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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