Depression Elicits Compassion in Couples Facing Bipolar

Symptoms of bipolar disorder (BPD) include states of extreme depression and periods of mania or hypomania. These symptoms can put a strain on relationships and cause conflict and relationship stress. Some people with BPD have a strong support system of loving and encouraging family members who are compassionate and caring while others are often criticized and resented by those closest to them. People who are treated with hostility and anger tend to have poorer treatment outcomes and higher rates of relapse than others. Because the level of relationship stress directly influences the severity of the illness, understanding how the symptoms of BPD impact relationship function is of key concern to clinicians. Additionally, partners of people with BPD are also at increased risk for stress and depression. To get a clearer picture of how BPD affects relationship function, Lorelei Simpson Rowe of the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University recently examined 38 people with BPD and their intimate partners.

The participants were interviewed and assessed for depressive symptoms. They were then videotaped while they discussed something that was a source of disagreement. After analyzing the videotaped experiments, Rowe and her colleagues discovered that the couples with the highest level of dysfunction were those in which the person with BPD had severe depression. The partner’s depressive symptoms did not independently influence the dysfunction. However, the researchers did find that when both partners had significant symptoms of depression, the effects were mixed. For some couples, dual depression resulted in more hostility toward the person with BPD. In others, dual depression led to less dysfunction and improved relationship health. Rowe believes that partners who have symptoms of depression or a history of depression may be more compassionate and sympathetic toward their mates than individuals who have not experienced depression themselves. Rowe believes that identifying and addressing the stressors that exacerbate the symptoms of BPD can help individuals and their families cope better with the illness. She added, “In sum, the current study emphasizes the importance of both partners’ mental health in relationship functioning among couples in which a partner has BPD.”

Rowe, L. S., & Morris, A. M. (2012). Patient and partner correlates of couple relationship functioning in bipolar disorder. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027589

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  • Rachelle Sheely

    Rachelle Sheely

    March 22nd, 2012 at 12:06 PM

    A well-said important blog. Bi-polar disorder does impact everybody. Thnx for the share.

  • Carla Y

    Carla Y

    March 22nd, 2012 at 12:43 PM

    Why would you ever treat someone going through either the symptoms of depression or bipolar episodes with anything but love and compassion? Most of the time they cannot help the things that they are going through, and as is evidenced here, being hostile toward them is going to do nothing to aid in their treatment and recovery. I know that it can be frustrating to deal with a situation like this, but sometimes you have to take a step back and consider how you would wish for others to respond to you if you were the one experiencing the same things. Just take a moment to take a walk in their shoes, and maybe that will help you be a little more accepting and a little less critical.

  • Garrett


    March 22nd, 2012 at 4:29 PM

    I can see how you could really sympathize with another if you are currently going through the same thing or have in the past. But that sure does seem like it could breed a whole lot of dysfunction!

  • VB


    March 23rd, 2012 at 6:06 AM

    Depression and stress can lead to me messing things up at home, at work and with anything else. So I’m not really surprised to hear this. After all, we are not machines and cannot really keep the different parts of our lives isolated.

  • Townshend


    March 23rd, 2012 at 5:05 PM

    I suppose that the term normalcy is all relative, so what feels normal to one couple, i.e. those going through a tough experience like depression, is going to seem crazy to another who has never had to experience something like thios together.

    But marriage is for better or for worse, right?

  • Rae


    March 24th, 2012 at 8:07 AM

    Call me sefish but I don’t want a relationship where I am made to feel like some kind of a nursemaid, like I am having to take care of someone all of the time. If I am always having to take care of him then there is no guarantee that he is ever going to be in any kind of shape to take care of me when I need some of that. I know that that is going to sound wrong to some of you, but I don’t care. That would not be what I would sign up for when it comes to a stable and healthy relationship.

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