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How Do I Help My Mentally Ill Significant Other?

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From a young man in the U.S.: My SO is bipolar with strong suicidal tendencies and extreme anxiety. I left for 4 days and in that time she left the walk in closet for food – twice. Also puked when the maintenance guy showed up to check the smoke detector without warning. Late every night whether I’m home or away there’s at least an hour long conversation where she begins detailing, in graphic detail and a manic voice how she wants to kill herself, while I talk her down and change topics until she gets tired enough to sleep. Its been like this for a half year minimum and getting worse.

She has PTSD related to inpatient therapy due to a truly horrific experience when she was younger. Despite this, during finals she almost committed herself – I talked her out of it as she wouldn’t have graduated and really had no way to financially make redoing the semester viable.

Since graduating she goes to therapy every other week, and has considered intensive outpatient, but it hasn’t happened. Previously I tried giving advice, and reminded her to take her meds – really without any heat, and only because she forgets. She unambiguously told me to butt out. We fought, concluded with me never asking again.

At this point I really don’t know what I should be doing. Should I leave full autonomy to her – doing exactly s much as she asks, which is basically talking to her when she’s having a bad time, and not even really inquiring about what else she’s trying to do. Or should I push her towards inpatient therapy more forcefully? I don’t know where I should draw the line – most official advise is to always report suicidal tendencies, but she’s lived with them all her life and has a real reason not to go into inpatient. I also strongly respect a person’s right to their own body in all cases.

But I don’t know if me not touching the issue because it makes her furious is just me being a coward, or if its objectively the right thing to do. Overall very scared, overwhelmed, and a little lost. I love her, but life can’t continue as it is, and it terrifies me that where we are right now is some weird “normal”.

How Do I Help My Mentally Ill Significant Other?

Answered by on -

A.

No, you can’t continue to manage this painful situation. Neither can your girlfriend. Her illness has become the most important “person” in your relationship. I’m sure this was not her intention. But she is more involved with her illness than she is with you. Quite inadvertently, and with the best of intentions, you have supported her in being ill by being as scared as she is. Talking with her in detail about her desire to kill herself isn’t helping either one of you.

A session of therapy every other week is clearly not enough for this level of distress. I suspect that her therapist doesn’t understand the intensity of your girlfriend’s symptoms or she would have increased the frequency of sessions long ago.

My best suggestion is that you join her in her therapy sessions for awhile — or at least for part of her therapy sessions.  If you attend even some part of the sessions, you and the therapist can focus on getting you out of being a crisis worker and back to being a loving support. Ideally, you will change the situation so you are partnering with the side of your girlfriend that wants to be well instead of the side of her that is afraid of change. The therapist can help your girlfriend shift her need for crisis intervention to someone who is trained to manage it. Her therapist, not you, should be assessing her need for an inpatient stay.

Your girlfriend doesn’t want to lose you. Using you for daily crisis sessions isn’t the way to “keep” you. I think and hope that if you are clear and loving in insisting that you participate in helping her heal in a useful way by working together in therapy, she will go along. If not, by all means call your local Emergency Services Team to assist you when she talks about suicide.

I wish you well.

Dr. Marie

How Do I Help My Mentally Ill Significant Other?

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Dr. Marie is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2019). How Do I Help My Mentally Ill Significant Other?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 15, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2019/08/13/how-do-i-help-my-mentally-ill-significant-other/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Aug 2019 (Originally: 13 Aug 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Aug 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.