Living With A Partner With Mental Illness


The challenges of marriage or intimate relationships are many at the best of times.

But when one partner suffers a serious mental illness, the tasks and trials of keeping things together are multiplied.

A few days ago, I had the great pleasure to meet up with a friend from my academic days. We’d worked in next-door labs in the Psychology Department at SFU. He was on the clinical side of things; me, more on the neurophysiology side.

One of the first things he said to me was: “Hugh, I married a manic depressive. We talk, talk, talk. But it’s crazy. Life is such a challenge.”

From a man who has made his living as a clinical psychologist, that is saying something.

However, as we talked, he conveyed to me a number of important ideas.

The first was stigma.

“Our friends, they are polite, but they look at Jane (not her real name) as a bit of a freak.”

As a person living with bipolar disorder, Jane frequently behaves badly. She runs up credit cards, and, when she is in her hypomanic phase, behaves inappropriately. The list that follows, as provided by her husband, summarizes these behaviours.

  • Racing thoughts, rapid speech
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Easily distracted, can’t concentrate well
  • Exaggerated optimism and self-confidence
  • An inflated perspective about abilities and qualities
  • Impulsive and reckless behaviour
  • Poor decision making, rash business decisions
  • Shopping sprees, excessive money-spending

These behaviours must be understood as for what they are: symptoms of an illness. Social stigma can be undone by making it clear that mental illness is a disease, like any other.

The second idea John (not his real name) suggested was mutual therapy.

Because some mental illnesses -bipolar in particular – affect spouses, lovers, or partners, it is crucial that therapeutic decisions be shared and medical intervention be likewise a common project. Nothing makes an ill person feel more alone than being alone.

Most physicians and psychiatrists on the Coast are willing to entertain this idea of a health partnership. If yours doesn’t, then find one who will.

Third, is domestic ritual.

Even when a partner is in a hypomanic phase (for example), a daily routine can undermine the chaos of an impatient and impulsive mind.

Breakfast is at 8:00. Then chores. Then shopping for supper . . . That sort of thing.

Routine accomplishes two things. In the case of depression, domestic schedules work against apathy and loss of purpose. And in the case of hypomania, it attenuates the extremes.

Finally, there are fitness and food (two of my favourite issues).

A partner with either too much or too little energy will benefit from scheduled physical activity. This might be gym time, a run, or regular walks. There is just no dispute that getting the heart and limbs racing is a good thing.

Food is a matter that collects many of the points I’ve made above.

So much about home is about food. The sensible and regular shopping ritual; the thrice-daily cooking practice; the mindful attendance to healthful foods; the subsequent need to get physical . . . these are all good things.

Living with a partner living with a mental illness will never be simple or easy. But a few positive steps can make it better.


This piece will appear June 2 in the Coast Reporter















  1. Many families face the realities of members with mental illness. My father was bi-polar, as is a very dear longtime friend of mine.

    Though I agree with Anne Miles’s statements, I feel this article describes well the many elements and challenges of bi-polar disease. It’s a tough one to live with, both for the sufferer and those who care about that person.

    The privacy and other laws have restricted the ability of government medical facilities to protect and assist thousands of mentally ill people, and I agree with Anne too that we all need to speak with government representatives about this.

  2. Well, Hugh, I have to disagree. Mental illness is not “an illness like any other” because it affects behaviour and behaviour affects those connected to the sufferer. Physical illnesses also sometimes affect behaviour but, with mental illness the behaviour is the very definition of the disease. This behaviour can make it impossible for the mentally ill person to live with others–even though she or he cannot afford separate accommodation. Paranoia can cause a person to be violent. In short, there are valid reasons why people might be “stigmatizing” someone with a mental illness.

    The best way to handle stigma is not to “educate” the public that mental illness is just the same as any illness because that is simply not true. The best cure is, as a society, to provide housing, services, and meaningful treatment. So, the public needs educating in the fact that mental illness is a public health concern potentially affecting all of us and we all need to pressure governments to direct our tax money into finding solutions.

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