Warning: Spoilers for episode three of Modern Love are ahead.
If there’s one thing the new Amazon Prime series Modern Love — based on the eponymous New York Times column — reaffirms, it’s that romance is complex. And, as the show deftly displays, dating can be further complicated if you struggle with mental health. In the third episode of the series, “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am,” Anne Hathaway portrays a woman who’s combating the symptoms of bipolar disorder as she navigates the world of dating and professional life.
In the series, we see Hathaway’s character be charming, “sparkly,” productive, and endearing. “I met a man in the [supermarket] peach aisle,” she sings. “There’s not a cloud in the sky.” We also see her spiral into depressive episodes and have days where she can’t get out of bed. She struggles to find love, and ultimately pushes away a budding romance with a character played by Gary Carr.
The story is based on a personal essay, and the screen adaption does a good job of detailing the intricacies of relationships and mental health disorders. However, Dr. Sherry Benton, Ph.D., ABPP, and the founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, points out that it’s just one person’s story, and that many people have successful, stable relationships, despite their bipolar diagnosis.
Benton notes that there are different types of the disorder, including bipolar I, which involves swift mood changes from mania to depression, and bipolar II, which involves milder mood elevation that will alternate with periods of depression — which is likely what Hathaway’s character would have been diagnosed with. There’s also cyclothymic disorder, which involves having those symptoms for briefer periods.
Benton also notes that bipolar disorder is generally treatable. “If people are on medication, which usually includes lithium and maybe antidepressants, and do good self-care — managing their stress, diet, doing exercise, getting regular sleep — they can live a pretty symptom-free life and their relationships do just fine,” Benton explains.
Dr. Roger McIntyre, MD — a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto and director at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) — agrees. However, he adds that it can take a toll on relationships. “Being bipolar, by definition, impacts your interactions with others in a significant way,” McIntyre says. "The nature of the symptoms can cause [people] to be more withdrawn and less interested at one point, and more manic at another... sometimes leading to irritability, anger, and impulsive behaviour."
With that said, Benton says if someone who has bipolar disorder is in a relationship with the right person, it can be a really good thing for their wellbeing. She notes that one of the biggest risks for those with the condition is undergoing a lot of stress, which might stop their medications from working as well. She notes that having a partner to check in with during these times can be helpful. They also might be able to spot subtle mood changes before their partner with the condition does.
McIntyre agrees, but adds: “The chaos of relationships can destabilise people with bipolar disorder… But the stability of healthy relationships can have a positive effect on them.”
The Modern Love episode ultimately shows how Hathaway’s character’s condition negatively impacts her dating and work life. The lesson she gleans is that she needs to be more open about her condition. In a final scene, she’s seen including her diagnosis in her profile for an online dating website.
However, McIntyre says that disclosing the condition upfront isn’t right for everyone. “There needs to be nuance,” he says. “For some people, not all, they need to make the disclosure at a time that’s right for them in a way that’s right for them… Do you always need to disclose your illness to your partner? Yes, but it needs to be personalised. I’ve seen these disclosures being encouraged long before people were ready, and that had negative consequences.”
Ultimately, McIntyre says that those with bipolar disorder shouldn’t get discouraged by Hathaway’s portrayal.
“Just because you have bipolar disorder doesn’t mean you can’t have fulfilling, stabling, loving, great relationships,” McIntyre says. “A lot of people think it would be impossible, but that’s not really true. There are certain biases and distortions that are influenced by Hollywood, frankly, and other personal experiences. But that’s not the reality.”