Marriage and Mental Illness: For Better or Worse?

For Better of Worse? Yes, that’s the vow. But when the symptoms of mental illness seem to change the personality – the very soul - of your husband or wife, how do you keep going? How do you hold the family together?

Partners for Life

When faced with mental illness, family members have two sets of challenges, it seems:

  1. the emotions we all face (like grief, confusion, guilt, loss, anger) and,
  2. the more practical issues in the role of any family caregiver - a role we all have to play at least some of the time in this situation.

My most personal experience, as a family member of someone diagnosed with mental illness, is as a Mom. In fact, I’d venture to say that a majority of the people who take NAMI’s Family-to-Family course are parents. A typical class of 20-25 usually includes a handful of siblings, spouses, and/or children (that is, adults who grew up and may be caring for a parent with mental illness) – but the biggest group always seems to consist of parents.

Many of the issues, emotions, and challenges we face as family members certainly are universal to all of these roles – however, there are also additional feelings and obstacles that are unique to each “relative group.”

Yes, I am a mother – but I also watched my daughter suffer through

I Do...

the loss of the “big brother” she knew,  and adjust to her new role with a “little brother”, whose growth and accomplishments now trail behind.  I also was married to an alcoholic for seven years (Ben and Ali’s father, William) and though I now struggle to determine if he’d had a co-occurring mental illness, I know that I did live with some of the uncertainties that spouses face when mental illness changes the partner they thought they’d married.

Challenges Facing Spouses with Mentally Ill Partners

Here are 5 things I learned from spouses of those with mental illness about their particular “objective” challenges, in addition to the ones we seem to all have in common (financial worries, staying alert to relapse symptoms, coping with family conflict etc.):

Spouses also face:

  1. Feeling like you’ve lost the partnership of marriage. If you always turned to your spouse in times of need, where can you turn now? (I know, in our house, my friends’ sympathy for my Williams’ alcoholic episodes wore thin very fast)
  2. Financial burdens. Coping with the loss of a wage-worker in the household,  if mental illness has led to job loss. (I began to lose count of the number of jobs William lost, or the number of customer complaints when he started his own business, due to unreliability)
  3. Resentment – and sexual distance – that can accompany the change in roles when one spouse takes on the “caretaker” role.
  4. Single-parenting coupled with being primary caretaker of your spouse. (One Mom I met told me about walking down the stairs dressed in her husband’s Santa suit to greet their three young kids, after he’d been hospitalized on Xmas Eve. That may the tip of the iceberg, but it still broke her heart). Worrying about your children’s emotional state as well as your own.
  5. Stigma, social isolation, loss of the “couple friends” group. Invitations dwindle when your spouse’s actions are unpredictable and sometimes embarrassing.

What helps spouses? What helps all family members? In my next post I’ll talk about life balance, and some concrete steps like learning all you can, reaching out for support in new places, and self-care.

Are you a spouse of someone with a diagnosed mental illness? Does this ring true for you? What helps you?

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60 Responses to Marriage and Mental Illness: For Better or Worse?

  1. Erin says:

    Ms. Patel, I want to assure you that relapse is not possible, it is inevitable. The odds are about 20% that any children parented by someone with a mental illness, will develop the illness. It has been my experience with my schizoaffective husband, that the stresses of parenting can trigger a (mildish) episode. My husband tends toward manic mood swings although depressive ones occur sometimes.

    To hear his mom talk about his childhood it seems he was always ill, although my husband had his first encounter with the psychiatric system when he was 18. It was chalked up to drug abuse and/or demon possession. His mom held an exorcism, he returned to the church, and they declared him ‘healed by God.’ He stopped psychiatric treatment about a year after the break, and got married to his ex shortly thereafter.

    His ex- tells me about the things he would do while they were married – he had an out of control sex drive and would masturbate several times a day; he would refuse to feed himself, once calling her home to make him a sandwich while she was visiting family over 100 miles away; impulsive activities like a midnight naked bike ride around the neighborhood were common, as was naked rolls in the snow.

    A year after their fifth child was born, he was working a full-time swing shift job at a lumber mill, working a part-time pizza delivery job, going to school for an AA, doing the Body For Life fitness challenge, remodeling their house piecemeal, and cheating on her. (This seems like classic mania to me…)
    He had begun seeing a GP for depression and was given various antidepressant meds by that dr. who was not trained in the specialty. That is when he had a major manic/ psychotic break and his ex removed the children from him.

    He had a manic depressive episode which ended in psychotic break within our first year together, and I took the Family to Family class at NAMI. After the class, I thought I had it figured out.

    I do not have any children with my husband, but true to statistics, one of his 5 children has bipolar disorder which was present at 7 years old & adhd (as well as type 1 diabetes), one has Asperger’s and adhd, and three have just adhd (that we know of.)

    Although he does not have custody of the children, his ability to parent has often been affected by his illness. When he is even slightly ‘off’, he does a poor job of caring for his child with diabetes and bipolar because he is unable to stick to a routine (sleep, meds & insulin injections must be done on a schedule), his discipline of them is erratic and often done in anger, he drives unsafely due to aggression and cognitive problems, he is self-focused on his own needs and wants, and he has poor judgment. When he is having an episode, he turns into a big selfish teenager who rebels against every responsibility.

    These issues are not isolated incidents. These are ongoing struggles, especially because during these times he feels omniscient and any interference is ‘emasculating’.

    When I told him to slow down just prior to him receiving a $400 ticket for reckless endangerment, his response was that I was overreacting. The ticket was given for driving 90mph at 11pm during driving rain, to pass someone on the right.

    He still drives erratically when more ill, but since having a premonition of dying in a car with him at the wheel, I refuse to be in a vehicle with him driving when he’s manic and I have started to tell his ex that he’s not suitable to drive the kids for a visit.

    He became maniacally aggressive while driving a few weeks ago, and when I told him to slow down and stop being aggressive, he said he didn’t care about my opinion of his driving. That’s when I lost it: I screamed that YOU BETTER DAMN WELL CARE, MY LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS WHEN I AM YOUR PASSENGER. He pulled over, and hasn’t shuttled me since.

    (I suspect during episodes, many with MI regress to the stage of development they were at when they first became ill. My stepson regresses to about 4 yr old behavior with tantrums, baby-talk, thumbsucking and clingy neediness.)

    When he is ill, which has been a lot since we were married 7 years ago, he is a verbally abusive, self-centered jerk. If I am suffering with a headache, it doesn’t matter; he will play the drums regardless and for twice as long. We have moved several times, and only once has he truly been helpful. Most of the time he will come up with a litany of physical complaints to get out of helping (although he is a very healthy, physically active 42 year old man who is never in enough pain to stop skateboarding.)

    He became floridly ill around July ’12 when he began to ‘celebrate turning 40′ which meant drinking a sixer a day. During that time, he cheated on me twice with a meth junkie (yeah, I got STD tested), started several fights in our neighborhood, threatened to shank someone on Christmas eve, opened up credit cards and maxed them, ruined hundreds of dollars worth of food because he was constantly unplugging the refrigerator because he couldn’t block out the sounds of the motor running, put holes in our walls…

    He has been more violent toward himself and our property than to other people – has stabbed himself in the hand, and punched himself in the eye (then told others I did it.)

    I had become trained as a NAMI Family to Family co-facilitator, and I knew I had to draw boundaries. I told him to leave. He moved out into our minivan and stayed in church parking lots, then eventually parked the van at his mom’s. His mom told him he had to go find a place to live, and he came back to my town. He tried using the internet at the library, but couldn’t because people were talking about him, ‘they’ were tracking his internet usage, and the library was too bright.

    He came back to my home five months after being asked to leave. I love and care about him, and I was scared but I let him come back to search for a place to live. We went out together to find him a place, but no place was right- there were too many windows, not enough windows, too many people around, not enough room for his drill press or drum kit…

    I let him move back in with some conditions. 1. He has to take his meds as prescribed. 2. He cannot drink alcohol at all, ever. 3. I must have a medical power of attorney.

    Well, he won’t give me the POA, but he takes meds (although erratically and unwillingly) and he doesn’t drink. That helps, but he’s still paranoid, delusional, erratic, and abusively argumentative. His symptoms, as per what research has shown, are progressively getting worse with each episode.

    I don’t trust him now, after he has repeatedly: failed to care for his child with life-threatening illness; stolen from me; lied about me to others; cheated; launched unfounded verbal attacks on me and others…

    I have been trying to teach the kids about his illness, to help them understand their dad and brother. His son is now 14 and we are currently reading An Unquiet Mind together to help him understand. Although my husband recognizes himself in that book, he argues with me as I read aloud because he has always railed against any information about mental illness (it’s all conspiracy from big pharma to sell more drugs.)

    I am still young: 34, but because of the daily stress, my husband makes me feel like I have lived 50 years in the last 7. It will be another 6 years until the youngest kid graduates. I think when the kids are no longer in danger from him – when they are grown and stop their court-ordered visitation – I will finally leave.

    I hope after that time, I can recover enough to love and trust and feel young again.

  2. sheri says:

    Wow Erin, that’s so sad, yet it’s so true. My husband has bipolar/ schizoaffective disorder and we’ve been married for 6 years. Life is so difficult at times, I’m so glad you shared, God Bless you <3

  3. Chuck says:

    Dear Erin,


    I am NOT any type of qualified mental illness councilor, but I have the misfortune of having too much life experience dealing with and trying to put reason to complete unreasonableness. With that disclosed, please feel free to disregard all that I assert below, but I hope you may find some of it helpful.

    1) RUN. There are 50 ways to leave your lover, and you listed at least 10 reasons to do so in your (very detailed) post.

    2) RUN. I will quote Zig Ziglar, you are “cooked in the squat.” Please listen to “How to Get What you Want.” You state that you are going to wait for over 6 years to leave? That is NOT a plan. You have personally and quietly commented yourself to over 6 years of prison. The WORST and MOST terrible plan I have ever heard! RUN!

    3) RUN. As you assert in your post, children who are subjected to a parent that has a mental illness, likely acquire the same illness. The same thing happens to adults who study and / or are around people with any type of sickness. . .

    . . .prepare yourself. . .

    . . .either you already had many of his mental illnesses, or through your caregiving you have developed, exhibit in your post, several of his mental illnesses that you described.

    Finally, (PLEASE) RUN and listen to “How to Get What you Want” by Zig Ziglar.

    Most Respectfully Yours,

  4. michelle says:

    Sister married got child his with her in australia he suffers mental illness and she wants divorce doesnt know how to keave him they own house which needs to be sold, he has no friends dad dead mum in mentsl home england and my dister worried hiw to get out. She csn come to nz for 30 days bur as kid was born in austealia he could insist they go back. He is on high dosage has weird thoughts spying on her dhe has no feelings gor him and wants out how best to do this.

  5. Marko Barrows says:

    My wife(married 15 years) suffers from extreme bipolar disorder, possibly late onset schizophrenia, but is in complete denial. Stress triggers her episodes but alcohol is generally to blame. She has become violent with no recollection of the offenses. She has humiliated both of us in front of friends and family. One half of me says RUN and the other half says fight for the woman she was. Any conversation of therapy winds up in empty promises or angry rejection. What is my best first step, besides joining this forum?

  6. Tammy says:

    Marko, I feel your pain. Been married to my husband for 14 years, together 19, and over the last two years he has become someone I hardly recognition. He too insists nothing is wrong with him, but has had absolutely explosive outbursts at our business that have cost us staff and customers. He has become paranoid and is suspicious that people are “out to get him,” almost to the point of being delusional at times. His dysfunctional family does nothing but make excuses for his behavior.

    I profoundly miss the man he was, but the man he has become is putting everything we have at jeopardy.

  7. Lean6 says:

    Most articles that I’ve read refer to people with diagnosed mental illness. I’m a man living with a wife with undiagnosed mental illness. This is not Hollywood, that’s for sure. We’re getting to the point where others are starting to notice and contact me with concern for her behavior, namely her immediate family. It took some tremendous loss of life to get there. Yet still, I have no faith that relief is anywhere in sight. The world is full of enablers…people who are more interested in being heroes instead asking difficult questions. Not to mention those people who also bear some burden of guilt. The family is telling me to take action, but I know what I’m dealing with and what’s a risk in dealing with any agency in society…I’ve seen it. The further she sinks, the farther I move away for my own safety, the more at risk I become for when she eventually falls completely apart. There’s been periods of alcohol abuse, prescription drug abuse, and over the counter medicine abuse. The psychologists or counselors that we’ve seen along the way under other pretenses have all been duped. The usual pattern is that she clouds the sessions with stories about her mother, or simply telling people that I’m unaffectionate, she gets more Xanax prescribed, and she quits if they’ve gotten too close. She recently left an emergency room that was suspicious of her drug-seeking behavior, went to another hospital with EKG leads still attached, and nobody said anything. They just accepted the excuse of poor customer service at the first hospital. She knows where the boundaries of insanity are and she’s manipulative enough to mask this behind tears and quite regularly consuming me for strength. I’m cowering in another room barely speaking to her these days and trying to avoid confrontation. I’ve stayed because I cannot bring myself to leave my children there for any period of time, just hoping that family courts will be any different. I seriously fear that someone is going to get hurt. The most depressing thing in the world is to be heavily muscled at 6’1″ 250 pounds, and to be pushed around by a 5’3″ woman this way. Nobody could ever believe it and she feeds off of that as well.

  8. Anon says:

    I was with a man for 10 years, married for almost 6 years, who suffered(s) from mental illness. There were warning signs from the beginning that I ignored or dismissed. I found out more once we were married. The mental illness ran through his whole family. I didn’t ask and it was a “family secret” that I was only to know once I was part of the family!??! I refused to have children with him because of this.

    I have no idea what his ultimate diagnosis was. I know he had ADHD, but the paranoia and narcissistic qualities confused me. He was too disorganized for only a personality disorder. I stopped going to his therapy for a while until I realized he was lying to his therapist. Then I went to set the record straight. That’s when I realized I had to pull away. That I was becoming a parent, tattling on him for his bad behavior. It wasn’t going to help him and it wasn’t going to help our marriage.

    After that he deteriorated more and more, refused to bathe, work, contribute to the household, bought large amounts of items and expensive items without an income to support himself, alienated my son (from a previous marriage), became volatile and bizarre, ignored me wholesale, refused to take his medications or participate in his own therapy. He was hospitalized once, voluntary. After he was discharged, he sold his medications for cash. I felt like his caretaker and not like a partner. I didn’t have a partner. I no longer had a mate.

    Divorcing him was hard. He stonewalled, made outrageous demands, was “fired” by his own lawyer, I had to get a restraining order, he threatened to kill the pets, he stalked me, he interfered with the utilities.

    I went into therapy myself to reconcile the vows I had made. That whole “in sickness and in health” thing. My therapist pointed out he broke the vows first. To live as man and wife. I still struggle with guilt over my decision. But you cannot help someone who refuses to help himself. I still have awful dreams at times about this person. That he is here and won’t leave. I did the right thing for myself. I was not able to help him. I have been told I do not have to accept responsibility for that. I have to make peace with that. I’m still trying.

  9. john J says:

    Has anyone ever had a spouse leave and never return? My wife left 2 years ago after suffering for 4 years after a breakdown. I worry about her daily but feel totally unable to help after years of trying to protect her and our children.

  10. Erin O says:

    I am just now seeking info and help for coping with the loss of my mentally ill husband. It looks like there are as many kinds of situations and sets of needs as there are stories.

    Since my husband was arrested for assaulting me during an episode, my hands are tied by the state of Oregon and I cannot advocate for him directly. His lawyer is not familiar with the complexity of an insanity plea and I am afraid he will go to years in state prison for a crime he would never have committed if he had received proper care. Since he is a veteran, his PTSD and bipolar-like symptoms since the war were supposed to be administered by the VA, but they are hesitant to admit the fill extent of his need or address the accompanying alcoholism that kept him inconsistent in seeking treatment. Now, he is facing a long and unhelpful road, and I am virtually unable to help him. I am sure that prison will only make him worse. He is a good man, an educated, upstanding guy, respected by friends and family -who was having worsening episodes and issues.

    Although we have no future as a couple (my son witnessed the event and there is no way to set a healthy precedent for him or ensure our continued safety if my husband is in the picture), I love and care for my husband. I was his biggest advocate and cheerleader as he worked tirelessly to seek help and self-improvement. To see his life go down the toilet this way simply because proper care wasn’t available is breaking my heart.

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