When Your Spouse Is Mentally Ill
How do you know? What do you do
By Catherine Aponte Psy.D.
Everyone has personal issues that we collectively describe as our insecurities that may affect our marital relationships. Most of us can learn to manage such insecurities, often with help, so that we lessen their impact on our marriages. However, self-management of personal insecurities is not the way to deal with significant emotional and/or mental impairments that a partner may have, such as bipolar disorder, debilitating anxiety, clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, drug addiction, and serious personality disorders such as narcissism, paranoia, and borderline personality.
If your spouse is engaging in actions and behaviors that are detrimental to establishing a successful marriage beyond the general insecurities, it’s important to recognize that—and to respond to it appropriately. You may choose to stay in the marriage. You may find it necessary to think about how and when to divorce your mentally ill spouse. Either way, it’s important to have some idea of what to do if you believe your partner is suffering from a mental/emotional illness.
How Do You Know?
How do you know and what do you do when your wife or husband suffers from mental illness? How can you tell the difference between a series of bad days and a real problem? When repetitious arguments, unfounded accusations, lengthy withdrawals from the relationship, unwillingness or inability to discuss important issues, and/or standoffs between the two of you persist despite your efforts to engage your spouse, you must consider the possibility that serious problems are occurring.
Excesses in behaviors can also be warning signs—being obsessed with ritual cleanliness, withdrawing completely from sexual contact, staying up all night and not being able to function the next day, and excessive drinking or drugging are examples of problematic behavior. When problems like this continue to occur in your marriage despite repeated attempts to identify and discuss issues that bother your spouse, it may be that something other than marital disagreement is occurring.
Taking the First Step
So, what can you do if you think your husband or wife may be suffering from mental illness or serious psychological problems? You can take a page from what we have learned about confronting the problem of alcoholism or drug addiction. Here are the suggested steps you can take:
How to Live with a Mentally Ill Spouse
Living with a spouse who is mentally ill will be challenging. The condition from which your spouse is suffering will determine what steps you’ll need to take in order to live with and to help him/her. You will find a list of articles on dealing with spouses with specific illnesses at the end of this article. It is important to learn as much as you can about the particular condition you are dealing with to know how to help your spouse manage his/her illness and how to take care of yourself in the process.
If your spouse neither recognizes his/her illness nor is willing to seek individual or marital therapy, the situation for you is difficult. You must seek professional help for yourself in this situation, work hard to maintain your own work and social life, stay informed about your spouse’s illness, and seek out personal support from friends and family. If your spouse continues to refuse to own their illness, however, it is likely that at some point, you will consider divorce.
When to Consider Divorce
Deciding to divorce a spouse who has a mental illness is a painful and complex decision. There will be enormous social pressure and guilt in deciding to end your marriage to someone who is mentally ill. You took those wedding vows to be married “in sickness and in health,” after all. Here are some suggestions for you to consider if you ever find yourself in this situation.
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.