Many couples find that their relationships blossom in the warmth of mutual respect, encouragement, improving communication skills, and increasing positive interactions. Self-help books or basic marital counseling around speaking your spouse’s “love language” work wonders. Yet there are countless couples finding themselves confused, even frustrated, by the well-meaning advice in classic lectures on marital harmony. Reciprocity seems elusive. The joyful marriage they dream of is out of reach.
When there is abuse in these marriages, safety is the non-negotiable first step. Extricating oneself from the abusive relationship is imperative. For a woman’s powerful account of this work, see end of this page.
What if there is no abuse? The relationship may still seem inexplicably challenged. Many people find themselves in marriages that are not abusive, yet their efforts to impact the relationship by giving, loving, sacrificing, encouraging, compromising, and adulating seem fruitless. One reason - impacting at least 1 in 4 marriages - is when one (or both) partners suffers from mental illness or addiction.
When a spouse is suffering from a high-functioning mental illness or addiction, typical marital advice is grossly insufficient. The beginning steps towards marital harmony are different. Guidance for these couples from rabbis, rebbetzins, and even marriage counselors, is sparse.
These are vastly well-intentioned husbands and fathers, wives and mothers. They often hold jobs, maintain schedules, manage well socially, and likely participate in housework and with the children. They want to work on their marriages, and want their spouse to be happy. Yet their emotional lives are volatile. The toll this takes on a supportive partner is debilitating. The “well” partner becomes accustomed to cheering up, talking his/her spouse down from his anxiety, boosting his self-image, giving him vast amounts of space to vent, or coddling his ever need in order to maintain some emotional equilibrium. Yet their spouse is ill. So it doesn’t work.
When a hopeful, dedicated wife or husband turns to mainstream marital advice in this marriage, she is faced with disappointment, bewilderment, and mounting resentments. Treating him like a king is not reciprocated with his treating her like a queen; his emotional angst is often too intense for him to tune in to her needs. Cheering her up feels futile; her “bad days” are borne from her inner chaos, not incidental circumstances. The most dedicated spouse in the world cannot reverse a mental health issue - and an untreated issue can wreak havoc on a couple’s relationship.
If your spouse suffers from a mental health issue, there are some concrete steps you can take to improve your life. This is the first step towards your relationship.
It Is An Illness
Recognize that your spouse is ill. The illness is something you did not cause, cannot control, and will never cure. The neurological pathways in his brain are wired for certain patterns of thought and behavior; your kindness, your fortitude, and your wisdom will not change this. The help he needs is beyond your healing hands.
Lots and lots of it. When you put your sanity first, you will be better equipped to ride the waves of your spouse’s illness. Even better, you will carry less resentment. You will have more mind space for healthy decision-making, and for creativity. You will feel more whole, and be able to see your husband more wholly. Eat, drink, sleep, shower - and then love yourself by taking vacations, investing in hobbies, friendships, and other powerful resources.
Know Your Limits
It is your responsibility to recognize what you can and cannot handle. It is also your responsibility to make your needs and wants clear. As you develop your limit-setting and limit-protecting, you will gain your own respect and love, whether or not your partner is able to demonstrate his just yet.
Give Your Feelings Space
Often, spouses with mental health issues suck in and expel tremendous amounts of emotional energy. It is common for the other partner to package feelings away until something - or someone - breaks. Respecting your feelings, and giving them space, will release the inner pressure cooker. It will also give you valuable information about your needs. So, talk to a friend, fill a journal, or communicate with your higher power as a way to express your feelings. If it’s helpful, share with your partner. You deserve it.
You Are Not Alone
Living alongside a mental health issue can be excruciating when you think you are the only one struggling. Find a support network, twelve-step group, or therapy g
roup where you can connect to others who have similar challenges, and are powering through.
When your needs are cared for, you will be able to see your spouse with more compassion at the same time as maintaining reasonable expectations of his/her participation in the relationship. From this place, you can implement communication skills effectively, you can better enjoy the time you spend together. Your creativity, spontaneity, and flexibility in the relationship will blossom. As you have claimed your rights to being a whole person - deserving of love, respect, kindness, feelings, limits - there will be two people in the marriage. Opportunities to understand each other will appear. Building will become possible.
You have embarked on the journey of marital harmony.
(Disclaimer: While this article was originally written for marital relationships, it’s principles are relevant to any relationship with an ill partner.)
Anonymous account of extricating herself from abusive marriage http://hevria.com/anonymous/other-shalom-bayis-class/