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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. It is 12 years now since my wife was diagnosed with mental illness – I feel like I have lost so much of my life and so has she. What a waste. I feel so alone and isolated. No one visits any more. No one truly helps – even the doctors become bored and simply prescribe more drugs. I despair…

  2. My husband and I have been married for almost 15 yrs and we have 3 children under age 10. I work PT from home so I can raise ours kids. He developed a mild anxiety disorder about 13 yrs ago and it was well-managed with medication until recently. Four years ago, he left his job to start his own business. Initially it was successful, but the income dropped by half in 2013. During the same time period, I began to notice that he was more and more distant from me and our kids; isolating, no motivation to do anything, non-existent sex drive. About 4 months ago, the anxiety began to snowball out of control. Every morning brought dry heaves, which then led to daily vomiting and eventually to him being unable to function at all. I located a psychiatrist for him who adjusted his meds, but a month later he attempted suicide and was hospitalized.

    Now we are two months after that, his meds are still not working well. He is in counseling (CBT) as well with limited results. He is convinced that the only solution to his anxiety and depression is a new job, but he has been repeatedly turned down for jobs in his field, which leaves us no choice but for him to continue to work on his own.

    I am completely worn out by this past year, and especially these past few months. I feel like I’m becoming this person that I don’t even like – I’m grouchy and resentful. I often daydream about taking our kids and leaving. I love him, but I cannot live the next 30-40+ yrs like this. I don’t know how I will know when enough is enough, and I feel guilty even having these thoughts. I feel like I’m drowning in this marriage. He’s not a husband in any sense of the word, and he hasn’t been for quite a while. I’m really, really lonely. We have a lot of family support, and they are aware of his diagnoses, but I’m still so isolated and just want to leave; yet I’m also so scared to be alone.

    1. Dear Laura,
      Your feelings are so understandable – and shared by so many dealing with mental illness in a spouse. It’s so heard – harder in ways than being a single parent. And yet- we hope.

      Can you get a different psychiatrist for your husband? Sounds like the last one was not helpful. “Adjusting meds” must include follow-up and re- adjustment as needed.

      But you also must take care of you! Have you contacted your local NAMI affiliate? Family to family , and support groups when well run, can help with your feelings of loss, helplessness, and loneliness.

      You are not alone, though it feels like it. There’s also a book, “when someone you love has a mental illness” that many spouses find helpful.
      Hang in there,

  3. Hi Randye, Hi all, Really great to read this blog, especially this one about marriage. I’ve been married to my husband for over 23 yrs who has a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. We have 4 kids. I’ve managed over the years but not easily and now he is in the hospital and the kids (2 teens left in the house) don’t want him to come back, and neither do several members of my family. He is not well but I’m not sure what to do. I cannot afford private pay. So it is a real difficult situation. Plus the single parent responsibilities, with work, are a lot, even tho the kids help out. He is not abusive – but with the symptoms and his medication he is very inactive at home. he has not been able to work for the last few years. We don’t really have much of a marriage, more so custodial and caretaking. I am going to go to a NAMI family support meeting in my area tseeo k help and guidance there. Good to read that I am not alone.

    1. you are most definitely not alone! thanks for writing…am I am glad you’ve found NAMI. Have you taken Family-to-Family? The education I got there made a huge difference, emotionally and practically

  4. Should two mentally ill people marry each other? We are past child bearing age so that is not an issue. My kids are grown and out of the home, but they have issues and we have conflict and they cause me considerable stress. This was an old boyfriend who treated me well and I found on Facebook. I feel that my relationship with my kids will drive him crazy and I don’t want to make him miserable. I would like to marry a man who is not mentally ill to help stabilize my life and yes, to reassure me and be my rock. Is this a blessing in disguise or a disaster I best steer clear of?

  5. I am very troubled. I feel as if I need to leave my husbands mental illness has been heavy for 3 years no one helps, I am suffering from a fractured spine because of the bad situation we are in. He was fired from his job because of his mental illness after two years of disability. I am at a loss we are losing everything we worked for and I am repulsed by his inability to pull himself together.

  6. I am married to a man with bipolar disorder. I love him so much. I have been to NAMI’s Family to Family course. It helped tremendously but working all day and him being disabled, he cannot keep a job due to his illness, and then coming home to talk with him, keep him company, cook with him and other things. We do not go out of the house a lot because in the summer, it is too hot and taking lithium makes excessive heat dangerous for him and in the winter, it is depression. We have in periods of time had great fun together but they have been far apart recently. He is an introvert so it doesn’t bother him but I am an extrovert so it affects me more. I am tired, lonely, and so much of the time confused, as his moods swing frequently. He says that I can go out but he texts me when I am out and checks up on where I am. I have never given him reason to suspect that I am doing anything that I shouldn’t. He wants to listen to my phone calls. I have no me time or privacy and I, myself am almost to the point of having to go to the hospital for rest. No insurance or access to therapy is available due to finances and not much accessable, affordable help is in our area. I am to the point of exhaustion and depression myself. I want to stay positive but I am just hanging on by a thread. I want to be here to help him. Leaving is not an option. I take my commitments seriously. Thanks for listening.

  7. My wife and I had been married for almost four years now with a wonderful son whom we adore so much.

    My wife has been initially diagnosed with BPD last year. That explains all her verbal and physical rages, naggings, up and down moods like an unpredictable roller coaster ride and her being consistently inconsistent. After many failed attempts for her to seek help, we just decided to go on marriage counselling and church gatherings. She had so many breakdowns, that has left me numb and feeling helpless. I will have to admit, living with her has been chaotic at best. I recently left my job to help her run her business and to run my already-existing business and most especially so I can be with her in her time of need. But all she did was to keep me from going to work. She would berate me, threaten to kill me or go with another man where she can find “love”. She never wanted to run her business and just wanted to stay at home with me and our baby. Any initiations to work will be met with tantrums and physical fights (as me as the receiver). She has besmirched my name and my reputation. My family also feels the brunt of her breakdowns.I love her. My family does too but has advised me to end the marriage or for me to get away from her. They said I have the right to be happy.

    After so many breakdowns that has left me numb and confused, i decided to leave her and our son (only temporarily) while i sort my sanity back again. I am just waiting for my recommissionship to my senior post again this coming weeks. I am not looking forward to staying with her or taking her in to my new assignment’s location. I have decided to track away from her for a period so that i can put my self back to what is right. She was successful isolating me from the world: from friends, family, close friends in my church, my hobbies and future hope for my career.

    I have told her that I love her so much and our son. I will never forget them and will send money for them. I am committed to seeing my son weekly and providing for him. Although I am physically distanced from her, I gave her my assurance that I will always be here to listen to her and be her strength.

    Eventually I feel that I should love her from afar. I always pray to God everyday that I do the right thing.

    I need to get back on with my life.

  8. My husband has recently developed a mental illness. We have a 4 month old daughter. I would help him through this but he wants a divorce. He says he’s not sick, he just loses his temper. When he snaps, he treats me like crap. I don’t put up with it anymore. For my own self-esteem and safety, and for my daughter’s own good, I have left. I mean, he wanted me to leave last time we talked, but when he is sane, he wants to work it out. Leaving him is breaking my heart. I love him. When he is sane, I look at him and light up because the man I love is back, and loves me too. But then he snaps, and an angry, hateful, soul-less pair of eyes stare me down. I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking it is okay for a man to verbally abuse his wife.

    1. yes, B – I can totally understand this decision, as will many other readers here. While you regroup. I highly suggest you check out NAMI in your area, where you can learn more about your husband’s illness, as also what you can do on your end. Caring for a newborn is stressful enough (tho joyful, but all new parents know it’s also hard work and a huge change), and I can only imagine how that stress is multiplied now. Stay safe first, and don’t try to “handle” this alone. There are many resources that will help you, like “When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness”, or any of the books that look good to you on the Healthy Place books page. But also please do find other real live human beings who understand what you are going through so you don’t feel so alone. Nami.org is a great place to begin – find your local office too and ask any therapists etc as well.
      hang in there,

  9. WOW this just sounds like excuses to divorce. I know living with someone that has these issues is a problem, but nowadays if you don’t agree on what color to paint the kitchen, they constitute it as emotional abuse. Too many spouses use this as a way out, instead of helping to other to get through this. So much for loyalty.

  10. Chris – I hear you. I’ve been with my partner for 9 years and he recently is suffering from a form of PTSD and anxiety attacks. We aren’t married, nor do we have kids, but I take my relationship seriously and am committed and loyal. There are days where I definitely want out, but I keep coming back because I love him and know that he is still a good person and a good partner despite the illness. My partner is the same like your wife, being that he refuses treatment etc. He also avoids going into work putting even more stress on me, and geez, that creates intense fighting.

    I’m glad I found this blog, and I’m glad that a lot of the spouses have stuck by their partners. It’s hard to find people that understand whats going on with a partner with mental illness. I always feel judged and feel ashamed how other people see us, but more how people perceive me. I learned to never tell friends or family members that don’t know the both of us. Depending on how you’re telling them, they judge and tell you you’re an enabler. I know that every relationship has some enabling, but I can’t tell how much is too much? I know he hasn’t been suffering for as long as some of the folks here, but I’m glad I’m not the only one sticks by their mate. Married or not, kids or no kids.

    Your wifes’s condition is more severe than mine, but I think there is still hope. I once read this article in the newspaper several years ago about a teacher who has schizophrenia, and he doesn’t take meds for it. Basically it was Living with Madness or something like that, and the only way to continue living and surviving was literally talking to himself, and saying that I’m Mad, so you deal with it. It didn’t intrude in his life. Alas, I don’t know how you’ll get that information to sink on your wife. I too am looking at ways to deal and cope with my partner and to find ways to pick his brain. This illness has also brought up all the past hurdles we’ve had in the past, making me more resentful and angry at him. I’m learning to stick to the present, but it’s a struggle too.

    Don’t know if any of this is helpful, but I’m taking in what everyone has expressed and it shows that many people have stuck by their mates. It sucks, and it’s not the life we intended but this gives me some comfort. Obviously, I’m sure some people will reach their breaking point and for that I would still be understanding of that persons decision. Best of luck!

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