Mental Health and Your Marriage
When I had an anxiety breakdown in 2005 following The London Bombings I was as terrified for my marriage as much as I was for my mind. Having only been married for a couple of years I was still overawed by the fact that this beautiful and talented young woman had committed to marry me. Suddenly I found myself without confidence, signed off work and lying on the sofa. I was having multiple panic attacks every day and my limbs shook involuntarily.
A partner’s mental health issues are incredibly hard to comprehend in a marriage. Most mental health symptoms are invisible and require careful explanation, something that a newly diagnosed sufferer is unable to do. Symptoms can also include confusion, intense fear, anger, guilt and sadness; none of which aid objective conversations. I remember thinking, “Well, this is it! Why would this precious, gifted young woman want to stay with a useless wreck like me?”
Mental health issues do increase the potential of divorce. A multinational study on ‘mental disorders, marriage, and divorce’ reported by the University of Groningen in Holland states, “All 18 mental disorders are positively associated with divorce (odds ratios ranging from 1.2 to 1.8). Three disorders, specific phobia, major depression, and alcohol abuse, are associated with the largest population attributable risk proportions for both marriage and divorce.”[i] At the same time, it is a mistake to make too simplistic a correlation here: Despite mental health issues impacting 1:4 people, they are not cited in any list of the leading causes of divorce.
In the marriage support work I have done in relationships where there are mental health issues to contend with, I have never come across a person leaving solely on the basis of the other partners condition. I have worked with married people who have everything from psychosis and bi-polar disorder to personality disorders, chronic depression and debilitating anxiety, all of whom remain in very strong and happy marriages. The reality is similar to that of chronic physical illness or paralysis; in reality very few partners dust off their hands and say, “That’s enough.”
I am glad to tell you that my wife had nothing like a pessimistic an outlook of the future than I did at that time. In fact looking back over the subsequent 10 years of our marriage, I can honestly say that that extremely painful period helped not hindered, our relationship. I finally got over my insecurity that love was conditional to my performance and could finally accept in my heart, that I could be loved unconditionally, not just by my wife, but also by God. That said, it wasn’t all easy!
Just like financial difficulties, physical health challenges or communication issues; the way we manage the problems we have is as important as the fact that we have them at all. Mental health issues have the ability to impact everything if they are left unaddressed, at the same time there are very few mental health problems that cannot be treated or well managed. Couples who address the issues together and educate themselves a deeply as possible about the problems and their symptom profiles will undoubtedly do better in their marriage. Seeing a GP (doctor) together is an essential first step.
The key balance here is that the ‘non-clinical’ partner does not become the therapist or ‘resource provider’ for the partner with a clinical issue. This tends to distort that marriage, creating resentment and exhaustion. Instead that partner supports the insight of the one with an illness. In this way the partner susceptible to episodes of ill-health can recognize the problem and get external help quickly. Insight and motivation are central tenants of mental health management and here two people are definitely better than one. The reality is that whilst mental health problems may pose a challenge to your marriage, your marriage poses far greater challenges to mental health problems. Dr. Robin W. Simon writes, “...Hundreds of studies document a robust relationship between marriage and improved mental health: married people report significantly fewer symptoms of depression than their non-married counterparts.”
In reality, within just 20 years of marriage, which partner is not going to suffer from some sort of mental distress or disorder? Some of us may suffer more at the beginning with depression and some much later on with dementia, but to some extent we will all suffer. Marriage is our opportunity to show the compassion of Christ to each other in our suffering and see the transformation that His love brings us. God’s covenant of marriage is undoubtedly good for our minds. . Dr. Robin W. Simon concludes, “…but sociological research on this topic is clear; having a deep emotional connection with another person provides individuals with social support and coping resources, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, an important social identity, and feelings of social integration and mattering—which are all important for both the development and maintenance of mental health.”[ii]
This article appeared first on the Care For The Family website.