When Mental Illness and Polyamory Collide (Part 1)

The Complexity of Mental Illness and Polyamory

In some ways, mental illness and polyamory actually go very well together. The larger support network can be a huge benefit for someone dealing with mental illness, while the increase in available support also means that no one person gets overwhelmed trying to support the mentally ill partner all on their own.

But vague generalities almost always sound good. It’s when you get into the nitty-gritty that the problems develop.


This post can’t cover the entirety of the interactions of mental illness and polyamory. Both mental illness and polyamory are so varied that an entire book couldn’t cover all the interactions. My goal here is to introduce some of the ways they interact, so you can get a feel for the variety of interactions possible. More interactions will be covered when I  get into reviewing the various types of mental illness.

Manic NRE

Most of us are familiar with new relationship energy. The hormonal high that turns our brains to mush, pumps the libido up to “10” (whatever that may mean for each of us individually) and can strain existing relationships to the breaking point.

If you don’t have or know someone with bipolar disorder you may not be familiar with manic episodes. These bursts of energy, optimism, and irrationality can last anywhere from hours to months. During a manic phase it will seem perfectly reasonable to spend your life savings on shoes or to quit your job and start a new career throwing sex toy parties (when you have no savings, a family to support and have never even used a sex toy). It isn’t uncommon for people in manic phases to have so much energy they don’t sleep for weeks on end.

My own experiences watching someone go through manic NRE have been (relatively) mild. For which I can only be grateful. I don’t think it takes a quantum physicist to look at the brain-drain of NRE, the irrational exuberance of a manic phase, and see how these two combined can be a very bad thing.

OCD “Fairness”

Just like we all experience depressed days, we all have a few OCD tics. The difference between your obsessive need to always have the toilet paper hanging over the top of the roll and someone with OCD is that while it drives you crazy when the toilet paper is facing the wrong way, and you correct it whenever possible, someone with OCD will not be able to leave a public restroom until they have checked every stall to make sure the toilet paper is hanging properly. To not do so is to court a mental breakdown.

The romantic comedy “As Good As it Gets” with Jack Nicholson, while having all the many, many flaws of romantic comedies everywhere, was one of the few truly good representations of extreme mental illness in the media. Not everyone’s experience of OCD will be like that–if only because the movie simply could not give a good view of the obsessive thought side of the illness. But still, damn good portrayal.

Now, we’ve all run across the dangerous idea that poly relationships should be kept fair. That if you sleep with A one night, you have to sleep with B the next night. If 1 takes you out for an expensive night on the town, then 2 needs to take you out somewhere just as special. Most standard poly advice points out how ridiculous this is, and suggests that treating your partners as individuals with their one unique needs, wants and desires is healthier than obsessing about treating them both (or being treated by them both) “equally”

In general, I agree and have no quibble with this. However, I have known people with OCD whose compulsion was keeping everything balanced. If they stamped their left foot, they had to stamp their right foot. If they hang a picture on the right side of the wall, they have to hang a picture on the left. Do you see where this is going?

Someone with an OCD balance compulsion may need to keep a “balance” in their poly relationships. If they sleep with partner A one night, they have to sleep with partner B the next, if they buy a present for partner B, they need to buy an equally valuable present for partner A.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

2 responses to “When Mental Illness and Polyamory Collide (Part 1)

  1. What is your advice if a couple is new to poly, like brand new and one partner I suffering from unmedicated depression, and the other is just pushing forward with his idea of what poly means to him, and every group he joins on Facebook is poly related, and the wife doesn’t want to hear about it all the time because he will not communicate how he is feeling about things except to continually threaten to drop it all and let it go, but he doesn’t mean it

    • If I understand you right, there is a couple where the husband is basically obsessed with poly and insisting on doing poly his way, while refusing to discuss what he wants and how he feels with his wife. At the same time the wife is dealing with unmanaged depression and is sick of hearing all about poly while she tries to hold onto her sanity and manage some actual connection and conversation with her husband about what they both want and how they both feel.

      If I understand this right my advice to the wife would be to (metaphorically) slap the husband upside the head and tell them if he doesn’t start putting some work into THIS relationship he’s not going to have a marriage to be poly in. My advice to the husband would be to step back from the “ooh shiny” syndrome and find a way to ease into poly in a way that works for both him AND his wife–and while he’s at it he might want to work on his communication skills.

      Of course, I’m only seeing one part of one side of this issue. There are probably things I’m missing. For damn sure things would look different for the person standing on the other side of this issue. So if this is a generally healthy relationship that has recently gone of the rails, marriage counselling and/or joint sessions with the wife’s therapist (if she doesn’t already have one, she should get one) might help.

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