Me, You, and Mental Health – Part 1
Navigating the Impacts of Mental Health Struggles on Marriages
Dr. Charity Byers, Executive Director, Blessing Ranch Ministries
“In sickness and in health.” It’s a line so many of us repeat as we pledge our faithfulness and love for a lifetime. Most of us have no idea what it’s really going to take for us to endure the consequences of mental health struggles in a marriage.
You might find yourself years down the road feeling totally alone. Mental health problems may have robbed you of the connection and deep friendship you imagined.
You might find yourself with thick walls up, too afraid of falling victim again to the constant manipulation and lies. Mental health problems may have stolen trust from your relationship.
Or, perhaps you find yourself scared, wondering every day when the suicidal thinking will turn from fleeting thoughts into action. Mental health problems may have robbed you of the peace and rest you crave.
Depression, anxiety, trauma, personality disorders, addictions, and so much more may have taken the version of the spouse you thought you knew and buried him/her deep. You might feel confused over what has created the change in your spouse’s personality and feel hopeless about the future.
When something’s robbing your spouse of their capacity for joy, peace, and presence, it can change the complete atmosphere of a home.
My personal journey
Years ago, when my husband and I walked down the aisle and said “I do” we had no idea of how much hurt we were capable of causing each other. Nor did I have any idea of how resilient we could learn to be. We’ve both had to learn to love each other through mental health struggles and how to be okay when each other wasn’t okay.
My husband walked with me through recovering from an alcohol addiction. He had to decide whether he could still love a wife who was consumed with herself and had broken his trust. I walked with him through debilitating anxiety. I didn’t know I was signing up for the challenge of navigating big life decisions with him amidst his fears or for the tension that would often envelope him.
At times we both felt alone, completely unseen by each other. At times we both felt hopeless as we kept running into the same roadblocks that stole trust, intimacy, and peace.
We have seen the wrench that mental health struggles can throw into a relationship, creating a chasm that can feel impossible to cross. At least in our story, we found ourselves staring into the eyes of someone who had hurt us deeply but at least was willing to fight hard for healing in his/her heart and in our marriage.
With greater perspective on what was behind the tensions between us and how to lead each other toward health, we grew in our partnership and capacity for unconditional love.
Being okay when your spouse isn’t okay
I know it’s not always that simple though. As I counsel others through a one-sided marriage robbed by chronic mental health issues or through the aftermath of explosions caused by a mood disorder, I see the deep exhaustion, frustration, loneliness, hopelessness, and personal pain left behind in the heart of the supporting spouse.
Sometimes, you get the gift of a spouse ready to own their struggle and ask for help. This gives you the hope of a path to recovery and redemption of a meaningful relationship. Often though, we just don’t even know what’s going on.
Hard questions come in these moments like these. “Is there any way to be okay when your spouse isn’t okay?” “How can we walk through this most challenging and delicate issue with our spouse and do more good than harm?”
Over the course of this two part series, I’d like to offer some thoughts on questions like these to help you find your way through a marriage made up of you, your spouse, and mental health struggles.
Know the difference between an unwilling and an incapacitated spouse
When things aren’t going well, you have to work hard to understand what is going on with your spouse. What does her disengagement mean? What do his unpredictable moods say about how much he loves me? Why is she so negative all the time? The answers to these kinds of questions have monumental implications for how you receive and approach your spouse.
The easy conclusions are things like: “She just doesn’t care.” “He’s turned into a jerk.” or “I guess I’m not worth it.”
But, when mental health struggles are involved, A plus B doesn’t always equal C. Before you assume it’s a character issue, bad behavior, a “mid-life crisis,” a lack of love for you, or your failure to be loveable, stop and consider whether mental unhealth could be the answer.
With mental health struggles, it means sometimes the things your spouse does and says doesn’t fit their true character.
There’s a difference between someone who doesn’t love you and one who doesn’t have the skills to love you well.
There’s a wide gap between a person who just doesn’t care and someone who is so wrapped up in their own emotional despair that they are blind to your feelings. What may seem like a cold-hearted move may be a desperate act to protect themself from their own pain. What may seem like a complete lack of interest may be the result of an intense struggle to feel present in the moment.
The person you know is probably still in there somewhere, just buried under the black cloud of depression or agitated by the constant tension that never leaves their body.
When your spouse is struggling with mental health, whatever the lack is, it’s probably not about you. If you let her mental health struggle mean that she doesn’t care or you aren’t worth it, you’ll be robbed of feeling secure about who you are. You’ll probably lose compassion toward her, too.
See your spouse through the lens of their mental health struggle and remember that it’s not about you.
When you think it’s just a character issue or their lack of desire for you, things look pretty hopeless. But when you begin to notice the deep influence that mental health issues are having on the dynamics of your relationship, maybe the light of hope can still glimmer.
Your struggles may be intense now, but just as in my story, they may give way to brighter days.
This article is Part 1 of a 2 Part Series by Dr. Byers.
Charity Byers, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Blessing Ranch Ministries. As a psychologist, she provides transformative care for individuals and couples. She is the co-author of the book Unhindered: Aligning the Story of your Heart. Visit blessingranch.org and unhinderedbook.org to find out more.