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 2024, June 16 from

Author: Angela McClanahan

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 4 2013 at 6:07 pm

Hi Holli,
Thank you for sharing your story. From what you've described, it sounds as if your husband's son has had issues for a long time that have gone on without being resolved or worse, undiagnosed. I feel for you. From your words, I can tell that you see your husband's son as a child (due to your calling him a 'kid' several times). It takes two people to make a relationship work and many to make a family work. In my experience, people do not change unless they are ready to change and not a second before. Unfortunately, it sounds as if your husband is allowing his son to manipulate him by being in denial of his son's issues. If this is affecting your marriage, then it is up to you to talk to him. To say that your concerned about his financial situation, that you cannot make a financial future with him (without mentioning his son at all) and that he is not present in the marriage due to other preoccupations. I'd have to agree with the family counselor. Your husband has to make the tough choices when he is ready. If you push him too much, you'll only push him to keep trying harder with his son because it is clear from your description that he doesn't want to lose his son. It isn't about giving him an ultimatum so much as letting him know how his actions (your husband's) are affecting you. I'd consult the family counselor on how to have the conversation to help you practice before you actually sit your husband down. A 30 year old is an adult and it sounds as if your husband's heavy enabling is helping his son keep this negative cycle going. I'm thinking good thoughts for you and hope that you visit again soon.

June, 4 2013 at 12:41 pm

Over the past few years I have watched my youngest son change. He is now 13. I have taken him to our family doctor multiple times knowing something was wrong. I was told its just him becoming a teenager. My husband is in the Navy and was deployed last year. My husband had been gone for a year now. This past year my son has turned violent towards me and his older brother by one year. I couldn't take it anymore and we started seeing a counselor in December. Things did not get better. He started failing school and becoming aggressive towards his teachers. I felt helpless. The counselor referred us to a psychiatrist for medication, but my husband was completely against it. My husband felt I was being too hard on our son, he didn't want to believe what was happening to our son. One of my son's episodes was so bad I had to call the police. I couldn't even talk when I called 911. My other son had to take the phone and tell the police his brother was trying to hurt us. I took my son to the psychiatrist and he started medication. Things seemed to get better, but then got worse very fast. My son was Baker-Acted from school and stayed in at the mental hospital for 6 days. When I went to visit him I was disgusted by the facility. I wanted him out of there. My son is now on new medication and I am sad to say it's not working. We go back soon to discuss changing the medication. Not only have I and his brother had to deal with my son's mental illness, but my husband who is still deployed blames me. I don't know if our marriage will survive. I feel betrayed because I have been trying to do whatever I can to help our son, and my husband blames me for his behavior.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

June, 5 2013 at 5:01 pm

Hi Marie,
Thank you for sharing your story. You've been through so much - not only as the mother of a child with mental illness, but also the wife of a serviceman. That being said, it must be so hard to have someone blaming you for something he hasn't experienced. Especially if this person is your partner. It sounds as if things have been happening for a long time. You did not mention how long your husband has been in the Navy or how many times he has been deployed. So many factors are involved when mental illness hits - genetics, environment, life events, etc. All of those have a part to play. As for the medication, it takes a month or two before they start working. You're doing everything you need to do by keeping connected with the team. Keep the psychiatrist updated regularly about any changes (or non-changes) with the medication. And consider individual and/or family therapy to help you all cope together. One big challenge about mental illness in children that no one really talks about is how it affects the parents especially when they disagree about treatment. Hang in there and please come visit again soon.

March, 15 2013 at 7:40 am

Nobody has said they have a probably like mine.I remarried when my daughter was five. She always has been jealous of my relationship with her stepdad. Anyway we we both abused by her Bio dad. She accused hum of molesting her the charges were unfounded.she has been in psych facilities an DC with bipolar schizophrenia and the whole shabang. She's older now and home.husband doesn't feel comfortable and wants her fine. She still feels as if I should leave him. I am at a lost as of what to do.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 19 2013 at 3:24 pm

Hi Leslie,
I'm really glad that you shared today. And I'm so sorry for the pain and suffering you've been through. It takes a very strong person to walk away from an abusive relationship. As a single mom, I knew that introducing a new person to Bob would be a challenge. So, I prepared him beforehand. Bob was very upset about it because he still wanted his father and I together. Which is something many children want, but aren't able to articulate. Bob did though. I explained to Bob how unhappy I was as a child with my parents arguing and how happy I was when they broke up. And I told Bob that I didn't want him to go through years of arguing parents when he didn't have to. It took him a couple of years to accept that his father and I wouldn't be together. Bob is now looking forward to a future stepfather and siblings. It's all about how you present it while also giving your child time to let go of the fantasy. I'd recommend family therapy so that you can allow your daughter to process her feelings about your new relationship. Because our children do affect relationships regardless of whether or not they are related to the person (bio parents) or not (stepparents). Also, the family therapy should include your husband so that he can talk about his feelings as well. Everyone needs to be heard and validated before healing can begin. I believe with my whole heart that you can have a happy family life if you put the time and effort into it. Good luck and please visit again soon.

Cynthia F
June, 26 2019 at 6:07 pm

Hi its me again, Leslie. We have managed to get along for all these years. So now my hubby had to have surgery. He has to be non weight bearing and we have animals. We take care of tgem and him and it is taking a toll. I havent really been happy in a while . im sick and tired of being sick and tired and now she says he is depressing her. Im depressed too. I cant leave now. What would you do?

December, 28 2012 at 6:48 pm

My son is 22, and has schizophrenia. His psychotic break was 3 1/2 years ago. It has been hard on my marriage, and to my younger daughter. I struggle to holdit together, as I deal with my own anxiety and depression. I also have children who had ADD, and know the struggles of putting young children on medication. My son has excellent doctors and therapists, as do I and my children. Taking time for myself is difficult, but I do it. I hope and pray one day there will be a breakthrough in medication, for those suffering with this illness.

August, 6 2011 at 5:00 pm

I don't have children because I had three miscarriages and I lost our daughter at 20 weeks gestation. I miss them more than I can say. I just wanted to let all the moms here that are struggling with your children having a mental illness to know that I sympathize with you. (((((((((hugs)))))))) My nephew has ADHD and I practically raised him until he was 2 1/2 tears old. He is 20 now and is doing very well. My sister finally got him on meds when he was little and that calmed him down. I just wanted to share this to give you some hope. Take care of yourselves, and please don't blame yourselves because it's not your fault. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of you. God bless.

Angie Mireles
August, 6 2011 at 9:07 am

Sometimes it is just comforting to be able to relate to someone, your blog is very helpful/ daughters bipolar has put a huge strain on our marriage( truthfully on everything-from family to finances). My daughter is adopted, 11yr-and her sister is 4month younger than she. Long story, birth mom changed mind ect Family telling you 'it's just you letting her get away with stuff' (although we've been in counseling since shses was 3yr , best pssychiatrists, 2 hospitals stays-one not coverd under insurance$17,000 -argg! ) My daughter who has bp is one of the most loving children on earth, gifted, couldn't live without her! Meds stop working, dr not following through w/ appointments-it's a lot for anyone to take! Tattered & Torn but we keep on moms deserve more credit for keeping our families together, standing up to others stupid prejudices against mental illness, demanding prayers go out to all the moms all there fighting this HUGE battle -day after day! God Bless you

Annie Packingham
August, 5 2011 at 6:37 pm

I sob as i read the words that i live with. The guilt, oh how i am so imersed in guilt. The love, truck loads of love for all the members in our little family. Recognition that our unity, our just being a faimly inflicts a type of suffering on every member. I can't change the past because it has gone before me and I do not know the future so I can only live the present as well as is possible. What has guided each of our family members into thier position in life becomes less important than how we unify to find the strenght to cement our selves into a sense of peace, of
acceptance and hope. Hope is the key that unlocks our premision to still live as a family, to love what is always there under the tatters and tears.
I always have pain, i always have some guilt, i have frustration, I have enough hope to demand we function as a family enough of the time that it is who we are. We are Timmy's family. We are John's Family we are Mom and Dad's family. We know no matter what happens there will be our family tattered, torn but still whole.
love and hope

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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