When you have a friend, partner, or loved one with bipolar disorder, finding the right balance can be challenging. Their moods may shift without warning, or they may go through periods of depression that make it difficult to pull away. Setting appropriate boundaries can help ensure that you and your loved one maintain a healthy, happy relationship.
Maintaining a close relationship with a bipolar person requires setting boundaries. Manic episodes can be taxing on you and the individual. We’re going to share practical advice that makes it easier to set boundaries and build a healthy line of communication between you and the bipolar person.
How to Set Boundaries with a Bipolar Person
If a friend, partner, or loved one has bipolar disorder, you, of course, want to be supportive and be there when they need your help. However, it’s important to be mindful of your own mental health and needs.
At times, caring for someone with bipolar disorder can be challenging, but setting healthy boundaries can help.
Use the tips below to learn how to set boundaries with someone with bipolar disorder.
First, Understand Bipolar Disorder
Understanding bipolar disorder and how it affects the individual’s emotions and behavior will give you some insight into why they may behave the way they do.
Bipolar disorder is a biological condition that can cause extreme emotional highs and lows (known as mood swings). The condition affects an estimated 2.8% of adults in the U.S.
A bipolar person’s mood can shift from feeling sad and hopeless to feeling euphoric and energetic. Sometimes, mood swings can occur multiple times per year, or they can occur less often.
In periods of extreme highs (known as manic episodes), a bipolar person may:
- Be abnormally upbeat moods
- Have racing thoughts
- Have less desire to sleep
- Experience an exaggerated sense of confidence
- Be unusually talkative
- Be easily distracted
- Make poor decisions
In periods of extreme lows (known as hypomanic episodes), a bipolar person may:
- Lose interest in the things they once loved
- Have trouble finding pleasure in all or most activities
- Struggle with insomnia or oversleeping
- Feel empty or hopeless (depression)
- Experience fatigue
- Feel as if they are unworthy
- Be indecisive
- Have a poor appetite
It’s important to remember that bipolar disorder is a biological condition, and the individual does not want to go through these periods of highs and lows. A little empathy and understanding can go a long way in setting clear and healthy boundaries that benefit both you and your friend or loved one.
Identify the Need to Set Boundaries
Boundaries are important for any relationship, including those with bipolar individuals. A lack of boundaries can lead to resentment and strained relationships.
But how do you know whether you need boundaries?
Here are some examples of when it may be necessary to set boundaries:
- Your partner is going through a hypomanic episode. They’re irritable for no apparent reason, and they’re saying hurtful things. Putting healthy space between you and your partner can help de-escalate the situation and give everyone some time to recover.
- Your friend is going through a manic episode. They’ve been binge-drinking and making poor decisions. Now, they are encouraging you to do the same. Setting boundaries will let your friend know that you will not support or engage in this kind of behavior.
- You have been dedicating so much time and energy to your friend or loved one that you have neglected your own health and needs. Boundaries will allow you to care for yourself so that you may provide the best possible support for your loved one.
Use Clear and Respectful Communication
Constructive communication is possible once you know how to deal with your friend or loved one’s bipolar disorder. For example, instead of stating, “you need to do XYZ,” it’s better to say, “I would like you to do XYZ.”
Consider using “I” statements to make positive requests rather than telling the person that they’re doing something wrong.
While you’re communicating with the person, you need to:
- Explain how your requests can benefit them and you
- Remain calm and remove any form of demands or commands from your language
- Tell the person in the clearest way possible what you want them to do.
People with bipolar disorder often do best when you ask them one or two things at a time rather than many things. Simple communication using “I” statements is a great start to effective communication, but you also need to add in active listening.
Studies show that active listening and engagement can help offer effective support to a person who is bipolar.
What does it mean to be an active listener?
Active listeners are engaged in the conversation and:
- Look at the person when talking
- Remain attentive when the person talks
- Nods or expresses that they hear what the person is saying
- Asks for further clarification when necessary
Difficult conversations are necessary in life, but the approach you take with a person who is bipolar must be refined. Arguing with someone who is emotionally charged will not benefit you or them. Instead, keep your tone and body language calm, be assertive, and set boundaries.
The person may have an emotional meltdown or get angry, and if they do, it’s okay to let them know that this behavior is not acceptable.
Establish Healthy Boundaries
Learning how to set boundaries with someone with bipolar disorder requires you to be conscious of the way that you communicate with the person. You must be:
- Open with the person
- Honest with the person
Clear, respectful communication is best when trying to set boundaries. You do not want the boundaries to be open to interpretation. Healthy boundaries that are good to set include rules on:
- Alcohol consumption
- Drug use
- Respectful behavior
Enforcing boundaries is a difficult task for some people because they have empathy for the bipolar person. Yet, you need to remain consistent and enforce boundaries because you’re teaching the person how to take care of themselves. If a person cannot respect the rules that are put in place, they will have a difficult time maintaining a social life and caring for themselves.
Over time, you may adjust boundaries or evaluate whether they can be adjusted. If an adjustment is possible, you will want to use many of the techniques that are discussed earlier. For example, you might say, “I recognize a change in you and think it’s a good idea to alter our boundaries to be…”
Support the Bipolar Person
You may never fully understand what a bipolar person is going through, but when you focus on how to set boundaries, it is:
- Educational for you and the individual
- A way of showing empathy
Education and empathy are the best ways to support the bipolar person in your life. Studies show that a person with bipolar disorder can be over-empathetic, causing you to have to educate them on their emotions.
Since every individual is different, there’s a learning curve to educating yourself on the disorder and figuring out the best way to help the individual. If you remain empathetic, calm and educate yourself and the person, you’ll provide the support they need to have a happy, healthy life.
Learning how to set boundaries with a bipolar person is a long but worthwhile process. You need to find the right balance between boundaries and support, which takes time and effort to achieve.
Empathy, clear communication, understanding, and a commitment to support the individual will allow you to create healthy boundaries with the person. Your efforts will help them manage their emotions today and in the future.