The sun sets in the distance as a wooden path leads through a sandy bluff towards it.

“Mental Illness” or Abuse – Helping a Woman Discern the Difference

Sometimes women will say they believe their partner behaves the way he does because he has mental health concerns. Men who are abusive are sometimes diagnosed as having a personality disorder or of being bipolar. Men who are abusive may blame their hurtful behaviour on being depressed. This is very confusing for women; if their partner is behaving this way because he is “ill”, then perhaps he cannot help it. Women want to be able to support their partners through an “illness” and probably take their vows to be faithful “in sickness and in health” very seriously.

For women who have come to think of their partner’s abuse as a result of a mental health concerns, it is a big shift to come to believe that he is 100% responsible for the abuse. We do not want to force or push this new way of looking at a woman’s experience but we can begin to open up this possibility.

There are two questions we can ask. First, does the partner behave like he is mentally ill with everyone, or just with the woman and the children? If the partner does not consistently display “abnormal” behaviour, he may not in fact be mentally ill. Second, does having mental health concerns give someone permission to behave abusively? We don’t think so. Mental illness and abuse are two separate things. As a helping professional, you are probably familiar with many mental health diagnosis. You know from experience that just because someone is mentally ill does not mean they are abuse. We help women to see this by pointing out that many of them have suffered from depression or anxiety but have not been abusive to their partners.

Long term, we hope women begin to see that abuse and mental illness are two separate issues. Most of the women we support come to the conclusion that there partner does not have a mental illness. He is simply abusive. But even if the partner does have mental health concerns that are widely witnessed in the community, women begin to recognize that he is still choosing to behave abusively to them. He has two issues he needs to work on: his mental health, and his abusiveness. If he also uses substances, this is a third issue that he needs to work on. None of these can be used as an excuse to abuse.


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  1. Okay, Thank-you ! for this clarification. I needed to read this and get clear in my own mind. My ex used to drink and do weed and abuse and I thought he was suffering from mental illness as well.

  2. Agreed my partner uses this platform as a justification for his behaviour the bottom line is he is still driving his behaviour so there fore he is driving his abuse. It is his choice to be abusive. There is a HUGE difference between abusive behaviour and mental illness. My partner uses his mental illness to honeymoon like being apologetic after an explosion phase to justify not remembering. One way to tell they are abusive and using their mental health condition as an excuse; when they stop apologizing and start justifying. Hard to see when you love them and you empathize with their condition.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and perspective. It is really important to hear it. Karen.

  4. I needed to see this. I kept thinking he has mental illness. This makes so much sense. Wow, my boyfriend has said he lashed out at me, got nasty and exploded because of his depression. He is not diagnosed as having depression.

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