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Schizophrenia and Relationships

Romance, friendship, and mental illness
By Sherry Rauh
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD

Penny Frese, PhD, was studying fine arts at Ohio University when she met her future husband. They saw each other for several months, and she noticed he avoided talking about anything personal. "We took a walk in a park, and it was toward the end of summer -- a gorgeous, beautiful day. I confronted him about not being totally honest … and he said he had had a 'schizophrenic break.'"

For some couples, that might have been the end. Frese went to the library and read up on schizophrenia. She learned that people do best when they are in long-term, loving relationships. "I just intended to keep the friendship, but 6 months later we were married."

That was 37 years ago. The couple says deep friendships and romance are within reach for people with schizophrenia. But these ties take a lot of effort from both partners.

Learning to Socialize

People with schizophrenia tend to avoid social situations, and that makes it tough to form friendships. "Social relationships are quite impaired in people with schizophrenia," says Philip D. Harvey, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami. "If you're not interested in socializing, you won't."

"I went years and years without dating," says Elyn Saks, JD, PhD. She's a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and was diagnosed with schizophrenia during graduate school. "When I became ill, that part of my life fell by the wayside."

Reclaiming a social life usually requires three steps for people with schizophrenia:
 

  • Work with your psychiatrist to find the right medication to control psychotic symptoms.
  • See a therapist who can help you with the skills that are needed to form and keep relationships.
  • Find ways to get "social exercise." This can be a job or a club or any activity that gets you out of the house and around other people, Harvey says.

Saks honed her social skills while pursuing a career in law and psychology. She met her future husband at the law library. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me," she says. With effort, medication, and therapy, "you can have good friends and relationships,” she says.

When to Tell

It can be hard to decide if and when to bring up your disorder in a new relationship or friendship. "The way schizophrenia works, it's not the kind of thing that you can hide," Harvey says. Even when treatment is working well, you may have communication problems or other symptoms "that would be noticeable to someone you are dating." 

Frese and Saks suggest waiting a few months before opening up. "I didn't bring my [schizophrenia] up right away at all," Saks recalls. "Eventually I told him, and he had sort of expected that something was going on. He responded in as supportive a way as could be imagined."

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