Mental illness affects the behaviour of people in all sorts of ways. In many cases Doctors can diagnose these illnesses but they can’t offer solutions that work, the illnesses don’t go away and the people who have them never feel “normal”. In this post I am going to explore what mental illness means for the partner of the person who has the illness. I am writing this post from the perspective of someone who has in the past supported a partner with bipolar disorder. These are my experiences, they cannot be generalised to everyone in the same situation, as people behave and react differently. However, I hope some people find that they connect to these experiences, whether they have a partner with bipolar disorder or have been in such a relationship before. I am sure parents of a bipolar child may also connect with some of what I say, as may partners and families supporting people with different mental illnesses. For those of you reading this post who have no experience with this, then I would like you read on, as you never know when a situation like this might touch you and your loved ones.
Unless you have lived with someone with a mental illness then you can’t imagine how it controls your life, your relationships, your emotions, your feelings of safety, your self esteem and your idea of a normal life. These illnesses pervade all areas of your home and are impossible to evict.
Partners of those with mental illnesses carry a massive job on their shoulders. Not only must they know what they are doing and their own responsibilities in life such as working and caring for children, but for many, they have to keep a close eye on what their partner is doing, foresee how this may affect him or her and the family, and be catcher for all the debris which seems to follow their partner around. As the partner cannot be around all the time, then they often have to resort to checking strategies to make sure everything is ok. For example, have meds been taken, has the spouse arrived at work on time every day, is the bank account still intact? This may seem like an invasion of privacy but when your family relies on you being on top of any random thing that may come into your lives, then you must do it.
The partner of someone with a mental illness is always on guard. On guard for signs of anything different, that their partner might be becoming unstable. They also have to read into everything because a lot of the time their partner may lie. Sometimes the lies are there to cover something up but often the lies hold no real purpose. This is because making up what you think you want reality to be can just slide from the tongue of a person with bipolar disorder. They will then defend their lies with more and more lies and amazing counter accusations. That is how I experienced it even though I am sure lying cannot be a universal trait of all those with bipolar disorder. Because of lying, privacy can really go out the window. Partners may start to sneakily check pockets, look at texts, go through call and search history, go over bank accounts, call friends or their partner’s workplace. They may also need to be on guard for the hint of an out of control argument, a violent episode or a suicide attempt. These are no small matters and you can see why the partner may want to use checking strategies to stay in touch with their partner’s behaviour.
This is a very difficult way to conduct a relationship and it probably won’t seem appropriate unless you have been in this situation. The partner will need to stay on top of their own health and mental strength in order to meet issues in a way that does not escalate them. This doesn’t mean issues won’t escalate, just that the spouse tried to employ techniques that are supportive and that are promoted as good ways to respond.
Does all this seem to scream out that the relationship is doomed to you? Isn’t it often said, if you can’t trust your spouse then you shouldn’t be with them? How can you be with someone who hurts you? Also think from the perspective of the one with the illness, how can a person live their life with constant questioning and analysing from their partner? Maybe also with their partner constantly calling them a liar? The thing is, these two people still love each other and were it not for the illness, there probably wouldn’t be a question of trust.
Even with all the checking, people with mental illnesses often still fall to their weaknesses, be it drugs, sex, spending, gambling, disappearing, pornography, self harm, risk taking, being violent, destroying property, fighting with others, crime, the list goes on. Think of how much work the spouse puts in to keeping the relationship going and their family together, only to lose out to the illness anyway. When this happens the partner may try to seek professional help for their love, but this role of saviour is not always appreciated and can be very difficult to live with. Taking on the saviour role may change the relationship dynamic in a way that cannot be reconciled in the long term.
Many relationships where a mental illness is involved will fail. For example, in couples where one person has bipolar disorder, it is said that 90% of marriages will end in divorce. This divorce happens not because of the illness, but because the illness was not controlled.
My relationship lasted five years. That doesn’t seem long in comparison to the whole population of relationships, but looking back at the situation now I can see that this was long. It was five years of on and off dramas. Five years of manic, of depression, of violent outbursts, of disappearing, of narcassistic behaviour and of self pity. There was also love and fun times (thank goodness) but the reality was pretty far from normal. Looking back I see that I was so generous and full of empathy that I could not see how unbalanced the relationship had become, and how we would not be able to continue like that if the illness was not managed. My ex had every right to refuse medication and treatment, and he did.
I am happy that two years later I can write this post and not feel sadness. If you are in a similar situation as me, I won’t say leave, but I want you to think long and hard about why you are in that relationship and what you think the future holds. Just in case you think your partner will change, if they have bipolar disorder then they will always have it and their behaviour may never get better.