Mental Health and Marriage – Part 2
How Can I Be Okay When My Spouse Isn’t?
This article is Part 2 of a Series by Dr. Charity Byers. For Part 1, click here
In Part 1, I shared what it was like for my husband and I to deal with mental health issues in our own marriage. In this Part, I’ll say more about strategies to help you be okay when your spouse isn’t.
1. Don’t Go it Alone
It might feel like you give more than you receive, and this may go on for a season. When mental unhealth makes your spouse unable to pursue you, listen to you or collaborate with you, you have some holes to fill in your heart.
Accept that right now, your spouse can’t fill your heart with the attention and care it needs. If you have faith, lean into God’s pursuit of you when your spouse is not pursuing. Let your good friends see you and care for you when your spouse can’t.
It can feel so scary to break your silence with your friends. Will they judge your spouse as “sick” or “broken” because of stigmas around mental health? Once they know, will they be overwhelmed and run away? You might even think the “right” thing to do is to not make a big deal about it, so you suffer in silence.
Megan finally broke her silence. She had been trying to keep people from finding out about Chad’s explosive moods for years. Megan was always afraid friends would tell her she had to leave him if she was honest, and that felt even scarier than his moods.
Eventually when one of her friends, Cheryl, asked probing questions and listened intently, Megan opened up about her daily battle, trying to appease Chad’s unpredictable and unexplained moods. Cheryl didn’t judge; she listened and she cared. Cheryl didn’t immediately start bashing Chad. Instead, she had compassion for Chad along with her desire to protect Megan.
Megan took such a deep breath that day, a deeper breath than she’d taken in a long time. Finally, she had someone to share this burden with. Finally, she could stop pretending.
She didn’t know until that moment how much the silence had been perpetuating her pain.
Cheryl helped Megan muster up the courage to get real with Chad about what was going on between them. The empathy and wisdom of a friend helped Megan start fighting for her husband’s mental health and her marriage.
Choose wisely who you let in. But don’t get hooked by the myths that no one will understand. Let people you love into your struggles, to cheer you on toward better health and a better marriage.
It might seem like the best thing you can do when things feel out of control is to hold it all together for both of you. You spend time and energy covering up their behaviour. But what you might be doing is enabling their poor mental health.
You might think the kind thing to do is let them stay in bed for a week when depression tells them to. It may feel like the empathetic thing to do is cooperate with their desire for a code of silence and pretend that nothing is wrong when you’re around your most trusted friends. You might be tempted to be the peacekeeper and take all the blame displaced anger throws at you.
But you’re just fueling the fire of an unmanaged mental health issue. You might be preventing the deep need for healing from being exposed.
Don’t try to be the fixer of it all. You can’t make a mental health issue go away with unending love and support. It’s not healthy to carry a burden you aren’t supposed to carry on your own. Don’t expect that enough time or faith in God will make this go away.
Your spouse needs great professional help. Instead of enabling and overcompensating, allow the symptoms of your spouse’s struggle to be exposed. Once these problems are brought into the open, healing and growth can start.
3. Learn triggers and be sensitive
There’s a difference between overcompensating and being sensitive. Overcompensating means covering up, absorbing misplaced blame, or enabling unhealthy patterns. Being sensitive means anticipating how things will impact your spouse’s mental health issue and doing what you can to love your spouse gently.
In order to be sensitive, you need to learn the things that trigger your spouse’s mental health struggle. Bringing up a difficult topic of conversation at the end of the day be too much for a spouse already overwhelmed with anxiety and send him or her into a tailspin. Not giving your spouse a voice might trigger old feelings of helplessness related to trauma.
Be a student of your spouse’s mental health struggle and the things that trigger their symptoms. Don’t walk on eggshells but do walk informed. Anticipate impacts on your spouse and aim to be wise about how you engage with him or her.
4. Put on your own oxygen mask.
It’s very likely that your heart has taken some hits because of the struggles they’re having. When your partner’s wrestling through deep depression, anger outbursts, or intense anxiety, you’re likely to be left feeling attacked, ignored, forgotten, and unvalued. You may be lacking the good parts of love when your spouse is too consumed with self to see and meet your needs. You may be on the receiving end of hurtful actions or messages. He or she may be actively damaging your heart with angry words, violent outbursts, or manipulative behavior.
I want you to keep your safety in mind. If you’re not sure that you’re safe, please read this.
Remember, your value isn’t decided by how well your spouse shows it or honors you. It’s so easy to start believing that you don’t matter or aren’t worth it when your spouse doesn’t have the energy or capacity to invest in what you need.
Your worth isn’t subject to your partner’s moods or behaviour. Your immense worth is inherent, enduring and unchangeable.
You may need to quell your anger and focus more on compassion. You might be so mad that your spouse can’t get over this and be so angry that this struggle keeps robbing you of the peace, fun, or connection you want so badly. Remember, your spouse doesn’t like this intruder in their life any more than you do.
You might need to dampen your fears and lean into trust. Maybe you worry all the time that one day they’ll go beyond “It would be easier if I were gone” and do something about it. Maybe you’re constantly trying not to set off a firestorm or feeling helpless as they enter one more anxious tailspin. If you have faith to lean into, remember that God holds your spouse in His hands and is your partner in all of this.
5. Find hope in and celebrate progress
You’re likely to find your hope will grow with each of these strategies you set into motion. As you learn to see the mental health struggle for what it is, learn how to engage more wisely with your spouse’s struggles, and take care of the impacts on your own heart, hope rises.
What was stagnant moves and gains momentum. What was on repeat is now disrupted.
As much as you have to accept your spouses’ limitations (some of which may be long-term), you don’t have to accept that the status quo is as good as it can get. With help, a depressed spouse may find the hope that brings them alive again. With help, a spouse on the Autism Spectrum may grow in their capacity for empathy and a trauma victim can learn to feel safe and let you in.
Mental health struggles may not go away completely for all time, but with the right help, they don’t have to go unexplained, or rule your life, or create constant fear of what’s coming next. Choose to partner with your spouse, lead with compassion, and cheer them on toward making progress.
6. Fix your eyes on purpose and growth
Believe that this person is in your life for a reason and keep your eyes fixed on the purpose of your journey, even if there’s pain during this season. How is this struggle shaping your character? Growing your selflessness? If you have faith, is it teaching you to depend on God more than anyone else? Are you learning the true meaning of unconditional love?
Although you wouldn’t ask for it, adversity may play a critical role in the greater story of your life.
It may lead you to grow in ways you may have never imagined.