Mental Illness and Relationships: How This Should Be Taken Into Consideration When Dealing With Conflict

Annie Gurton

Relationship Therapist

All couples encounter conflict in their relationship. Conflict is a sign that growth is trying to happen, and provided it is managed properly, is a good thing. If conflict is suppressed or not managed well it can lead to resentment, frustration and anger and a serious rupture in the connection, but if it is dealt with through a dialogue in which both parties feel heard and respected, the relationship can deepen as a consequence.

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However if one or both members of the couple are experiencing mental illness such as bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia, or if one or both is experiencing an emotional disorder such as anxiety, depression, addiction or obsession, the condition need to be considered in the way the conflict is managed. (Bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia are diagnosable medical conditions which require specific medications if they are to be managed and cured, and different from disorders such as depression, anxiety, addiction and depression which are the consequence of life events or circumstances which lead to someone experiencing these conditions, and require therapeutic work to uncover the cause(s) and to deal with them, to allow healing.) While conflict is growth trying to happen, resolution which healthily soothes and resolves is what sets a well-tuned couple apart from those for whom conflict is a disaster and deeply upsetting.

Both mental illnesses and emotional disorders can complicate a relationship hugely, and be the cause of separation and divorce. While the person who is unwell may be experiencing physical and emotional pain and be vulnerable to being triggered or having symptoms exacerbated, the stress on the other partner can also cause long term effects which can be equally detrimental.   The well partner may initially spend a lot of time caring for that person and working hard to maintain the relationship. This pattern can go on for years. But it often happens that the caregiving partner grows tired of this role, because they’ve been ignoring their own needs. The result is that the partner may end up slowly retreating from the role of caregiver, or may react in angry outbursts, which can make the other person’s original symptoms worse.

So, working with mental and emotional difficulties (usually caused by early life trauma) requires awareness and skill, and the ability to strike a balance between both sides having their needs met. Professional help is strongly recommended, but here are some tips for progress:

1. My spouse is struggling with a mental illness. How do I help my spouse but at the same time make sure I don’t burn out in the process?

Being able to set some boundaries for yourself is important. 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.

2. Could my spouse be suffering from a mental illness if they are violent toward me and others?

Separate the behaviour from the cause. There can be a relationship between abusive behaviour and mental illness (i.e., antisocial personality disorder), but some aggressive behaviour is reactive, or a learned pattern of coping. A professional Imago therapist will help you work out whats going on in the relationship and in your partners mind.

3. If I develop mental health symptoms myself as a result of supporting my spouse, should I just get help for myself or should we try couples therapy?

Most frustrations and issues between couples originates from some earlier life trauma or experience, so couples work is always recommended, sometimes supported by individual work as well.

4. How can we get help for our marriage when children are involved? Do couples therapists treat children as well, or are children best treated by a separate therapist?

There is no rule. Some marriage and family therapists will treat the whole family as a unit, while others may see the children separately as part of the treatment. Still other therapists work just with the couple.

5. When do I know that everything has been tried and that I should begin to look at a separation?

Couples therapy can help the couple heal the relationship. At the same time, couples therapy can help spouses develop more awareness, and this awareness may include recognising that the relationship can no longer continue. Whichever decision you come to, and Imago therapist can help you to manage the future with respect and safety.


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