When the one you love is living with depression or bipolar disorder, your relationship, no matter how strong, will be challenged. You can’t make the illness go away, but you can offer practical support as your loved one works on recovery.
Dan W. has had electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to treat his depression, and it has caused some memory loss. His mood stabilizer meds slow his ability to concentrate. When he drives, he sometimes gets disoriented and forgets the route he needs to take, even if it’s a familiar one.
His wife Kerry quietly and gently gives him directions. “I think you’ll want to make a right at the next light.”
He feels more confident and appreciates her patience and acceptance.
"The most important thing a spouse can do is to make your partner feel connected, respected and worthwhile," writes Claudia J. Strauss in Talking to Depression. You can make a big difference in the way your partner feels. A smile, a hug, being patient. Taking them on an outing or helping with a chore. Asking how you can help goes a long way toward making your partner feel accepted.
Since her diagnosis and treatment for bipolar disorder began, Diane L., who receives Social Security Disability Insurance payments, has had trouble keeping track of her bank account.
Her husband Kevin helps make it easier for her by having her SSDI check deposited into an account he maintains for her. Payments for her bills, such as car insurance, are paid through automatic payments. He transfers the remainder into her personal account twice monthly for her to manage on her own.
Sometimes Diane feels resentful or embarrassed about the arrangement, but she appreciates the boundaries that now allow her to better manage her money.
It’s not always easy to live with someone who has a mental disorder and it takes work. You will struggle with issues of control. You will feel loss, anger and frustration. But it’s important to take care of yourself while you’re taking care of your loved one.
“Sometimes I deal with her illness well, sometimes I don’t," says Dave M., whose wife Chris has bipolar disorder. “Sometimes I need to step back and tell myself, 'It’s not her, it’s her illness.' But when episodes of manic or mixed states last for days or weeks," he says, "it’s tough." He sometimes waits until she’s calm, then tells her he needs to go out with friends or have some time alone to play a video game. “I have a support system I rely on,” he says. “I can talk to my friends, my parents.”
Dave is an active partner in his wife’s treatment. He accompanies Chris to her doctor appointments. “It helps to match up what I’m seeing with what she’s feeling,” he says. “She can have rose-colored glasses, thinking things have been fine, when I’ve been seeing irritable and depressed behavior.” Together they monitor her medications.
He works at creating a nurturing environment. “I try to maintain regular routines,” he says, “and to keep as little as possible on her plate; keep stresses on her to a minimum.”
Loving someone who is living with mental illness stretches your commitment. But by working together to solve day-to-day problems, along with having realistic expectations, communicating your needs and defining your boundaries, the two of you can grow and heal together.
Understanding bipolar disorder
Book: Talking to Depression
How to help someone with a mental illness
Page updated February 1, 2010