This blog about marriage with a spouse who has undiagnosed mental illness is part two in a three-part series on Functionality and Marriage. We discussed functional alcoholism in the first part. Check out the blog “Silent Marriage Killer: The Functional Alcoholic” if you missed it. In the blog about functional alcoholism, we used the pronoun “he” when referring to the drinker and “she” for the spouse. Since this blog references postpartum depression that primarily impacts women, we’ll refer to the afflicted person as “she” and the spouse as “he.” We also recognize that using gender-specific pronouns is not inclusive to the broad range of possible couples, but for the purposes of editorial clarity, please excuse the generalization.
Our busy family law firm in Milford, Michigan has seen enough divorces to recognize that functional alcoholism is not the only silent marriage killer. So here we wanted to address couples impacted by untreated and undiagnosed mental illness like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder); Aspergers’ Syndrome; Narcissistic Personality Disorder; OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder); Bipolar Disorder; PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and postpartum depression. We understand that these are vastly different in their basis, behavior and treatments. We also recognize that the spouses of people affected by these conditions may be coping in similar ways. As with alcoholism, sometimes lack of acknowledgement can affect the marriage as much as the undiagnosed mental illness itself.
“Symptoms of mental illness can be off-putting and confusing. It is easy to think that your spouse is distant, lazy, distracted, irritable, or irrational. Some of these “character flaws” might actually be symptoms of the mental illness,” according to an article titled, “How to Cope With a Mentally Ill Spouse,” by MARNI FEUERMAN.
Some Typical Scenarios Involving Undiagnosed Mental Illness
Although Functional Alcoholic is a well-known term, the “functional” label could also refer to someone mildly affected by undiagnosed mental illness. For the purposes of this blog, we are not referring to the person who has been treated in-patient or is under consistent doctors’ supervision. We are also not referring to someone who has a diagnosis and is seeking treatment, therapy or medication. We are talking about the mom who never quite came back from a bout of postpartum depression. Or the silently, solitarily-suffering soldier who never received treatment for PTSD. We are talking about the OCD spouse. Everybody knows she has some quirks. No one but her spouse knows how it interferes with healthy, loving, appropriate family relations. We’re talking about the narcissist who “just likes attention.”
She probably gets through most days just fine. Outsiders may not even glimpse the significance of impairment. She may just think of her disorder as part of her personality. She may think she has the tics and harmful behavior under control. She may imagine that no one else even knows. She may be embarrassed. She may not have health care coverage for treatment. She might worry about employment if the mental illness is on her medical record. She may be supported and enabled by a co-dependent spouse. She may be trying to contain and control her troubles with sheer will power. If so, she often expends her good times on work and friends, leaving her worst behavior and emotions for those in the same household. The trouble may have snuck up on her without any perceivable landmarks. Sometimes, as with eating disorders, the trouble grows so incrementally that even the spouse doesn’t see it. Here we are talking about the functional people who get by in life and marriage without acknowledging, labeling or seeking treatment for undiagnosed mental illness.
We are also talking about the people that love them. The people that promised to have them in sickness and in health. The children who think their mom stays in bed all day because of migraines. A husband may start out defending and enabling his mentally ill wife. He may even be enamoured with its endearing side effects. For instance, the narcissist can tend to be the life of the party and a gifted entertainer. The spouse of a wounded firefighter struggling with survivor’s guilt may be attracted to his wife’s bravery and ignore signs that she’s hurting. But eventually the undiagnosed mental illness seeps into the everyday interactions.
In marriages with untreated and undiagnosed mental illness there may be a great degree of uncertainty, unpredictability, inconsistency, irrationality and gaslighting. For those who don’t know the term, gaslighting refers to the process of deflecting one’s own mental illness by introducing blame, doubt and guilt on another person. It is insidious. The spouse may wind up questioning his own sanity.
People with unacknowledged mental illness may compound the problem by self-treating with alcohol or pain killers. She might manipulate those around her with suicide threats or silent treatments. Moderately mentally-ill people may have social ineptitude or phobias that interfere with the ability to hold steady work or care for children. She may experience perpetual underemployment or a crippling lack of self-worth. This further complicates the functional marriage.
What To Do When One Partner Has Undiagnosed Mental Illness
Many spouses feel responsibility, guilt or loyalty to the marriage. Even when her personality and lifestyle compromises the relationship, many spouses stick it out. Religious beliefs, ignorance or unflagging optimism may sustain the marriage even when the functionality ceases. Some spouses demand therapy. Others continue to just get by.
“We are certainly not advocating for abandoning a partner at the first sign of mental illness,” said Attorney Kathryn Wayne-Spindler, “but when the struggle and pain of trying to help a loved one who is not helping herself threatens health and sanity, we have seen divorce provide relief.” For those who determine that separation is the solution, there are special considerations for divorces involving undiagnosed mental illness. We’ll address those in the next blog about the process for divorcing a spouse with undiagnosed mental illness.
The experienced Michigan Family Law attorneys at Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates handle complex divorces throughout Southeastern Michigan. We have seen many cases involving a mentally-ill spouse during our 20+ years of law practice. We handle every case with compassion and discretion. Contact the law office of Kathryn Wayne-Spindler and Associates at 248-676-1000 for divorce or separation representation in Oakland, Wayne, Washtenaw, Genesee, Livingston, Clare, Gladwin, Ogemaw and Roscommon counties. The attorneys help clients in Milford; Highland; Hartland; White Lake; Walled Lake; Wixom; Commerce; Waterford; Clarkston; Linden; Grand Blanc; Holly; Howell; Brighton; South Lyon; New Hudson; Clare; Houghton Lake; Higgins Lake; Prudenville; West Blanch and many more Michigan communities.
Written and Posted by Christine Donlon Long, Communications’ Specialist for Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates