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When Your Partner Doesn't Understand Your Mental Illness

February 1, 2021 Juliana Sabatello

When your partner doesn't understand your mental illness, it adds an extra level of difficulty to a relationship. I am highly sensitive and feel my emotions deeply and extremely. When depression or anxiety strike, I lose my ability to think rationally. My partner of eight years is a laid-back math teacher who approaches each challenge in life like an equation he can solve. I am an unsolvable equation to him. We enrich each other's lives with our differences, but sometimes it feels like we don't live in the same world. Part of our relationship journey has been accepting that we may always live in different worlds, but with intentional effort, we can build a beautiful bridge between them. 

My Husband Doesn't Understand My Mental Illness

Emotional dysregulation impedes my ability to communicate. John has told me that he feels frustrated when I lose my ability to think rationally. It is difficult for me to separate the negative, irrational thoughts from reality when I am in a major depressive episode. Anxiety often leaves me overwhelmed to the point of cognitive shutdown. At this point, I am incapable of making decisions or processing information. I lose my ability to communicate. I stutter, and I can't will the words in my mind to come out of my mouth.

Trying to reason with someone whose nervous system is overwhelmed is not only ineffective but makes the situation worse. When I am anxious, attempts at discussion feel like a barrage of empty words I can't process that further add to the sensory overwhelm. When I am in a depressive episode, rationalizing feels meaningless and frustrating because my brain has me convinced that my negative thoughts are the true reflection of reality.

In both cases, I have to regulate my emotions first before I can think clearly again. A hug or even empathetic silence helps more than words, but providing this type of support does not come naturally to John, who wants to jump into problem-solving immediately. He has a hard time understanding how I think because he can't relate to or understand my mental illness symptoms. This difference has been an obstacle we have had to overcome.

Working Together to Help Him Understand My Mental Illness

When I am in an emotionally stable place, we talk about it. We problem-solve together as allies against the problem. We both do our best to understand each other's point of view. We talk about our relationship, how our differences affect our ability to relate to each other, and what we need from the other to feel secure and happy in our relationship. I know he will never fully understand me, but he accepts and loves me for the person I am, and that's exactly what I need. Unconditional love is powerful. 

Healthy relationships are not out of reach for those of us with mental illness. Your partner does not have to understand your mental illness for your relationship to be full of unconditional love and respect. Building the bridge between your worlds takes work, and it is important to self-reflect and improve our awareness of the way our actions affect our partners. We might not maintain healthy boundaries, speak kindly, or hold space for our partners when we aren't feeling well.

We need to leave space for them to share their feelings with us and work through challenges together. If you have access, couples counseling or bringing your partner to individual therapy sessions can help. Talk about your mental health so your partner can come to better understand your mental illness symptoms. Communicate. It often feels like John and I live in different worlds, but I want you to know how much it is worth the effort to build a bridge between them. 

APA Reference
Sabatello, J. (2021, February 1). When Your Partner Doesn't Understand Your Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 25 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/relationshipsandmentalillness/2021/2/when-your-partner-doesnt-understand-your-mental-illness



Author: Juliana Sabatello

Find Juliana on Instagram.

Nope
January, 17 2024 at 8:35 am

While I am all.for.takinf responsibility - where is the non-understanding, non-supportive spouse's accountability for their lack of empathy? Yes, it's work....but it shouldn't be all on the shoulders of the person with the illness. Would this article have the same expectation of someone going through cancer? Just....wow.

Please help
September, 20 2023 at 4:17 pm

I recently found out that I officially have OCD. I used to say I had it but didn't really understand all the ways it affects me. I have suffered with this for 40 years not understanding what's wrong with me. My husband just doesn't understand no matter how I try to explain it to him. Everything I do gets on his nerves and him nit picking me makes everything worse. I gave him a book months ago which he read partially. We're going to try couples counseling again. Any advice on how to help him understand that I feel nervous and anxious all the time even on medication? My life would be so much easier if my family understood how I feel.

Avril
August, 18 2023 at 2:06 am

Hello, reading all the comments makes me cry. I've been married 8 months and I want to end it already to be at peace. I'm border line and my husband can't understand me during my episodes and he fights back and yells at me. I'm seeking therepy but my husband feels it's of no use. But i argue back saying ive just started DBT, its life long, results cant happen over night. I'm frustrated with myself and this marriage already. I guess time will tell. Good article. Gives me hope.

Sarah
November, 30 2023 at 7:11 am

Hi, I'm just wondering... Did your husband know about your mental health and the challenges that do happen sometimes daily in every day life? Was he interested in learning more about it at all or did he just say basically that it's ok, he can handle it and he doesn't judge? I've been married for over 21 years now, and really hope to find answers to a lot of questions I wish someone would have asked me...

Good Listener
June, 12 2023 at 7:46 am

My partner is not the best at supporting my mental health (mostly anxiety). We both have mental health issues and I am myself very good at supporting him through anxiety, trauma and the like (not to toot my own horn but just for context).
Whenever I get anxious or my anxiety inhibits me from doing daily tasks that other people might do effortlessly if they don’t have the same anxiety (I get claustrophobic easily), he always manages to say the wrong thing, i.e. ‘of course you’re not going to make it to X event as last time you didn’t make Y event because you couldn’t get on the train’. I’ve tried to address this by asking him if he could not say those kinds of things as they trigger my avoidant behaviour with regards to public transport, but the message never really seems to come across. I’m unsure what to do with it as all he will say is ‘it’s just the truth’. I wish that he could just say ‘It’s okay, you can do it and if you are struggling I’ll support you through it’ as that would help, but I’m unsure how to make him see that. Hasn’t been productive in the past as he’ll just say ‘I am trying to support you’ and won’t listen to what I have to say.
Could you advise on how to open communication?

Anon
March, 11 2023 at 6:49 am

I’m the husband with bi-polar 1 and ADHD. I was daignosed about a year ago. My wife repeatedly says how much she hates my mental illness and yells, throws things, and shames for being sick. She says I’m lazy, immature, impulsive and make stupid decisions. She constantly tells me I can’t blame my mental illness for things and I need to just work harder.

lisa
December, 24 2022 at 9:06 pm

I have never had significant other to want to know how to help me but no idea where to start. first of all first 2 years into our relationship he was diagnosed with 2 cancers and took priority obviously and here we are almost 4years later and my mental issues are affecting us in so many ways and he is wanting to learn but he is 66 and i am 49 so I am seeking help so much to help me before its to late for us

December, 27 2022 at 6:33 pm

Hi Lisa - thanks for your comment. I'm sorry to hear about your situation. I hope your significant other has recovered well from having cancer. You say that he wants to learn more about the mental health issues you've been struggling with, which is great to hear. He sounds very supportive. In my experience, it can be difficult for partners to understand mental health challenges if they haven't experienced them themselves, but a partner's willingness to learn can go a long way. I'd encourage you to seek resources to help you understand your own mental health challenges, and even share some of these resources with him. HealthyPlace's page on general mental health information might be a great place to start: https://tinyurl.com/bdh5dr8x. Hope this helps. I wish you both well!

name three
August, 22 2022 at 9:28 pm

This is powerful. Thank you. I am the husband in this story and I struggle to understand mental illness. It helps seeing it from another perspective.

name
May, 3 2022 at 9:47 pm

I am the husband. I have the mental illness. I have checked off the boxes, but when I have. bad day it's. Like sliding down a long steep mud hill. She does not deserve it. She is tired and I am as well.... I am done

name too
June, 7 2022 at 12:08 pm

Wherever you are, I hope you feel better now than a month ago, when you wrote this.
Because you are not alone. And I think it is beautiful that your love for your wife makes you consider her even in your darkest times. That will always be worth preserving.

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