How Mental Illness Affects a Marriage

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One of the heartbreaking sad realities of a marriage in which one partner suffers from mental health issues is a broken relationship leading to divorce.  There is a strong link between divorce and mental illness, the highest ratios belonging to major depression, substance addiction, histrionic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

A partner with a mental health disorder is often debilitated, emotionally, mentally, and even physically.  In many cases, cognitive functioning, social drive, sexual appetite, and social behaviour lie outside the normal limits of acceptance.  These may manifest on decreased or extreme levels, causing chronic stress, anxiety, fear, and frustration on the mentally healthy spouse.

Common Challenges a Marriage Faces with a Mentally Ill Partner

The vow to stay together “for better or for worse” is challenged by the fact that the tenor of the marriage changes as the symptoms of mental illness bring about these conditions:

  1. Loss of a sense of partnership

For the mentally stable partner, there is “no partner to turn to” when situations become   difficult.  The mentally ill partner however may come to depend heavily on the spouse for emotional, social, and even financial support.  Instead of a partner-based relationship, the healthy spouse may find himself or herself alone with the burden of keeping the family together, without help or support from the significant other.

  1. Financial issues

Mental health disorders debilitate and may cause a sick individual to lose his job or source of income.  In this case, it falls on his/her spouse to financially carry the family alone.  This puts a strain on the relationship with the healthy spouse developing resentments and the unhealthy one, being frustrated with himself and further worsening his mental condition.

  1.  Single parenting and taking the role of a caregiver

Not only does the healthy spouse lose a partner when mental illness strikes, he also has to assume the role of a caregiver who has to weather the storm of emotional upheavals mental illnesses bring.  The healthy partner also has to make decisions alone regarding children, if any, and steer the family into the right direction, almost without help from the spouse.  This often leaves the healthy partner feeling alone, trapped with an enormous burden from which there is scant relief.

  1.   Sexual distancing and loss of desire

The chronic burden of caregiving, dependency of partner, and other issues that may crop up can decrease sexual desire of the caregiving partner for the other.  If the mentally ill partner is experiencing major depression, he may lose his sexual appetite as a common repercussion of the malady.  Sexual distancing also erodes emotional closeness between partners which over time contributes to the dissolution of the marriage.

  1.   Social distancing and isolation

When the behaviour of the mentally unhealthy partner starts to become socially unacceptable and embarrassing, such as compulsive habits or lecherous remarks, friends may start withholding invitations and the couple may find themselves isolated from their former social groups.  Even family relations may place some distance from the mentally ill person, and in consequence, isolate the other stable partner as well through no fault of his own.  This could exacerbate the healthy spouse’s feelings of being alone with the burden of caring for a mentally ill patient.

According to John Gottman, psychology professor emeritus and author of over 40 books and academic articles on marriage and parenting, the four horsemen of the apocalypse that destroy marriages and lead to divorce are:  contempt, defensiveness, criticism, and stonewalling.  In relationships where one or both partners are dealing with their mental health issues, these four elements crop up more frequently, making a marriage with a mentally ill partner rather difficult to upkeep.

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What Can Be Done

There is no one-way-fits-all approach for helping a deteriorating marriage on its feet.  Just as it is with any malady, seeking professional help is paramount when the symptoms are still at their early stages.  In a marriage, early counselling coupled with medical treatment is key.  Sadly, couples who come in for counselling usually have gone years relating dysfunctionally with each other so that one spouse has already seriously been considering divorce.

It is best for both partners to seek counselling or therapy together.  The therapist can mediate between both parties, set a “no blame” environment, help the mentally ill partner acknowledge how his behaviour is affecting the relationship, and reduce relationship distress.  The therapist may also prescribe medication as part of his therapy plan in order to improve the mentally ill spouse’s ability to function and communicate.

There are, however, cases where the severity of mental illness mandates a separation, especially where the mental and physical health of children are involved.  Violent behaviour, for instance, may be one imperative for couples to distance themselves from each other.  Staying in a marriage where one is mentally ill is a case-to-case basis.  For some undergoing couple’s therapy, mental illness can somehow strengthen the relationship bonds; for others, however, sticking it out together just cannot be an option any longer.

Parenting With a Mental Health Problem

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Being a parent is no easy task and definitely not for the fainthearted.  Parenting becomes even more difficult if the parent himself or herself is disadvantaged with the added liability of having a mental health problem.

How does Mental Illness Affect Parenting?

Many children live with a parent who may have had a short-term mental illness or is currently suffering an ongoing one in which alcoholism, drug dependency, or depression is a fact of life.  U.K. statistics show that about 50% to 66% of parents with severe, long-term illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar, and personality disorder live with one or more kids under the age of 18.  These estimates intimate that about 17,000 children and adolescents are subject to living conditions under a mentally ill parent.

With a mental illness to deal with, many parents are under tremendous pressure to carry out their daily roles as nurturers, not to mention other roles such as workers, partners, friends, and the like that they struggle to fulfill.  Their troubling mental health, if not treated and supported, will often disrupt the stability of their children’s lives and their relationship with them.  Since parents with a mental problem can be unpredictable, their children may not know how to deal with sudden emotional crisis or how to come to terms with the emotional issues that come along with it.

A parent with mental disorder may feel that they have to put the needs of their children first which is exactly what any parent is compelled to do, whether they have or do not have any mental disabilities.  For mentally disadvantaged parents, doing so however may entail curtailed hospital stays and putting the brakes on medication expenses and intake.  As this may seem like a good thing to do in the short run, skipping or avoiding treatments may backfire on your capability as a parent, upending the balance of your relationship with your children.  Untreated depression, for instance, may make it very difficult or almost impossible for a parent to be emotionally engaged in their children’s lives  so much so that parent-child communication can become impaired.

How Does a Parent’s Mental Health Problems Affect Their Children?

Because the effects of mental illnesses are varied and sometimes unpredictable in individuals, so are the effects these have on the children under an afflicted parent.  Although genetics and home life pose high risks for mental illness on children with mentally unhealthy parents, not all children grow up to inherit the problem or be so negatively affected.  Just because a child’s parent has mental illness, it is not enough to conclude that the child will become mentally affected as well.

A child’s mental health under a mentally unwell parent will hinge on the following factors:

  • severity and length of time of the parent’s mental illness
  • age of the child during the onset of the parent’s illness
  • how the parent’s mental condition affects his behaviour and how this behaviour affects the child
  • degree of stress arising from the parent’s behaviour
  • degree to which the parent’s symptoms interfere with positive parenting such as parental interest and participation in the child’s daily life

With the above factors in mind, it is correct to surmise that a parent’s negative behaviour as a result of mental illness, however, can have many troublesome effects on a child.  Some kids withdraw emotionally, become anxious, and find focusing on schoolwork next to impossible.  Most of them are ashamed of their parent’s illness, consequently finding it distressing to talk about their problems and get the help they need.  Children also may become excessively worried about “getting infected” by the illness and may start to develop emotional problems.  The risk of these children acquiring mental illness is further escalated when poverty, bad living conditions, and chronic instability form the framework of their lives.

What Can a Mentally Ill Parent Do?

When a parent is mentally unwell, it is tough to make children, particularly very young children, understand and make sense of their parent’s behaviour.  Why does Mommy seem so happy for a whole week and then so despondent the next?

parenting with mental illnessOne of the best things a mentally ill parent can do is provide clear facts and information of their condition.  Children need to know what to expect from their ill parent’s conduct.  This will help mitigate the anxiety and confusion children often feel when faced with an adult’s bewildering behaviour.

The sick parent may also educate their kids on what they may find helpful and unhelpful in times when their illness strikes.  Kids can feel like they are contributing to their parent’s attempts to get well.  Bringing in another adult to take on the major part of the caregiving burden is a necessity to avoid placing a huge burden of caregiving on the children.

Parents may draw up a plan for childcare before a situation arises where they need to be hospitalized or are unable to do their responsibilities.  This plan should detail the child’s daily routine, likes, and dislikes and entrusted to a responsible child caregiver.  This way, the child can have a sense of continuity, security, and stability when the care giving is simply continued as is.

Above all, a mentally unwell parent must seek the proper professional treatment.  This way, the right decisions and support may be received, important factors that will greatly help both parent and child cope well with living problems from mental health issues.

How to Nurture Great Family Relationships

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 When we take a look at relationships, we can not fail to look at the family because that is where one learns how to relate with those around him or her. Thereafter, one can gradually learn to relate with the world around them, however small or big. The best gifts parents or guardians can give to children are nurturing and caring. It is these gifts that allow for healthy relationships both within the family unit and with people outside that unit hence grooming well rounded people. Because of these gifts, these children will also reciprocate what they were taught to their parents or guardians when they are of advanced age. Therefore, that means that if the family relationships are not well nurtured, a lot of pain, hurt, havoc and later on crime is brought into being. For example, a son that has not been taught to relate well with family members will not know how important apologizing is, will not think that it is important to visit a grandparent who is in a home for the old. Let us see how we can best develop family relationships and how to strengthen them because they are the basis for the development of other relationships in life.

Love

This is the epicentre of a home or family for without it the family is in disarray. Every human being desires to be loved and to love and it is in a family where love must first be seen. Love in a family setting is that close personal blend of mental and physical togetherness. Love means caring, a sense of belonging, privacy, and intimacy. An environment that is charged with love has got a sense of honesty, patience, forgiveness, tolerance, and understanding. A family is said to love when activities therein are shared, gratitude is expressed freely and genuinely. Love means that people take time to nurture it, show affection and have an attitude of positivity.

Loyalty

For a family to be strong there has to be devotion and a sense of loyalty among the members of the family as this shows that the family sticks together. Such family members stand by one another in stormy weather and can defend one another in case of attack from an outsider. Loyalty is that attribute that grows no matter the situation in the family; poverty or wealth, sickness or good health. Devotion and loyalty in a family will mean that even when the times are hard on any of the family members, they can count on their family members to cheer them on or to give them a shoulder to cry on. These two attributes also nurture a sense of giving and receiving hence helping people learn how to negotiate in other life relationships.

Leadership

This is an essential aspect in a family because a family without a leader will not stand. Usually it is the elders within a family that take up the leadership role. For any family to survive, a set of rules or guidelines are needed for it is these that help shape the family members up and make leadership possible. These usually silent rules are made basing on how well the family members understand one another, not on force. These guidelines usually flow from the adults to the younger ones with firmness yet with fairness for results to be achieved. It is in such strong families that people learn to have their say with respect, decision making is taught at an early age and even the younger ones learn how to make and enforce rules. Like in any other society, the initial stages may not pass without crisis but working together and listening to one another will enable these rules to be laid down and followed willingly.

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Learning

It is within a family that skills, values and behaviours are learned. In families, people are expected to control and manage their learning experiences for it is these that help in establishing a pattern for home life and guide children when they are out of home. Families are also expected to involve the neighbourhood, school, business, church and government in the raising of children however, never allow the forces of our societies to rule our homes and family lives. Strong families are the ones that learn through experience and teach by example while explaining and executing family values.

Laughter

It is said that laughter is medicine to the soul and this also for our families. Humour helps families to escape the tensions of life for through laughter we get to see who we are in an honest and objective way. Family building is a very serious matter however; taking it too seriously causes tension among family members. It is through laughter that balance is brought into the efforts we make in family building and makes life look more real. However, laughter must not be brought on because one is miserable, it should be natural and positive in nature. Laughing at someone causes division while laughing together fosters unity. Leaning to use laughter positively enables families to bond more, release tension and build more energies to work better.

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However, many of us wonder how we can manage to keep our family relationships strong for a really long time if not forever. This because very many storms come our way that we tend to violate the values we were taught. Here are some ways or patterns we can use to keep our family relationships great.

Appreciation

For a family to stay strong; not divided, talking and showing appreciation for one another is important. As humans, it has been said that we have a strong need for love; however, we also have a strong need for appreciation. Some people work so hard even when the duty is too much for them just for the sake of being appreciated at the end of the day. Therefore, for a healthy family relationship, appreciation is needed. It enables self esteem to be built and people are motivated to continue behaving in a positive way to one another. In a family, appreciation means

  • Treating family members as our best friends
  • Showing love to one another in small ways on a daily basis
  • Receiving and giving compliments gracefully
  • Showing a lot of appropriate affection
  • Applauding the strengths and achievements of family members
  • Taking time to say, ‘I love you’, more often
  • Remembering and celebrating special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries
  • Creating a friendly atmosphere in the home

Communication

Developing the art of communication is what makes any family strong. Developing communication skills calls for family members to spend more time with one another, talking about everything and anything ranging from small and trivial issues to important life changing issues. Families that do not value communication can never build great relationships with one another or even out of the family circle. Communication is the way emotions and love are expressed therefore we can not help but keep communication a part of us to foster great family ties. Good communication calls for;

  • Trusting each other
  • Listening and not just hearing, more so without distraction
  • Going the extra mile to check what one really meant in case there was something unclear
  • Trusting one another
  • Being honest and open but also kind
  • Avoiding reading between lines or reading one’s mind
  • Walking in the other person’s shoes
  • Avoiding criticism; more so negative criticism, evaluating as well as acting superior
  • Dealing with specifics and not generalities
  • Tackling one issue at a time
  • Attacking and dealing with an issues not an individual
  • Developing an understanding attitude

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Time together

For a family to come out of weakness to strength, they need to spend more time with each other. We need to avoid the issue of, ‘I am busy’ all the time, if we are to build great family relations. Some people may say that in as much as we do not spend a lot of time together, the few times that we do have quality to them. However, studies have shown that quality and quantity matter for meaningful relationships to be developed and maintained. A lot of time together that is filled with arguments and bickering will not yield much nor will small times that are filled with quality activities. Family memoirs are built on lots of family activities and lots of time spent together. Time together as a family means

  • Communication is enhanced
  • A family identity is developed; family members develop a sense of belonging, unity is fostered
  • ‘Fizzle and die’ that is found in some marriages is avoided
  • Alienation, loneliness, and isolation are taken out of the picture
  • An opportunity to develop other family strengths

One may wonder what to do when families or family members come together and the answer will be anything and everything. They could;

  • Share yard and house chores
  • Engage in outdoor sports
  • Go for picnics
  • Share meals
  • Go for walks, mountain hike
  • Engage in camping
  • Go for movies
  • Engage in indoor games like scrabble, jigsaw puzzles
  • Go for bowling
  • Engage in religious activities
  • Engage in school activities such as attending one’s recital
  • Celebrate a special occasion like a birthday, an anniversary

Commitment 

For strong family relationships to be built people need to be committed to one another; they need to value family unity. Devotion allows for a firm foundation to be established for strong family ties. Devoted family members have this in mind;

  • Every family member is valuable
  • Bad times do not necessarily mean destroyed family ties
  • Sexual faithfulness is important in marriage
  • Family is number one priority
  • Work (office or family business) comes after family
  • Sacrifices have to be made for family to thrive
  • Forgiveness must be given to every family member
  • Priorities have to be set and known
  • Family traditions must be set and treasured
  • Some of the common goals have to be shared

Coping ability

For family members to say that they have strong family relationships, they should look at storms, stress and the like as opportunities to grow other than burdens. A strong family must have good coping skills for the ability to cope and solve problems is what gives a family the confidence that they can deal with issues that come their way. There are a number of coping strategies and they include the following;

  • No single family member has to shoulder all the responsibility that comes with solving a crisis, every family member has to converge and help in solving it. Through sharing this responsibility, every one in the family can pour his or her energy in doing what they do best in order to solve the crisis.
  • Openness during communication makes solving of problems easier. During a crisis, uncertainty and change are experienced hence anger, anxiety, fear, guilt and depression come up. Therefore communicating effectively will give room to family members to freely air out their feelings and express their emotions and this is key to coming out of a crisis triumphantly.
  • There is need to see positivity in every situation hence focus on those positive issues when solving a problem. This is what counsellors call reframing: it is when one sees rose petals other than the thorns beneath. It is this positive perspective that enables the family to cope during stormy weathers without getting overwhelmed.
  • Flexibility is also needed if a family is to cope with problems and come out successfully. Strong families, change, bend and adapt and when the bad times are behind them, they are still one solid unit.
  • Some problems can be so overwhelming that it takes someone from without to help family get things in order with less damage. It is a strong family that can allow to get hep from outside for they realise that it does not show weakness; failure to solve problems in-house, but it is a sign of maturity; we can not do it all. Strong families realise that there are other people that can be brought on board to help end these problems with much more success than when they do it on their own. Outside help may be sought from church, friends, professionals, and extended family.
  • Spiritual resources such as the Bible, counsel from religious leaders can help families get through crises. Spiritual beliefs help families get things into perspective for they are usually a source of comfort, give a sense of peace and direction and give more meaning to life during times of turmoil.

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Spiritual wellness

It does not matter what a family indulges in; religious services, ceremonies or none of the aforementioned things, a strong family needs to have a belief that gives them purpose and strength. This is called spirituality; a force that enables one to go beyond themselves and get connected to something larger than themselves. Many believe that humans have a spiritual side of them and it is this side that enables us to answer simple yet challenging questions such as, why am I here?, what is life?

Spirituality does a lot for a family more so when this spirituality is shared by all family members and the help comes in form of;

  • Providing a character expression for daily living
  • Providing spiritual heritage
  • Giving a family an awareness that there is a divine presence in their lives
  • Helping families cope in times of tumult
  • Providing meaningful rituals and traditions
  • Providing a sense of peace and freedom
  • Giving pointers for living
  • Helping a family maintain a positive sense of living

I believe that with the information given above, our family relationships will thrive and they will be maintained for generations to come.