Coping as a Spouse of Someone With An Emotional Disorder
Because an emotional disorder was a major component of why my marriage was so painful and multiple people have brought this up recently, I thought it might be helpful for me to share some of the things I learned. I was very blessed to live near one of the best institutions in the country, and while they were unable to really help my ex, I learned a ton. I am going to avoid going into details publicly about her situation, but so much of the knowledge I gained was very transferable.
Before I continue, I want to be clear that emotional disorders and abuse are not the same thing. Many people who suffer from emotional disorders do so because they are victims of abuse, and many have been able to heal or navigate their conditions without becoming abusive themselves.
First (and most important): As a spouse, it is not your job to fix your loved one. You can’t, and if you try you will waste yourself. Support? Absolutely. But fix? No. Repeat as necessary:
I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, and I can’t control it.
Second: An emotional disorder does not excuse behavior, especially abuse. This is not to say that an extra portion of grace may not be required for a spouse who is really struggling, but there is a big difference between a heart that is repentant and wants to heal, and one that feel justified to abuse. The institution where my ex was made it a point not to allow excuses for behavior, though they did try to help spouses understand it.
Third: If your spouse hurts you, no matter how understandable it is or repentant they are, acknowledge to yourself that it hurt. I was terrible at this, I admit. But be honest. It isn’t judgmental, it’s part of the process: your soul knows it, so don’t try to ignore it. Your pain will come up eventually, and if it isn’t acknowledged then it may also come with a heavy dose of resentment.
Fourth: Some may call it a “sickness” and liken it to cancer. Be careful. It is NOT cancer, especially if the patient causes pain to you. Cancer does not actively lash out at the spouse of the afflicted.
Fifth: Your spouse must take responsibility for healing. A person with an emotional disorder cannot fix him or herself, but without taking responsibility healing will never come. One thing that fascinated me about the way the institution dealt with patients is that while they lived on campus they were forced into a very rigid behavioral pattern. Meetings, medications, everything was overseen. But once they left there was no accountability unless the patient elected for it by establishing a mentor relationship. There were no followup calls and no visits to make sure things were going OK. Just the promise that if they didn’t follow the treatment plan, they’d be back. They also emphasized that it wasn’t the job of the spouse to enforce treatment either. We weren’t to schedule their meetings or pick up the meds when the patient failed to do so. All of this was intentional. They wanted patients to realize that their healing belonged to them. If they didn’t own it, it wasn’t going to work.
Sixth: Set boundaries. Boundaries are not for fixing your spouse, but for protecting yourself. Decide what you can or can’t live with. Going off meds or not sticking with appointments and treatment programs should result in consequences for violating boundaries. These programs and medications are part of the treatment for being able to establish a future level of trust that will make your marriage a safe place. Neglecting treatment is neglecting the marriage.
Seventh: Get in therapy, and make sure it’s with someone who will be your advocate. If your spouse is taking responsibility and working the program, he or she is taken care of. You need to take care of you. I remember talking to my therapist while my ex was in the institution. I wanted to talk about her and her problems. He stopped me and said “she is taken care of. She has some of the best therapists in the country around the clock and people monitoring her meds. So you tell me what you need right now.”
Eighth: Medication takes time to work. Most drugs for emotional disorders will take one to two months before effects are seen. A lot of the drugs have negative side effects, and a lot of the prescription is trial and error. With over a hundred different variations of drugs, it can take a while to find the right mixture.
Ninth: If you are abused, you may not realize it. I certainly did not. I was looking back at a journal entry I wrote during that time and I specifically wrote “she is not abusive”, and yet I was in so much pain. And when I explain to others my story I always get responses of amazement that I couldn’t see that her actions were hurtful and abusive.
Tenth: Don’t let Christians tell you mental health is a secular replacement for the Bible. There are some really nasty emotional disorders out there and drugs along with therapy can really help if the patient’s heart is in it: these disorders are addressed nowhere in scripture. I know one woman who went years without taking medication for depression because she thought Jesus would heal her. When she finally did, her life changed dramatically. She expresses a lot of regret for the way she treated people before the meds, but now she is in a loving marriage with a husband and a child and they are thriving. It’s true that sin can masquerade as an emotional disorder (or more likely work in concert with it), but there is no reason to reject drugs and therapy on religious grounds.
I am not an authority on this subject, just a fellow traveler who has been there. These are some of the lessons I learned, so I hope passing them on to you will help. Ultimately, if your spouse is an abuser, no treatment program in the world is going to stop them, so we all need to be very careful not to be too optimistic that pills and group therapy will fix a broken marriage. At the same time, there are many people who come out of these programs owning their disorders and enjoying very happy marriages and fulfilling lives. Be honest with yourself, get a good therapist, and pray for wisdom.