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

  1. Jennifer says:

    My husband has always been depressed. He had his first mental breakdown 6 years ago. in late 2014. He started to get worse with the paranoia. At one point he said his co workers are playing games with him, shortly after that he lost his job and when I returned to work after being out due to illness, he began to treat me differently. I told his mom and she blew me off, despite his father’s mental illness the reason why she left him. It got physical between us. I didn’t trust him being left alone with the kids. Eventually I had him involuntarily committed and on the last one he left the state. I have to let my home go into foreclosure and file for bankruptcy. He has selective mute-ism with me and the kids. I later found out that there was a history of mental illness on both sides of his family. His mom enables him and refuses to get him help. Family members refuse to help because of her.
    My life is falling a part and my kids and I don’t even know where we are going to call home. He was a great dad and decent husband. His mom blames me. I blame her for not getting him help when he was younger.

  2. Jennifer says:

    In regards to my last post I forgot to mention that he stopped eating from me, spend long hours walking the highway. He looked at me like I was out to get him. He was diagnosed possible Schizo Affective and or Bipolar Depresssion

  3. Joe DAmbrosio says:

    I’m trying to take care of my exwife .shes been on and off her meds now for 5 years.. I have three wonderful grown sons whovarevtrying tovleadvtheir own lives..I live with her and work three days a week to keep an apartment to go to when she’s completely off the wall .. I feel lonely .. She’s there and not there.. My sons and I try to work as a team but I’m trying to shield them from the day to day stuff that will certainly distrupt and further hurt there lives… She was hospitalized for schizophrenia effective disorder with depressive systems and as having ptsd .. This was a wonderful brillant professional caring SocialWorker who was placed in care as a child!!! I feel very alone.. It’s nonstop 24 hrs a day I’m 68 in good shape I’m an author an ex professor and a Practicing Buddhist Dharma Teacher….. I just need to talk to someone who is going through the same thing as me!!She falls through all the cracks in the Mental Health System.. It’s stay and try to maintain her or go and watch her detiriate over the next years to a state where she can be truly hospitalized for ever!!! It’s a Hobsian choice!!! Please if anyone is out there I live in Putnam County NY please email me.. If your living like me I need to talk about it.. Thankyou

  4. SANDY says:

    Jennifer, my heart goes out to you. Please get into some kind of a support group fast, whether on line or in person. Most people dont “get” mental illness; you need the guidance, emotional support and love from people who have experienced what you are experiencing. Trying to get it from the uninformed and inexperienced is frustrating for them and you. Hugs to you! Stay strong.

  5. SANDY says:

    ‘Stigma, social isolation, loss of the “couple friends” group. Invitations dwindle when your spouse’s actions are unpredictable and sometimes embarrassing.’

    I just looked at ten different online articles about coping as a spouse of someone with a mental illness, and this is the only one that addressed this directly, yet it is one of the most difficult to cope with and frustrating because trying to resolve it can make you seem needy and desparate or unloyal to your spouse, which then has the oppisite effect of what you want. One must accept early on that they will have a much smaller social circle than a couple where both mates are healthy, and that even within that circle, they may be loved and cared about, but that will not necessarily translate into them wanting to spend time with you.  One reason I love my job is because there I am my own entity rather than being identified with my spouse; I stand or fall based on my own actions, not his. It is extremely important I think for anyone with a mentally ill spouse to find an outlet – hobby, volunteer work, class, job etc – that our spouse is not involved in at all where we can be seen for who we are, because when they are present, their personality will almost always dominate. 

  6. Sandy,

    Yes. I think you are right that when your spouse has a mental illness it will reduce your social group. But, after dealing with a mental illness for fifteen years in my marriage and other difficulties, I’ve learned that every time we go through a difficult time, our social groups get smaller. This is a hard truth that most people don’t have to realize: there are few true friends out there that will stick by your side.

    If I can encourage you to do anything, it would be these two things: find a support group for families of mental illness, spouses of mental illness, etc. Go somewhere where you can find people who share your experiences. Maybe there you can find some true friends who understand you. Also, please seek friendship and activities outside of your marriage. You need time off. Meet a girlfriend for coffee, join an exercise class, find a good therapist. Have a little fun. Then, maybe your smaller circles might not feel so confining.

    Best of luck to you,

  7. Steve says:

    My partner has mental health problems and addiction problems. I have them myself but to a lesser extent. We reunutied just over a year ago after 18 years. She cannot deal with any serious issues and I find myself often unable to cope. There are about 75% bad days. She attacks me spiritually, emotionally and mentally. My family hate her and this means I have no one to talk to. They think I am a fool being manipulated. In my darker moments I think this. I am by no means perfect and I snap after many days of sustained upset. The fallout of course is that I feel like a worthless failure. Things have gotten physical on both sides but I have never punched a woman in my life. I have slapped her on the face after she has said the most disgusting things to me. During our years apart I experienced mental health problems that my family wrongfully attributed to her. I learned from these experiences, got a degree, became a respected tutor and producer. I hoped I could help her but I fail her. She moved in with me a week ago and now says that I have trapped her. I don’t think she means it. She says it to hurt me. I rent this place and I would move out if it helps. We have a beautiful rescue dog and it would be much easier for me to find a place than her. I adore her with my heart and soul but consciously or not she treats me like toilet paper.

  8. Ann says:

    I too, am married to a man with anger issues. He is very difficult to talk to so our communication between each other is very limited. Our circle of friends is very small now. And I find when we do have any social interaction he changes into another person. It’s quite embarrassing to me and awkward for our friends and family. I have started to get out more but he is rather possessive of my time and he gets agitated if I do too much. It would be great if he would get some help or even admit that he has a problem. I am trying to learn how to talk with him without setting him off. Any suggestions for reading material that might help me?


  9. Nicole says:

    I stumbled across this when i was seeking information on how to deal with mental illness in a spouce. I have been married for almost 3 years now and I feel like I have no one to turn to for help. Recently my husband revealed to me that he hears voices over the last 2 months it has progressively gotten worse he says he hears voice and they tell him mean things. He keeps me up all night long saying that I am saying thing im not he seears theres camras all over our house and spy camras in our walls and pictures that people are following him that im cheating on him and so on. We have 3 young girls ranging from 8 years old to 11 months old and this has taken a major toll on all of us. Well he left yesterday and took all of picture frames with him. I dont know what to do or where to go. How dose one deal with this is there hope for your marriage I love my husband dearly but this is eating me up alive I feel so alone and dont know who I can talk to or where I can go please help

  10. Nicole,
    I am so very sorry to hear what you’re going through. There may be hope for your marriage, but only if your husband seeks treatment. You and your girls deserve to live in a safe environment. Please take care of yourself.


  11. Ann,

    Have you read “Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder” by Julie Fast? I highly recommend it.


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