David Castillo

Lifting the Veil off Mental Health: The Art of Negotiation

Filed By David Castillo | July 29, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: bipolar disorder, bipolar relationships, mental health, relationship compromises

I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that negotiation is a part of every romantic relationship. That dynamic changes quite dramatically, however, when one of the parties involved is bipolar.

One of the questions both Jim and I have been fielding a lot lately has to do with how we negotiated doing this project. There is very obviously a level of disclosure that could create stress for all involved and I am always mindful of that whenever I sit down to write.

Where this blogging project is concerned, though, the negotiation process was fairly benign and focused more on what I should say rather than what I should not. Like I said in my last post, this is part of my pursuit of understanding bipolar disorder. And, if there is one thing that Jim wants from me it is empathy for how he feels and an understanding of why his moods are sometimes out of his control. This idea, while it required Jim's permission, was not as contentious as those questioning may have thought and it has provided the perfect platform for the outcome Jim and I have both been working toward.

These questions did get me thinking, however, about how the both of us negotiate and make compromises on other issues. The issues may appear to be trivial in nature, but in a relationship made up of two men, one of whom is bipolar (and both of whom are stubborn), these "trivial" negotiations suddenly become much more meaningful.

A perfect example of this involves my reputation for spontaneity and Jim's necessity for planning. Part of this need for planning has to do with his need for routines. For someone who is bipolar, a regular routine is crucial because it provides stability and structure. This is integral to maintaining a happy medium for the brain. If that routine is disrupted in some way, it can be bad news for themselves and for those around them, especially if they are in the midst of an episode.

I can't tell you how many routines Jim has, as there are probably a number of different ones for different situations. They are all very personal and I trust that I know of the ones I need to know about.

One such routine that I learned to accept as necessary is that which requires him to know what we are doing before we leave the house on any given day. I don't just mean an idea of what we are doing or where we are going. I mean a plan. Specifics. Where are we going first? What do we plan to do when we get there? How will we be there? How does this plan mesh with any later plans we have in the evening? As you can tell, there may be any number of questions depending on the situation and they must be answered before we walk out the door.

For my part, I have never required much planning, especially when it concerns what I'll be doing for any random Saturday or Sunday. Part of the allure of a free weekend has always been what unknown adventures lie ahead. In the first couple of years of our relationship, we both engaged in some pretty bad arguments that stemmed from my obstinacy to making a plan and from our mutual ignorance of Jim's condition, which was keeping both of us from talking about the real issue at hand.

In the last year, I have come to better understand why Jim needs these details. I have made compromises and I have become much more amenable to making plans for our days. Where before I would pop out of bed and be rearing to get out the door, now I take my time and come up with a number of ideas to float by Jim that we can talk about together. Then, I let him know when I think we should be out the door, what bus or metro we will take to get there and what we should do when we arrive. I know things are good when I hear Jim say "I think that will work." This is the process we have negotiated and it has worked well for us for quite some time. Of course, it would be dishonest of me to say that I've learned all I need about how to deal with this one aspect of bipolar disorder. Relationships are organic and require constant vigilance. In short, we're both still learning.

This is merely one negotiation we have made, but it has mitigated one of the more pernicious aspects of bipolar disorder. It is only negotiation, but it has brought us closer to a more peaceful and happier life.


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Living with a Bipolar person can be almost as challenging as BEING that Bipolar person. Structure is indeed an important part of the recovery process as it re-established biorhythms.

I admire your commitment to working on this together. Usually, each person in the relationship feels they are compromising more that the other. It isn't 50/50; it's more like 75/75.

Dear David,
Every couple - not just those that involve bi-polar behavior - struggles with necessary planning and the opposing desire to be planless. Even when one party to a relationship understands the other's level of need to plan, on different weekends each may announce a throwing of planning to the wind and the sudden need for spontaneity. This rarely occurs in both minds at once. In my own relationship, I have learned to keep zooming in and out with my lens at such a moment: is my plan worth arguing? Is his need to just roll with the day more important? Will he come around once he is in gear with my plan for something that he ordinarily enjoys? Should I leave the driving to him for the next 24 hours? If we do it his way, I know we'll never get to the third item I'd like to do later in the day, but is that event critical to my happiness? Etc. Etc. Ad infinitum. Our two interior gyroscopes are always making thousands of little calculations and adjustments that keep us both afloat. We sometimes long for abnegation of responsibility to each other. Sometimes, jokingly, I say that if we ever won the lottery, I'd simply go back to bed, turn on the TV and order pizza delivery for the next twenty years. Half-jokingly....

I'm bipolar, and hearing about your partner's need for routine struck a chord with me. I also need the same kind of routine in my life. It's about stability. If I know what to expect, I can relax and (try to) enjoy being out. If something or someone changes that, they've just thrown a wrench into the works, and my anxiety spikes up.

I'm also lucky enough to have a partner who understands my idiosyncrasies and tries his best to work with them. It beats my usual response of "I'm too difficult to be in a relationship with". He was willing to take the chance.

Best of luck to both of you.

You wrote:

"For someone who is bipolar, a regular routine is crucial because it provides stability and structure. This is integral to maintaining a happy medium for the brain. If that routine is disrupted in some way, it can be bad news for themselves and for those around them, especially if they are in the midst of an episode."

I live with Bipolar disorder and happy to report I can be (and am) just as spontaneous as the next person. And while I do like to plan, I put that down more being a Virgo than being Bipolar.

I don't think it helps anyone, people with BP, their partners or anyone trying to understand the disorder, to make blanket statements about how people with BP act or what we need. You might OBSERVE the need for structure is the case with your partner not to crack up, but routine is important for everyone to some degree.

I admire the project of negotiation you and your boyfriend have undertaken and also both your willingness to chronicle it, but know that it's different for all couples.

My girlfriend and I hardly discuss my BP at all because I find it pathologizes me and my illness and can lead to having my behavior dismissed as that of a sick person and casting me in a role that is not, in fact, 50%.

Thanks for sharing, David.

Negotiation is a universal concept in any relationship. As far as the spontaneity vs planning personal dynamic, that's also universal. I'm not bipolar and cannot pretend to know what it's like, but I imagine for a majority people coping with that disorder, it's definitely important to have a routine. You have to know what to expect and to prepare yourself for such an event. (Perhaps that's another reason why Jim didn't like Doorstaph? :))

I don't think you're generalizing bi-polarity (Is that even a word?) at all, David. I think you're simply sharing what you've learned in your relationship with Jim . . .who just happens to have a mental illness. That's what you're here to do.

Thank you for another great post.

After reading this article (and the accompanying comments) I took away a sense of just how important trial and error are in forming relationships (just not romantic, but with friends and family as well) and maintaining that level of commitment that makes those special bonds so worthwhile.

I think you spoke to it best when you wrote:

"This is merely one negotiation we have made, but it has mitigated one of the more pernicious aspects of bipolar disorder. It is only negotiation, but it has brought us closer to a more peaceful and happier life."

That is a truthful means of expressing the complexities of relationships. As some of the comments above brush on, yes there are always going to be opposing views on planning ones weekend at times, and I would assume that even with keeping a routine so critical to Jim's stability, that even he would have a stroke of spontaneity at times, but that does not negate the fact that he his bipolar and certain things (i.e. weekend plans, a routine) are heightened to a degree that would not normally affect partners with no parties being bipolar. So yes, all relationships have different personalities in them going back and forth, but one with a person with bipolar does take things to a different level.

It just goes to show how you need to be aware of your partners needs when working through things together. From reading it looks like you and Jim have worked through the years on recognizing what those needs are and attempting to understand the ways to meet those needs. You are taking examples from your own experiences with Jim and forming ideas on how to create a better union for each other, thank you for putting light on your relationship and awareness to often neglected issues.