When You and Your Partner Both Live With Mental Illness


Living with mental illness can be challenging when it is a reality for both you and your partner. This piece doesn’t in any way encompass the breadth and depth of the challenges or advantages (yes, you read that right) you might experience with a partner. It is, however, an honest look at what some of those challenges and advantages have been for us in our marriage as we both live with mental illness.

Three Challenges:

1. We can’t both lose our shit at the same time. Well, that’s not true. We can, and in fact, we do. My partner and I go through this cycle where when one of us is having a hard time or a bad day, the other takes on more responsibilities around parenting and household chores. When the one of us who is struggling more is finally able to come up for air, often it’s time for the other to collapse. The goal is not to break this cycle, because I think that might be unattainable, but the goal is to be able to move more gracefully through these cycles. To continue to learn and grow and support one another in such a way that we can build endurance to keep pedaling.

2. It can be a real financial burden. As if the extra co-pays for weekly therapy, psychiatry visits and prescription medications weren’t expensive enough for one member of the family, double it. Oh, and just for kicks, triple it and add a child who has a mental illness and their co-pays. It’s absolutely worth it, but it can be overwhelming and stressful. We joke about the vacation we could take if the medical bills went into a travel account instead. And by joke I mean silently cry and watch “Planet Earth” instead.

3. There are never enough hours in the day. In our marriage and as parents of young children, we already have one full-time job and one half-time student on top of the 24-hour job of parenting. And then there’s the full-time job of managing our mental illnesses: scheduling appointments, going to appointments, arranging childcare for appointments. This is all on top of all the other things we have to do for a healthy mind, body and spirit: sleep, exercise, eat well, maybe even try to have a hobby or be involved at our kids’ school and church.

Three Advantages:

1. The capacity for empathy can be greater. Much greater. The wonderful thing about communities like The Mighty is there are real stories of real people’s experiences, and often I read a story and think to myself, “I thought I was the only one. I feel that way too!” When your partner has been there, when your partner has also been incapable of getting out of bed in the morning, or so panicked and anxious about a family holiday gathering they literally could not get out of the car, we can skip right by the “What’s wrong with you, why can’t you just get up?” question. As we have been able to be open and honest about our lived experiences with our illnesses, we’ve been able to say to each other, “Wow, that really sucks. I think I know how you feel. I’ve been there. What can I do to support you?”

2. You can share your coping strategies with one another. My partner and I started seeing a therapist together for couple’s counseling when our first child was born, but as time has gone on, we have also started both seeing her individually as well. Doing our own inner work has helped bring more meaning, empathy and compassion into our joint sessions, and also into our daily lives. We can share stories and swap strategies and encourage one another to use healthy coping mechanisms.

3. The need for self-care is recognized as valid. No, we are not perfect at setting and respecting boundaries for self-care for each other, but we completely respect the need for self-care. If I have a bad day, I can say, “I really need to go for a run right now or I’m going to lose it,” and that’s OK. My partner has a once-a-month standing evening out with his friends, and it is his sacred time. Sometimes, we both desperately need this at the same time (refer to #1 and #3 in the challenges section) and we can’t always get it, but we work really hard to support one another and find time for self-care.

Finally, I wanted to share this ritual we do with one another almost daily: We try to celebrate small victories together. My partner and I will often connect throughout the day via text with messages like this:

“I actually made it to work on time!”

“I got the kids out the door and to the Y, and it only took two hours!”

“I did breathing balls with our daughter, and it really calmed us all down!”

“I went for a run, and it really cleared my head!”

“I made a mistake, but I decided to practice self-compassion instead of feeling shame!”

They might seem silly, but it’s important to us to be able to laugh at ourselves a little bit, and also to acknowledge the hard work we are doing each day for ourselves and for our family.

Image via Thinkstock.

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