Why talk about mental illness and marriage?

While divorce statistics vary somewhat from study to study and year to year, their numbers aren’t too far apart. In the US and Canada, at least 40 percent of all marriages fail.1 Divorce statistics for marriages where one person has bipolar disorder are worse—it is estimated that 90 percent end in divorce!2

The “bible” for mental health providers is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly known as DSM-5™. It lists more than 300 mental disorders. Some of the more common ones are: clinical depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dementia, and anxiety. Each of these disorders bring changes in thinking, mood, personality, personal habits, or social withdrawal.

Symptoms of a mental illness may include mild to severe disturbances in thoughts or behaviors (or both) which result in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines.

Even though every disorder has a unique set of symptoms, characteristics, and specialized treatments, mental disorders generally have many traits in common and can lead to similar marital problems.

In the case of bipolar disorder, multiple studies show that without effective treatment (at minimum: medication and counseling) it is rare for a bipolar person to become healthy or stay healthy. In fact, without treatment, bipolar disorder (as with many other mental illnesses) almost always worsens.

Meet the symptoms

For untreated bipolar sufferers in depressive periods, there can be an increase in harmful depressive symptoms such as:

  • irritability;
  • emotional numbness;
  • sleep difficulties;
  • anxiety;
  • problems with physical health;
  • overwhelming emotional pain;
  • procrastination;
  • withdrawal from people;
  • avoidance of phone calls;
  • lack of motivation;
  • inability to concentrate;
  • poor memory;
  • inability to experience pleasure;
  • sense of failure;
  • extreme guilt;
  • self-condemnation;
  • disorganization;
  • risk-taking;
  • obsessive thoughts;
  • paranoia;
  • hopelessness;
  • pessimism about the future;
  • inability to function; or
  • suicidal thinking.

For bipolars without professional treatment, manic periods will become more severe, leading to an increase in damaging manic symptoms. They might be described as:

  • extremely energetic;
  • over-committed;
  • the life of the party;
  • having racing, obsessive thoughts;
  • talking excessively loud and rapidly;
  • experiencing temper explosions;
  • needing little sleep;
  • overly optimistic;
  • extremely self-confident;
  • all-knowing;
  • argumentative;
  • aggressive and controlling;
  • verbally and/or physically abusive;
  • addicted to things like alcohol, drugs, gambling, spending, sex, or food;
  • financially irresponsible; or
  • likely to take extreme risks.

The Damage

A non-treated bipolar spouse wreaks emotional havoc in the marriage and with the children. Think about these distressing situations:

  • A bipolar husband left his wife and was living with another woman, but he still wanted to come “home” to eat, sleep, and be with the kids.
  • A bipolar wife was so strung out on drugs and alcohol that she couldn’t be safely trusted to drive the kids to and from school and other activities.
  • A bipolar husband kept gambling away the family’s savings until they were in danger of losing their home.

Can you relate to the following comments from two frustrated spouses who are ready to give up on their marriages?

A teary wife grimaces, “My husband’s mental illness wasn’t the sole cause of our marital problems. He and I had strains on our relationship long before his bipolar diagnosis. We probably had more friction in our marriage than most of our friends, yet we loved each other and somehow managed to endure our differences.

But ever since he had his breakdown, our relationship’s been fragile at best. He’s thin skinned, easily agitated, and quickly hurt by me and others. Our kids and I constantly have to walk on eggshells around him, always afraid we’ll say or do something that will trigger an upset. Can he change? Can our marriage be fixed, or should I drop all my expectations and file for divorce?”

An angry husband laments, “My wife’s mental disorder has really changed her—and our relationship. Gone is her gentle, sensitive, caring, engaging side. For several years now, she’s alternated between totally isolating from everyone and exploding at them in angry outbursts. I’ve tried everything I know to fix things between us. At times she’s just impossible to live with. Is there any chance she’ll come around and be her old self again? Or should I face the hard facts and call it quits on our marriage?”

Can you identify with some of these frustrations? If so, this book will give you hope and workable tools to manage your tough reality and rehabilitate your marriage.

Note: This is an excerpt from my book, Mental Illness and Your Marriage. To find out more, please click here

  1. “Managing Bipolar Disorder,” Psychology Today, November 2003. ↩︎
  2. “Managing Bipolar Disorder,” Psychology Today, November 2003. ↩︎


Hi, I'm Jim. I've been through the emotional wringer. I've been a successful pastor and leader and a loving father, but I've also been suicidally depressed. I'll teach you the techniques I used to heal myself, and give you the tools to reclaim your life and move forward!

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