My wife spent a week on a psych ward following the birth of our first son. She had a miserable fight with postpartum depression and sleep deprivation. One year later, nearly to the day, I landed in the ICU and then a psych ward following a suicide attempt.
Shortly after, our marriage nearly fell apart. She left for two weeks, and they were the saddest and scariest days of my life. Once she came home, we started intense marriage and individual therapy, laying all our cards on the table. It was now or never. Eventually, we both decided to stay, fully aware of what that meant.
The dust has settled on that hard season, and while I’m not a professional therapist, I’ve been both the one who needed support and the one who was asked to support a struggling spouse. I’m writing only from my own experience. After living through it, here’s my take on what to do when you’re married to someone with mental illness and things are getting hard.
1. Don’t just hope for the best. Do something.
When a friend confesses their marriage is unraveling, I immediately tell them, “Counseling saved our marriage and quite possibly my life.” The vast majority of the time, that statement is met with, “He would never go for that,” or “I’ll be praying about how to best approach that subject with her.” Most folks do not like the idea of airing their dirty laundry to a complete stranger. I get it. Me too. All I can tell you is after walking through it, I am a firm believer in the safety and stability of talking with a legit professional on a consistent basis.
2. Stop trying to fix your spouse.
I am not my wife’s therapist and she isn’t mine. While we play a primary role in each other’s support systems, we are not professional helpers. On the days when Lindsey comes home and finds the fog of depression lying low on the living room couch, she has learned to just say, “I’m sorry you’re having a tough day. I’m here if you need me.” It’s not healthy for either of us personally, or for our marriage, for her to do any more than that. It isn’t her job to try and fix me or convince me that she’s going to be there for me. After all, she proves that by staying.
3. Talk about it with each other.
There is great power in being able to tell our stories, either to our partner, a counselor or a trusted friend. Being able to name our pain, our struggles and frustrations, and even our greatest hopes is a catalyst toward true change. There’s a conventional wisdom that says not to go to bed angry. I disagree. Sometimes you go to bed with a hurt heart, with the full intention of waking up and talking about it once things settle down.
4. Cry together.
Recently, I picked up my son from daycare with a dog, a Christmas surprise. Everything was great and I was his hero for the day. But as I went to bed that night, I burst into tears. Three years earlier, I missed his first birthday because of my suicide attempt. At times the guilt still gets the best of me.
Instead of trying to fix anything, Lindsey held my hand and cried with me. Her words were soothing to my soul. She said, “I rarely think about that first birthday. What I do think about are all the memories we have created in the years since. I can’t help but think that our relationship would have never become this deep if we hadn’t walked through such a living hell together.”
5. Look for opportunities to laugh together.
Life tries to get the very best of us, and sometimes, it works. Whether you are the one in ICU or the spouse sitting at the end of the hospital bed, life is full of experiences that leave us questioning our decisions. Learning to laugh together is powerful medication. Whether it’s finding a weekly show you both enjoy or laughing at your kids’ silliness, I believe laughter is an extremely powerful tool for remaining connected and finding joy in life.
6. Know your limits.
In the Christian circles where I grew up, I often heard, “Stay because marriage is a sacred bond.” Or “God hates divorce.” In other circles, it seems just the opposite: that feelings trump commitment and if you aren’t happy, you are entitled to simply walk away, no questions asked.
I can no longer accept either approach as the only option. Each marriage is unique, especially where mental illness is concerned. You have to take a serious look at your situation, self and sanity. Decide what’s best for you, your spouse and your children, if you have them. Sometimes the best way to love and honor everyone involved is to leave.
I don’t believe “When you have done all you can do, stand” is always the best advice. I have seen firsthand that separation or divorce is sometimes the next right step, and can breathe peace into a family.
7. Take care of yourself.
Marriage is stressful, no matter what. But being married to a person with mental illness can add to that stress. Take time for yourself. Sometimes it’s impossible to leave your responsibilities. In that case, find moments of quiet to enjoy something simple — a cup of tea, a few pages of a book — even within your routine. Give yourself space to breathe. It matters.
8. Love beyond the labels.
When your spouse who has a mental illness can’t explain “why” normal life feels so hard, it can be frustrating. We know their labels, we’ve read all about their symptoms. Labels are important from a medical standpoint, because they show professionals the best course of treatment. But labels in marriage are detrimental. Don’t become so stuck on them that you forget to love the person you married.
9. Be honest.
When something frustrates you, speak up. There’s nothing worse than an old sore that’s been left to fester. If something hurts your feelings, say so. Nobody wants to have to dig to find out why you’re pouting. Just follow this simple rule: tell the truth in love. It’s always the right choice.
10. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
When you make the decision to stay, you have to make that decision for yourself. If you decide to leave, that’s your decision, too. Once you’ve made your move, you must set clear boundaries with friends and family. Your marriage — both its joys and dysfunction — is nobody’s business but your own.
11. No more comparisons.
One of my favorite quotes is, “You can’t compare your insides with everyone else’s outsides.” Nobody has the perfect marriage. Let go of what you think it’s supposed to be, and live in the relationship you actually have. Stop trying to have your friend’s marriage or mimic your parent’s relationship. Nobody has the magical romance they portray on Facebook, so shut that noise off.
If you’re married to someone in danger, or someone whose struggles make them a danger to themselves or others, here are some resources:
Postpartum Depression: 1(800) PPD-MOMS
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255
Of course these things only apply if you are safe in your marriage. If you are not, please seek professional help.
If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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