Bipolar and Looking for Love
“Modern Love:” A lesson in psychiatric transparency.
February 12, 2020
The New York Times column “Modern Love” has long served as a source of romantic wisdom for New Yorkers and the unlucky in love of the world. While the television series Sex and the City, whose main character — a freelance writer with the inexplicable ability to afford a Manhattan brownstone — and her relationship with financier Mr. Big may have touched upon some of the dynamics of love and relationships, it never took on the not-so-sexy complexities real people face in real relationships. “Modern Love” is unique in its willingness to dive into those spaces and open the kinds of dialogues that have the capacity to save relationships, and even lives.
In its recent adaption to television, one of my favorite stories in Modern Love stars Anne Hathaway and tackles the issues of a woman diagnosed with a bipolar disorder as she struggles with her relationships. At the beginning of the episode, we are introduced to a bubbly young woman grocery shopping in a sequined gold top, more or less dancing through the aisles of a supermarket, where she comes across a potential love interest. She dazzles him with her effervescent charm; they make a date. It was at this point in the episode that I started thinking this isn’t a dream; this is really happening and there is something very wrong. Nothing made sense; yet she was fun and hot and he was entranced.
We follow her home later that evening and watch her rapidly crash from her manic exuberant state to one of mass depression as she crawls into bed until the next evening, missing the workday completely. Several days pass, and still, when her date arrives to pick her up, she barely manages to pull herself together to join him for dinner and can hardly muster a word. The evening is a bust.
Skip to later in the week, when our main character has returned to her manic state. She texts this same man a fabricated explanation for her behavior—she was tired, feeling sick—and proposes a second try, which he accepts.
The ensuing sequence of events is difficult to watch. She flutters around her apartment, dressed to the nines, her date about to arrive for a Hail Mary effort, and suddenly she feels the depression coming on. We watch as she tries to will it away and keep herself afloat, but the game is over. The scene ends with her crying in the bathroom, and her date stood up outside her apartment, with no explanation.
We assume this was the last she sees of him.
Personality disorders, bipolar in particular, can wreak havoc on a relationship. But they don’t have to.
Anne Hathaway’s character in Modern Love is a model for exactly how to let a personality disorder get the better of your relationship—denial. The refusal to address it, attempting to ride the highs and stave off the lows as long as you can, is not usually a good solution, particularly once another person and maybe even children are involved.
As a divorce lawyer, I often come across couples dealing with a personality disorder. One of the most common reasons people end up in my office is a failure to address mental illness and to work with and follow the protocols of medical and therapeutic providers.
The end of the episode shows our main character some months later, sitting at her laptop writing up a starkly honest profile of herself for a dating website—no frills, no false pretenses, no illusions about the challenges that accompany her disorder. This moment in time refers us back to the title of the episode, “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am.” We see a distinct shift in our character’s mood, which she credits to having found the right therapists and medication.
I am not a doctor and certainly am not here to offer medical advice. I can, however, speak to what I know to be an issue that, left untreated, wreaks havoc on relationships.
Untreated and mismanaged personality disorders have the capacity to devastate people’s lives and relationships.
Having had clients who live with personality disorders, or are married to spouses who do, I can confidently say that the best way to deal with the issues is to be transparent, to seek proper treatment and to turn down the volume on the voice that says you can handle it or they won’t understand. They certainly won’t if you don’t let them.
The good news is that there are resources for help. And sometimes, even with help and resources, both parties can find themselves in a marriage that is too difficult and frankly too much work to navigate.
It doesn’t mean that someone did anything wrong—it just means that both parties need to move on to something that does work. In that case, when divorce is the best option for both parties and one or both of the parties have a personality disorder, it will be particularly important to find experienced and compassionate professionals who can help bring the marriage to closure.
Another option to consider might be a postnuptial agreement. A postnuptial agreement can provide everyone with the safety net to work on the issues presented including those issues that may be a result of an untreated personality disorder. For example, a postnuptial agreement can safeguard a spouse from what he/she perceives as manic spending, a symptom of a bipolar disorder.
Navigating the unpredictability of a bipolar disorder is a job on its own. Recognizing its existence and how it affects you and your children is the first step. Most importantly, ignoring and excusing the manifestations of the personality disorder and the effects on you and your children is not the answer.
It may be the very things that drew you to Hathaway’s character on the first date that are now drawing you to the office of a divorce lawyer. And while it is difficult to admit, you may have missed important signs for the issues you are now facing.
If you choose to proceed with a divorce, particularly in matters of custody, be sure you inform your attorney about these events; make an effort to work holistically with your therapist and attorney whenever possible. Surround yourself with a team of people who understand the difficulties of the situation and advocate for you at every turn. Open up that channel of honest, messy dialogue and let them know you as you are, whoever you are.
Originally published February 12, 2020 in Psychology Today.