The Kids Are Alright: What to Do When Your Partner is Ill
They say there’s no greater love than the love you have for your children. So when you see your partner struggling with the effects of a mental illness, panic can set in, making rational people think emotionally, which often leads to rash decisions.
This is especially true if you are in a panic about whether your partner is capable of caring for the children. (Or if you are looking for a reason to take the children away, because you never intended to stay in the relationship in the first place.)
Having a mental illness does not automatically mean your partner is incapable of being a parent. Nor does this fact grant you, as the healthy partner, any legal rights beyond what you already have as the parent.
Let me repeat that: having a partner with a mental illness does not mean you automatically get full custody if you decide to fight for it.
Let’s have a rational discussion about what is and is not appropriate to do, as the healthy partner, when you discover that your partner has a mental illness and there are children involved. I’ll outline what is reasonable behavior (the green zone), the need-to-consult area (yellow zone), and the “yes, the kids need to be taken away” area (the red zone).
Most people with mental illness diagnoses fall in the green zone, and some in the yellow. It’s rare for someone to end up in the red zone without prior warning, although it can happen.
The green zone:
- Your partner has been given a diagnosis, but is still functioning at a high level: they are going to work, have appropriate grooming and eating habits, are spending money appropriately, are treatment compliant (taking meds as prescribed, going to doctor’s appointments and therapy, etc.), and are interacting appropriately with the children. Your partner may have “bad days,” but overall, they still are able to get things done.
I said it before, and I will say it again: a diagnosis of a mental illness does not equal “incapable of being a parent.” If anything, taking away the children when someone is diagnosed makes recovery more difficult, not to mention that it is traumatic for the kids as well. Using the children as a pawn, and threatening to take them away, is cruel to everyone involved.
The yellow zone:
- Your partner is missing days of work, is inconsistent with taking meds and/or going to treatment, or has behavioral changes that are concerning, such as spending money you don’t have, being sexually promiscuous, using drugs other than the ones prescribed, or is not sleeping.
If your partner is doing things that make you question whether the children should be in the environment, my top recommendation is to speak with your partner’s treatment team. Although we are usually not in your home to observe what’s going on, we can tell you more about what to expect from your partner’s illness, and make recommendations about what course of action to take. Just yanking the kids away is not always the best strategy. Your partner may need a break from childcare in order to focus on recovery, but on the other hand, children are often the best incentive to work hard in treatment.
The red zone:
- Your partner is actively suicidal
- Your partner is actively psychotic
- Your partner is actively homicidal
- Your partner is completely non-functioning: staying in bed, not taking their meds, not going to treatment appointments, not participating in childcare
Clearly, the above four signs are dangerous for everyone involved, and your partner likely should be hospitalized. But even then, once your partner has stabilized, it should be safe to have the kids around again.
What I tell my clients over and over again is that a diagnosis of depression, bipolar, anxiety, or even a personality disorder does not mean they cannot be good parents (and partners, for that matter). Their healthy partners, however, often take more convincing. Don’t make decisions about the children alone–work with your partner and their treatment team to decide what is best.
Image source: STOCK4B-RF / altrendo images
Thieda, K. (2011). The Kids Are Alright: What to Do When Your Partner is Ill. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 19, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/wellness/2011/07/the-kids-are-alright-what-to-do-when-your-partner-is-ill/