Chronic Illness in Marriage, Faith & Family, Mental Health, Mental Illness in Marriage

When Mental Illness Strikes

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Tips for Couples

Mental illness can be pretty tough on couples. Skyrocketing stress levels can send the marriage catapulting into crisis mode.  This, in turn, makes managing the illness, for all intents and purposes, the sole function of the marriage. Mental illness has a way of wanting to direct the movement of the marriage, rather than the individual partners.  However, it is important that we remember, it is the couple that has the ultimate control.

Therefore, it is simply untrue that a mental illness can destroy a marriage. It is the couple that destroys the either makes or breaks the marriage.


Here’s what you can do to maintain a healthy marriage rather than a marriage that is overwhelmed and steered by mental illness.

First and foremost, it is imperative to know the illness and treatment options. Mental illness is incredibly confusing and deeply challenging for everyone involved. You might even think that your spouse is being lazy, irritable, extreme or irrational, cold and distant or even a little more than just distracted. But these supposed character flaws might actually be symptoms of mental illness. Hence the importance of making certain that your partner is receiving effective treatment.


Find out how you can help your spouse by learning from a mental health professional what role you might be able to play in the treatment plan. Not knowing how you can help your spouse in their recovery can be extremely frustrating and downright exhausting for both partners. Do not be afraid to ask questions to find out how you can best support your spouse during his or her recovery.


Change your perspective and view the diagnosis as just another challenge to overcome. Healthy couples do not allow mental illness to run their marriage, but, instead, they encounter diagnoses as just other challenges. And challenges can be overcome.


Work on your marriage as you would without the mental illness intruding. Honor and care for your marriage as you would without the presence of the mental illness. Many couples fail to attend to their marriage through dating, talking and sharing, which leads to feelings of isolation, which only compounds the stress of the illness itself.  Try carving out time when you both can fully enjoy one another, even if it’s just for a few hours. This will also help a couple become more resilient during tough times.

Maintain positive communication. When couples who continue to say ‘I love you,’ or to check in during the day, whether it be a phone call or text, tend to fare much, much better in terms of marriage longevity.


Continue admiring each other. Stress is a common and overwhelming challenge for couples coping with mental illness. There is some very good research that suggests that, regardless of the level of stress, couples that sustain a sense of admiration for one another co-create relationships that tend to survive.


Check in with each other. Each weekend, sit together for about fifteen minutes or so and talk about your needs and intentions for the upcoming week.. Start off with appreciations and affirmations from the preceding week. Focus on appreciating each other for even the smallest things. This helps keep couples accountable for their marriage’s wellbeing.


Practice self-care regularly. Many people tend to see self-care as selfish.  However, it takes a lot of energy to help your spouse manage such an illness, and taking care of yourself is critical.  Not focusing on your own health increases the risk the disease will suck both people in, jeopardizing the marriage.


Be sure to get enough sleep.  Eat well, participate in physical activity such as Yoga, spend quality time with loved ones and engage in enjoyable activities. For the best self-care plans, I recommend reading Cheryl Richardson’s books, Take Time for Your Life and The Art of Extreme Self-Care.

Do not expect your spouse to meet all your needs. When couples that split up, it is typically because they are stuck in the paradigm that their spouse is here to make them happy and meet all of their needs. These couples have distorted personal needs in which they project their expectations onto the other spouse.  This is turns causes the other spouse to then become resentful and angry when the other spouse fails to meet their needs.


Avoid blaming. Experts often see blaming on both sides, which can go beyond the far mental illness itself. The “healthy” spouse will often run the risk of blaming everything that goes wrong in the relationship on the spouse with the mental illness. However, this is also typically not the case. This in turn becomes a very unhealthy dynamic for a marriage. Instead, try to cultivate understanding while expressing curiosity instead judgment.

Ask open-ended questions about the illness. And really listen to the answers. Although you may not like the answers, having a better understanding is far better than ignoring reality. Not knowing how your spouse is truly doing can be costly. You need to understand them. Even the dark side.

For instance, if your spouse struggles with bipolar disorder and tends to act out, try communicating your concerns, or fears in a gentle non-condemning way so that communication is the process that keeps the marriage growing.

Also, remember, both spouses need to be responsible for themselves, and their healthy responses to situations rather than unhealthy reactions, and their intentions for the marriage.

Seek individual therapy. If you cannot seem to communicate your feelings in a non-judgmental or blaming manner to your spouse, voice them to a therapist. This way, you can process them in a healthy manner when you are with your spouse.


Seek couples therapy. Therapy provides perspective, balance and guidance in a situation that can very easily become imbalanced under the wrong circumstances. Because the mental illness can drive your relationship, couples therapy can be a tremendous help to your marriage.

Many people believe that therapy is not within their budget. However,I beg to differ.   Just as we require gasoline and electricity to make our daily existence run smoothly, a good therapist is a nonnegotiable expense for couple living with mental illness.

Lastly, learn from the struggles. Ask yourself what lessons you are being offered in the situation and if you are learning them well.. Specifically, consider how you are responding to the challenges of your life.  Are there ways you can do it better or differently?” Think about the person that you truly desire to be. We choose a spouse that will challenge us to grow and mental illness is no exception.


Remember that every relationship has brief periods of drama.  It’s far too easy to let these hurtful moments overshadow your entire marriage. The truth of the matter is that if two people truly, madly, deeply, and genuinely love one another and are they are committed and  willing to make things work, they can.

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