I have been thinking a lot about love lately and the importance of unlearning certain cultural scripts about how love should be, including it being only between a man and a woman or monogamous. While we have witnessed great strides towards openness and equality in who and how we love, I am still challenged by the fact that there is barely any conversation around Disabled, Neurodivergent, or Mad love. I have been thinking about this particularly in relation to love between people living with mental illness. There is a prevailing societal concept that people with severe mental illness (bipolar, my condition being included in this category) do not maintain long-term, healthy partnerships. They are certainly not parents who can maintain custody of their children or can provide a stable environment for them to flourish. If there is a “mad couple,” it is usually found in the format where one partner is a caregiver to their mentally-ill significant other.
Where are the thriving couples where both partners are navigating difficult mental health conditions and they both are caregivers for themselves and each other? I have yet to find an example of mad love that is not an overly romanticized, dramatized tragedy. I am craving mentors in an elderly couple who have both navigated “severe” mental illness during their partnership and made it through the storms together into their old age. However, my very desire for “stability” and longevity in a relationship made me question my underlying assumptions about what it means to thrive in a romantic partnership.
Of late I’ve been returning to my earlier curiosity around polyamory. In my blog post Sexuality & Bipolar, I go into greater depth about how my curiosity started with mania and falling deeply in love with the Universe and all beings. This showed me how I could be “in love with all of life,” multiple humans and beings all at the same time. “The boundaries of boxes and binaries could no longer hold me,” including that of monogamy. Although I swiftly returned to monogamy after my mania in order to get a handle on my recovery, the lessons from that experience never left me.
Now returning to the lessons from polyamory, I am unlearning the scripts and expectations of our culture of compulsory monogamy which does not acknowledge the various needs people have in a relationship. The conventional model neglects neurodivergence/expansiveness. It rejects community in favor of the sole partner/soulmate and the nuclear family. It holds onto the old vows of “till death do us part” when the divorce rates show that we evolve and grow out of each other and seek relationships to match the current phase of our evolution. According to Psychology Today, at least 40 percent of all marriages in the US and Canada fail. Worse still, approximately 90% of all marriages in which one spouse has bipolar end in divorce. Is there any hope for those of us with bipolar who want a long-term marriage with another person with bipolar? Divorce seems like the only destination.
Though I still do not know if I am polyamorous or non-monogomous at heart, what I am learning about polyamory is making me a better partner in my mad monogamous relationship. Polyamory gets rid of the “shoulds” in relationships and allows partners to carve out the relationship format that best suits their needs in any given season. This means co-habitation is not a must for partners to “take it to the next level.” Marriage does not have to come before children. One partner does not have to satisfy the other’s every need for intimacy and connection. A meaningful and successful relationship need not last a lifetime.
These ideas have opened me up to the possibility that I can have a satisfying, healthy, long-term mad relationship because my partner and I can respond and restructure our relationship according to the ebbs and flows of our own healing journeys. I found this discovery to be incredibly liberating because I realized I could break the rules and make up new ones. I could bypass all the BS surrounding what has been conceptualized and transcend all the borders and boundaries that hindered me from expressing myself fully and authentically. I realized my relationship can hold all the complexities of who I am and who my partner is. Our vows to each other can evolve based on our needs and growth.
These are just some of my initial musings. In the coming months I hope to carve my own roadmap for Mad Love and what it looks like for two people with mental illness to be in a healthy, nurturing relationship with each other. There is no one size fits all, especially when dealing with mental illness in a relationship. As a result, I am leaning into the nontraditional, the unconventional, and even the taboo. With mental illness comes incredible amounts of patience, compassion, and empathy as well as darkness, violence and abuse. I do not say this to reinforce stereotypes, I am simply speaking from experience as a survivor of domestic violence within mad relationships. I want to hold ALL of this complexity as I map out what healthy, safe Mad Love can look like. I hope it will be for someone else the resource I currently need for myself. ❤
Image Credit: “Almond Blossom” by Vincent Van Gogh
Image Description: Oil painting of large almond tree branches with white blossoms against a blue sky. The bold outlines and the positioning of the tree in the picture imitate Japanese printmaking.