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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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51 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.

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