Marriage and Mental Illness: For Better or Worse?
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
- the emotions we all face (like grief, confusion, guilt, loss, anger) and,
- 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:
- 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)
- 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)
- Resentment - and sexual distance - that can accompany the change in roles when one spouse takes on the "caretaker" role.
- 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.
- 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?
Kaye, R. (2012, March 17). Marriage and Mental Illness: For Better or Worse?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, October 1 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/mentalillnessinthefamily/2012/03/marriage-and-mental-illnessfor-better-or-worse
Author: Randye Kaye
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!
Seeing so many couples that have managed to stay together despite the intrusion of mental illness is inspiring. On the other hand, I notice that most of the replies are from spouses with children, and this seems to become the impetus for staying in the marriage. As a husband of a wife who has been diagnosed with a moderate form of paranoid schizophrenia (which developed several years into our five year marriage) I wonder how much I would just be enabling her mental illness by continuing to support her while she refuses treatment and further ostracizes herself from friends and family. Would it not be better to avoid the many issues of raising a family, etc. and to force her to address her illness by stepping out of the picture now? I do take my vows quite seriously, and it's honestly the only thing that has kept me with her so far, but I really can't see the situation improving if we continue down this path... Any advice would be appreciated!
Mark and Andrew, my focus too was and continues to be on the welfare of our children, now young adults and the impact of my ex's mental health on them. 4 years after separating my ex still plays the victim across all aspects of his life. Our children have been affected by his condition and both have questioned there potential to develop a mental illness. Yes depression can be genetic but BPD is a behavioural response, a learned behaviour and that is the root of his problems. It is difficult to explain this to them because their Dad always refers to depression but the time is coming where I need to explain this to them, because he will continue to manipulate theirs and attempt to manipulate mine for years to come. I have tried to have a harmonious relationship with my ex because I still care about the welfare of the man I married but I realise I cannot as he does not respect boundaries, highly manipulative and very smart. Whilst I can leave the relationship behind my children cannot and I need to encourage them to have strength to deal with his actions. It appears that the BPD sufferer truly has difficulty in understanding that their actions are destructive and twist every word or action into a strategy for them to validate their view. Good luck with getting through these next stages and it is tough with children involved, but the important things are to stay close to the children reassure them, get through the settlment quickly, avoid negative comments about the BPD sufferer and when the time is ready attempt to explain the behaviour to children.
Great advice, truly. So glad to see support growing here, as this can be such a lonely road.
Hi Comrades. My wife has a serious mental illness and we have 2 kids. I also had thought to divorce and live a normal life. But later I also imagined what type of normal life would I be leaving? I'm now the caretaker and supportive of her relapses. I only worries are 2. We no longer have sex due to illness and I'm worried how long I will stand this sexual desire. Sometimes I think of finding a mate elsewhere. The other worry is our children getting physiological problems or even developing mental illnesses as well. Please advise.
Jane/smiley thank you for your comment also. My wife is not diagnosed. She would not got to a common specialist, but rather go to people that would only hear her side.
I had to do something after it had already affected my kids. (And probably should have done something sooner). But she still denies her issues, and even blames others for her actions.
We are dealing with it in court currently. And now she also filed for divorce. I have repeatedly explained the diagnosis is so we can get help. I truly believe she has a good heart. Her family, my family, and others see the issue and agree it is some type of personality disorder (it looks like BPD with long term delusions and paranoia).
She lost two jobs both within one year and sued them for 3 years (and we had to sell off my 401k
and wasted all my savings).
But the basic psych test does not show up anything. She is also a very smart person. Besides let the divorce go through I don't see much I can do to protect the kids and help me be able to take care of the kids more consistently.
It is a crazy process, and unfortunately the kids suffer the most.
Jacquie - I don't know - but with help, there's always a chance. Have you contacted healthcare and mental health professionals?
What if you both have DID? Can it work? Or is that just CRAZY TALK?
IM married and have several disabilities. I have gone from being sent to the hospital and put in the mentil illness wing. They can only keep you for 3 days but I stayed 7 to get my meds straightened out. I worked to better my self and met my wife we have been together 8yrs and married 5. My wife knew of my problems and seen me at my lows before we got married and even had my best friend and family pull her aside to make sure she was up for it and she still married me. I am on meds and see a therapist, Im a stay at home dad because I cant keep a job and we save about 600 a month from daycare and waiting on disability. My wife fights with me non stop about things my disabilitys prevent me to do and when she gets mad or frusterated with my disabilities she attacks them pushing my buttons then when I do blow up she plays the victum which should be considered abuse but its turned around as if im the bad guy because of my actions after she has poked the bear. I dont hit her or anything but I get loud. Now she is threatening divorce. To all the women reading this article if you marry someone with a mental illness or one developed one while married you agreed to for better or worst not run when it gets bad. In a marriage with mental illness if you are not willing to put your all in to all you are doing is hurting the one your with and possably making there illness worst.
Michael, I’m sorry to hear that you are having difficulty in your marriage. Mental illness does make it tough for the person with the illness and the partner. One suggestion that comes to mind is that the two of you consider discussing your issues with a licensed marriage therapist.
Reading the journey of others experiencing similar situations as mine when I was married to my husband of 18 years who suffered from depression, anxiety and a border line personality disorder you realise that the journey and the footsteps you take are very lonely. It took me years of being the recipient of his verbal abuse to finally say 'enough is enough' and no matter how much counselling he did (he too shopped around for someone less critical of his actions) his issues are ongoing. I found the whole experience so lonely, confusing and challenged my view of how I can be a good role model for our children. I too like so many others kept the strains of our relationship quiet from friends and family, through my husbands request. Eventually though I started to share with others what was going on in our lives and found great support in that. I then wrote a book "Hidden Side to the Story" (available on Amazon) to share my journey, experiences and learnings at a time that I was questioning 'what is going on here' and i wish I had known early warning signs in the early days to get assistance early on. I am proud to say that I am so pleased that I met and married this man as it has provided me with so much more understanding of mental illness and compassion for others. Now four years later my ex husband and I have a respectful relationship, demonstrating to our children that even though marriages may dissolve that respect for the other partner can continue. I wish you all the strength and compassion for the rocky journey that is endured with a loved one.
I wish you success with your book! May it help light the way for others. That has been the greatest gift of writing mine. Your strength and attitude are inspiring! Randye
I am spellbound by the blog and shares here. My husband and I married 30 years ago and he has had one health crisis after another since our 3rd year of marriage. I can never tell whether the problem at any given moment is his out-of-control diabetes, his hepatic encephalopathy, his depression, his learning disabilities, his brain damage from repeated drug overdoses and head injuries, or a missed/doubled dose of one of his 13 daily Rx medications. Or is it just his untreated "dry alcoholism" since he refuses to attend meetings anymore (says they're all sick-o's in there). This site makes me think there may be hope! I go to Alanon which helps me immensely but even there, I don't find many friends who have the experience of living with someone who is as sick as my beloved both physically and mentally, or who takes 5 psychiatric meds + 4 shots of insulin just to get through the day - a day of watching TV in the recliner and eating junk. food while I manage everything including being the breadwinner. I have lost friends who said they can't stand to watch him use me any longer. Most of the time I think it is just his illness(es) but sometimes I do get resentful and wonder why I am working so hard so that he can have a boat, a truck, and a Mustang that sit in the yard most of the time because he never feels like doing anything. What hurts most I think is how isolated we have become - yet when he does have to see anyone for short visits - the only kind he allows - he can put on such a show that it convinces people that I am the crazy one! If it were not for my career in a very high functioning environment with awesome people who make a difference, I believe I would have gone over the edge long ago. Thanks for listening.
Glad it helps to share. This community is, hopefully, of some comfort. You are not alone! One of the biggest lessons we keep re-learning is one of "self-care" - feels like there's no time for it, sometimes, but I hope you can find a way! Thanks for writing. I only wish there were easy answers...
Re Jeanne's comments:
You probably didn't know better. I too look back in the early years of my friendship/courtship with my wife and now clearly see the signs. She even was hospitalized at least once when we were in college. But nobody knew it was mental illness. Everyone thought is was stress. But, after our marriage and over time, the situation deteriorated into chaos and frustration.
My religious wedding vows bind me to a high level of duty and honor when it comes to caring for her. However, I've started to believe, with the affirmation of friends, family, and a close spiritual advisor, that I can ensure her care and well being without remaining trapped myself in a situation in which there will never be peace or happiness for any sustained period.
I've also started wondering if my being perceived as her caretaker and protector has actually enabled some behaviors, allowed her to take advantage of me to a certain extent. I've stopped doing this, putting back on her responsibilities for household duties, childcare, and to some extent financial management related to her illness. She is showing a capacity to manage these aspects of her life, lo and behold. Therefore, I'm starting to believe that she could not only survive on her own, but might even thrive as a result.
I'm grateful for your thoughtful response, Randye. I'll look into the resources you mention.
It helps to know your not the only one going thru similar problems. I have been married for 21 years and recognized quickly that my husbands behavior wasnt normal. I was glad he agreed to get counseling but found out this wasnt going to work for him, if he was told something hedidnt want to hear he walked out. It has been a rollercoaster life that i wouldnt wish on anyone. The worst part is looking back and thinking why me and having friends and family tell me I was smart enough to know better, which only makes my self esteem worse.
Oh, Jeanne -
one of the most helpful things I learned at NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is this "You can't know what no one has told you." In this world of marriage counseling, "superwomen", and self-help books, there just hasn't been enough support and information out there that would help us see that we are dealing with an illness. Of course you are "smart enough"! - but who thinks mental illness is the issue, when we are constantly told that if we work hard enough, we can "fix" it?
I'm so glad you found this site. NAMI may be of help to you too. This is not your fault - or even your husband's fault. It is an illness, and there are things - as you well know - that just don't work.
If you get a chance to take NAMI's Family-to-Family course, it may be of great help too.
Readers of my book know how long it took to even consider that my son's problems were illness-related, not behavioral.
It's the last explanation we want to think about.
hang in there. You are NOT alone, and you are NOT to blame.
The five challenges noted above are absolutely correct. My wife has suffered a severe form of bipolar and related issues all of her life, finally diagnosed 18 years ago (we've been married 23).
The wreckage includes suicide attempts, endangering our children, hocking her wedding rings (twice!), beating my wedding ring to smithereens with a hammer, not to mention a general inability to cope with the simplest matters in life. Hospitalizations are routine.
I long ago decided I'm not really married. I am the caretaker to a person who swings from being an obstreperous child to a sick old woman. Outside of her need to be cared for, and my responsibility to do it, we have virtually no relationship and no common interests or activities. I maintain an active social, philanthropic, and cultural life virtually independent of her. People frequently ask if I'm really married because of the absence of my spouse at most activities.
She is not at fault for much of this, I'm aware. She's trapped in a world of loneliness and often confusion and deserves a great deal of pity and nurture.
Yet I'm so worn down at every level that I now feel I have no choice but to end the marriage. I do not wish to abandon her, and quite likely would not be allowed to by the courts, due to the fact that she's been wholly dependent on me for our entire married life.
That being said, I'm interested in finding resources that will allow me to initiate divorce proceedings while also ensuring her ongoing care. Thank you for any thoughts on how to arrive at the best outcome.
Hi Jim -
Thanks for writing to share your story. I know it must be so difficult - and while you are trying your best to have empathy, it must be so frustrating and heartbreaking.
I am not qualified to suggest legal actions - but others are. While my book is a memoir with applicable resources in sidebars, there are two books that have many more practical steps in them. One is called "Defying Mental Illness", the other "When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness" also "Loving-Someone-with -Bipolar-Disorder" - search the index for practical tips.
I also highly suggest you reach out to your local NAMI chapter, if you haven't already done so. Family-to-Family is what saved our family by helping me know when I could help my son and when I could not. Whether you do this, or attend a support meeting (sometimes there are speaker meetings as well, with experts in the field) , your chances of meeting others who truly understand - and who may have local info to share - are good here. They may even know a lawyer who can answer your legal questions.
Hang in there, and I hope you find a solution that makes the situation better. It will never, as you know, be perfect...
All these stories sound so familiar. I've been married 34 years, lots of ups and downs, five sons and one daughter? We still have our daughter at home, she will graduate in June, but we are now raising our grandsons 6 & 9. I feel so stuck and not able to be in the house with him and of course he will not leave the house. I just can't figure it out.
Hi Susan - Yes, I agree - is is so hard to figure this all out: the emotions, the system, the places to go for help, the symptoms of the illness, the ways to treat, the ways to relate to a relative with a mental illness. Have you joined NAMI? Although no one has easy answers, the information and support available there can be a way to begin.
You are not alone.
Thank you to the others who shared their experiences as it offered a tinge of comfort in a time of anguish. I am the 15 year spouse of a man whos soul has been robbed by mental illness. I am in a constant state of grief trying to mourn the loss of the man I once knew and loved yet look at him everyday. It has been the most twisted fate imaginable. I know our 8year old son struggles as a result of his fathers illness and the guilt I feel knowing that is undescribable. I have sacraficed my life to continuing caring for this man with nothing in return but anger ,manipulation, and lies. I have considered trying to start anew but do not care to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder. May my strength continue to outway my sorrow..best wishes to those in similar prediciments.
The role of caregiver to a spouse with a major mental illness is sometimes a very difficult role to navigate. My husband has panic disorder with agoraphobia and was home bound for 4 years. He also has a phobia of medication and for a period of time was fearful of being alone, so not only was he stuck at home, but anytime I had to be away from home for more than a few hours became a major, dramatic, event. He is no longer home bound, but his world is still pretty small. My feelings range from guilt (how much am I enabling his illness??) to resentment for our lives being dictated by his illness, to grief for the type of relationship I so yearn for, to anger for the difficulty we've had in getting adequate treatment, to love, because despite his illness, he is an amazing soul and after 19 years together, I can't imagine my life without him in it (though I can imagine my life without his illness!). We persevere because we have hope that things will get better. To all the other spouses out there...hang in there. You are not alone!!
Thank you so much for your comment, Lori - I love your words, "he is an amazing soul and after 19 years together, I can’t imagine my life without him in it (though I can imagine my life without his illness!). We persevere because we have hope that things will get better" - these are the thoughts that have often kept me going when my son's symptoms seemed unbearable.
Thanks for writing - and you hang in there too.
Thank you. Really need this
Hi Randye, It is quite interesting that this subject has come up at this time ... My Wife, Best Friend and Soul Mate suffers from Schizo-Affective Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,Anxiety,Panic and post Traumatic Stress Disorder ... We have been Married for 13 year and are in the middle of a "Major Episode" at this time and she is temporarily not at home ... To top it of I am going in tomorrow for further evaluation For Major Depressive Disorder and possible medication among other Things ... My point I think is that Love And Faithfulness trumps all ... We are constantly in a state of flux yet one thing remains, Our Love and Commitment to each other ... Thank You,
Hi Dave - I'm so sorry that you are both facing this challenge - and yet I can feel your commitment to each other even in your e-mail. I'm glad my post may have provided some words of comfort or perhaps a helpful idea. Thanks for writing, and remember to take care of yourself as well :) (healthyplace, NAMI, your own hobbies,etc.)
I've been with my husband 38 years and we have 1 child (a daughter, now 34). Life has had it's ups & downs with his MDD diagnoses 11 years into our marriage. I think the most difficult aspect to deal with, for me, is the anger and the "..it's all about ME, and MY illness" attitude which I perceive almost everyday of my life. He seems always to be angry & suspicious of family, & our very few friends - thinks everyone is out to "use" him, sigh... I must say there are times I wish I would have ended the marriage & tried for a "normal" life but then again - what's normal? Presently, he's retired & I am 4 years away - looking forward to retirement and traveling the US in our 40' motor coach!
Hi Barb -
You make so many excellent, heartfelt points. Thanks for taking the time to comment, andf share your experience. "what's normal?" a really good question... best. Randye
Marriage as intimate emotional relationship between two person of different sex exhibits many psychosocial obligations and demands. However,this coexistence is useful and healthy for spouses and their heirs. When it is about matrimony with mental disorder member in the family, the matter becomes more intrigued. Firstly, every person with mental illness makes a mess in family bosom, beginning from sorrowful emotional influences to deteriorate psychosocial performances of a respective familiar community as whole. On the other side, cohabitation of person with mental illness supply many benefits for itself person. Thus, family as a foundation community offers support and security for its members, as well as mentally ill ones. These prerequisites indicates the main life necessity for mentally ill person. besides other, family life is the best way to manage mentally illness, because it present the natural psychosocial circumstance, where the psychiatric patient recover all its life skills, that was wasted during attack of concrete mental disease.
I am the long time spouse of a husband with a mental illness - depression. We have been together for almost 32 years, married for 28. Your five points are definitely feelings I have experienced over the years. While I suppose I had to act like a single parent, I never let him off the hook and said I was. I always tried to engage him in the children's care or issues even in his deepest depressions. The financial burdens were not caused by job loss - luckily that was one thing he could always hold on to - but things like, for example, when he sold a car and threw away the money. Or threw away his paycheck. Things like that. I did not discuss his depressive episodes with too many people, only my parents and a few close friends. I made my decision to stay with him and so I do not complain about him. As time has gone on, his episodes are less frequent. I have learned to have boundaries. My biggest feelings of guilt are in relation to our children. They are all adults and have good relationships with their father, but I wonder if things would have been better for them to not have had to deal with the episodes a few times a year as they did. Should I have divorced him and had him out of the house? I never lied for him, they were told it was dad's illness not them, but it is still something I worry about. My oldest dd has anxiety issues which is why I think that mental illness can be genetic. However, even after everything, he is still my best friend. I cannot imagine my life without him to be honest. We always say that, if nothing else, life has not been boring.
Of ,yes, I agree -Definitely not a boring life with these challenges! Michele, thank you SO much for your first-hand account, and for sharing how you choose to handle this in your marriage - and especially for the positive attitude, when all is said and done, that your husband is your best friend. Wow.
best to all your family,
I have been with my soulmate for 24 years. I am now 46 and he is 43, so all of our adult life's has been spent together. We are blessed with 2 beautiful boys, 18 and17. Their dad began acting strangely around 9 years ago and was diagnosed with schizoeffective disorder w/pychiotic episodes. It has been a rollercoaster since then. Getting him mental help has been challenging to impossible. I have been through so many emotions and our children too. We refuse to give up on this wonderful man, but it seems as if there is less and less of him all the time. I feel so lost and unable to even get him the help he needs. I've held on but it is starting to take it's toll on me
I'm right there with you. My husband is bipolar with lots of recurring hallucinations, I e..accusing me of cheating with some man that I talk to in the bathroom, on secret calls, etc The man I married has vanished.My empathy, sympathy...are at all time lows. He still wants intimacy, I just want my husband back. I have no answers.Just know, your not alone, with your tears, and feelings of guilt, and trying to find relief!!! Bless you, and all in this situation!
I know exactly what you feel. I am 28 years old and my husband is 30. Diagnosed with the same diagnosis. I often ask myself why me. We've been married for 1.5 years and together 5. I often sit by myself and cry wondering if I made a mistake. How can I handle this for years to come. And even add children to the equation.
I need help he accuse me of cheating with fake people I kneed to know how to put him in a meantal institution anyone know how
Oh my it was nice to read this. I am the wife of a mentally ill man. 11 years now and it's hard. He also struggles with drug addiction but he does pretty good most of the time. But I remember I loved him before and I'll love him during and after. He had never hit me, called me names, or cheated on me. (My first husband was abusive. ) he loves me everyday and tried his hardest. He is home every night and had held a steady job for 8 years. But there are moments when I feel tired. Then I look at him and think how could I leave him now. I'm all he has and he's all I have. We need each other. I love him.