Child's Mental Illness Can Make Your Marriage Sick, Too

July 22, 2011 Angela McClanahan

My child's mental illness stresses my marriage too. My son's step-father didn't used to feel like a step-dad. The tension is unbearable. Did this happen to you?

I've receive innumerable comments from readers about how their child's psychiatric illness has taken a toll on their marriages. I'd be lying if I said my husband and I are the exception. The tension in our house has been thick enough to spread on a bagel, and over the course of this year, it's gotten progressively worse.

Plus, I've noticed a definite tone to my posts lately. No longer optimistic, rarely showcasing the dry humor I'm infamous for, and mostly just a big written invitation to my Pity Party. When I started this blog, I'd hoped to make it a mix between informative, generalized posts and the more personal, happened-to-me stories. Lately, however, the personal, happening-to-me (us) are weighing on my mind, heavily enough to render me interested in little else.

Mental Illness Has Taken Toll on My Marriage

When my husband and I met, Bob was 3 1/2. The problems had already started, but hadn't progressed yet (or I hadn't pulled my head out of the sand enough to see them yet) to the point of professional intervention. I knew Bob was "difficult" and a "handful" but I also attributed those qualities to his high intellect, my ongoing tumultuous relationship with his father, and the adjustment of shifting between biological parent homes. I had no idea what we were all in for down the road.

My husband and Bob got on splendidly from the start. He treated Bob not like a stepchild, but like a child. When Bob's problems necessitated meetings with preschool personnel and mental health providers, my husband was there, and felt the burden as heavily as I did.

I worried about how having a second child--a child that biologically belongs to me and my husband--would affect the dynamics in our household. I worried that having a biological child would distance my husband from Bob. I worried about how I would handle giving Bob the attention he demands and give a newborn, baby, toddler and young child the attention they needed.

My Worst Fears Have Come to Life

It's hard to admit any of this--to myself, and definitely to the blogosphere. It's harder still to admit I don't have the first clue what to do about any of it.

In essence, all of my worst fears have been recognized. There is such an obvious void between Bob and my husband that I feel helpless to bridge. I empathize with both of them--a lot of the time, I don't want to deal with Bob, either, because he is exhausting. But at the same time, he is my son, and I love him, and I want him to be happy and feel loved.

I feel pulled between opposing forces in my own home, 24/7. And worse, I feel responsible for everyone's unhappiness--I put Bob in an environment where he is the elephant in the room; I brought my other son into a home divided; and I ruined my husband's life by pulling him into my misery.

APA Reference
McClanahan, A. (2011, July 22). Child's Mental Illness Can Make Your Marriage Sick, Too, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, August 4 from

Author: Angela McClanahan

mirtha gonzalez
August, 5 2011 at 7:39 am

Dear freinds:
What about my 43 years old. Leponex has put him as big as he can get,
not able to find a couple, and frustrated all the time blaming parents.
I feel more thann sick. I am 63 years old, suffering his illnes 43 years now.
Cannot afford it any more.

Elizabeth Hinkle
August, 5 2011 at 6:41 am

Coming from the perspective of a marriage and family therapist who has worked with children, teens and families dealing with multiple mental health issues, you are definitely not alone. It's impossible to not let family members' problems, feelings and behaviors affect us.
The good news is that we can affect each other in a positive way, too. You've already started by acknowledging some of the problems. Next, if you haven't already, access support, accept help and work on changing how you think about things.
Start small and take one day at a time.
Best wishes.

August, 5 2011 at 6:24 am

My fiance Blake and I met when my daughter had just turned 5 years old. We fell head over heals in love. He knew Breanna was a handful, but he was willing to take a chance because he loved me and was starting to love her to. She has ADHD and gave us a run for our money. She was so bad in school that her teacher actually put her desk in the hallway so she could not disturb the other children. I did not want to put her on medication because I had heard all the stories and thought I was a bad mom for medicating her. Well things kept getting worse and worse until I finally gave in. I was shocked at the change in her at first. Her grades come up, and she was able to sit in the class without being disruptive. Now she was still having outburst that were so bad I would sit and cry. I felt like such a failure. I thought it was all my fault she was this way. It got to the point where I was put in the middle of 2 people I loved more than anything in this world. I started to leave several times because I felt like I took his life away from him and he did not deserve to live in my hell. Blake would actually say to me that Adhd is just a crutch it is not a real disease. She was spoiled and used to getting her way, that is why she acted up so bad. He would crush me every time he would make that comment. Now our relationship was wonderful, we never argued except about Breanna.
As Breanna has gotten older (13 now) she has really done a lot of changing. Her grades are good, (we push her hard), she is maturing, The outburst now only happen maybe once a week where it used to be several times a day, and she is such a daddy's girl. She and Blake have such a wonderful relationship now, and she and I do to. I am not saying life is perfect, but it has gotten so much better.
Blake and I are getting married (finally) In October, we have included her in the wedding as a Jr bridesmaid as well as with the unity candle. Blake and I light one uniting us, then the other candle that is called a family candle, all 3 of us light it uniting us as a family.
I guess what I am trying to say is for those that think your hell will never get better, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I never thought there would be, but thank god in my case it is getting better.
God bless all of you and you family. I pray for each of you to have a peaceful day.

KJ Powell
July, 22 2011 at 7:22 am

I am a parent of of 4 adult children, wife of over 34 years and have recently found out that my youngest 20 year old son has a brain disorder. The hopes and dreams of the future for my husband and I and of our son is gone. But, I have to say that no matter how horrible things are right now I will always remember this, The best gift I can give my children is to love and support their father. Even through my son's "madness" he still needs to know this. It's not easy. We blame ourselves, we think we can fix it, we just want at times for our son to go back to the way he was, but he can't and our marriage and relationship can't. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, just a different way of living, loving and excepting what life has for us.
My best to you and your family.

Randye Kaye
July, 22 2011 at 2:54 am

Hi Angela - oh, this sounds all too familiar - though my kids are in their 20's now, the mental illness of my son Ben can still cause strain. My husband Geoff - a gem who, early in our relationship, even signed up to take a NAMI Family-to-Family class I was teaching - is stepfather to Ben and his sister Ali, and while he is wonderful, it's still hard when he loses sight of the "realistic expectations" we learned about, and I see his frustration in his dealings with Ben. I guess I wish he loved him more - but, though Ben is so lovable when his illness is balanced by meds, he is not so easy to take when things are out of balance.
This can definitely cause a marriage rift, especially when family members are in different stages of acceptance. Yes, it's hard. Stepparenting alone is hard, especially after cuddly kids turn into surly pre-teens and teens - heck, parenting is hard then! Having a bipolar child - well, you know.
So yep you are normal. It helps me, at these times to remember what NAMI says in the F2F class about "self-care", and remember to take care of myself - and my marriage - when I can. And to stop feeling guilty about it.
Love your blog, by the way.
You will find your sense of humor again. We all need a little "pity party" for ourselves now again. I'm a firm believer!
Randye, "Mental Illness in the Family" blog

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