When Both Partners in a Relationship Live With Mental Illnesses
This story has been published with permission from the author’s husband.
In our individualistic society, therapists, counselors and researchers tend to focus on individual people, not their families or relationships. However, studies show a positive correlation between one partner struggling with mental illness and the other partner sharing that same struggle, and sometimes one person’s mental illness is a direct response to the other’s condition.
That’s the way it is in my marriage. I’ve had problems with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember, and my husband lives with combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We both have a history of substance abuse, too. Combine all those factors into one partnership, and life can get a bit messy.
It turns out that we aren’t alone. Studies have shown that people with mental illness are more likely to choose partners who also have mental illness. Some conditions, such as schizophrenia and ADHD, are seven times more likely to be present in both partners, while autism is 10 times more likely to be shared between significant others. This means they’re also more likely to pass their mental illness on to their kids.
Pierre Imlay, a mental health therapist at Fraser Health Authority at the University of Western Ontario, says that a healthy relationship can help both partners better cope with their emotional and physical pain. Of course, that also means an unhealthy relationship can have the opposite effect. I think most relationships encompass a little of both scenarios — a bit of heaven mixed with just a pinch of hell.
When both partners have mental illness, they usually experience the same struggles other couples do, but their emotions are stronger and their coping strategies more limited. My husband and I have also overcome obstacles many couples probably never have to handle. Luckily, though, we’ve found ways to make our marriage work despite our emotional issues, and we’ve learned lessons that have shaped the people and parents we’ve become together.
Because we both wrestle with mental illness, some of the obstacles my husband and I have faced are unique. In other ways, though, the hurdles we’ve overcome are identical to what other couples go through, but for us, they can be particularly difficult.
There are times when neither of us is feeling particularly strong. We need to lean on each other. We want to lean on each other, but, instead, we lash out like animals caught in a trap. We are trapped: in our own heads. At times, we aren’t even aware that the other person is in pain, too, because we both want to think we can do everything by ourselves. We don’t reach out for the help we need, even when we know the other would want to be there for us.
Stubbornness and mental illness never go well together. It’s an equation with a tragic result.
If my husband and I start arguing, the situation gets even worse. We hate arguing with each other. It triggers his PTSD and my depression, so we feel even more irritated and out of control. We don’t want to fight, but we can’t seem to stop. We get stuck in a cycle that feels like it will never end. We’re both prideful, too, so even when we know the best thing to do is shut up, we both go chasing after that proverbial “last word.”
Sometimes we exacerbate each other’s symptoms. Sometimes my husband’s PTSD makes him withdraw, so I feel abandoned and depressed. There have been times we were both self-medicating, or I’ve lashed out at him because I didn’t feel well inside, which aggravated his symptoms. We’re so close that it’s almost impossible not to be affected by the other’s symptoms.
This is especially a problem at times when one of us isn’t working. We both get sick when we’re unemployed, but we express it in different ways. My husband gets angry easily, drinks too much, and gets quieter and quieter as the days and weeks go on. On the other hand, I go through crying spells, and I need a lot of reassurance that everything and everyone will be OK. Or I don’t tell anyone I’m hurting and let my fear silently overwhelm me until I’m screaming at the people I need the most. Once life gets that messy for us, it can be really difficult to clean it up again.
Holidays can be difficult, too, especially ones with fireworks. We don’t watch the fireworks, but we sure can hear them. On New Year’s Eve or the Fourth of July, my husband usually has flashbacks and self-medicates with alcohol (a lot of alcohol), and even though I try not to, I take it personally sometimes. Again, I’m so close to him that it can feel impossible not to. I want him to talk to me — he wants to talk to me — but he can’t. Something holds him back. All he can do is shut down.
Then there are the “emotional hangovers” the morning after those holidays. We both wake up feeling deflated, exhausted and foggy. We’re usually sleep-deprived, too, which I consider mental illness‘ worst enemy. I think sometimes my husband wakes up the next morning, and his PTSD symptoms haven’t gone away yet. He withdraws for a while, and I worry and wait. I feel hurt even though, really, it has nothing to do with me, except for the fact that it’s happening to somebody I love.
Even without fireworks, holidays can be stressful for us, as they can for anyone. We want to enjoy ourselves, but our emotions can get in the way. I’m overly concerned about the turkey in the oven, or I’m getting irritated because there are too many people in the house making too much noise. For both of us, holidays can bring up memories neither of us wants to remember, good and bad, memories of people we’ll never see again or people we never want to see again. At these times, it’s so easy to snatch up the bottle of Johnny Walker one of the guests brought, drink our pain and discomfort into the background, and deal with it some other time.
Sometimes we struggle with even the positive emotions that come with the holidays. I’ll start thinking of the “after-party blues” that, for me, inevitably come after celebrations. Eventually, I’m going to crash, and I know it. I think my husband experiences something similar, although he’s never admitted it.
My partner doesn’t admit a lot of things, but I know how to anticipate what he needs because I tend to be a caretaker, which is probably common when two partners both have mental illness. As caretakers, we may at first throw ourselves into taking care of our hurting loved ones and making sure the relationship doesn’t come unglued. In my case, I felt like my husband’s problems were more urgent than mine, and his wounds cut deeper, so I started caretaking, although I didn’t see it that way for years. It was a natural role for me to adopt after taking care of people my whole life.
The problem with this is that caretakers get burned out because we forget about our own needs. In fact, the burnout people experience when they’re taking care of someone with severe mental illness looks just like the burnout that psychiatric nurses experience, and it isn’t healthy for the person being taken care of, either.
“Over-functioning on your spouse’s behalf can lead to burnout, and will reinforce to the spouse that they can’t do anything for themselves,” explains Imlay.
Sometimes caretakers don’t eat or sleep, and we might start feeling hopeless or worthless when we realize we can’t fix our loved ones. Then we withdraw or get angry, which makes our significant others feel even worse.
Eventually, everyone feels worse. It’s a matter of finding a balance where everybody gets the chance to be healthy and happy. Yes, my husband has battle scars, but in a way, so do I.
Each of us has a lot of physical pain, as well, some of it as a result of our mental illnesses. I get headaches, backaches and pelvic pain, while my husband has a bad shoulder, has problems with his teeth and is recovering from a broken back. These physical ailments have come between us and have fed into our emotional problems when we have a difficult time coping with everything that hurts.
In addition to all these obstacles, my husband and I both have issues sleeping. Fortunately, our insomnia ebbs and flows, but when it flows, it makes life even messier. He gets impatient and angry, as men in pain tend to do, and I lose the little bit of control I do have over my feelings. I struggle with insomnia more than he does, so he’s had to learn how to handle a woman who’s gone a few days without sleep. We’ve both learned how to bite our tongue and leave the other person alone when they’re sleep-deprived.
We have a son, too, and unfortunately, he’s seen and heard things I wish he wouldn’t have — fights, emotional outbursts, uncontrolled rage. I’ve always kept him physically safe, but emotionally, I haven’t always been able to do that. Sometimes all I can do is be there for him, reassure him none of it is his fault, and try to do better next time.
Sometimes the only healthy route to take for everyone involved, including the children, is to end the relationship. In my opinion, this is a decision that each person must make for themselves. When all is said and done, we have to live with our own decisions.
Long before we got married, my husband and I separated for a while. At the time, it was the best choice I could make for myself and our very young child. My partner’s self-medicating was going too far, and it was playing havoc on my emotional issues. My son and I moved into an apartment across town for about a year before my partner and I found our way back to each other. I think that experience was a direct result of people hurting and not knowing what to do about it. What brought us back together was the realization for both of us that we would always be on each other’s side no matter what, a blessing neither of us was willing to pass up.
These experiences have been difficult for us to get through, but we do get through them. We’ve been together for over five years, and we’re more committed to each other than ever. How do we make it work?
How We’ve Made Our Relationship Work
We give each other space. Being in love doesn’t mean being around each other all the time. Relationships are about taking care of each other, and sometimes that means giving someone a little space and time. We know eventually, we’ll talk about what needs to be talked about. When we feel a disconnect, we know we’ll find one another again. That’s what we do.
We’ve also learned how to talk to each other about our feelings and ask for what we need instead of taking our emotions out on each other. Neither of us learned how to do that because, in the past, we never felt safe enough to try. We tried to tell someone we were hurting, and no one heard us. Or we asked people for help and never got it. We had to learn how to trust each other so we could talk about our stress instead of letting it build up and come between us. For us, it took time to unlearn the mistrust we’d been taught all our lives.
We’ve learned how to support one another without trying to take control of the situation or fix it. We can’t force each other to do anything, even if we think whatever we want is in the other’s best interests. This isn’t a simple undertaking. Watching someone you love hurt is painful, but if we try to force results, it only makes the situation worse and erects more walls between people who love each other. We’ve had to learn how to let go and respect the other person’s right to choose their own path and make their own mistakes. Our job is to love each other, and that’s all.
We’ve also learned how to not take things so personally by trying to separate one another from our respective mental illnesses. People are more than their problems, and just because one of us is experiencing distress isn’t necessarily a reflection of the other person. We aren’t trying to hurt each other, but unfortunately, mental illness can be painful for everyone involved. When one of us acts out, the other tries to remember the one doing the acting out is the one hurting the most. Suddenly, arguing or defending ourselves or taking our loved one’s outbursts personally doesn’t seem worth it, anymore. It’s not about me. It’s about us.
While we share similar symptoms, such as anxiety and depression, that doesn’t mean we express those symptoms in similar ways. When I get depressed, I usually cry, but when my husband gets depressed, he gets angry. Reading each other can be very difficult, even if we’re both feeling identical emotions, even if we both need each other in a way we don’t know how to express.
Since we’re two distinct people, we can’t always anticipate each other’s needs, no matter how intimately we know each other. Sometimes I feel guilty because I can’t do that for him or angry because he can’t do that for me, but if we can’t open up about what’s haunting us, then we can’t always predict what the other person needs. We can’t hold one another responsible for our needs, either, if we’ve never expressed them out loud.
Also, we’ve learned everything we can about each other’s mental illnesses. The more we know about each other, the better we can cope and support one another. Misunderstanding isolates people. That’s part of the reason I started my blog, “Veterans’ Invisible Spouses.” I needed to know what was going on with my husband and why our lives looked the way they did, so I started some pretty extensive research… and never stopped. What I found helped me understand my person wasn’t coming from a place of maliciousness. My attitude towards him transformed our relationship, and I wanted to give other people the same opportunity to heal.
My husband and I both have other people to talk to, too. Imlay warns against looking to our partners for everything we need emotionally. We can’t be each other’s everything. Neither of us has all the answers. We need other people to talk to about our respective problems and problems we might be having in our relationship. Fortunately, we have loved ones to turn to who have both our interests in mind. After all, the last thing we need is a third party making an already messy situation even messier.
We’re learning how to set our own emotions aside when the other clearly isn’t feeling strong. Even if I’m feeling depressed, when my person’s PTSD gets triggered, it’s my duty to set myself aside for a moment so I can make room for him. He does the same for me when he sees signs that I’m careening into a depression again.
Experts say that like any other couples, partners who both have mental illness also need goals for themselves as a unit and as individuals. For my husband and me, our goals as a couple are simple: we want to be loving parents and eventually own a home, and we’re determined to make our relationship work through anything. The goals we’ve made for ourselves as individuals are equally important because no matter how close we get to one another, we’re still separate people with different needs and aspirations. My husband’s dream is to own an auto repair shop, and mine is to become wildly successful with my writing. Although these goals will benefit the whole family, they are ultimately for ourselves as individuals.
Lastly, we’ve both been to treatment for our disorders, and we participated in couples’ counseling for a while. I’m grateful we started that process long before we got married. Imlay recommends getting help sooner than later. When couples wait too long, he says, one partner often starts feeling hopeless and begins looking for a way out. My husband and I both know from experience that finding your way back from that dark place is no simple task.
Neither of us is still going to treatment, but we brought what we learned from it into our marriage — techniques to handle interpersonal conflict, ways to get our emotions under control, an idea of what our obligations are to each other, etc. Let’s face it, we need all the help we can get.
What Our Shared Struggles Have Taught Us
Challenges always come with lessons if we’re willing to learn them. My husband and I now know we can learn new patterns than the ones we were taught growing up, and we can teach our son new patterns, too. At a certain age, I think that’s an option for anyone if we’re willing to put in the work. I grew up with a lot of yelling and violence at home, while my husband grew up with quite a bit of lying. However, we’ve tried to teach our son healthier ways of dealing with his emotions than what we were taught, and we’ve done this by learning how to better handle our own emotions. That’s one of the reasons we’ve tried to get healthy — we want to do better for our kid.
We’ve learned that serious issues like mental illness can force people to grow and thrive together. What motivated us to get treatment and get our lives together was each other. After being there for each other through all these years of pain and healing, we want to be better people for one another. We know we all deserve it.
When two people lift one another up after hitting a rocky bottom, bridges are crossed. Ancient walls are torn down. For my husband and me, there’s a trust in each other’s commitment that neither of us has experienced before. Maybe we never let ourselves experience it. We’ve seen everything there is to see in each other — the good, the bad, and everything in between. There’s nothing left to hide.
We know we don’t always have to understand each other, either, as long as we try to understand each other. We aren’t going to do life perfectly, and we don’t expect that from ourselves or one another. We learn what we can learn and change what we can change. All we can give each other is our best.
Our relationship can sustain anything — any mistake, any fight, any hardship life chucks our way. At the end of the day, we both know what really matters is our son and our marriage. The rest of it is negotiable.
Getty image via Anna Bezrukova