Marriage and Mental Illness

August 23rd, 2010

At the marriage alter we make vows to stay together for better or for worse; in sickness and in health. And we make these vows when we have no idea what the future will hold. Certain medical conditions, especially mental illness, can wreak havoc on a marriage and family.

This is much more common than many of us think. One out of four adults suffers with a mental illness in any given year.  Whether the mentally ill spouse suffers from clinical depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or another mental illness, the condition has devastating effects on the individuals and the marriage. Certain factors can facilitate marriage survival. So how do you stay in a relationship with such demands and misunderstandings as mental illness?

TIP #1: Seek & Follow Treatment Plan

The true devastation is when we don’t seek professional intervention. A good mental health professional is worth their weight in gold! Treatment works. Education works. Learn all you can about symptoms, triggers and the “how-to’s” of managing a crisis. Resources like the National Alliance on Mental Illness are tremendous support systems that can be linked to from

TIP #2: Grieve Fantasy; Embrace Reality

We all marry with expectations of “how glorious it’s going to be!” Grieve what isn’t and embrace what is. Perhaps we all need to grieve the fantasy, but especially someone married to a partner with a mental illness. When a treatment plan is successful, you have a “normal” relationship with its ups and downs. When a treatment plan fails, the downs remain down. Most of us will have a different sort of marriage than the one we dreamed of and embracing reality will be the most powerful step we can take in all marriages.

TIP #3: Be Responsive; Not Responsible

You are not any more responsible for solving than causing the mental condition. Only the individual with the disorder can choose to seek and follow a treatment plan. Be an advocate and a cheerleader while realizing that the ultimate responsibility lies with your spouse.

TIP #4: Maintain Excellent Self-Care

Nowhere is self-care more important than in living with someone who has a medical condition such as a mental illness.  I’ve seen formerly stable partners become downtrodden and clinically depressed due to the stress of living with a spouse who has a mental illness. Stress is hard on your brain and your body. Seek help before you too become overwhelmed. Therapy and anti-depressants can be supportive to the well-being of a partner. Avoid isolation. Stay in close contact with family and friends; join a support group; pick up as hobby to maintain healthy relationships.

TIP #5: Spare Spouse & Family

Some mentally ill spouses would never harm anyone, except perhaps themselves. Others may become out of control during a severe episode or breakdown if they are someone who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder. Follow your instincts. If you feel your spouse may become verbally or physically abusive, consider leaving until your spouse is being successfully treated. This is a tough decision but an important one.  Your job is to spare your family from injury and to spare your spouse from the pain they would suffer in causing it.

You can join Dr. Liz on September 8th at the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) WALKS event to raise money and awareness about our country’s need for a world-class treatment and recovery system for individuals with mental illness. Find out more here: