Bipolar disorder is considered a serious mental disorder, which is characterized by episodes of mania, hypomania, depression, and mixed episodes. Sometimes the episodes can be a traumatic experience for the patients who experience the disorder, but they can also be equally traumatic for their partners. A related study by Professor Lam and his colleagues (2005), attempted to explore the difficulties faced by the partners of bipolar patients. They examined the marital difficulties and the sexual satisfaction through the most important phases of their bipolar disorder (euthymic, manic and depressive).
Previous studies have shown that the partners of bipolar patients feel constrained due to problematic behaviors of their parterns (“he is insensitive), due to perceived control by patients in their disorder (“he is bad and he is not a patient”), and finally a significant reported problem has been the reduction in the income and activities due to the illness. It is worth noting that efforts to reduce the restriction felt by partners, can contribute to the improvement of patient’s quality of life (Clarkin et al., 1990, 1998).
In this research, 37 partners of patients with bipolar disorder participated. Their marital and sexual satisfaction of the partners were examined using an interview and psychometric questionnaires, in different phases of the bipolar disorder (euthymia, mania, depression). The questions were asked retrospectively.
Initially, it was found that the partners were affected by bipolar disorder mainly due to limitations in their social life, the increased obligations on their family life, and the financial difficulties. It was also found that partners who take over more domestic responsibilities as a result of their partner’s bipolar disorder were more likely to report marital pressure.
Moreover, many problematic behaviors were identified in the survey such as, depression, mania, and hostile behavior on the part of patients, a finding consistent with previous investigations (Janowsky et al., 1970. Targum et al., 1981). Another interesting finding was that more than 2/3 of the partners believed that the bipolar patient had at least some control over their disorder, and almost 50% of the partners reported having influence on the patients. Therefore, it was confirmed that the partners’s beliefs for the perceived control exerted by the patient was a crucial factor of marital difficulties. For example, the more control they believed that the patient had over their disorder, the more they reported marital difficulties.
During episodes of depression and mania, the patient’s partners reported higher levels of marital dissatisfaction than during periods of euthymia.
Male partners of bipolar patients were more sexually dissatisfied than female partners. However, both sexes reported greater sexual dissatisfaction even from non-bipolar couples whose relationship was already in crisis, and were seeking professional help.
Specifically, the levels of sexual satisfaction were worse during the disorder (there was no difference between mania and depression) compared to when the patient was feeling well (euthymic). Furthermore, male partners reported having problems with premature ejaculation, and female partners reported having problems with reduced sexual desire.
Regarding marital dissatisfaction, the results showed that in general, marital dissatisfaction was greater during episodes of the disorder but worse when the patient was in the manic phase compared with the depressive phase.
Summarizing, marital dissatisfaction was more likely when the partners believed that the patient could control the disorder, had increased family responsibilities and were sexually dissatisfied. Also, decreased sexual satisfaction was found to be due to changes associated with the disorder related to sexual interest. The partners who attribute the control of the disorder to the patient, may use strategies that affect the behavior of the patient, and consequently further disrupt their marital harmony.
Finally, a solution proposed by the researchers to the couples with bipolar disorder was to seek interventions that include psychoeducation, problem-solving, and Cognitive-Behavioral treatment that focuses on improving sexual function and marital satisfaction.
How much have you been affected by your partner’s bipolar disorder?
Lam, D., Donaldson, C., Brown, Y., Malliaris, Y. (2005) Burden and Marital and Sexual Satisfaction in the Partners of Bipolar Patients. Bipolar Disorders. 7 (5); 431
— Article written by: Miss Christina Giagkou, BipolarLab Junior Trainee Psychologist, Edited by: Dr Yanni Malliaris