You stare into each other’s eyes, more excited than you’ve ever been, as you repeat your vows—“in sickness and in health, for better or for worse…”—never expecting the “sickness” or “worse.” A few months go by and you find your wife sitting in a corner, crying. She can’t tell you why, and you have no idea what to do or how to help.
We’ve been there. Many times. Thankfully I can say we are now in a different season of life, but my husband’s experience above is not so uncommon. It is, however, uncommonly talked about. It’s taboo, perhaps especially within churches. What husband wants to call his buddy and say, “So, my wife is crying a lot, and I’m not really sure what to do about it”? The situation often becomes desperate by the time it becomes public and emerges as a prayer request.
It took us years to figure out what was “wrong.” Years of struggle, years of arguments and misunderstandings, years of wrestling with our own demons, to figure out how to help the other. What resulted from all that is beautiful—messy, but beautiful. We are stronger as a couple now, closer to each other and more understanding of others in similar situations.
Could it have gone another way? Absolutely. In 15 years of marriage we have dealt with depression, anxiety, infertility, panic attacks—in addition to all our personal marriage struggles that plague even the best of couples. But I would have to say that our continuing struggle with my mental illness (because, you know, that’s what it is; I’m not afraid to say it) has probably put the most strain on the bonds of marriage.
And we’re not alone. Teresa Atkin writes:
In a multinational study of mental disorders, marriage and divorce published in 2011 found that a sample of 18 mental disorders all increased the likelihood of divorce—ranging from a 20 percent increase to an 80 percent increase in the divorce rate. Addictions and major depression were the highest factors, with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) also significant.
Without Jesus, our marriage could have gone down the path of more heartache and maybe even divorce. Honestly, as I sat down to write this, I was overcome by the enormity of the subject. We know of several marriages struggling with this same issue, one that is on the brink of destruction, and I can’t help but think, What can I say? What advice or words could I possibly give to lessen the struggle?
I have nothing, but Jesus has everything. I can only trust His word in 2 Corinthians 1:4 (NLT), “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” So I share with you what He has given to us—not theoretical book knowledge, but personal experience that flows from the front lines of our lives.
If you are the one struggling, be patient with your spouse. As much as they love and care for you, they can’t get inside your head and feel what you are feeling. They are seeing things from the outside, and from the outside it doesn’t look as bad as it truly is. Remember this and try not to get frustrated.
If you are the caregiver, what follows is mostly for you. First, be patient with your spouse. As much as you love and care for them you can’t get inside their head and feel what they are feeling, so just know that you will not understand; come to terms with that and move on from there. Yes, from the outside they may be able to go on with life as if everything is fine, but take their word for it if they tell you this is not so. Look for ways to encourage them and pray with them; for them, your concern and encouragement means everything. Do not diminish their struggle, and ignoring the problem is not a prescription for helping your spouse get better. Do not become angry with your spouse for something they cannot control (sometimes the most dangerous type of anger is the quiet kind that simmers below the surface and builds over time); work hard at becoming a safe person with whom your spouse can be honest.
Your spouse is not you. This is the most important lesson that we have learned; I know that sounds simple, but it is enormous. Your spouse does not process things the way you do. They do not handle struggle the way you do. And that does not make them WRONG, just different from you. Your job, as their spouse, is to discern how to meet them where THEY are. I wish words could explain just how huge it was for me the day my husband looked at me and said, “You are not me, and that’s okay.” Literally, those were his words, and they changed everything for us.
You both have to be part of the healing process. This was another important aspect for us. I went to the doctor for the first time because my husband encouraged me. When I struggle to keep taking my medicine, he is the voice of reason that reminds me that I am well BECAUSE I take my medicine. When I’m having a hard day, I have no hesitation letting him know and asking him to pray for me or to come take the kids for a while so that I can come up for air. There was a time when I hid it, and that only made things worse for both of us.
Find ways to encourage your spouse. Encouragement can be amazing medicine—a simple text or note or kind word doesn’t require much effort but can bring much joy for your spouse.
And above all else (Wait for it. Here comes the Sunday School answer…) pray for your spouse. I mean, for real. Don’t just say you’ll pray; take them before the throne of God and hold your spouse up to the Father and ask for His help with your loved one. He’s the only one who knows how to fix what’s wrong—why would we not ask Him?
Have you struggled with this in your marriage? Are you struggling alone? Have you spoken openly with your spouse about your struggles? What are some ways that you and your spouse have navigated these difficult waters? Share your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter.
If you know a couple whose marriage is affected by anxiety, depression, panic attacks, or other mental health issues, would you email them this post to encourage them?