Being Married to Mental Illness

I titled this Blog “Being Married to Mental Illness”, as I have found being married to my husband Joe of 32 years, there is a third party in our marriage, mental illness. It has often drawn us together on a more intimate level of understanding and bonding as we have navigated through the symptoms I display. At other times, it rips us apart with no mercy, leaving us feeling as two strangers enmeshed on an inexplicable journey to hell.

The trick is not to take it as all good, or all bad. You take it for what it is, the third party in your relationship. If you try to act as though its existence does not play a major role in your marriage, you are living in total denial. No matter which party is afflicted with the disorder and no matter which disorder it is, it will come at you with different challenges on what can seem like a daily basis. It is true that as we grow and mature, we are more equipped to handle certain aspects of the journey. This is true for the partner with Mental Illness and the one without. Then there are times when it threatens to take you, the marriage and the whole family down, like a shattered mirror to the floor. Try to pick up the pieces and put it back together again. It will never be “perfect” and you will surely get cut. This is a simplistic picture of why so many marriages fail to survive the Mistress of Mental Illness in the marriage. Some things are just too damn hard and this, my friends, can be one of those things.

What I feel is an imperative part of this journey, and can even be a deal breaker is a lack of communication. It rates the highest on the Richter scale of being married to someone with mental illness. It ranks higher than sex or physical intimacy. Nothing have I found is more important than to FORCE the communication of open, honest, frequent communication. If this aspect of the relationship is lacking, or non-existent, it is only a matter of time before things unravel permanently. Without putting communication at the forefront of the relationship, Mental Illness is not the proverbial elephant in the room; it is a herd of elephants in the room. They (it) demands notice and in order to get from point A to B, communication are the only bridge that will work.

Let’s take an example of when one of my symptoms is rearing its ugly head and acting out. If my husband fails to acknowledge this happening, and I don’t bring it up continuing to act as if things are “just fine”, may allow us to linger in blissful silence for a moment, but then ultimately the explosion hits and blows things wide open between us! We may just be too tired to discuss it at that moment, but be assured it will want it’s time in the spotlight. The sooner we realize this the better off everyone in the family dynamics will be.

Here are a few helpful tips my husband and I have picked up along our journey that I hope will give you strength and courage to work on as you continue the journey with your partner...

  1. Remember that your loved one has an illness, but they are NOT their illness. We are no more “Borderline Personality Disorder” than you are “Diabetic”. Yes, it is a component and part of our makeup but try not to lump everything into one big heap of their mental illness as the reason for everything that goes off the rails in the marriage.
  2. Just because we suffer symptoms from our disorder, don’t count us out of the game or label us as inept or incapable. We NEED to be stretched and challenged just like any other person. We deserve the opportunity to make as much of ourselves while we are on this planet, as possible. Try not to let textbook diagnosis limit your partner. Those of us with mental disorders can be quite capable and have much to bring to the table in terms of our intellect and insight.
  3. Don’t assume, when you see us displaying a symptom, that you’ve been there, done that, have the t-shirt and you can therefore delay going into the situation to help us cope and work through it. Symptoms that play out in mental disorders can have many ways of making us respond. For example, we may cry hysterically, have a panic attack one time or the next time totally shut down and withdraw over the same trigger. It is not always the same response and it would be absurd to think that all symptoms you “Google” about your loved ones disorder would play out in the exact manner described. It is hard enough for us to understand what we are going through at that moment, much less have you try and chime in with your “textbook” or “Googled” diagnosis and expect a quick fix.
  4. Listen FIRST, Speak SECOND, take “For better or worse, for richer or poor, in sickness and in health...till death do we part” seriously. No marriage is an easy ride. It takes lots of work and dedication to keep it intact, marriage to someone with mental illness is especially challenging. I see it as a calling and a life sacrifice to come alongside someone who suffers from Mental Disorders and chooses to ride out the roller coaster of life with them. It is not for the faint of heart. I want to thank those of you out there, who are currently in a union with someone with a mental disorder that has remained intact. The truth is that much of the reason has to do with you and your willingness to develop the skill levels and aptitude to learn how to deal with your partner’s symptoms. What a beautiful and TRUE LOVE you must have.

With you on the Journey, Alice

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