When you get married, you agree to stick by your partner for better or for worse. But as life goes on and marriage evolves, there will be times when keeping this vow feels harder than others. Living with a spouse with mental illness could be one of those times.
Mental illness affects millions of adults every year around the world. In 2019, the World Health Organization found that 970 million people were living with a mental health disorder. But while these issues may be common, it doesn’t mean they’re easy to navigate as a married couple.
Studies have shown that people who suffer from mental illness have a higher divorce rate. A study from 2011 saw that rate increase between 20-80 percent compared to couples without mental health challenges.
If you’re living with a spouse with mental illness – or even just suspect your spouse may need mental health services – this post is for you.
Keep reading to learn more about when to seek help. You’ll also learn how mental health affects relationships, and how to support your partner.
How to Know if Your Partner Is Struggling With Their Mental Health
Mental health and relationships are not always black and white. Is your partner just going through a tough time with their career or adjusting to your growing family? Or, are they clinically depressed? Are they worried about finances or are they struggling with undiagnosed anxiety?
It’s best to encourage your spouse to seek professional help. But there are some signs you can look for when determining if you’re living with a spouse with mental illness.
Common Signs of Mental Illness
Common symptoms of mental health challenges like anxiety and depression include:
- Loss of energy
- Feeling tired more than usual
- Loss of appetite or weight changes
- Arguing often, being irritable
- Sad or anxious most of the time
- Hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Not remembering things
- Not sleeping or sleeping too much
- Thoughts of suicide
It’s not difficult to see why these symptoms could affect a relationship. But how experiencing mental illness in relationships has an impact can vary significantly.
How Mental Illness Affects a Relationship
When one partner is unwell – and especially if that partner refuses to seek help – it can put a huge strain on the relationship and the higher-functioning partner.
Some of the most common ways that a spouse with mental illness may impact your relationship include:
You Carry Your Partner’s Pain
If your partner is open to talking with you about their challenges, you may be asked to listen to the same problems repeatedly. This can make you feel like your partner’s pain is your own and may make you more involved in their problems than you’d like to be.
This can be especially frustrating if your partner discusses their problems with you but refuses to take steps to change or seek professional help.
Balance is Lost
When one person is struggling, the higher-functioning partner is often forced to take on more of the household and childcare duties. The mentally ill partner doesn’t have enough energy, resilience, organization or frustration tolerance to do these things.
Even if you want to support your partner and understand that they need extra help, resentment can build if the household remains unbalanced over time.
Conflicts Are Difficult
Conflict can be challenging for any married couple to navigate, but problems can quickly escalate when you have a spouse with mental illness.
The higher-functioning partner often has to deal with unreasonable outbursts in conflict because the mentally ill partner is too mentally and emotionally taxed to think clearly or control their emotions. As a result, their capacity for empathy is greatly diminished.
You Might Feel Hopeless
From carrying the household burden to dealing with emotional outbursts, having a partner with mental illness can leave the higher-functioning partner feeling very lonely, frustrated and hopeless.
You might even wonder if you should leave the relationship but worry about abandoning your partner in a time of need.
How to Help a Spouse with Mental Illness
If you’re living with a partner with mental health issues, it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing you can do to help. You might also be feeling burnt out, emotionally exhausted and ready to throw in the towel.
But if you want to try supporting your partner – and your marriage – these tips can help.
Encourage them to seek help.
If you have a spouse with mental illness who has not received professional help, or who hasn’t gotten professional help in a long time, encourage them to find a therapist or other mental health professional. While you can be a listening ear and lend vital support, you cannot be their therapist.
Attend therapy with them.
If your partner is hesitant to try therapy on their own, ask if they would be interested in a couples therapy session (if you’re open to it too). Couples therapy can help you navigate how mental illness affects your marriage. Couples therapy can also help open the door to therapy for your partner.
Understand their diagnosis.
Does your spouse has a specific mental health diagnosis? Then take some time to talk with them about it or read up about it online. Understanding their diagnosis can help you better understand what your partner might need from you. It can also help you look at their challenges with a new perspective.
This understanding won’t magically make the effect on your marriage go away. But it might help you feel better about the situation.
Focus on self care.
One of the best ways to help your partner is by helping yourself. When you’re dealing with added conflict, an imbalance in household duties or just the stress of worrying about your partner, self-care is critical.
Make time for yourself and for things that you enjoy. Go out with friends, head to the spa or simply find some quiet time to sit and read a favorite book. Whatever is going to fill your cup and help you destress will be helpful.
Set boundaries with your partner.
Dealing with mental illness in marriage is not easy. And if your partner leans on you for support but doesn’t seek help to make a change, you may need to start setting boundaries. Many partners feel a lot of guilt over boundary setting with a mentally ill spouse, but you have to ensure you are caring for yourself as well as your partner.
Are you feeling burdened by constant discussion of their mental health challenges? Let them know! If they’re texting you at work about a problem, for example, set a boundary that you’d like to have these discussions after you leave the office.
If you’ve been carrying the bulk of the household responsibilities, set a boundary that you need one night each week (or more) to get out of the house and not be in charge of dinner, bedtime or clean-up.
Is it OK to walk away from someone with mental illness?
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to help your partner, it’s just not enough to save the relationship. If your partner refuses to get help and their mental illness continues to negatively affect your relationship and your own well-being, it is ok to walk away.
Higher-functioning partners often feel extremely guilty for even considering walking away from their mentally ill spouse. It can feel like you’re abandoning them right when they need you most.
But it’s OK to prioritize yourself in a relationship. And if you have children who are being affected by a spouse with mental illness, then you need to consider their well-being too.
Can a relationship survive mental illness?
Here’s some good news: while the numbers aren’t exactly rosy when it comes to mental illness and failed relationships, it is totally possible for a relationship to survive mental health challenges.
The key to improving your odds of making it through is seeking professional help. And you can do that either as an individual or as a couple. Supporting a spouse with mental illness is tough. Working with a therapist can make it easier for everyone.
An individual therapist can help your spouse with their specific mental health challenges, or could even give you the support you need while caring for your partner. Working with an online couples therapist can help you address the ways in which mental illness is affecting your marriage. A therapist can also help come up with solutions that support both of you in your relationship.
If you’re looking for help for your relationship, contact Couples Learn today to learn more and book your free consultation. We can help you determine if individual or couples therapy is right for you. We can also talk you through the costs of therapy and any questions you have.