What is the rational response to an irrational loved one?

by John McManamy


AS A WRITER ON DEPRESSION AND BIPOLAR, I find myself responding to queries from distressed loved ones. I have two failed marriages, which makes me an expert in relationships. I have also experienced my illness from both sides of the equation, as a patient and as a family member (several times over). I am not a professional. All of my insights derive from hard living.

Below is a representative sampling of some of my answers. I am dispensing some practical wisdom, but my reason for publishing them here is to validate your very trying experiences as loved ones coping with a bipolar partner or family member. Hats off to you. Let's get started ...

To a wife wondering how to deal with a manic husband piling on the verbal abuse:

First, there is no useful purpose in dealing with a manic person (or for that matter anyone in a bad mood). You need to leave the room.

Second, when the person is rational, you need to inform the individual that their behavior is totally unacceptable. You need to establish firm boundaries. You also need to get across that the person needs to be responsible for his own behavior, and that mania doesn't cut it as an excuse - that's why we have meds and various recovery tools. Yes, you will be sympathetic - to a point.

Third, you need to be aware of an escalating situation. If you spot his mood ramping up, there may be things you can do to settle him down before things reach a flashpoint. This means you need to be microscopically attuned to everything going on with him. You can often nip a potentially bad situation in the bud. If you can't - you need to clear the room fast.

To a loved one wondering how to deal with a mate in an irrational self-denigrating state:

Someone in an emotional state - whether "normal" or bipolar - is by definition irrational. So - as a general rule - rationality and logic are not going to work. It certainly doesn't work with me when I'm out of control.

So your courses of action need to be "irrational." There are two possibilities:

1. Acknowledge the person's reality. "I'm listening," and "I see your point" are two very good things to say. This will help calm down the individual. Suddenly he or she doesn't feel so alone. Whatever you do, don't counter-attack. Don't try to justify your own actions or to prove how wrong your partner is. You may be totally in the right, but your partner will perceive your response as hostile. The goal here is to calm down your loved one and establish a rapport.

You may not resolve the issue right away. Keep in mind, it takes time for the brain to reset to normal. Do what you can to ease the concerns of the individual so he or she is not faced with the impossible task of going to sleep with a racing brain.



The disadvantage is that you may not have time to establish a rapport. If a two-year-old is about to run out into the road you don't bargain. This brings up the other option:

2. React fast and hard, as if you were dealing with a two-year-old about to run out into the road. "You are way out of line!" and "This is totally unacceptable!" in a very loud voice may be appropriate. Here, you are imposing your reality on the other person's reality. This can have the effect of jolting the individual out of their present state of mind, or, at the very least, signal that very severe consequences are in store if the behavior doesn't stop right now.

Again, don't try to reason or explain. The object here is for you to take charge and assume control.

The disadvantage is that the fast and hard response can escalate the situation.

As a general rule, go with option 1, and save option 2 for emergencies. Keep in mind your response needs to match the particular situation. Both responses require a lot of skill and the ability to read the situation.




To a mom with 27-year-old live-in free-loading son, a former substance abuser who has issues about finding a part-time job while attending school and whose father wants to throw him out of the house:

This is an agonizing decision. Let's consider the possibilities: Your son is not going to grow up, much less recover from his illness, if he stays in the house. The only way to learn responsibility and lead an independent life is for him to get his own place. It will also greatly increase his chances of finding a girlfriend, which will increase his self-esteem.

Your son is not going to grow up by living with you. I know you're worried that your son may be lost to the streets if he leaves the house. That is a possibility.

On the other hand, if you don't set boundaries now, you will be stuck with your son forever. This is a situation that is obviously unacceptable to your husband, and his point of view needs to be considered. I'm sure your son is interested in turning his life around and making something of himself. This also involves the risk of him falling on his face. You need to give him that opportunity.

To a parent with an out-of-control daughter who won't get help:

I vividly recall giving a talk and a parent asking me nearly the exact same question. I had no answer and I still don't. I have listened to many parents, and I can feel their sense of powerlessness and frustration. I know you are at the end of your rope.

When bipolar is raging, an individual is literally beyond reason. Thus, it is impossible to reason with that individual. At the same time, you cannot turn your back. Bad things happen when bipolar is raging. I've heard the stories and experienced some of the consequences myself.

In all probability, your daughter will have to fall hard before she finally accepts the inevitable and realizes she has an illness that requires treatment. Hopefully, the bottom won't result in serious injury or the criminal justice system or some other disaster.

In the meantime, you have to look after yourself. The stress and worry can wear you down into depression, in which case you are not good to anyone.

I so wish I had an answer. Please accept my understanding, instead.

To a woman wanting to stay with her drug-addicted partner who has a million justifications for not stopping:

I'm going to serve this straight up: As things stand right now, no you cannot help him stop. What you describe in your question is an extremely selfish individual with nothing but excuses with no intention of stopping. Right now, he loves his drugs and alcohol more than you. There is no sense in deceiving yourself about this.

In addition, you are at risk. You may want to change him, but he would rather change you. Your partner would love nothing better than to turn you into a fellow addict, into someone he can get high with, who enables him. That's the way it works and it's not going to change.

It would be different if he sincerely wanted to change. It wouldn't be a picnic, mind you, but at least you would be in a position to offer moral and practical support. I very much sympathize with people addicted to alcohol and drugs. Addiction is a mental illness needing treatment. At the same time, I also sympathize with people who are the innocent victims of those with addictions. I've witnessed close up the devastation that people with addictions wreak on their families and loved ones. You do not have to be part of this. You deserve a better life. Trust me, your partner loves his drugs and alcohol way more than he loves you.

I know this is very hard on you, and that you have some agonizing decisions ahead. It's extremely difficult to break off a loving relationship, but when your partner is resistant to change there is no choice. Any decision you make is going to take a lot of courage. This is a time to reach out to friends and family.

Again, I hate to sound so brutal. No doubt you were wishing for a "yes" answer. But deep down, I suspect, you're seeking reassurance for the "no" option. You need to think of yourself first, and do what's right for you.



Finally, there's the matter of your own personal healing. This is a long-term project. It starts with you asking yourself this: What is it about you that attracts "broken men" into your life?

In short, rather than thinking about changing your partner, you may want to be looking ahead to changing yourself. More accurately, bringing out the best in yourself, working toward the kind of life that an obviously caring and loving person like yourself deserves.

The mere fact that you asked the question indicates you are ready to take the first step. Have faith ...

To a woman whose live-apart boyfriend disappears for weeks or months at a time when he goes into depression:

I can appreciate your concern for your boyfriend. And no doubt there are many times when you'd like to be physically there for him. But my guess is that the two of you have stumbled on an arrangement that works best for the two of you. Living under the same roof with someone with bipolar poses considerable challenges; meanwhile, bipolars often like to be left alone.

I have experience as a bipolar on this, as well as being in relationships with bipolars. But you seem to be much better at this than I am. The two of you have made this work for 5 years, so obviously you're doing something right. I'm the one who should be asking you for relationship advice.

I know this may sound strange, but somehow it strikes me that you are doing the right thing. The distance is probably a buffer for the two of you. Yet, you are there when he needs you - all he has to do is call. Keep in mind, perhaps your relationship could not have survived with the two of you in close physical proximity.

I know you are concerned, but maybe this is the time to place your trust in the relationship.

To a woman wondering how to explain her ex's strange behavior with another woman:

The person who finally figures out relationships will make more money than Bill Gates. All rational expectations are off the table trying to figure out what makes these things work or fail. It's tempting to think bipolar may be driving the craziness of any relationship situation, but, believe me, the dynamics of boy meets girl etc has its own incomprehensible logic. Even normal people act crazy - and we have the brain studies to prove it.

Yes, the bipolar may be driving your bipolar ex's behavior, but please be careful in jumping to conclusions. It's popular these days to blame bipolar for everything except global warming and no doubt someone is doing so as we speak.

To a woman living with bipolar, no longer able to hold a teaching job after 20 years, feeling unable to be a good wife and mother, hoping to save her marriage:

You are going through hell, and so is your family. I've been on both sides of this equation.

Obviously, you are feeling tremendous guilt. And obviously you are also extremely frightened about the prospect of finding yourself alone and in no position to support yourself.

There is no easy answer for this, and there may be no answer. All I can suggest is to start initiating a dialogue right now, preferably with some professional guidance. If you wait, family resentment may build to the point where the worst possible scenario develops. Perhaps you can save your marriage, but if you can't you at least want to have it end on reasonably good terms, with you in good standing, and in a good position to rebuild your own life.

I wish I could be more helpful.


Thanks for tuning in. Be sure to check out my other articles on relationships.

July 15, 2016




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