how to cope manage a relationship marriage when your partner has a mental illness PTSD

Where Does the Mental Illness End and the Marriage Begin?

Don’t listen to the songs. Don’t hold on to the stories. Don’t watch the movies, and don’t believe the fairytales. Because in the real world, nobody gets a happily ever after. The real world is full of real people, and real people are never perfect. Marriage is never perfect.

Yet so many of us continue to idolise a happily ever after, and we even think we see it in some of our friends, but every marriage will have conflict. Every marriage will know frustration and experience anger. Every marriage will face adversity. There is no happily ever after.

We had known each other for four years when we married, and lived together for three. Time enough to discover our flaws. Time enough to see the cracks. Honest enough to accept what was manageable. Secure enough to know our foundation was strong. And when Post Traumatic Stress Disorder entered our lives, shortly after our fifth wedding anniversary, it certainly wasn’t the first test we had faced. We were a strong team, with a proven track record.

Mental illness didn’t scare me. We had the knowledge and I was sure we had the skills. I didn’t expect marriage to be easy, I didn’t expect a happily ever after. And so, in the face of adversity, we accepted the cards we had been dealt and we naturally drew together.

Time passed, but the PTSD didn’t. After five years of mental illness wreaking havoc on our relationship, I was beginning to feel utterly trapped by my commitment. This time, our unity wasn’t even close to winning the battle. I could never have imagined that a marriage could look like this. I could never have imagined that fighting this illness would be so complex and so unrelenting. And I could never have imagined that I might lose my best friend.

It was clear that the PTSD had cut deep, and I felt thoroughly helpless watching it drive wedges into the original cracks, forcing them open into gaping crevasses. Our marriage, tearing apart at the seams. As I hastily clung to the shreds, I was still blind to the fact that PTSD had set us up with opposing challenges. And I was yet to learn that mental illness doesn’t play fair in a marriage. There were certainly no guidelines for this.

Mental illness has redefined our marriage in every way, and every day I struggle to find where I fit. I’m not the wife I once was. I no longer feel like his best friend. I’m cannot be his therapist. And I’m not welcomed as his carer. I never once expected a happily ever after, but I never once expected to be married to a man with a complex mental illness.


In the face of PTSD, what type of partner do I become?
Where does the mental illness end and the marriage begin?

I am a compassionate partner:  this was not his choice, but it will be with us always and we need to learn how to live with it.

I am a supportive partner:  his mental illness affects our whole family, and because it’s our problem together, we’ll fix it together.

I am a defensive partner:  no, he can’t just suck it up, no, he can’t just forget about it, and no, he can’t just move on.

I am an encouraging partner:  PTSD doesn’t define him, it’s something that happened to him, and it can be managed.

I am a frustrated partner:  surely he’s stronger than this, why isn’t he getting better?

I am a loyal partner:  I will stand by him while there’s still a chance we can find a better way forward, while there’s still so much to fight for.

I am a cold partner:  his behaviour hurts me and his words deceive me, so he doesn’t get to touch me.

I am an ashamed partner:  overwhelmed with guilt each and every time I question how long I can go on like this, and how long I should go on like this.

I am an angry partner:  he dares to choose the easy option, he dares to give in to the pain, he dares to treat me like I’m not worth the fight.

I am a relieved partner:  his episodes have been bad, really bad, but thankfully he is not a statistic, we still have another chance.

I am a fearful partner:  his moods are unpredictable and his anger is escalating, how much is truly too much?

I am a broken partner:  so tired of the predictable cycles, how much longer can I do this, how much longer can I wait?

I am a hopeful partner:  this time it’ll be better, this time I’m sure he will fully commit to his recovery, maybe this time I can believe.

I am a resilient partner:  standing steady amidst each flurry of chaos, and in the face of each wild storm, along a treacherous and uncertain journey.

I am a lonely partner:  grieving for a person I still see each day, and sleep next to each night.

I am wife to a man with a complex mental illness.
And although I am entirely lost as to how this marriage should function, this is our ever after.



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  1. I feel this. Hugs.

    It didn’t fully enter our lives until a couple of years ago, over 15 years into our marriage. I wonder if he didn’t need to feel that level of safety and stability before fully addressing his childhood trauma. However we got here, we’re here. Fighting another day. Finding out there is a great community with so many supportive voices. You help us feel not so alone in a very isolating struggle. Thanks.

    • Thanks for your comment April. Coming together and sharing our stories helps us remember that we’re definitely not alone on our journey, and for me that makes it just a little more bearable. Take care.

    • Thanks for your comment. Before I began writing, it was easy to believe that I was the only one feeling this way, but clearly there’s many of us. Take care.

  2. Mental illness has been in our lives since we are both combat veterans but my husband’s battle is far worse then mine, that said I don’t compare. THIS is what I feel every day it’s so hard knowing they can do better but can’t get there. And it’s als I incredibly difficult and for someone who was once in charge of people’s lives to not be able to handle their own life. IT can feel helpless lonely and utterly nerve racking but there is hope

    • Marie, I can’t imagine how much more difficult it must be for both of you to be battling PTSD together. In some ways you can wholly empathise with each other, but who leans on who when things turn bad? Take care.

  3. Thank you for so eloquently expressing so much of what I feel. I always knew my husband was “eccentric” but that was manageable. When the PTSD finally took him down; the intelligent eloquent man became a scared child. The abuse through his childhood from the person he needed to trust the most in the world finally took it’s toll. Combine that with horrendous psoriasis, arthritis and type 1 diabetes (who the hell gets type 1 at 45!!) and I barely recognize the man I fell in love with 20yrs ago. It’s so hard. Thank you for your words.

    • Thank you, Anne, for your comment and for sharing your story. When we fall in love and get married, we can never be sure what the future may hold and what journey we’ll be expected to follow. It’s not easy, stay strong.

  4. What a beautifully written piece that speaks volume to what I and I am sure many many other partners around the world are feeling. Thanks you for sharing these thoughts so eloquently. If you were close enough I would probably hugs you.

    • Thank you, Mo. I just write what I feel, but it turns out people everywhere are feeling the exact same things. It saddens me, but is also somewhat of a comfort. Take care.

  5. Thanks Lea, for voicing so eloquently what mental illness feels like in a relationship. Not just PTSD, my husband has depression. It can be a very long battle.

    • Thank you. I think the feelings would be much the same with almost any mental illness or mental injury. In fact, possibly even with physical injuries to some extent too. Take care.

    • I sent this to my wives of military ptsd group or at least tbe other piece you did on enabling and boundries. I got a lot of responses. They all wanted to know. I spoke to my counselor today and she knoss my husband and is going to try to get him some more help. She said i need to do things away from him that i have fun doing at least 2 3 times a week. Not really fun but i think im going to join the gym
      I really need to lose some weight. This was a hard winter for me.

      • Thanks for your comment, and for sharing my words. Your counsellor sounds spot on – you need to first of all focus on yourself, on what you need to be healthy and happy. It’s not our job to save our partners from their PTSD, we just need to stay strong and love them while they learn how to save themselves. I used to think that self-care was selfish, but now can see that giving myself up for my husband didn’t help him and it was breaking me apart. Good luck with the gym, exercise is a fantastic natural mood-lifter and the weight loss is just an added bonus!

  6. This was us. We were married for 12 years before the war that brought PTSD to us, but 10+ years after the war, after the kids grew up and moved away, he has lost hope for the marriage. I am lost. I put everything into this, and he wants out. The cold, angry version has taken hold. PTSD kills the soul but leaves the body, so you can’t grieve, can’t give up, but can’t win either.

    • I’m so sorry that your journey has taken this sad turn. We can’t heal our partners, we can’t fight their PTSD for them. But it’s even harder to stand by and put your all into the relationship only to have your love and support rejected. I hope you have loving people to turn to during this difficult time. Take care.

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