How to Cope When Your Partner Has a Mental Illness

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Mental illness is very hard on a marriage or any relationship. The stress can often reach a crisis level. You can fall into a pattern where managing the illness becomes a role around which the relationship is centered. Mental illness does not have to destroy a marriage or partnership, even with the stress and focus it brings. In spite of the obvious challenges, there are ways to maintain a healthy relationship when your partner has a mental illness.

Tips for Coping When Your Partner Has Mental Illness

If you're in a relationship with someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness, give these tips a try.

Show Support and Sympathy

For a newly diagnosed person, this news can be devastating, embarrassing and even frightening. The uncertainty and stigma associated with mental illness can cause the sufferers to worry that you may not love or desire them, and may no longer want to be married to them.

It’s important to let your partner know that you are there for and love them “in sickness and in health.” This reassurance will go a long way toward strengthening his or her determination to get professional help. On the other hand, a negative reaction from you can potentially exacerbate symptoms of the mental illness and bring on additional feelings of hopelessness.

Educate Yourself

Many people are uninformed about mental illness or rely on inaccurate information. There is a lot of misinformation about the causes and best treatment options for different mental health disorders.

The absolute best plan of action is to seek out high-quality psychological and medical professionals, then seek out literature and online information about the particular diagnosis from legitimate sources only. Websites that you rely on should have good reputations or come recommended by your psychotherapist or physician.

Symptoms of mental illness can be off-putting and confusing. It is easy to think that your partner is distant, lazy, distracted, irritable, or irrational. Some of these “character flaws” might actually be symptoms of mental illness.

The effective treatment combining therapy and medication is crucial. Mental health professionals can also educate you about what role you can and should play in your partner's treatment plan. Organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), or Mental Health America (MHA) are also very good sources of practical information, resources, and support.

Do Not Become a Therapist or Enabler

Beyond educating yourself on how to help your partner, it is not your responsibility to be their therapist. This will not work in the long term for either of you or for the rest of your family. This is inappropriate even if you are a trained mental health professional. Let the outside experts do their job with your partner. Your role is to provide love, support, and sympathy for your partner during their recovery efforts.

Furthermore, those with mental illness are responsible for managing their illness, so that they can be healthy and productive as partners and in other areas of life. You should not become their “crutch” or their enabler. They must take responsibility (as much as possible) for their own treatment plan and well-being, and for how their illness will affect you and others.

Seek Counseling

Therapy can help you can process your feelings in a healthy way, both for your own coping and as a way to communicate with your partner. Counseling is a fantastic resource to help gain perspective, guidance, and equilibrium in a situation that can otherwise quickly get out of hand.

As the partner of someone with a mental health condition, it is not unusual to experience a range of scary emotions that you think you should not be having, feelings such as hate, frustration or anger. Emotional exhaustion is not unusual.

Such painful emotions can be explored in a productive way with proper counseling. Couples can learn to establish expectations and healthy boundaries. Couples counseling can help prevent you from falling into unhealthy dynamics. For example, the ‘healthy’ partner runs the risk of blaming everything that goes wrong on the partner with mental illness. This is not productive for either of you.

Practice Self-Care

Self-care is not selfish, but a necessity if you have a partner with mental health problems. If you don’t focus on your own health, you are at risk of being sucked into the vortex of the mental illness, putting your relationship at risk. Go back to the basics: get enough sleep, do some regular physical activity, eat well, spend time with friends or loved ones, and engage in activities or hobbies that you enjoy.

Be very careful about getting to the point where you experience “caregiver fatigue” or burn-out. This is a common scenario when dealing with an ill or disabled partner. It is critical to take care of your own health.

Life can throw major challenges into your relationship if your partner is diagnosed with mental illness. Ask yourself if you are responding well to this new scenario, and to other challenges in your life. Are you stepping up in a way you that you are proud of or are you avoiding doing your part to help your partner, your family, your relationship, your marriage, and yourself?

A Word From Verywell

Successful couples do not allow mental illness to destroy their marriage or relationship but instead view this circumstance as a challenge to be managed and overcome. Both partners must be responsible for themselves and have a healthy response and reaction to unexpected or problematic situations to thrive. You can both make adjustments so that the new reality of the partnership becomes a manageable and happy situation.

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