Mental illness is very real and very difficult. It can be very taxing on all the relationships in your life, especially your marriage.
I say this with some confidence because for the majority of my marriage, I’ve been the mentally ill spouse. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life. Throughout our marriage I have suffered from at times crippling anxiety and bouts of depression. These challenges have only intensified after having a baby.
But, through the example of my good husband, and our trial and error approach to our happily ever after, I’ve learned a few truths about how to keep mental health from creating a gap in our love story.
1. Be open with your spouse: Communication is essential to a successful marriage. If you are struggling with mental illness, your first line of defense should be your spouse. Trying to battle the illness alone can create a wedge between the two of you. Learn more about the illness together. As you discuss the complexities of the illness, it is important to look at treatment options together. This creates a built-in support system.
In fact, experts agree that being open with friends and family is an excellent way of coping with mental illness.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America stresses this point on its website. “Tell friends and family you’re feeling overwhelmed, and let them know how they can help you. Talk to a physician or therapist for professional help,” the website reads.
Truth be told, this can be much easier said than done. As I have struggled with postpartum depression, I have been candid with my husband, Eric, about some of the thoughts and feelings I’ve had. Because he is the loving, compassionate man that he is, he is visibly upset by what I am going through. Though it is incredibly challenging to feel like I am burdening him, or causing him pain, I know that if our roles were reversed I would want to hear everything he was experiencing to be a support to him.
Explore options together. Heal together. Your spouse is your caregiver and can be just as overwhelmed with the illness as you are.
2. Allow your spouse to serve you: My husband is a problem-solver. In our marriage culture, wives normally call that being a “fixer.” Eric has learned that often, he just needs to listen. However, men are action-oriented. Though Eric may be helping me by just listening, it’s not necessarily helping him. I need to let him “fix things.”
For us, this is done when I allow him to serve me. Whether it’s doing the dishes, feeding the baby so I can get a bit of extra sleep, or bringing me home a ridiculous amount of chocolate, Eric is fulfilling his need to “fix.” Does it cure my depression? No. Does it alleviate my anxiety? No. And Eric knows that. But if he is feeling like he is doing his job as my provider and my protector, he is more equipped and capable of giving me the help I need as he listens to me talk about my feelings.
3. Actively seek to serve your spouse in return: One of the problems with mental illness is that it can be a completely self-absorbing struggle. It is simply the nature of the beast. But selfishness in marriage can be toxic. Though your spouse should want you to focus on healing — especially as you work together — take time to consider him or her as well. One effective way to do this is service.
Service comes in many forms. Maybe it’s a love note left on the mirror, or an effort to cook your spouse’s favorite meal. Maybe it’s getting up with the kids in the morning. Whatever it is, find ways to think of your spouse through the day. It may be difficult to think outside of yourself as you’re struggling to even make it though the day, but believe me, it does wonders for your marriage.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America additionally recommends getting involved through volunteering in your local community. This creates an additional network of support, and can be a great opportunity for you and your spouse to share a common interest.
4. Allow your spouse to help you in the way THEY can: Most spouses are not mental health professionals. Though a spouse can offer unparalleled emotional support, they cannot offer the professional experience that comes from proper treatment options such as medication or therapy. It is important to know this and not create unrealistic expectations your spouse can never reach. Instead, focus on what they can offer you and soak it up.
One of Eric’s most wonderful traits is his sense of humor and his optimistic approach toward life. Well, when I’m in the throes of depression, I don’t always want to laugh. In fact, sometimes unwanted humor can be irritating. But I’ve learned that this is one of the ways my husband shows his love. He wants to make me happy. And even if his jokes don’t, his efforts can. And, as was mentioned above, allowing our spouses to serve us can go a long way. Allow your spouse to love you in the best way they can.
5. Don’t be discouraged as you heal: Mental illness is a long, frustrating journey. It can feel that way for both of you. If you are the one suffering from mental illness, be patient with yourself. If your spouse is the one suffering from mental illness, be patient with them. It can be a difficult path to walk, often feeling like one step forward, three steps back. But healing can come. And the support of a spouse can be a catalyst for relief and comfort along the way.
Every marriage is different. I understand that not every marriage has supportive partners. My heart goes out to you as you continue to struggle, and I hope you continue your fight courageously.
Every mental illness is a little different. What works for some may not works for others. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America advises that successful treatment options, such as therapy or medication vary, including the amount of time a person should dedicate to the treatment plan. They further advise that “Treatment may be complicated if people have more than one anxiety disorder or if they suffer from depression, substance abuse or other co-existing conditions. This is why treatment must be tailored specifically for each individual.”
Mental illness can often times feel like a third wheel in you marriage. It can threaten to weaken the most precious bonds we have in life. But it doesn’t have to. Help is out there, both inside and outside the home. You can gradually bring back the joy into marriage through small, concerted, unified efforts, making your love story your favorite story.