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How to Support Your Spouse Through a Mental Illness

mental illness in relationshipWithout a doubt — mental illness is tough on people. Many couples dealing with mental illness find their marriages or relationships in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, there is no proven formula for how to protect your relationship or marriage when your spouse suffers with a mental illness any more than, if he or she had a chronic physical illness, or was terminally ill. The only difference is that mental illness isn’t always visible.

Coping with Mental Illness in a Relationship

For quite some time, mental health professionals working with couples acknowledge that individuals who have a mental illness can have a negative influence on their spouse’s mental health, and vice versa.

When relationships are under stress, partners begin to emotionally and physically distance themselves from each other. They tend to avoid each other.  And, eventually when they do come together, it’s often strained — which results in restrained or surface-level conversations. As both partners feel an increased level of despair and frustration, working together as a common unit to tackle ordinary problems is torn apart.

If one or both of the partners struggle with a mental illness, negative emotional reactions often increase. Individuals tend to isolate themselves.  They may turn to alcohol and drugs to numb difficult emotions.  And sometimes they might turn to having extramarital encounters.

When the marital stress is at its peak, there’s a greater likelihood of substance misuse, movement toward divorce, and male aggression.


If your spouse or significant other is suffering from a mental illness, here are a few support and coping suggestions.

  • Learn more about the mental illness: Educating yourself about the illness is vital in supporting a spouse with a mental illness. Mental illness affects every aspect of life. The more you know the more compassionate and supportive you’ll be toward your spouse.
  • It’s an illness, it’s not personal: This will be hard to remember when your spouse takes his or her feelings and behavior out on you.  But it’s important to remind yourself that the mood and behavior are symptoms of the illness. It is not personal. At the same time, consider setting your boundaries and gently let your spouse know when they’ve crossed the line and hurt your feelings. You can be supportive without becoming a victim or being a doormat.
  • Recognize it’s not their fault: This may also be hard to remember when your spouse is acting angry, anxious, sad, or for the most part, unpleasant. However, it’s important to keep in mind that your spouse doesn’t like how he or she feels or acts any better than you do. Remember you’re dealing with the symptoms of an illness. The symptoms are as real of a medical condition as diabetes or high blood pressure.  And these symptoms are not simply the result of a bad attitude or negative thoughts.
  • Know your spouse’s limitations: Living with mental illness can be very discouraging and frustrating.  Try not to worsen the situation by unintentionally setting your partner or spouse up for failure.  Don’t expect him or her to do things that they aren’t capable of doing. Know and accept their limitations.
  • Take care of yourself: As you deal with the challenges, take good care of yourself.  Self-care behaviors include good nutrition, rest, exercise, taking breaks, and getting involved in activities that bring you pleasure. Make choices that help you become stronger and healthier — both physically and emotionally.
  • Build up support: If your life begins to feel like it’s out of control, don’t hesitate to seek counseling for yourself.  Develop a support system and resources that encourage you. Support groups can be a source of friendship and encouragement.  One great resource for help is the National Institute of Mental Health.  This website provides a variety of articles, support networks, and information about mental-health issues.
  • Dish out tough love:  In the midst of manic episodes or a deep depression, your spouse may not know when it’s necessary to get some help. Additionally, your partner or spouse may not be the best judge of their current mental state. You may need to seek medical help on your spouse’s behalf. Prepare yourself to hold them accountable to take their medication and manage their illness.  Together, you can work through this issue and become stronger.
  • Communicate openly: Encourage your spouse to talk about his or her feelings. In the midst of a bipolar state, anxiety, or a depressive episode, if could be very challenging for your partner or spouse to initiate open and meaningful communication. However, if you both can learn to communicate during the difficult times and express your emotions, you can each find some peace.

When Things are Out of Control

Even though you may have care-taking responsibilities — like making doctor’s appointments, transporting your spouse to those appointments, and reminding them to take medication — it’s important for you to remember that you’re not responsible for your spouse’s mental health.

Some things you cannot control — and your partner’s mental health is one of them. You can offer your love, support, prayers, and encouragement, but ultimately you cannot change your spouse.  Remember, they are not their illness. While it’s important to remember that they have a mental illness, it’s also important to separate your spouse from their illness.

It’s very natural for you to want to emotionally disconnect and safeguard yourself when your spouse is showing signs of anger, anxiety, or depression — and exhibiting behavior that seems foreign from the person you know them to be.

But remember that underneath all of those unpleasant symptoms is the person you love — who needs you to draw close to them during their time of suffering.

Featured image courtesy of Joe via Flickr | Cropped and Resized | CC-BY-SA-2.0

About the author: George Zapo, CPH is certified in Public Health Promotion and Education (Kent State University). George focuses on providing informative articles promoting healthy behavior and lifestyles.

1 comment… add one
  • Dave

    This information was very helpful thank you.

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