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Mental Illness doesn’t define your relationship

Mental Illness doesn't define your relationship. Illness doesn't define your relationship. You define your relationship. What will you define it by?

Are you in a lifelong relationship?

Do you, or your significant other, struggle with a mental illness?

Let me talk to you about what it is like to be in a strong relationship when one of you struggle with mental illness.

Relationships can be challenging.

When two people come together they bring many things to the relationship. Their hurts, their pains, and their insecurities.

All the baggage that we carry creates a high level of complexity in our relationships.

Think about it. You and I are already jacked up. We have lived a lifetime of challenges. Watching people die, facing abusive situations, and growing up in hostile environments. Parents telling you that you are not good enough. Children telling you that they hate you. People abandoning you.

This creates feelings of insecurity, inferiority, and insignificance. Feeling that we are less than others, not feeling good enough, or that we don’t matter all rage inside of us. As it rages in us so too does similar feelings rage in another person.

When you get together with someone it is like the perfect storm. Two major fronts, full of chaos, joining together creating one big storm. The destruction that happens in its wake can be massive.

When the internal storms of two people meet it can create many issues and challenges.

Right now, you may be experiencing that. Your relationship isn’t as good as it should be. You have failed to navigate through the emotional storms of your heart. Adding someone else’s storms has down complicated things. Now you are asking yourself if the relationship is even worth fighting for.

With that thought, I want to bring in a new dynamic.

Being in a relationship is challenging.

When one, or both of you, have a mental illness the relationship becomes even more complex.

My story isn’t a secret. My wife and I struggle through a relationship where mental illness is present.

For the first dozen years, it was very difficult. There was an issue present, but there wasn’t a diagnosis. We lived life thinking that our storms were overwhelming. We believed that we were going to implode from the pressure.

Then a diagnosis came. Life began to make sense. There was a perspective that developed. We went from trying to figure out the problem to understanding what the problem was.

I have to be honest, it wasn’t an easy transition. Years later we still struggle with so much. Sure, we are wiser and more mature in it, but that doesn’t mean it is any easier to manage. It means we have a better understanding of the why behind the what.

Perspective is more precious valuable than gold. Being able to see things from a different angle is an incredible asset.

The difference between a good relationship and a great one is the perspective you have.

Our perspective expended.

Here is what we finally saw:

1. We were in a state of competing and not completing.

Everything in our relationship was a competition. We competing for love, affection, status, and success. It was a daily battle. Always fighting and battling for position.

Instead of being husband and wife we were more akin to roommates. Roommates who didn’t get along that great.

We didn’t know we were dealing with something out of our control. I am from Philadelphia. The fighting and competing were normal for me. Where I grew up it was part of life.

At that time I was ignorant of the true challenges of mental illness and what it can do to a relationship.

In the end, instead of a vibrant relationship, we were in a dying one.

2. We realized that we had been fighting the wrong battle.

This was a wake-up call for us. We had been fighting each other. That is not the battle we should have been waging.

Our energy was being used in the wrong places.

We should have been fighting this mental illness.

What if instead of fighting we used all that energy to research the condition? How much further would we be along on our journey?

It feels like we wasted years fighting the wrong battle. My wife’s diagnoses came about 4 years ago. Yet I cannot help to ponder something.

Could we have seen the issue sooner if we asked more questions and argued less?

I realize that asking more questions may not have solved the issue. Regardless of how many questions we asked we were still broken. Our past still caused us to hurt each other.

A medical diagnosis did not solve the issues. It did not give us a magical pill that would solve the problems.

What it did for us was give us more clarity.

I want to pass some of that clarity onto you. Especially if you are struggling with your relationship and Mental Illness is a factor.

1. You will have to define what is normal to you.

The longer I am in this relationship the more I realize that we are not what the world sees as “normal.” We do not fit any mold. Our lives are more dependent on her mood than anything else.

I mean that in a very loving way. People with mental illnesses feel everything more intensely. The feeling is deeper, longer, and harder to move on from.

What we define as normal according to the relationship experts may not be normal for you.

It is not normal for my wife and me.

a. With Mental Illness, chaos is part of your new normal.

Mental Illness does follow a calendar. You cannot set your watch to it. There is no rhythm. A pattern isn’t always present to you.

Mental Illness is very chaotic in nature. First, you seem ok. Next, you hit an extreme high. Then, you hit an extreme low. It never gives you a warning. You are not aware of what is happening until you are in the middle of it.

That may be your new normal.

I am not saying it is great, but I am not saying it is a bad thing either. It is something you have to learn to work through and work around.

Living with this means you have to structure your relationship according. Sometimes it is ok and other times it isn’t. Learn to roll with the ebbs and flows.

b. Mental Illness doesn’t define your relationship.

You are NOT your mental illness. The mental illness doesn’t define you. It doesn’t define your relationship.

It may put limitations on your relationship, but it should never define it.

Think about this.

Why would I define my relationship with an illness?

Oh no! I am going to define my relationship by the love I have for my wife. All the good things in our lives define our relationship. Jesus defines our relationship. The illness doesn’t.

We manage illnesses, but we grow relationships.

I don’t plan on growing the illness and manage a relationship. Don’t let your illness define your relationship.

You are not your illness. You are so much more than that.

2. Don’t Compare yourself with anyone else.

Comparison happens when dissatisfaction defines our life. When we compare ourselves with others we lose every single time. We were never meant to compare ourselves with others.

Remember, your relationship has a mental illness component. So often we compare the idea of what we want to what we have. Our thoughts cause us to believe, “If I only had that then I would be ok.

That is a set up for failure. A false premise for an argument.

How can you compare an apple to an orange? Answer: You can’t. They are different. Both are good in their own ways.

The same goes for your relationship. You cannot compare yours with anyone else’s. They are not the same.

Β Your normal isn’t going to be the same as anyone else’s.

As you define your new normal your relationship won’t be better or worse than anyone else’s. It’ll be different. Different isn’t bad. Yet, you have to come to terms with being different. You’ll have to be ok with different.

Different isn’t bad. It is different. Your relationship will be unlike anyone else’s. You cannot compare their relationship to yours.

The best statement that I have heard about comparison is this:

Don’t compare their public life to your private life.

Meaning that what people show you may not be the true story. Social Media has a way to distort the truth and show the best of us.

Don’t lessen your relationship by comparing it to others.

Above all things learn to be ok with who you have.

Enjoy your life together.


I would love for you to do a few things for me πŸ™‚

#1. I love it when people share their thoughts. I am eager to hear how you have helped someone through this? Let me hear what your thoughts are if you struggled in this area. Please honor me by commenting below! I look forward to engaging you through them!

#2. Would you consider sharing these retweets as well as sharing the article?

[bctt tweet=”You are NOT your mental illness. The mental illness doesn’t define you. #bettertogether” username=”jim_burgoon”] [bctt tweet=”We manage illnesses, but we grow relationships. #defineyourself #notyourillness” username=”jim_burgoon”] [bctt tweet=”Your normal isn’t going to be the same as anyone else’s. That is ok. #loveyourself” username=”Jim_burgoon”]

#3 I would love it if you would consider subscribing to the blog.


About the Author Jim

  • This is great advice for all relationships even those who are not struggling with any form of mental illness. I am happy to see more people talking about mental illness though.

    • Jim says:

      I have noticed that a lot of the principals of relationship are able to be applied in many places. The difference between general relational advice and the relationships that involved mental illness is the amount of raw emotions that are involved. Meaning, when mental illness is present emotions tend to fluctuate at a rapid rate. That is what I am always mindful of when working through issues. Thank you for sharing!

  • Wildish Jess says:

    I truly believe that a large portion of my divorce from my first husband was mental health. We were not in tune at all.

    • Jim says:

      This is a common story. It still hurts, but it is not unusual to hear it. Many people live with undiagnosed mental illness. There is a lot of pain involved. I will be praying for your continual healing as you journey through life.

  • Nicole says:

    This is a lovely article! I really love the tweet quotes. Depression can hit anyone and in fact a few of my friends suffer from it too. Thanks for raising awareness with this!

    • Jim says:

      Depression is more pervasive then we realize. I think that the more we know the greater out ability to help ourselves and others. Thank you for taking the time to engage with me and the readers on this site!

  • Sara says:

    This is such…I just don’t even have words. I’ve been in a relationship with someone with an anxiety disorder for a few years now and it’s still something I have to adjust to at times. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Jim says:

      I am so grateful that this post spoke to you. I would love to further the conversation with you. Let me know how I can be of assistance.

  • Hi Jim, thank you for sharing your insight with us. I’ve never had to deal with mental illness while in a relationship and I can’t honestly say how I would react. I want to believe that I wouldn’t let it define the relationship but I don’t know.

    • Jim says:

      It is difficult to know what we would do until we are faced with the situation. I want to believe that everyone would do what is right, but stress has a funny way of messing with all of us. NAMI says that 1 out of every 5 Americans have some sort of mental illness. Chances are high that we will be in some relationship with people who suffer from mental illness. Knowing that can help us prepare for the challenges ahead. Thank you for commenting!

  • Misty Nelson Dawn says:

    Such a good post and you’re so brave that you share this story with us and I admire you to have a strong faith.

    • Jim says:

      Thank you for your kind words. My wife and I want to leverage our story to bring encouragement and help to those who are struggling.

  • Love it when you say ” you are not your illness.” It can be so hard for people to separate themselves from their ailment. Another great article. πŸ™‚ thanks for sharing

  • Love it when you say ” you are not your illness.” It can be so hard for people to separate themselves from their ailment. Another great article. πŸ™‚ thanks for sharing

  • joanna says:

    If only everybody would think the same. From where I am standing, people here don’t acknowledge mental illness. They assume that saying “snap out of it” will make you jump from depression to happiness in an instance. Nobody understands the actual struggles and the loneliness of a mental illness. Because in the end, everyone wants to stay away, it’s not their problem…

    • Jim says:

      You are so right. It is troublesome that people judge this before they have had experience with it. We need to change the perceptions, raise awareness, and work hard to bring honor to the people who suffer with this. Thank you for the post!

  • Chelsea says:

    Very insightful! After working in a field with a lot of mental illness, this hits close to home and helps to put a lot into perspective!

  • Andrea Broom says:

    thank you for posting it is a great read. I too have a mental illnesses myself and can relate a lot to this article. it makes me so happy to see you and your spouse working around mental illness. πŸ™‚

  • Mental illness adds an unexpected layer to any relationship, but at least you are aware of it now. You know to adapt yourselves to working towards a goal instead of fighting about it, not knowing there was a silent issue complicating things. I wish you the best as you continue to work on your relationship! =)

  • Echo says:

    I think that this is an important read for anyone! I am very lucky to have a husband that tries to be understanding to the best of his abilities and shows me loving support everyday!

    • Jim says:

      Support is the greatest weapon you have in the fight for your health. The greater our support the great our chances are to manage the challenges. I am blessed to hear that you have an incredible support.

  • This is worth reading. We all go through hard times with our relationship and this is something that can inspire us to examine the why’s and what’s.

  • stacey veikalas says:

    Super article and message – I think relationships are hard without any type of mental challenge going on and for sure when one or two dont understand the battle it makes it all that much harder! Super info for anyone to read!

    • Jim says:

      You are so right. Relationships are difficult in general. Whenever you have a challenge like mental illness it becomes much more complex. Thank you for the encouraging words!

  • Rosey says:

    You can say that again about complexity. And you’re right, not everyone’s norm is the same. In fact, no two are the same, and hurrah for it.

  • Thanks for a vulnerable and thought-provoking post.

  • wendy says:

    It’s great that you and your spouse are working around mental illness. Every day might be a struggle, but at least you can always count on the other to help you through! Great post!

  • This is a very touching post. Thank you for sharing your story. I admire you and your wife for standing firm in your relationship. Unlike other couples who quarrel over petty things, your relationship is better because you have come to terms with illness and you work towards preserving the relationship you have.

    • Jim says:

      Every day is a battle. There are days we feel like we did well. Then there are days where we feel like we were kicked in the teeth. Deep down we know what is important and what we have to fight. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been worth it. Thank you for sharing.

  • Clark Albert says:

    This is exactly the same what I am dealing now. We can’t just give up, have a lot of patience and faith instead.

  • Jennifer L says:

    I can imagine it being difficult for both parties. But I definitely believe that open communication and understanding goes a long way on working on issues that might arise.

    • Jim says:

      It does! However, it can be difficult to open those lines of communication. One of the issues is that mental illness causes people to have what I call an alternate reality view. Meaning, their reality can be misaligned to the truth. Remember, we all see and process things according to our perceptions. If we are hurt we process everything through that hurt. If we have an illness we process everything through that illness. With mental illness, people process life through that lens. For example, if someone is struggling with Bipolar disorder and has severe trust issues. Then everything they see will be filtered through those trust issues. It can be very difficult at times. In the end, the goal is communication and understanding! Thank you for sharing.

  • tara pittman says:

    This is awesome advice. I suffered with depression many years ago so this is close to the heart.

  • eazynazy says:

    I dont know what to say……………Mental illness is very hard to handle . and it’s good you found a way

    • Jim says:

      I am not sure I would say “Found” a way yet. We are on a journey. Every day we chart the way. Some days we miss it. Other days we do ok. Thank you for joining the conversation.

  • CourtneyLynne says:

    Ughhhh it would be tough to have a spouse dealing with things you found never ever understand yourself! It would definitely make things more complex that’s for sure

    • Jim says:

      It does. One day everything seems fine and the next you have no idea where the chaos came from. It is like riding a rollercoaster blindfolded and hoping it ends soon. Yet, there is so much beauty that can come from it.

  • Erin says:

    “When one, or both of you, have a mental illness the relationship becomes even more complex.” Oh how true this is! Being in a marriage is already super complex at times but throw a curve ball like mental illness and it gets even more intense. The key for us was learning what the triggers were and either a: talking through them or b: simply avoiding them altogether.

    • Jim says:

      I love how you brought up triggers. That is a key to managing Mental Illness. What triggers you? What soothes you? Those are primary questions that are continually needed to be asked. Thank you for sharing!

  • This is the one of the biggest misconceptions and I am so glad you addressed it in a post

  • Hannah Marie says:

    This post is really helpful. We may be close to people now with mental illness that we or they are not aware of. We must be open to these situations like for us to be of help when they need us. Communication is really important.

    • Jim says:

      NAMI says that 1 out of every 5 people (In The U.S.) have a mental illness. What we need to understand is that people go years without being diagnosed. A memember of my family went 31 years before they were finally diganosed. People who struggle are all around us. I love the point you made about communication. That is very important. Thank you for that.

  • Marriage really can be hard, but as you said the biggest thing is to work together and know you are stronger as a team. Thanks for raising awareness about the issue!

  • Divya says:

    This is a very helpful post and one that is applicable and relevant in so many ways. As a special education teacher, I work with families who have children who may be suffering from emotional distress or other disabilities. I think this advice would very much apply to them to as they navigate the system together.

  • Elizabeth O. says:

    I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in a relationship with someone who is also battling mental illness. I think it’s going to be a challenge but relationships are meant to help you battle that by giving you a partner to battle it with. These are very insightful, I agree, your relationship shouldn’t be defined by your illness.

    • Jim says:

      You may be surprised. NAMI says that 1 out of every 5 people (In The U.S.) have a mental illness. What we need to understand is that people go years without being diagnosed. A memember of my family went 31 years before they were finally diganosed. It is definately tough. Yet, your words are so true. We need people to battle with us. Thank you for your thoughts.

  • Tami Qualls says:

    Your quote about internal storms is so true. There is a couple in my extended family that fits this statement.

  • Eileen says:

    Thank you for sharing you story. For someone like me who is trying to cope with my husband’s mental illness, this article made me feel a whole lot better and lifted some of the worries away. I wish you well and please continue to shed light on the topic.

    • Jim says:

      Thank you. I write to help others not feel so alone. So often I feel as if I am “the only one” who goes through this. Yet, that is not the truth. There are a lot of people who do! So, I want to help bring encouargement and strength to people who are struggling. Thank you for joining the conversation!

  • Sarah Bailey says:

    I like that you have written that “You are NOT your mental illness.” I feel that we should have compassionate for our loved ones who are struggling with mental illness. It is not easy to understand what they are dealing with but we should care and talk to them always.

    • Jim says:

      Agreed! I want to add that I don’t think I will ever understand what my wife “Feels.” I can understand the science of it. I can understand the cycles of ups and downs. I won’t be able to understand what it is like to go through it. That is the hard part. Yet, you hit the nail on the head. We must take care of our loved ones.

  • Love this! I’m happy to hear that you two are staying strong and making it work! True love will always stay strong!

    • Jim says:

      We are definately trying! Every relationship has it’s ups and downs. Just as the seasons change so to does the emotional ups and downs of relationship. The key is to fight for the seasonal change. Meaning, the bad emotions don’t last. Forgive quickly and move on the sun is on it’s way! Thank you for your thoughts.

  • Leigh Anne Borders says:

    What a great post. It is so important to not let any of our illnesses define who we are. We are more than a label.

  • I am bi-polar and am on medication to keep me stable. It is hard on my husband. He just does not understand it. I love how you pointed out you and your wife were fighting each other more than the mental illness. That was a WOW moment for me.

    • Jim says:

      It was a WOW moment for me as well. It hit me hard. I thought and said, “I am putting all my energy into things that don’t matter.” Meaning, I was spending so much time and energy of the wrong things! We have to work together. Healing and wholeness is a team sport! Thank you for sharing!

  • Joely Smith says:

    I am so happy I read this today.
    Thank you also for putting it all out there in order to help others!
    I know just the person I am going to share this with as I know it will help him so very much in his relationship.
    I am so happy that the two of you are making it work. It is difficult for couples who do not have mental illness!
    My daughter struggles with many issues – the biggest struggle for her has been a solid diagnosis!

    • Jim says:

      Thank you for the sharing your story. You are so right, relationships are difficult in general. It is a challange to grow together. Yet, it is the best thing. As an old friend of mine once said, “You have to mine through the junk to get the gold.” That is for all of us. We all have a lot of junk. It is beautiful to share that with someone who believes in you.

  • Shirley says:

    These are the great tips. Relationships are quite challenging these days. Thanks for sharing your story. It is quite motivational.

  • Eileen says:

    This was a very good read for me. My husband is bipolar, although he does not have manic episodes. It is the depression and the mood swings that are worrying me. His condition has declined the past 5 years and he seems to be more depressed these days than he was 5 years ago. I try my best to be patient with him especially when he gets annoyed at the slightest noise (spoon dropping). I want to put myself in his shoes to fully understand what is going on in his mind. Next week, we will be seeing another doctor (for a second opinion). He hates taking medication because he says it only puts him to sleep for long hours everyday. His cognitive ability shows a bit of slowing down too and it frustrates him. I know there is no cure, but I wish there was something I could do to make it easier for him.

  • Very uplifting post for those who might be struggling with mental illness or those who love someone struggling with it

  • jessica says:

    thanks for sharing your experience and i think your tips are good tips for relationships in general too…it’s inspiring to hear how you two have worked together for strength.

  • Jim, what an interesting piece. Thank you for being open about your relationship and your wife. I love that you guys were able to figure out what the root of the problem is and work together. I love that you are still together, working together. I was with someone for 4 years with a mental illness and we were not able to make it work.

    • Jim says:

      Thank you for sharing. Mental illness is difficult. It is difficult for the individual and it is diffiult for the family. My wife and I have a ways to go, but we are on this journey together.

  • this is interesting and your advice can be applied for all relationships. I am happy you choose to love each and work through life together instead of abandoning the union. God bless I hope you continue to gain wisdom and understanding of how to lead a successful marriage and life.

    • Jim says:

      Thank you for the kind words. You are correct. The advice can really fit most relationships. Yet, I think the relationships that are the most complex, ones that revolve around illness, need a lot of guidence. Most people want to do right for their significant other, but they don’t know how. My wife and I want to fill that gap.

  • Thank you for this, Jim! My dad has become mentally ill after several strokes, and my mom is learning how to deal in that relationship. It’s been very hard on her – I will share this with her!

  • Neely Moldovan says:

    We have some mental illness in my family and people can be very close minded. Such a great post!

    • Jim says:

      People can be very closed off to the idea that mental illness can be managed. My wife and I’s heart is to bring awareness. We want to bring awareness to families and give them the tools they need to thrive.

  • christine says:

    It’s so inspiring to hear a couple get the diagnosis and find their way together.

  • Bel says:

    I have to say the things you’ve said here are gold. Every single word. I’m still quite young, in a relationship though far from life long but if there’s something you’re absolutely right about, it’s that you have to define ‘normal’ for yourself. The moment you realize that, a lot more makes sense.

    • Jim says:

      When we stop camparing and start defining then we are on the road to freedom. It doesn’t mean it will be easy, but it does mean that things will be in great perspective! Thank you for your kind words and thank you for sharing.

  • Marcella says:

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for sharing your experience and expertise. You put a lot of thought in this article that hopefully will inspire many people to fight the mental illness instead of each other. Your article gives hope for many out there who are struggling with this!

  • It is good to work together in a relationship and a marriage. To support one another. Mental illnesses are tough to deal with and handle. You have to come together and make sure to communicate and make sure you are getting the help you need as well because without help it can destroy a relationship. This was a great read and helpful!

  • Lisa says:

    You are so right that it doesn’t define a relationship but it does take a little more work. Realizing we were fighting the wrong battle was the aha moment for us.

    • Jim says:

      It was the same for us as well. When we realized that we are fighting the wrong battle we had that aha moment. We are currently working through fighting the illness. It has been difficult, but we are not alone in our struggle and neither are you! Thank you for sharing.

  • I have read so much information on how “I” can manage mental illness, but I feel guilty that I never stopped to think about “US”. Yes I try to share information with my partner but it’s always about understanding me. A relationship is so much more complex when you add a mental illness!
    I am trying lately to avoid comparisons- particularly in where we are in our relationship compared to others, and also where I am in life. It is hard and I heard a podcast today that we put on this face to mask what we really feel.. like emotions of unhappiness are not acceptable in society. I think that is also key in managing mental illness, acknowledged emotions – acknowledge why we are fighting as a couple, acknowledge that you feel a certain way etc.
    A lot harder than it sounds but it is all worth it!
    Wonderful article, I appreciate you sharing!


    • Jim says:

      Thank you for sharing your story. Mental Ilnnes is very tough to work through with someone. It is even harder to do it by yourself. We need people to be with us. Help us through the times of struggle. Check out my articles on depression ( http://www.jimburgoon.org/depression ) and suicide ( http://www.jimburgoon.org/suicide ). I work through some tough issues. Bottom line is there has to be an “US” or a “WE” when struggling through this. If there is only an “I” then we will not make it.

  • robin Rue says:

    Normal is different for everyone and it is wonderful that you figured that out. Wishing you and your wife the best πŸ™‚

  • Aarika says:

    This is a great post! It’s wonderful that you and your wife are working through your mental illness journeys together! I really appreciate your candor in sharing “next steps” too. This is a genuine tangible post. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Jim says:

      Thank you for your kind words! I heard it once said, “When one of you struggle with a mental illness you both struggle with one.” This has been so true in my relationship. My wife was diagnosed a few years back, but it is our burden to bear. We are not there yet, but we are moving in the right direction. We decided a while ago that we wanted to leverage our lived to help others. Thank you again for sharing.

  • Thanks for posting it is a great read. I have 2 separate mental illnesses myself and can relate a lot to this article

    • Jim says:

      Thank you for sharing! It is hard to cope when dealing with so much, but with the right tools and support we can overcome!

  • Caroline says:

    This is a great perspective on communication within relationships. I loved how you touched on not comparing your relationship to others. Millennials these days (including me) are guilty of this because of Instagram and Facebook. Great read!


    • Jim says:

      Thank you for joining the conversation! Your perspective is awesome! Comparison is tough. With social media there is so much distorion that we don’t really know what is and is not real. In that mess we compare. When we compare we are looking at our internal struggle and comparing it with people’s external projection of themselves. It is a recipe for destruction. Thank you for sharing.

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