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Mental Illness or Personality Traits?: The Roots of “Bad” Behavior in Your Partner

When you look at the list of symptoms for various mental illnesses, they can sometimes parallel the traits we generally do not desire in a partner, such as:

  • lack of interest in activities
  • mood shifts (often unexpected)
  • elevated self-esteem
  • impairment in completing activities
  • irritability

How do you know if your partner’s behaviors are truly due to mental illness or if they are just personality characteristics? And what do you do if you suspect that your partner is blaming their behavior on their illness when that is not the real reason it’s happening?

The first thing I will tell you is that figuring this one out is not easy. As you saw from the above list, characteristics of mental illness are the same as characteristics of people who are not desirable to be around. But how we think about and react to people who are simply behaving undesirably versus those who are experiencing a mental illness is clearly different.

Or is it?

On the one hand, we might have more patience or give more leeway to someone who is diagnosed as depressed or having bipolar then to a partner who is apparently just acting like a jerk. For example, if your partner snaps at you for something that was no big deal, you’re probably more likely to let it go if you know they are depressed versus if that behavior is just part of their personality.

But does that make it right? Is your partner’s “bad” behavior justified because they have a mental illness diagnosis?

It depends.

I know you would like an outright yes or no, but the truth is that every situation is different. There are examples of outright “no’s,” such as verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, which is not permissible under any circumstances.

The grayer areas are around situations such as when your partner repeatedly says or does things that are hurtful, or doesn’t contribute to the household, or doesn’t look for a job, or otherwise uses their illness to excuse not living up to what are reasonable expectations of an adult.

Use the following as a litmus test to determine the difference between “I did X because I have a mental illness” versus “I did X because I’m a jerk”:

  1. Does your partner acknowledge that their behavior is harmful/hurtful?
  2. Does your partner actively and consistently try to manage their illness (by going to therapy, taking medication if warranted, etc.)?
  3. Does your partner try to make amends for the behavior?
  4. Does your partner correct the situation so the behavior doesn’t continue (and new “bad” behaviors don’t replace the original)?

If the answer is yes to all of the above, you can probably attribute the behavior to the illness. If you answered no to any or all of the above, an examination of the relationship may be in order.

But it doesn’t end there.

Even if your partner can justify the behavior because of their illness, it still doesn’t make the behavior acceptable. After all, it’s still “bad” behavior, and it’s an indication that the illness is not managed well. Yes, we all have bad days, and no one’s behavior is perfect all the time. But if unacceptable behaviors keep happening, and your partner keeps having to apologize and make amends, it’s going to continue to strain the relationship. At that point, it’s time to pull out the tools for communicating with your partner to figure out what’s going wrong and what needs to change.

Mental illness in the relationship or not, “bad” behavior is never acceptable, and it takes courage to let your partner know that.

Have you been faced with deciding whether your partner’s behavior was due to their illness or not? How did you know the difference?

Mental Illness or Personality Traits?: The Roots of “Bad” Behavior in Your Partner

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). Mental Illness or Personality Traits?: The Roots of “Bad” Behavior in Your Partner. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 May 2011
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