You’ve probably heard it said that you never really know someone until you actually live with them. It’s so true. Just like people only display the highlight reel of their lives on social media, they tend to be on their best behavior while they’re dating. Once you get married and live together day in and day out, the mask begins to slip and you see the good, the bad and the ugly. Sometimes you even get to see the unwell side of them and it can be unsettling if you’re not prepared. One in four people will be diagnosed with a mental health challenge this year; that’s 25% of our population!
What you chalked up to once a month might actually roll around a lot more often in your wife. Those jokes your husband told that came at your expense and hurt your feelings when you were dating, might now begin to feel like a machine gun set on rapid fire no matter how hard you try to please him.
What does marriage entail?
Marriage is a readjustment for any two people. You’re learning how two become one and that means merging, shaving things down to fit, blending, compromising, giving and taking. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Both parties have to be willing at the same time to do this work. It’s never 50-50; it’s always 100-100 and anyone who tells you different is setting you up for failure from the start.
It requires two healthy people entering into an agreement to always put the other person’s needs ahead of their own first. That’s a tall order because humans are very selfish by nature and we live in a culture in the United States that tells us to be all that we as individuals can be, to think of ourselves first. Some other cultures still have arranged marriages and learn to work together and grow to care for one another, but they plan to stay together no matter what. Here, we enter into marriage with a passion above all else, expecting that to carry us through until it burns out; and if that should happen, when that happens, we plan an escape route.
Marriage and mental health
When the mind breaks, we don’t know what to do, because we are ill-prepared to handle the fallout. We don’t view mental health challenges in the same light that we do cancer or war wounds or other more visible scars. Where do we go for support? Who can we talk to? We question our own wellness after a while.
It is important when we notice signs of mental illness that we talk openly with our loved one without pointing fingers or creating more stress for them. We can say things like, “I notice that you seem to be sleeping a lot more or spending less time with friends and isolating more than you used to. Are you feeling as if no one seems to understand you lately?” Depending on their response, you can suggest talking to someone in the mental health field together, attending a support group of peers (others who have experienced a mental health challenge and are in recovery and have developed techniques to manage their symptoms), or the possibility of seeing a physician about trying medication to help address problematic symptoms. Using empathy to convey that you are willing to hear them and are not judging them, but are truly trying to understand will assure your partner that they can be vulnerable and open with you. Mental health challenges carry such a stigma and marriage should be a safe space.
Solutions for mental health challenges
It is important that your partner feels assured that your relationship can endure the strains that a challenge of this type can present. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers a free 12-week class for family members of a person living with a mental health challenge that can provide factual information on every diagnosis out there and a place where you can ask questions and find support for yourself. They also offer information on how to advocate for your loved one locally, and at the state and national level. They even have programs for your loved one when they’re ready. Another great resource is the Mental Health Grace Alliance. They offer free support groups from a faith-based perspective called Family Grace for supportive family members and Living Grace for peers. They have an online group called Thrive for peers who may not be ready to attend face-to-face groups.
Many organizations have Certified Peer Support Specialists on their staff. These are individuals who have lived experience with a mental health and/or substance abuse history and have been in recovery. They are able to relate to your loved one because of where they have been on a personal level without judgment, similar to the AA model and many people currently in recovery find it very helpful. You might consider taking a Mental Health First Aid class to learn more about how to respond to a mental health crisis.
There are tools you and your loved one can learn to eliminate or reduce triggers and to plan for them. Mary Ellen Copeland’s WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan), is a wonderful resource to create a plan to stay well and identify the things that create an imbalance in one’s life and reduce the time between relapses by creating a wellness toolbox. While medicine is a valuable tool, there’s nothing that can take the place of knowledge, personal responsibility, family support, and self- advocacy.
You can still have a healthy marriage
No one chooses to have a mental health diagnosis; just as no one volunteers for cancer or HIV. There is a genetic component to mental health challenges; it’s the luck of the draw and we have to stop adding to the stigma by not understanding. You can learn how to respond and how not to respond. The stigma associated with a diagnosis is often worse than the diagnosis itself. Get some support for yourself so you don’t take the bait. When someone knows they are loved, valued and heard, recovery is not only possible but probable. Finding out that you married someone who has a diagnosis doesn’t have to mean the end to your marriage; it may just mean the picture you had in your mind has more shades of gray than pastels and bright colors. With the right amount of time and love, broken things can mend and the photograph can still be beautiful. Knowledge is power.