Mental illness is very hard on a marriage. The stress can often reach crisis level. You can also fall into a pattern where managing the illness becomes role around which the relationship is centered. Mental illness does not have to destroy a marriage, even with the stress and focus it brings. In spite of the obvious challenges, there are ways to maintain a healthy relationship when your spouse has a mental illness.
Show support and sympathy to your spouse.
For a newly diagnosed person, this news can be devastating, embarrassing and even frightening. The uncertainty and stigma associated with mental illness can cause the sufferers to worry that you may not love or desire them, and may no longer want to be married to them. It’s important to let your spouse know that you are there for and love him or her, “in sickness and in health.” This reassurance will go a long way toward strengthening his or her determination to get professional help and learn the best ways to manage the illness. On the other hand, a negative reaction from you can potentially exacerbate symptoms of the mental illness and bring on additional feelings of hopelessness.
Many people are uninformed about mental illness or rely on inaccurate information. There is a lot of misinformation about the causes and best treatment options for different mental health disorders.
The absolute best plan of action is to seek out high-quality psychological and medical professionals, then seek out literature and on-line information about the particular diagnosis from legitimate sources only! Websites that you rely on should have good reputations, or come recommended by your psychotherapist or physician.
Symptoms of mental illness can be off-putting and confusing. It is easy to think that your spouse is is distant, lazy, distracted, irritable, or irrational. Some of these “character flaws” might actually be symptoms of the mental illness. Effective treatment combining therapy and medication are crucial. Mental health professionals can also educate you about what role you can and should play in your spouse’s treatment plan.
Organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), or Mental Health America (MHA) are also very good sources of practical information, resources and support.
Do not become his or her therapist or enabler.
Beyond educating yourself on how to help your spouse, it is not your responsibility to be his or her therapist. This will not work in the long term for either of you or for the rest of your family. This is inappropriate even if you are a trained mental health professional. Let go and let the professionals outside your marriage do their job with your spouse. Your role is to provide love, support and sympathy for your partner during their recovery efforts.
Furthermore, those with mental illness are still responsible for taking the steps to manage their illness, so that they can be healthy and productive as partners and in other areas of life. You should not become their “crutch” or their enabler. They must take some responsibility (as much as possible, given their individual circumstances) for their own treatment plan and well-being, and for how their illness will affect you and others.
Seek individual and couples counseling.
Therapy can help you can process your feelings in a healthy way, both for your own coping and as a way to communicate with your partner. Counseling is a fantastic resource to help gain perspective, guidance and equilibrium in a situation that can otherwise quickly get out of hand. As the spouse of someone with a mental health condition, it is not unusual to experience a range of scary emotions that you think you should not be having…feelings such as hate, frustration or anger.
Emotional exhaustion is not unusual. Such painful emotions can be explored in a productive way with the proper counseling. Couples can also learn to establish expectations and healthy boundaries. Couples counseling can also help prevent you from falling into unhealthy dynamics. For example, the ‘healthy’ partner runs the risk of blaming everything that goes wrong in the relationship on the partner with mental illness. This is not productive for either of you.
Practice self-care regularly.
Self-care is not selfish, but a necessity if you have a spouse with mental health problems. If you don’t focus on your own health, you are at risk of being sucked into the vortex of the mental illness, putting your marriage at risk. Go back to the basics: get enough sleep, do some regular physical activity, eat well, spend time with friends or loved ones, and engage in activities or hobbies that you enjoy. Be very careful about getting to the point where you experience “caregiver fatigue” or burn-out. This is a common scenario when dealing with an ill or disabled partner. It is critical to take care of your own health.
Life can throw major challenges into your marriage if your spouse is diagnosed with mental illness. Ask yourself if you are responding well to this new scenario, and to other challenges in your life. Are you stepping up in a way you that you are proud of or are you avoiding doing your part to help your spouse, your family, your marriage, and yourself? Successful couples do not allow mental illness to destroy their marriage but instead view this circumstance as a challenge to be managed and overcome. Both partners must be responsible for themselves and have a healthy response and reaction to unexpected or problematic situations to thrive. You can both make adjustments so the “new” reality of the marriage can become a manageable and happy situation.