Mental illness issues like depression, anxiety, ADHD and bipolar disorder present challanges to even the most successful marriages. But your or your partner's diagnosis doesn't have to mean decreased intimacy and poor communication. Here, two relationship experts and therapists share advice on how to stay close through a tumultuous time.
From Expert Carin Goldstein:
In the best of circumstances, marriage is work. Every couple will experience highs and lows, bonding and power struggles, as well as physical intimacy and major dry spells. Generally speaking, marriage is complicated.
Furthermore, when one person within the couple is struggling with a mental illness, the marriage is challenged on a whole other level. Depression, anxiety, mood disorders (aka bipolar 1 or 2), attention deficit disorders, etc. are all examples of mental illnesses from which many adults suffer, and each can negatively impact the marriage. Hence, it is vital for the couple to take actionable steps to understand and manage the illness' impact on the relationship. For example, if a husband's ongoing major depressive episodes causes him to remain in bed for days at a time, then the wife is left to tolerate her partner's depression alone, and may also struggle with feeling abandoned, helpless, angry and confused. Or, if a wife's anxiety disorder is impeding her ability to simply relax at home, then she may often refuse sex every time her husband initiates. Not only does this outcome deprive the couple of physical intimacy, but the husband may be left feeling ignored and possibly rejected.
Although the mental illness will undoubtedly bring conflict into the relationship, there are proactive steps couples can take to not only minimize the stress, but help them to feel as a united front:
1. Compassion for each other. Taking the time to understand what each person is experiencing can create a positive trickle effect in which each partner is less critical toward the other, and instead, more forgiving. For example, if a wife with ADHD learns that her husband feels ignored and unimportant every time she interrupts him mid-sentence, then she may choose to focus on being less impulsive in the moment. Or, the husband learns that every time he attacks her for interrupting him, she is left to feel "stupid," the way she did as a child. He may then choose to be more forgiving with her impulsive tendencies in a conversation.
2. Professional couples' therapy. Living with a mental illness is obviously difficult enough. Throw in another person and the challenge becomes double. Therefore, professional support via a credentialed therapist or counselor who specializes in marital therapy can offer the couple viable tools to manage the current. Additionally, the weekly routine of sitting in a room together with a third party, can naturally provide an intimate experience for the couple.
3. Incorporate play time. As elementary as it may sound, play time is essential for any couple — whether there is a mental illness present or not. Be it a long hike, a walk on the beach, sex, a couples' massage or a variety of other options, activities that allow a relaxed experience, void of stress, can help stimulate the pleasurable part of the brain which, in turn, further releases a bonding hormone within each. That said, for the spouse who suffers from major depression, motivating him or her to engage in play time is a must!
From Expert Zoe Hicks:
One of the markers of living with someone with a mental illness are maldaptive habits that perpetuate the illness. One of the most common habits is called projective identification. Projective identification, essentially, is feeling that, "I can not hold this painful emotion (for example, anger) because either I was told anger was bad, or I simply believe it will endlessly consume me." So, instead of being angry, I will say to you: "Are you angry with me?" I will say this over and over again — until you actually do become angry with me. In doing so, you express for me the anger I can not express for myself (or that I am not even aware that I am holding). This does not make for fun times.
When married to a person with mental illness, please understand that this factor may be in place. So, if you are completely confused as to why the person would think you are angry, simply ask: are you angry with me? That person may not be aware that he or she is angry, until you bring it up. Break down the walls of assumption. Assuming, as you know, makes an ass out of you and me. Ask direct questions and encourage your partner to do the same.
Another tip for being married to someone with a mental illness is to take the illness seriously. Too often, we think we must be doing something wrong, or else our partner would be able to get out of bed. Sometimes the question is not, "Is he or she still in love with me?" but "Has he or she been taking her medication? How is therapy going??
The final tip is to take care of yourself. Remember the safety tips for oxygen masks on airplanes: first place the mask on yourself. Only when you can breathe, can you help someone else breathe.
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