January 1, 2018
by Alex Moore
Having a spouse, relative, or significant other with a mental illness is a common reality that brings significant challenges to a relationship. Imagine you have just begun dating someone new. You like him a lot, and you feel it might turn into love. However, one night he drops a bombshell. He has bipolar disorder, for which he is currently taking medication. He felt he needed to tell you before things got too serious—which gives more evidence that he's a good guy and makes you like him even more.
What do you do? Is this something you can deal with in your life? What if you get married and have kids? How will this affect your family? Conversely, consider those spouses who begin their life together healthy, but at some point down the road develop a mental illness over the course of life?
These are big questions, important questions, and mental illness is not something that has easy answers. One of the first things you’ll want to do, of course, is learn more about the issue at hand.
Mental illness is quite common: In any given year in the United States, 1 out of every 5 adults is suffering from a mental health disorder. In fact, probably someone very close to you has experienced some form of mental illness, or perhaps you have experienced it yourself. So you likely know that many relationships can be successful, even thrive, in spite of the mental illness of one or both of the partners.
That being said, a mental health disorder can cause very serious problems in any relationship. Many mental illnesses respond quite well to medication and/or therapy, but generally, the illness does not go away, and medications can stop working or become less effective over time. There are also side effects to consider, such as low libido or daytime drowsiness. These are common side effects of many antidepressant medications.
Serious mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or long-term recurring major depression, can be very difficult to treat. Consider schizophrenia symptoms when the disease is in full swing: hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thoughts and speech, among others. These behaviors are incredibly challenging for loved ones.
Bipolar disorder is another very limiting illness. It is harder to diagnose because the symptoms can seem like fairly typical behavior, especially in the short term. Bipolar disorder is characterized by intense highs and lows: periods of mania preceded and followed by periods of deep depression. When manic, the bipolar individual may have grandiose ideas, periods of uncharacteristic anger and aggression, and confusion and inattention. When in a depressed state, the individual may be suicidal and have little desire to do anything. These, too, can be very difficult behaviors for loved ones to deal with.
Caregivers and family members of those with mental health disorders often experience burnout and lack of time for self-care. This can lead to frustration, anger, and even thoughts of shame and hopelessness if they see little or no progress from their efforts. Dealing with bad behavior can be problematic because it’s difficult to determine whether it’s the mental illness or simply bad behavior. Mental illness quite often results in divorce.
Therapy can help individuals learn life skills to better manage the mental illness, alone or in combination with appropriate medication. Additionally, couples therapy is very helpful for gaining relationship skills. Therapy is important, of course, but it is just a first step.
A study of 50 family members and caregivers dealing with mental illness found that people tend to go through stages as they manage their emotions. They eventually attain the realization that they cannot control the illness. This stage gives them the greatest measure of peace because they can feel less responsibility without guilt.
The high and lows of living with mental illness were described well by actress Patty Duke, who wrote two best-selling memoirs detailing her battle with bipolar disorder. As a child actress who had a television show created for her and titled with her own name, and who went on to star in many television shows and movies, she was incredibly successful at her craft. However, her illness took a great toll on her personal life. She had a tumultuous romantic life with many affairs and four marriages. Her fourth marriage, though, lasted 30 years and was reportedly very happy.
John Nash, the man who inspired the movie A Beautiful Mind, had debilitating schizophrenia but then had a remission—he felt he “aged out” of it—and went on to win the Nobel Prize for his contributions to mathematics and economics. He also had a happy marriage, but only after enduring many turbulent years as a schizophrenic. Eight to ten percent of those with schizophrenia have spontaneous remissions, as John did.
Examples abound of the good and bad in relationships with those with mental illness, but only you can answer for yourself whether you should embark on such a relationship. Your personalities, the illness, the treatment, your communication styles, and your desires should all be considered. If you decide to go forward, it takes patience and perseverence, but it can be done.