examining West’s proclaimed refusal to accept medical help (“I’m off the meds”- gate). “One would assume that someone as popular and well-off as Kanye would be quick to accept help because, well, he has the access. However, it’s these resources that stop people from accepting help; the yes-men, the money and the cheering fans all make it difficult for the person to see the problem. That being said, I’d still say a person’s behaviour majorly depends on the severity of their illness.” 

Interpreter of Maladies

Both Bhasin and Achrekar believe it is this general lack of awareness of what bipolar disorder is and how it manifests itself that makes bipolar relationships cumbersome. “A bipolar person’s moods can be both intense and unpredictable. This is what makes it difficult for their partners to understand their triggers; they start walking on eggshells, sometimes even to the point of developing anxiety,” says Achrekar. Bhasin adds to this by saying: “A person might even experience caregiver fatigue if their partner’s illness is too severe. Without apt medical help, a person with bipolar can end up making extreme decisions for the relationship, which of course makes their partner feel ignored and burnt out.”

“So long, Skete.” While Kanye West and Pete Davidson’s Instagram saga likely isn’t ending any time soon, one of them isn’t sticking around to entertain the madness any longer. Pete quit the social platform yet again — and this time, Ye is taking credit for driving him off the app.

For Nitin*, this erratic behaviour linked with bipolar manifested itself in the form of a severe lack of communication on his (ex) partner’s part. “Every time they had a depressive episode, they’d disappear without a trace. This, coupled with the blatant denial that things needed to be fixed made it difficult for me to communicate with them in any way,” he says. “The low phases didn’t hurt as much as the denial. Their manic phases made them feel everything was completely alright when it really wasn’t. That just makes it hard for a partner to understand and even try to cope with the condition.”

Achrekar believes a major reason for this denial is the stigma that the conversation around bipolar is shrouded under. “The diagnosis itself is so negative that it discourages people from admitting to it. A person experiencing mania will not find their own behaviour ‘unpredictable’ or ‘erratic’. They have all their ducks in a row as far as they’re concerned.”

When Jared* was finally diagnosed with bipolar, the straw that broke the camel’s back was breaking up with their partner of seven years. “Maybe I had a feeling that something was wrong but, in my head, it wasn’t that bad. Losing friends and partners made me realise, maybe the problem is with me. I regret having lost so many people but it was hard to act any other way at that point in time.” 

Achrekar says Jared’s is often the case with most bipolar relationships. The epiphanic diagnosis, if it comes at all, is preceded by a lot of anger, confusion and longing. “Both the partner and the person (with bipolar) find it difficult to come to a concrete diagnosis. In a relationship, the depressive phase just seems like depression and the manic phase is simply erratic. It is only when couples lose things to the extreme decisions that the person with bipolar makes that they realise there is a deeper problem.”

Expanding The Conversation

Nitin believes the two things that can help bipolar relationships meet an end different to his, are self-awareness and clear communication. “It’s important for the person with bipolar to be diagnosed on time. This way, the couple can openly talk about and plan for the depressive stages, maybe even deem certain actions as ‘off-limits’, no matter what the person with bipolar feels at a vulnerable moment.” 

Counselling and forensic psychologist Aditya Sundaray reaffirms the importance of understanding limits in bipolar relationships. “Open communication is important. When a person/couple realises how bipolar can make them act, it informs them of the destructive behaviour that they might exhibit in the future. It is important to set limits and channels once that happens.” 

Sundaray also stresses the importance of understanding the emotional needs of both partners here. “A lot of partners, as Divija (Bhasin) mentioned, feel burdened and emotionally exploited in bipolar relationships. I recommend clients talk about their emotional requisites and non-negotiables while having the conversation. With the right help, bipolar relationships can be as healthy as any.”

(*names have been changed to protect anonymity.)