The experience of living with a partner who suffers from bi-polar disorder, or manic depressive illness, is akin to living on a roller coaster. One can surmise that Catherine Zeta Jones had been subject to serious mood swings for a long time. She probably could present as a person of great warmth and charm, but then become irritable or depressed. The depression could have been manifested in verbal or physical withdrawal and/or dark moods accompanied by tearfulness and despair. Many people with bi-polar illness have a hard time sleeping and often feel exhausted during the day, making them even more irritable and moody. During a manic phase, there may be periods of great excitement. Full of ideas, high spirits and overwhelming feelings of joy, mania is sometimes accompanied by exaggerated behavior, such as compulsive and irresponsible over-spending or excessive gambling. These periods of excitement can become too disorganizing internally for bi-polar patients to bear. To calm themselves down, they often turn to alcohol, drugs or sex. Using these addictions in the futile attempt to calm themselves, creates further serious problems in a relationship. On the other side, the depressive states are often manifested not only by withdrawal, but by irritability and rage attacks and /or states of overwhelming sadness and hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. These extreme emotions are very often exacerbated by unusual stress, which is perhaps what happened to Catherine Zeta Jones as she attempted to cope with Michael Douglas’ serious cancer diagnosis, leading to her recent hospitalization.

Bi-Polar illness is not necessarily a hopeless condition. On the contrary, very often the proper medications can stabilize the condition. Unfortunately, many patients miss their manic side with all its thrills and excitement, and therefore stop taking their medication. Then, the cycle starts all over again. A commitment to medication is essential for the improvement of the condition.

It’s very important, once the condition is stabilized, for the couple to seek relationship therapy. They have to learn to live with this illness together. By working on the problem, they have a good chance of achieving a constructive, positive and loving relationship.

Harriet Pappenheim, LCSW

Harriet’s latest book “For Richer or Poorer: Keeping Your Marriage Happy When She Makes More Money” is available for sale here.

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