Alma's speech became stilted, and her eyes brimmed with tears as she shared the moment she knew her marriage was over. It was not a matter of infidelity, immorality, or a lack of love that ended her marriage of three years. In fact, she and her husband deeply loved each other—but his manic episodes had taken a toll on their relationship and on their two-year-old daughter, Sasha. Their savings was depleted from his multiple hospitalizations as well as his spending sprees, and both were fearful his rage could turn violent and put their daughter at risk. Neither Alma nor her husband wanted to put their daughter in danger. So, with deep sadness—not wanting to put Alma and Sasha through any more turmoil—her husband asked for a divorce.
I Didn't Sign Up for This
Such a sad situation, and yet many couples dealing with mental illness find their marriages in jeopardy. There is no grand blueprint for how to protect your marriage when your spouse has a mental illness any more than if he had a chronic physical illness or was terminally ill. The only difference is that mental illness isn't always visible.
Society seems to be less tolerant of something they can't see, much less understand. Often, family and friends ask questions like, "Why can't he just snap out of it and do the right thing?" If you're in a marriage marked by mental illness, remember that educating loved ones and friends about mental illness can help them better understand the situation and equip them to provide much-needed support and encouragement. You can even invite family members to attend counseling sessions with you so that they can gain a better understanding of your spouse's mental health challenges.
Women whose husbands have mental illness have confessed to me, "I didn't sign up for this. I just want my husband back the way he was before he got sick." They are weary, discouraged, and desperately want their husbands to be normal again. But there can be a new normal, and as with every difficult situation in life, when we come to the Father, he helps us in our time of need.
Strategies for a New Normal
Here are five strategies that can help you if your spouse is dealing with a mental-health issue:
1. Choose to connect. Often people will isolate themselves from family, friends, and church because of shame or the feeling that no one understands. Fight the impulse to isolate and, instead, purposefully connect. God created us for relationships—relationships can help us heal. When Moses was tired and weak from holding up his staff, Hur and Aaron came beside him and held up his arms (Exodus 17:8–13). Similarly, when the burden of your spouse's mental illness becomes overwhelming, allow your friends and loved ones to hold you up. Ask your mental health provider to suggest community resources and churches that have small groups, Celebrate Recovery groups, Bible studies, and support groups specifically developed to provide a safe haven for those whose spouses suffer with mental illness.
2. Take care of yourself. People who navigate through life's challenges successfully take care of themselves. Self-care behaviors include exercise, good nutrition, taking breaks, physically resting, and engaging in activities that bring pleasure. Prioritize choices that equip you to be strong and healthy, both physically and emotionally, as you deal with marriage challenges.
3. Build up support. Don't hesitate to seek counseling for yourself if life begins to feel out of control. Develop resources and a support system that encourages you. Support groups can be a source of encouragement and friendship. One great resource for help is the National Institute of Mental Health; this site provides a variety of articles, support networks, and information about mental-health issues. Another helpful resource is the American Association of Christian Counselors which provides a list of Christian counselors in your area as well as books, articles, and blog posts pertinent to mental health.
4. Honor your grief. Even though you may have caretaking responsibilities like making doctor's appointments, transporting your spouse to those appointments, and reminding him to take his meds, it is important for you to remember you are not responsible for your spouse's mental health. There are some things you cannot control and his mental health is one of them. You can love, support, pray for, and encourage your spouse, but ultimately you cannot change him. When you come to the realization that you cannot make him healthy or change him, you may find yourself grieving. Grief is a normal response to loss. The disappointment, anger, fatigue, and stress of having a spouse who requires caretaking likely wasn't in the plan, and now you have to adjust to a new norm and new way of relating to your spouse. As you mourn the loss of the life you thought you would have, it is important to seek out support so that your grief doesn't turn into depression.
5. Strengthen your soul. Having a spouse with mental-health challenges can be lonely and frightening, so maintaining your spiritual health is vitally important. It is imperative for you to practice truth so meditating on the promises of God will help build up your inner being. An excellent way to practice truth and build up your inner being is to write Scripture passages on cards. Carry them with you so when you feel weak and overwhelmed, you have Scripture at your fingertips.
Here are a few passages you may find helpful:
- "Wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous. Yes, wait patiently for the Lord" (Psalm 27:14).
- "The Lord hears his people when they call to him for help. He rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed" (Psalm 34:17–18).
- "May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace" (1 Corinthians 1:3).
- "This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God's inner sanctuary" (Hebrews 6:19).
Above all, run to God when you are weary and he will renew your strength. Go confidently to his throne in your time of need. Even when marriage leaves you feeling frustrated and lonely, God will never leave you or forsake you.
Julia Mateer serves as the director of small groups at Bayside Community Church. A writer, speaker, and licensed mental health counselor, she lives in Florida with her husband, Mark.