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Marriage and Mental Illness: For Better or Worse?

What happens when mental illness changes your spouse? Having a husband or wife with mental illness changes the marriage and bring challenges.

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?

When faced with mental illness, family members have two sets of challenges. They seem to be

  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 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 the 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 Christmas 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?

153 thoughts on “Marriage and Mental Illness: For Better or Worse?”

  1. My husband has had anxiety issues for many, many years. I left him for a few years and returned to be with him when my daughter (not his) was 5 years old. He comes from a difficult background where his parents suffered a cot death in the family which started a whole spiral of negative things including his Father becoming an angry alcoholic and beating his wife. My husband suffers from anxiety, hypochondria and I think a touch of OCD plus depression. To be honest, I’m not sure what to do anymore…it all makes me feel like jumping in front of a bus myself as it is too hard. When he’s good, we have a good laugh but when he’s down, anxious, has health concerns…it is so hard for me, my daughter (now 15) and my elderly Mother who moved in recently (adding to the problems we have).

  2. My wife was diagnosed over six years ago after several violent episodes arising out of non issues. Once on treatment, smooth sailing until last December when she had another violent episode, but now our youngest is at an age where he would remember. This was her first one since her diagnosis. Police were called twice, each time I refused to hospitalize her. Told officers to let her go with friends. The next day she began process of divorce, within one week she moved in with these friends, and they filed for divorce. The husband is her attorney. Six months later she still lives with them. I’m contesting the divorce. As of now I have not spoken to her. Children devastated. Luckily, I have an incredible support group, have been in therapy as well as the children. I will fight knowing I will probably lose. But she is worth it. My only goal is to get her back in treatment and away from her friends. She has refused to return to the marital home, even if I leave it to her and I pay the mortgage.

    1. Exactly! I feel stuck…. Leave to save my life & I’m a horrible person. Stay, and possibly be miserable for the rest of my life. It’s living with a constant dark cloud in your house. It’s grief, guilt, resentment, and anger every day. I thank God that I have my faith or I don’t know how I would survive!

      1. My husband and I seek counseling together, which really helps with the struggles that come from living with a spouse or family member who has mental illness, and the inevitable stigma, and isolation that accompanies your situation-for all family members living with their loved one. I don’t believe all the counseling in the world, could change the feeling of loss, that engulfed me , when my husband relapsed, and then stabilized with medication, but not without some real deficits in memory, cognitive impairment, and a certain amount of anhedonia. It was a devastating realization, that he would not recover, as he had in the past. I see how my husband, works hard to be involved, and contribute, and that motivates me, to keep pressing on, and not give up. We are very fortunate to have a good support system, where he seeks treatment. He initially was stricken, in his early 50’s with a psychotic disorder, and received treatment , and was really well for 10 yrs. A particularly stressful time in our lives, threw him back into psychosis, and this time, he did not recover with his memory, and zest for life intact. I was shocked, and overwhelmed at this realization.
        I cried for months, I never thought I’d feel happiness again, and then……I started to feel better, and the grief started to lift, it wasn’t overnight, it was a process. I started to feel whole again, instead of shattered. He is much better, and has made some real progress, but it took time. His memory is better, and he really derives pleasure from some of his old hobbies and interests. I sometimes wake-up, and forget, that he is different now, and expect a certain amount of enthusiasm or spontaneity, and when I suddenly realize, oh……..here we are, thats hard. I don’t beat myself up for having to make the adjustment to our new reality all over again, or having lingering feelings of grief and loss for who he was, and what we had together. but he is trying, and I see that. I live for the days that, I see glimpses of him again, his wonderful self. If your not living with this, you don’t understand. The counselor we see, helps both of us with perspective, and while this doesn’t eradicate the feelings, of disappointment, or isolation, from family and friends, who start to fade away or outright reject you, , it does strengthen the bond we have with each other .I look forward to reconnecting with our local mental health support groups. It is fruitless to expect our friends, and his family, to embrace this in any way. This has been my experience. They appear in every way to want to distance themselves, with the exception of a few loyal and loving friends, who possess the humanity, and compassion we should all have. Achieving a balance , taking care of myself, and taking care of my husband, is a struggle. For months, I didn’t leave his side. I felt so alone. I remember thinking and feeling, why am I the only one who seems to care how he is doing!? Nobody should have to go through this alone. What the hell! I have accepted that our situation requires me to be strong, and decisive, for the both of us, whether I wanted it to be that way or not, is not even relevant anymore, if we are going to survive. He now does things independently of me, and I do as well. It took us awhile to get to this point. And I am Grateful. I look forward to a time, when instead of running away, family and friends understand what a devastating illness this is, and not knowing what to say is okay, just ask.
        !unfortunately the only people reading this, already get it.

  3. ME AND MY WIFE ARE BOTH CHRISTIANS WHICH I AM THE ONE WHO UNFORTUNATELY SUFFERS FROM SEVERE MENTAL ILLNESS STRUGGLES!!!! ONE THING THAT I HAVE FOUND OUT “IS HOW SOME PEOPLE INCLUDING SOME SPOUSES WOULD RATHER POINT THE FINGER OR PUT DOWN THE LOVE ONE WHO IS STRUGGLING INSTEAD OF TRYING TO SHARE SOME UNCONDITIONAL LOVE AND SUPPORT AND WILL RIGHT AWAY COMPLAIN ABOUT THE PERSON NOT GETTING BETTER!!!! I LIVE WITH THE STIGMA EVERYDAY AND BECAUSE I LOVE MY WIFE AND KIDS I DECIDED TO STAY IN LIFE AND ASK “GOD FOR HIS HELP IN OVERCOMING THESE STRUGGLES!!!!” BUT WHAT MAKES IT MUCH MUCH IS WHEN YOU DECIDE TO DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN TO FIGHT AGAINST THIS TYPE OF CHALLENGE AND THEN TO SEE YOUR SPOUSE TURN AGAINST YOU AND NOT HELP BUT INSTEAD WANT TO ADD TO THE BURDEN BY PUTTING DOWN, BLAMING THE PERSON AND MAKE FALSE ACCUSATIONS AGAINST YOU AND THINGS SUCH AS THIS BRINGS SO MUCH MORE SADNESS ALONG WITH HELPING THE HOPES AND DREAMS OF BEING VICTORIOUS IN THESE STRUGGLES DRIFT FURTHER AND FURTHER AWAY!!!! WHEN YOU ARE ALREADY DOWN AND THEN TO RECEIVE THIS TYPE OF TREATMENT AND LOOKED AT BY THOSE THAT SHOULD LOVE YOU AS “DAMAGED GOODS” I CAN’T REALLY EXPLAIN HOW PAINFUL IT IS TO THE HEART AND SOUL AND ADDS TO THE POSSIBILITY OF THE PERSON STRUGGLING WITH THIS TYPE OF ILLNESS NOT TO SURVIVE!!!!” “LOVE IS SUCH A WONDERFUL BLESSING WHEN IT IS USED THE WAY GOD INTENDED IT TO BE!!!!” “BUT IT CAN ALSO BE USED AS A WEAPON OF DESTRUCTION WHEN IT IS USED IN THE SENCE WHERE THE PERSON IS MADE TO FEEL “THAT THEY ARE NOT WORTH RECEIVING ANY UNCONDITIONAL LOVE OR SUPPORT!!!!”

  4. My mother was temporarily mentally incapacitated, husband took everything leaving her with barely enough to survive

  5. I am in similar situation here. I’ve been married for 10years. With 2 children, and recently gave birth. My husband has anxiety, depression and anger issues. He is rather controlling, verbally and physically abuses me. He tried to choke me when l was pregnant. I regret giving birth to my second child and not being abke to give her a happy family. Everything has to be his way because everything l do is wrong like in the way l smile, talk, dress etc. This reduced my confidence and self-esteem. My eldest started behaving and talking lIke him. I had to tell him that Daddy is sick.
    He refuses treatment and constantly says I’m giving out negative energy.
    I hardly go out and neither do the kids because he wants us to be home with him all the time.
    I work full-time, the kids are cared for at day-care. I do not leave the children with him as he had vented his anger on my eldest whilst l was pregnant and l had to use all my strength to stop him.
    I feel drained. I put on a fake assuring smile all the time. None of my co-workers know.

    1. Grace,

      I am so sorry that you are living in this situation. Please, please know that if you or your children are in danger it is PARAMOUNT that you remove yourself from the dangerous family member. Here is a list of articles with information and resources for you: http://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/articles/break-free-from-domestic-abuse-domestic-violence/. Please remember, above all else, that your children deserve to grow up in a safe home. Please take care of yourself and them.

      Blessings,

      Taylor

  6. Sian, your feelings and worries seem valid. Everyone needs support, especially if choosing to stay with, and become a carer for, a spouse with a mental illness. People caring for family members with MS need support, much less MS with psychosis. Of course you’re feeling the way you do, you are human, It’s important you get care and supports in place to help you process. It’s a concept called ‘self-care’: People are better able to sustain a caring roll if they have supports in place; looks after their own needs; and take sometime for respite.

    Also for everyone else in this comments section, this is an example of a website that might be helpful for free CBT etc. for yourself, spouse, kids.

    https://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome/faq

    Everyone is different and I wish you all the best. If I could send resilience the mail, I would. Take care of yours self first; put your own oxygen mask on first in an mergency, because only then can we help others who needs us.

  7. I’m hearing a lot of pain in these posts and it seems like lots of people are going through of hardship, stress and struggling. I’d just caution that this is not a psychologist forum and perhaps, after posting what you need to, reflect on what it is you feel you need to express, why you need to express it and follow up to take it to a safe space (i.e. counsellor, psychologist, helpline).

    Sometimes marriage (we are all human, navigating the world in terms of our relationships with others) get into cycles of distress with repeating patterns and behaviours.

    It’s awful to feel stuck and change is the hardest thing of all. You have bravery, you have courage, and though it may not feel like it, you have choice. Make a booking and shop around till you find a counsellor you trust; or join an online forum staffed by trained volunteers/counsellors. Call a TOLL-FREE helpline if money is a issue and someone will listen to you, facilitate you sorting out what you want to do next to break the cycle of dysfunctionality and make a referral . There’s no shame in that. It’s important to get help for yourself.

    For women (and men), family and domestic violence is never okay. Speak to your local women’s organisation or shelter to help you figure out how to stay or leave safely.

    If you have children and you feel stuck, unsafe, scared or unsure what to do regarding a spouse that is violent, abusive, or you fear your partner’s current behaviour so much, you use the analogy you feel you’re walking around ‘on eggsshells’, learning a bit more about yourself will ultimately help your children and they will thank you for it down the track. Lots of spouses feel this way. You are not alone and there is help and a better way of living. Talk to somebody.

    Goodluck.

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