If you are married to someone with a mental illness, you don’t need me to tell you that it’s a tough job. As a therapist, I have worked with many families where mental illness has put an inordinate strain on relationships. There’s no way to make it simple – but perhaps a few pointers will help you find it at least a little bit easier. Here’s where you need to start in order to thrive in a marriage with someone suffering from a mental illness.
1. Understand them
Understanding the mental illness that your spouse suffers from is a basic requirement for maintaining a happy marriage. It is critical for you to know what your spouse is experiencing; what symptoms, difficulties, and behaviors to expect; and what is or is not part of the illness. It would be unfair for you to criticize your spouse for being disorganized if s/he has been diagnosed with ADHD; at the same time, you don’t need to accept someone’s poor treatment of you simply because s/he has some kind of mental health diagnosis. It is a balance you will have to strike with education and experience. Living with someone who suffers from a mental illness comes with challenges, but if you are prepared in advance for those challenges, you are in a much better position to handle them.
The other reason it is important to learn about the disorder in question is simply as a demonstration of your care for your spouse. For better or worse, this is a big part of his life. If you show interest in knowing about it and sharing the burden with him, it is a great sign of love. If, on the other hand, you leave it to your spouse to manage it largely on his own (since “it’s his problem, really”), you are sending a message that his problems just don’t concern you enough to pay attention to them. You may have heard of the famous story of R’ Aryeh Levin, the tzaddik of Jerusalem, who came to the doctor’s office with his wife and explained, “my wife’s foot hurts us.” A mental illness ought to hurt you (plural) even more.
2. Support Them
Your spouse certainly has her own trials and tribulations. Many of the struggles in her life impact you directly – but they impact her even more directly. One of your challenges is to offer empathy and support even as her illness creates problems for you. If your wife suffers from depression, it may put extra pressure on you to manage the household in addition to your other responsibilities; yet you must also remember that as hard as it may be for you, it’s even harder for her.
Support might also mean going with her to psychiatrist’s appointments, picking up medications from the pharmacy, or spending money on treatments and interventions. However, it does not mean dragging her to doctors, forcing her to take medications, or otherwise insisting on a particular treatment. The person with the illness is the only one who can decide what is right for her in terms of care and recovery, and while you can be a part of that, coercion is certainly not a form of support. (Note: there are of course exceptions to this, notably if your spouse becomes a danger to herself or others, R”L, in which case forcing hospitalization or other treatment might be necessary.)
3. Support Yourself
You may not have a mental health problem yourself, but you certainly have a life challenge to cope with. And you shouldn’t try to do it alone. Unfortunately, the stigma of mental illness makes it hard for us to reach out to others and talk about the issue. Hopefully, that is beginning to change. In the meantime, use whatever resources you can to take care of yourself emotionally and physically. Find a friend you can confide in, or speak to your rav for guidance and advice. An even better support system is a support group for people affected by mental illness. The Discussion Room is a great place to anonymously discuss your experiences, seek advice and find others from with similar backgrounds and circumstances. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is another resource for support groups. You may discover that other people in the same situation as you, regardless of their religious beliefs, have more in common with you than you might think.
Also, take time off as necessary. Hang out with friends. Exercise. Go to a spa. If all you ever do is grapple with the difficulties in your life, you will burn out sooner or later. If you’re not keeping yourself together, you’ll have a hard time helping your spouse through the tough times as well. And that does not bode well for a marriage.
These ideas are a starting point for making the most out of a difficult situation. If you need further help navigating it, reach out to a rav, a mental health professional, or someone else who can help. And feel free to be in touch with me at [email protected].