Mental Illness and Marriage – A Four Part Series

Let’s face up to a harsh reality: approximately 26% of American adults (over 18) suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder of one type or another. That’s 1 in 4 grownups – something like 60 million people – struggling with a range of issues that affect their daily lives… And for many, their marriages.

We want to dive into this all too common scenario – but the problems themselves are very complex, very nuanced, and come in a tremendous spectrum of shapes and sizes. While certain disorders are diagnosable and treatable, they occur with varying degrees of severity, a range of symptoms, and each individual will process these challenges in a different way.

That means that broad, blanket statements won’t always apply. It means that relationships challenged by mental illness are not going to have a cookie cutter solution or a one-size-fits-all method of overcoming obstacles.

Over the course of several upcoming articles, we’re going to take a closer look at a few of the more common mental health issues people face, how they affect marriages, and the potential solutions you and your family can look to.

It’s an awful lot to cover, and with each and every one of the mental health issues we cover, remember that professional diagnosis and recommended treatment take authority. If you think your spouse is suffering from mental illness, but remains undiagnosed, encourage them to seek help.

So, before we move on to specific disorders and how they can cause difficulty in your marriage, let’s look at the whole ball of wax in a general way.

It's important to address mental issues in marriage and not let them fester.
It’s important to address mental issues in marriage and not let them fester.

How Mental Illness Affects Your Marriage and Family

Mental illness is, in many ways, a “shared experience” for the affected individual, their spouse, and their family members. Because we’re focused on marriage here, much of what we cover is going to be directed toward the spouse of someone suffering from mental illness.

That isn’t to say that those of you reading this who are currently struggling with mental health issues won’t have something to gain here, just that for many couples in the thick of dealing with these problems, their spouse may be undiagnosed, unmedicated, or even entirely unaware of the issues they are going through (such is the nature of some mental illness).

The actual effects on relationships are numerous, and these examples can ring true regardless of the specific illness or disorder. Here are some of the most prevalent:

• Unfamiliarity

Some mental illness doesn’t begin to manifest itself or lead to major episodes until later in life. For this reason, a spouse can feel like they “no longer know” their partner. As the problems begin to emerge, it can causes spouses to panic, and even if treatment and/or recovery has begun, the changes in behavior (and even personality) can create a rift that is very difficult to overcome.

Fortunately, as the spouse suffering with a disorder begins to overcome some of their challenges, couples can rebuild their connection, “rediscovering” one another in light of techniques, medications, or other therapies that help reduce the symptoms of mental illness.

• Practical Problems

Severe mental illness brings about a range of practical, “day to day” problems related to the basic logistics of operating a household and family. If the problems mean leaving a job, financial worries can lead to additional stress, as can unexpected costs of therapy or medication.

Additionally, logistical issues like paying bills, taking care of kids, keeping the house in order, and so on can become especially difficult if one member of the marriage is facing severe anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems that make these “basic” tasks harder to complete. The “work load” all falls to one person.

• Emotional Stress

For the person not currently struggling with mental illness, untreated or undiagnosed problems (and resulting behavior) of their spouse’s can be an exhausting, trying period.

It can feel burdensome not only for the practical reasons mentioned above, but also cause persistent worry about the family’s wellbeing and the future of the marriage – not to mention the basic wellbeing of the person they love.

Depending on the nature of the illness, it can lead to erratic or unpredictable behavior, aggression and arguments, reclusion, stretches of manic energy, obsession over seemingly inconsequential things, or any other myriad of behavioral issues.

These can all cause the other spouse to feel insecure, unable to predict the day to day. It leaves them not knowing how to help, or even how to cope with the ups and downs their loved on is experiencing.

• “Caretaker Syndrome”

Even when problems are being treated, medication administered, and so forth, mental illness can lead to an imbalance of “power” and control in the relationship. Instead of being partners, one spouse may begin to feel more like a caretaker – ensuring that medicine is taken properly, mitigating behaviors, helping avoid triggers, and just assisting their spouse in managing their disease.

This creates additional barriers to communication, a less-than-healthy dynamic between partners (even if the ill individual is actively recovering), and difficulty finding intimacy (more on this below).

• Intimacy

We all know that physicality and sex are an important part of a healthy marriage, and mental health problems can put a major damper on this part of the relationship in a variety of ways.

Not only does the “caretaker” dynamic often have a negative impact on desire and attraction, the mental illness itself – especially deep depression – can leave one partner uninterested in sex or even connection. Other anxiety related disorders can lead to unhealthy obsessions with certain sexual acts or aggression, and even some medications can affect libido.

• Social Stigma

While awareness and empathy for mental illness are certainly increasing across the country and around the world, there can still be certain social stigmas that come from acknowledging such problems with friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, etc.

Not that it has to be everyone’s business, but in many cases, “word gets out” whether you want it to or not, and such external pressure/scrutiny from others can lead to even further conflict within the relationship, and increased feelings of desperation for the spouse trying to help their loved one recover.

Ok – this is, at this point, a fairly dismal picture… And it’s true that for many, many couples, mental illness can wreak havoc on the relationship and household, leading to divorces or longstanding problems, financial worry, and ongoing emotional distress.

But this doesn’t have to be hopeless! These problems are all very real, but you CAN navigate through them – often with professional and medical help.

This introduction is meant to outline some of the sever problems couples face, and to help you get a sense of whether your spouse may be suffering from undiagnosed mental illness. In the subsequent articles of this series, we’ll look closer at specific disorders, how their symptoms can hurt marriages, and ways that things can get better!

Don’t lose hope!

For more advice on how to strengthen your marriage, check out the StrongMarriageNow System today!
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Dr. Dana Fillmore and Amy Barnhart, co-Founders, StrongMarriageNow.com

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