Marriage is difficult. This is no surprise to anyone who is married. When one spouse suffers from mental illness, then marriage is even more complicated. There is so much stigma around the term “mental illness”, but what I’m talking about today is any emotional or behavior disorder that impacts daily living. Here are some tips for spouses coping with their partner’s illness:
- Get educated. Learn the facts about your partner’s disorder. A great resource is the National Alliance on Mental Illness website: https://www.nami.org. The more you understand about your partner’s disorder, the necessary treatment and the obstacles he or she faces, the better you can separate the person from the illness. For example, when you understand that a person suffering from depression might feel anhedonic (loss of pleasure), then it isn’t personal when your spouse comes to a party with you but doesn’t appear to be having any fun.
- Talk about it. Instead of sweeping it under the rug, have honest discussions with your partner. Work to understand what this experience is like for him or her. Similarly, be open to sharing your struggles as well. It might require couples counseling to get this conversation going, but in the long run, the more open each of you can be, the more you will be able to support each other.
- Understand what kind of support your partner needs. Different people want to be supported in different ways. Talk to your partner about what feels supportive to him or her.
- Seek support for yourself. This may be professional support in the form of your own therapy or a support group, or it may be tapping into friends and family who understand your experience. It can be stressful to support a loved one when they are acting out or shutting down. You need to remember to care for yourself as well.
- Your partner is still accountable. It can be too easy to fall into the trap of caregiver and sick spouse. Having empathy for your partner’s experience doesn’t mean that they get a free pass on everything. The first part of being accountable is being accountable for getting necessary help. Your partner is accountable for going to treatment (e.g. therapy, medication) in order to manage the illness. If your partner were diabetic, he or she would be accountable for taking insulin and managing their diet and exercise. Your spouse’s therapist and/or psychiatrist will similarly make recommendations.
Making sure that each of you is getting the support you need will be critical in the long run. Your partner will need your love and support as well as professional support. You will also need support from your spouse and loved ones in order to sustain yourself during the challenging times.