Mental illness impacts millions of American each year. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults (nearly 44 million) is currently living with depression, anxiety or another mental disorder, and one in 25 “experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
If you don’t have a mental health issue yourself, there’s a very good chance that you are close to someone who is struggling with an illness that may impact everything from their mood to their sex drive, ability to focus and even how they relate to other people.
Could Mental Illness Be Causing Your Relationship Issues?
If you suspect that mental illness could be causing issues in your relationship with your spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or partner, you could be right. And you also may have had trouble getting help from a counselor, your doctor, or another professional simply because mental health has traditionally been treated as an individual problem.
Pierre Imlay, a board-registered Marriage and Family Therapist, writes that “it has been known for a long time by those working in the field with couples that individuals who have a mental illness can have a negative impact on their spouse’s mental health, and vice versa.” He explains, “If one or both of the partners is struggling with a mental illness . . . negative emotional reactions are often intensified.”
The fact that your partner has a mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have relationship issues; however, the symptoms of many mental health problems do often escalate stressful situations, conflicts, and disagreements within an intimate relationship. On the upside, Imlay also says that “I’ve witnessed firsthand the curative effects that a healthy relationship can have on an individual struggling with mental illness.”
Are Abusive Partners Actually Mentally Ill?
While it’s not uncommon for abusive domestic partners and their victims to dismiss the physical, sexual or emotional abuse as simply a symptom of mental illness, researchers are increasingly disproving the link between mental health and abusive behavior.
Nancy Erickson, an attorney who consults on domestic violence legal issues, researched the link between abuse within a relationship and mental health, and she concluded that “Domestic abuse is a behavior, not a symptom of mental illness.” Author Lundy Bancroft states, “Believing abusers are mentally ill can be a ‘trap of misinformation’ that can lead, among other things, to victims believing their abusers will get better if they just get help for their mental illness.”
In fact, suffering from a mental illness appears to increase the likelihood of becoming a victim of abuse or violence, rather than being the perpetrator. One study found that those with severe mental health problems such as schizophrenia, psychosis or bipolar disorder are actually two and a half times more likely to victimized than the general population is.
Should You Question Your Partner’s Diagnosis?
That depends on why you have doubts about whether or not your partner actually has a mental illness.
If your partner uses their struggles with mental health as an excuse for abusive behavior, your priority should be your own safety. However, if you are questioning their diagnosis because you are concerned that they may not be getting the help they need from their doctor, counselors or other mental health professionals, then chances are good your concerns are valid.
It is important to resist the temptation to label or diagnose your partner with mental illness since doing so can invoke feelings of shame, fear, and distrust. Like other illnesses and health problems, only a licensed expert can accurately diagnose mental health issues.
Can Love Cure Mental Illness?
No, but it can help.
A healthy, loving relationship can provide people living with a mental illness the encouragement, stability, and support they need to seek treatment and stick with their recovery plan. What’s important is understanding the difference between being a partner and being a caregiver.
Partners who provide ongoing care for a spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend with severe mental health issues tend to neglect their own wellness, and in fact, it’s not uncommon for the caregiver to also develop mental health issues.
On the other hand, partners need to understand that like all types of illnesses, mental illness isn’t something that can be “cured” or “fixed” by simply hoping things will get better. No matter how great a wife, husband or partner you are, you alone cannot control whether or not your loved one will get better.
Tips for Dating A Person Living With Mental Illness
If you are dating a person who is living with mental illness, it’s important to respect their privacy and avoid the urge to find out more about their condition than they are willing to disclose. Keep in mind that feelings of insecurity, distrust and anxiety are often amplified by many mental health issues, so snooping through your partners’ phone, looking at their prescription medications or asking their friends about their mental illness isn’t helpful or healthy.
Remember that like all personal issues, it may take time for your partner to open up about their struggles with mental health. After all, there is still a huge stigma associated with mental illness in America, and that can make your partner feel uneasy about sharing their diagnosis with you.
A survey by PyschGuides.com revealed that nearly half of all men and a quarter of all women with a mental illness don’t disclose their mental illness to their partners, and the same was true when it came to sharing information about meds used to treat mental health issues. Among partners who do share their diagnosis, many wait until they’ve been in a relationship for at least six months, mostly because they want to develop trust with their partner first.
Need Help Dealing With Mental Illness in Your Relationship?
At FHE Health, we offer comprehensive, science-based treatments for mental health and substance abuse issues, and our services include support for couples. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you and your partner get well.