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When You Learn Your Partner Has a Mental Illness: Part 2

[Yesterday we discussed the first steps in how to handle a diagnosis of a mental illness in your partner. Read that post here.]

As you gather information, talking with your partner about what you find is extremely important. After all, it’s his or her life. Just because you find a treatment that sounds promising does not mean your partner will agree. Your role as the partner is to be supportive.

This is a tricky balance because you probably want to help, and you want to help quickly because you don’t want to see your partner continue to struggle. On the other hand, this will be one of your first lessons in learning about how mental illness works. You will quickly discover that treatment and recovery only go well when all the other aspects of the patient’s life—including partner support—are going well, too.

After deciding what treatment route to take, encourage your partner to take an active role in coordinating their care. If your partner is eager to get treatment, this will be fairly easy. Your role remains as the supportive partner (but keep reading—the tips below apply to you, too!)

If your partner is reluctant to seek care, this is going to be more challenging. It’s a fine line between showing you care and becoming a nag. Some tips for handling a reluctant partner:

1.     Ask your partner to tell you his/her thoughts and feelings about treatment. Try not to be accusatory in your tone. There’s a big difference between “Why won’t you go get help?” and “I can tell you are unsure about getting help with this. I’d like to know more about what you’re thinking and feeling, and see how I can help.”

2.     Offer to go to an appointment with your partner. This is a good idea even if your partner is not reluctant to seek treatment. It’s helpful for clinicians to get collateral information about what’s going on from people who know the patient as well. However, you don’t have to go into the office if your partner doesn’t want you to. Offering to drive them to the office or meet them afterwards is supportive.

3.     Seek out your own support. You’re going to need it anyway, so start now. Talk to trusted friends and family members about your concerns. Consider seeking counseling for yourself to help your transition into this new life role and get your own support about choices you have to make, both for yourself and for the relationship.

4.     If all else fails, accept that the choice to not seek treatment is in the hands of your partner. I’m certainly not saying that’s going to be easy, and I’ll refer you back to the previous step as to how to handle that.

Finally, remind yourself once again that treatment and recovery are going to be a journey. There will be good days and bad days. Your role as the partner will change as your partner goes through their healing process. Look for the small (and big!) changes and celebrate them. Remember that this illness didn’t appear overnight, and it won’t disappear overnight, either.

In closing, I’ll leave you to consider this:

I had a client say to me, “If I had had cancer, or a broken leg, he wouldn’t have treated me this way. He would have helped, been more patient, and cared about me. But I have bipolar. Why is it different?”

Your role as the partner is critical, and can make a big difference…positively or negatively. You choose.

For those of you who have been through the process of a new diagnosis, what helped you get through? What tips would you give others?

When You Learn Your Partner Has a Mental Illness: Part 2

Kate Thieda

Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, is a patient advocate for Women's and Children's Services at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. She is a licensed professional counselor associate and a National Certified Counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral and dialectical behavior therapies. Her book, Loving Someone With Anxiety, will be published by New Harbinger in the spring of 2013.

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APA Reference
Thieda, K. (2011). When You Learn Your Partner Has a Mental Illness: Part 2. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 31 Mar 2011
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