Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Loved One Doesn't Understand. Really?

"My husband gets angry," Abigail writes on BipolarConnect. "It makes no sense when I'm in crisis ... I can't help it when I'm crashing or in a panic. He cannot understand ..."

A loved one who doesn't get it - a good many of us have been there. Back in the old days, my response would have been along the lines of a suggested reading list for her husband. Then, perhaps, a dialogue could start.

But my thinking has come a long way since then. I am a patient, but I have also experienced first-hand the frustration of a loved one.

First I acknowledged Abigail's concerns, but then I suggested it would be more constructive to view matters from her husband's perspective:

"When YOU act up or act out," I wrote, "HE is the one who suffers." Even the most compassionate person in the world can only put up with this for so long.

Loved one's hate the "can't" word, I continued. "You may think you are asking for sympathy and understanding. A loved one interprets this as a complete lack of sympathy and understanding from you."

They need to be hearing that you are taking responsibility, even if you are having difficulty managing. Something along the lines of: "I really appreciate this makes life hard on you. It's not easy for me to control my behavior at times, but I'm working on it, and I could really use your help on this."

Now, instead of an adversary, you may have an ally. You've owned up to the problem. You've accepted responsibility. You've acknowledged your loved one's feelings. You've given him a reason to hope.

Believe me, this is music to a loved one's ears.

"If your husband is to understand you," I wrote, "first you need him on your side. You need his good will and support. For that to happen, you need to be the initiator, you need to set the good example. If he's smart, he will start to respond positively."

Coupled with this is the reality that loved ones need to see tangible signs of change. Talking a good game is not enough. If your loved one strongly hints at something, then you need to be acting on it. If this means putting the top back on the toothpaste, then put the top on the toothpaste.

You can also score brownie points by taking your own small initiatives, say by getting out of bed in the morning 10 minutes earlier.

Naturally none of this is easy when you are the one who is ill, but the stakes are enormous. There are no guarantees, but we are talking the difference between a sympathetic loved one who represents by far the best thing going for you and a stranger in your home and in your bed. Believe me, from one who has lived both sides of this equation, the effort is worth it.

As I concluded to Abigail: "Your old approach hasn't worked. Time to try something new."


I answer questions as an "expert patient" on BipolarConnect, part of HealthCentral. By far, the vast bulk of the questions involve living in personal relationships. Much more on the topic in blogs to come.

Also, please share your own wisdom and insight by clicking the "Comment" link.


Sophia said...

Finding this blog has been a Godsend. Your videos have made me smile, plus it's nice to reads the words of someone who understands and is knowledgeable on the subject.

Thank you for this blog. I look forward to my future visits here.

Much love,


Sophia said...


My husband is very understanding of my bipolar illness which mostly manifests as depression, but this blog post of yours has been a nice opportunity for me to put myself in my husband's shoes, and also any friends' that have put up with my frequent energy shifts.

It also makes me very thankful for the loved ones who accept me as I am.

Anonymous said...

I figured this out on my own -- as someone who came late in life to bipolar disorder, I know how it comes across to others. I have great sympathy for my husband. As I told him, he's totally held up his end of the "in sickness and in health" part. They deserve our understanding as well.

Sophia said...

I have another addendum. I apologize for talking too much (but I know you understand the talking-too-much bit).

What anonymous said has brought up another point that I want to make. She said she came to the bipolar disorder late in her life, so she knows how she comes across to others. When I was younger, I felt that bipolar people were "strange". And now, here I am, one of them! If that's not karma I don't know what is. Here's Life putting me in someone else's shoes, only to realize later, that the shoes were also mine.

John McManamy said...

Many thanks, Sophia and Anonymous. Very glad both of you appreciate this blog and your respective loved ones. Wouldn't it be great if patients sponsored a "Loved Ones Appreciation Day?"

Welcome to "Knowledge is Necessity." Great to meet you and keep posting.

Anonymous said...

This article somehow appeared as a new entry in my RSS feed on my 2 in the morning, not able to sleep because my significant other laying next to me spent the night treating me like dirt as she struggled to get school work done. And yes, I got the "nobody seems to understand" right before she fell asleep.

Thank you so much for just saying that loved one's are needed and should be appreciated. Maybe she knows it too, but it's nice to hear sometimes.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous. You might want to print this out and leave it in a place where your significant other can find it.

You might also want to consider this piece as a candidate for printing out:

Making Peace with our Loved Ones