When Hope, 45, developed feelings for a local restaurateur in 2009, she knew she would have to talk to him about her diagnosis before things got serious.“I was excited about this blossoming relationship and enamored with this man,” recalls Hope, a freelance communications consultant in Denver, Colorado.“But I remember thinking, ‘He’s going to freak out when I tell him I have bipolar disorder.’” The “when and how” decision was taken out of her hands when her new love dropped a bombshell: His soon-to-be ex had bipolar and her illness was one reason they were divorcing.
“I said, ‘I understand if you want to run out the door and never see me again, but I’d like to continue our date and tell you everything I can about my diagnosis and how I manage my illness,’” Hope recalls. He could not have been more positive and agreed to give our relationship a chance.” Dating is always fraught with expectations, anxiety and disappointment.
Having bipolar disorder adds layers of complication: Should I trust this new love interest with my diagnosis? If we do move forward, how will the new relationship weather my mood shifts?
“It brings up a lot of fears and those fears ignite the temptation not to talk about it,” acknowledges Lisa Little, MSc, a chartered psychologist in Calgary, Alberta.
“Pretending [the illness] doesn’t exist is more likely to cause problems in the relationship.” When telling a prospective partner that you have bipolar, Little suggests sharing details about how the illness affects your behavior, including symptoms of mania, hypomania and depression, as well as emphasizing how you manage the disorder.
With only his wife as an example, she adds, “He was shocked that someone could live a good life with this illness.” Opinion is divided on the best time to bring up the subject.
The conversation could happen on the first date to get the issue settled one way or the other, or later in the relationship when there is greater commitment and trust.According to Louisa Sylvia, Ph D, a psychologist at the Bipolar Clinic and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, it definitely needs to be discussed before making any major moves.It’s important to recognize that your date probably will have concerns—some legitimate, some stigma-induced—about getting involved with someone who has a chronic mental illness.“Providing specific information will help dissolve some of the fear,” Little says.Hope says that learning how committed she is to managing her illness through medication, regular counseling and healthy habits went a long way to alleviating any worries her boyfriend had about dating someone with bipolar.“When I met him, I was in a well-managed state and able to hear his questions and respond to them in a positive way,” she says.