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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.