Love Matters: Marriage and mental illness in sickness and in health

Love Matters: Marriage and mental illness in sickness and in health

When two people marry, they sign up for late night arguments, unexpected illnesses and difficult decisions. They also sign up for comforting embraces, inside jokes and unconditional, nurturing love despite all of these challenges.

When one or both partners in a couple suffer from mental illness, at least one challenge is obvious from the start.

Loving a person with mental illness

Mental illness can often feel like the third person in a marriage. It causes arguments. It dominates conversations. It delays careers and suffocates social gatherings.

It is absolutely vital that married couples with mental illness do what they can to prevent that illness from taking over their marriage. Here are some steps they can take.

1. Know the illness 

Both partners in the marriage should feel comfortable enough with each other to have frank discussions about the illness. They should be able to discuss their symptoms, their thoughts and their worries. If one member of the couple is mentally healthy, that member should read books, watch videos and search online to better understand and support his or her partner’s well-being. Questions should be encouraged.

In a happy, loving relationship, mental illness should never be the elephant in the room. Communication is essential.

2. Know the treatment options

Untreated mental illness can pose a significant risk to a couple’s well-being. The vast majority of individuals with mental illness respond positively to treatment, experiencing reduced symptoms and an increased quality of life. When people neglect professional treatment, they often place the entire burden of care on their spouse. Although spouses should be supportive, they should not be the only ones responsible for their partner’s mental health.

Spend time together researching treatment options, including therapy and medication. If one treatment method does not work, try another one. Treatment for mental illness is not one-size-fits-all — what works for one person may not work for someone else.

3. Spend some time “away” from the illness

Although it’s important to discuss the illness and the impact it has on both of your lives, spending some time doing traditional couple activities is important, too. Carve out some time each week when you can have fun without focusing on the illness. Have a date night. Play a board game. Cuddle up on the couch.

4. The healthy (or less sick) partner shouldn’t be neglected

Although the healthier partner may feel guilty for enjoying life, he or she should not feel obligated to eschew fun or happiness just because his or her partner is sick. Healthy partners should get enough sleep, eat well and participate in physical activities.

Healthy partners might also feel tempted to pamper or spoil their sick loved ones. Healthy partners might swallow arguments, ignore problems with the relationship or sacrifice their own comfort for the sake of their partner. In a healthy romantic relationship, both members are a team. No one should hold back feelings. Both partners should feel loved, appreciated and heard.

If you or a loved one struggles with a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, the Florida Mental Health Helpline can help. Call 866-846-5588 any time. To learn more about mental illness in relationships, look for more blogs in this “Love Matters” series.