Living with a Mentally Ill Spouse and Enjoying It

If you are living with a mentally ill spouse, you will need to be able to accept the aspects of their diagnosis that can’t change, and do something about the relational factors that can change.

spouse has psychological problems
A spouse’s psychological problems adds stress to you and your relationship

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, each year about one fourth of US adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder and many from more than one.  There is a high probability that either you or your spouse will suffer from a psychological disorder for at least a portion of your marriage.  Although you can find a lot of information on the treatment of mental disorders, there is much less information on how to improve your relationship when your husband or wife has such a problem.

Step one: Learn about your spouse’s psychological disorder

Not all of your problems are going to be the result of your spouse’s mental illness.  To start to differentiate what is caused by the disorder and what is not, you must learn about their disorder. Regardless of the type of disorder, it will result in increased stress within your relationship.  However, it is also possible for relational problems to exacerbate your spouse’s mental illness. By working on the part of your relationship that you can improve, you will be helping your spouse and yourself.  Having a good understanding of your spouse’s psychological problem is a good start.  You can find a lot of good information at the National Institute of Mental Health.

It’s not all about your mentally ill spouse

When there is a psychological disorder present, it too often takes center stage and is used as THE reason for all problems in the relationship.  Although people with mental illnesses do need psychological help for their illness, they may need other help as well. Their family members also may need help to not only deal with increase stress caused by living with a mentally ill person, but to know how to promote their relationship with the mentally ill person. Growing distance in your relationship or your unhappiness may be signs that you need help.  Specifically how to adjust to your spouse’s disorder without being codependent.  Also with knowing when to NOT be accepting or tolerant of your spouse’s behavior (proper use of boundaries).  A mental illness does not justify mistreatment of any family members by the mentally ill person.

You have the power to change the way you respond to your mentally ill spouse

I am a licensed psychologist working as a coach. This level of training and experience allows me to take into consideration the psychological issues involved in every marital situation, including any existing mental illnesses. Clients learn that their spouses can make them into victims, but if they are repeatedly being victimized, they also must be somehow allowing it to happen. If you are repeatedly victimized by your spouse, you also need to realize that the way you respond to that can make the pattern continue or make it stop.  You don’t need to feel guilty or mean for taking a stand, even when your spouse has a mental illness.  Changes that you make which improve the relationship for you ultimately improve the relationship for your spouse as well.

Struggling with your spouse and struggling within yourself

If your spouse has a mental illness, he or she  may  complain about your lack of understanding when you are merely trying to improve your relationship.  At other times, your spouse may become self-condemning in a way that makes it really difficult to be close to him or her. Internally, you may have the same kind of conflict–alternating between believing you should be patient with your spouse and wishing you were not in your relationship at all.  You don’t have to suffer with these conflicts.  No matter what problem your spouse has, many other people have successfully improved their relationship with a spouse who has the same problem. You can be like them, if you will learn what worked for them. There is no need to re-invent the wheel.  The information is readily accessible, as is extra help if you need it. Start by learning on your own, and then get help if you get stuck.  Don’t settle for staying stuck.

You have to work on the relationship, too

The person who has the most power to create change is the one without the mental illness.  It is necessary to learn how to use reasonable limits and methods that build connection with mentally ill spouses. It is simply unrealistic to expect that your husband’s or wife’s counseling or medication is going to do everything that is needed to mend your relationship.  Also, don’t expect your spouse’s medical doctor to give you all the advice you need for your relationship. Medical doctors have very little training or experience in counseling. They are important, but they can never replace your influence as the most important person in your spouse’s life.  Can you imagine a parent saying, “Now that my son in on medication for major depression, I won’t have to do any parenting anymore.”?  Don’t let a diagnosis, a pill, or a counselor stop you from doing a good job as a wife or a husband.

You need two kinds of information

You won’t find a lot of marriage self help books available that take into account the presence of mental illness.  I have addressed this issue in one chapter in my book, Connecting Through “Yes!”  Marital self help books are still valuable, but must be used in conjunction with what you also learn about your spouse’s mental illness. The more you learn, the more you can put the pieces together on your own.  Learn all that you can about your spouse’s disorder.  And, learn how to deal with the kinds of problems that are present in your relationship among people who don’t have disorders.  Then, you can begin to see which problems are caused by the actual disorder, and which would be caused by relationship problems that you would have anyway.

A good clarifying question

“If my spouse was suddenly and completely cured of his or her disorder, which of our problems would still remain?”  That question is going to be one of the most useful for identifying where to start working on your relationship.  Some people have gotten so used to the excuse of the disorder, that they  think nothing can be done until the disorder is somehow removed.  But, actually, many problems in relationships help to maintain the disorder.  It becomes a chicken and egg question.  Stop trying to figure out how things happened.  Instead, focus on what you can start doing to make your relationship better.

Patience is not a skill and not a way to create change

We learn to be patient with people who are mentally ill.  But all that patience does is to maintain current conditions, reducing our hope sometimes to despair. We do need to accept what cannot change,but we do not need to accept what can change. The common psychological disorders do not have as a symptom, “bad relationship with partner.” People who suffer from mental illnesses have the same amount of variability in their relationships as other people.  If your spouse has a mental illness and your relationship is bad, you can work on improving it, despite the presence of the mental illness.

Where to Get Help

If you want to get extra help with your relationship, and your spouse has a psychological disorder, you need to make sure that whoever is helping you is knowledgeable about such disorders.  For example, if your spouse has a substance abuse disorder, then get counseling from someone who treats substance abuse disorders (even though you don’t have one).  Psychologists are good choices for the common psychological disorders.  If you get coaching for your relationship, be sure that the coach is qualified to treat such disorders, even though he or she is doing relationship coaching with you.  Here is a page that will help you learn more about the differences between counseling and coaching.

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