If your spouse or significant other is suffering from a mental illness such as anxiety or depression, here are a few things to keep in mind that can help them—and help you keep your marriage healthy.
1. Know it's not their fault. This may be difficult to remember when your spouse is acting sad, angry, anxious, or generally unpleasant. Keep in mind that your spouse doesn't like how he or she is feeling or acting any better than you do. Remember you are dealing with the symptoms of an illness. The symptoms are as real of a medical condition as diabetes or high blood pressure and aren't simply the result of negative thoughts or a bad attitude.
2. Show them love, affection, and respect—even when they seem unlovable. They are not their illness. While it's important to remember that they have a mental illness, it's also important to separate your spouse from their illness. It is very natural to want to emotionally disconnect and safeguard yourself when your spouse is showing signs of depression, anger, or anxiety and exhibiting behavior that seems foreign from the person you know them to be. Remember that underneath all of those unpleasant symptoms is the person you love—who needs to to draw close to them during their time of suffering.
3. Remember that a person who is depressed feels as though they are in a dark hole. It does them no good for you to jump in the hole with them. Don't let the person with the mental illness paint your reality. You can support your spouse by staying grounded in the reality outside of the hole. Understand that the illness has tainted their perception. Don't let your spouse's or partner's emotions dictate yours. Find an outlet so that you don't become discouraged, overwhelmed or get lost or jump in your own dark hole.
4. It's not personal; it's illness. This will be hard to remember at the moment when your spouse takes his or her feelings and behavior out on you, but remind yourself that the mood and behavior are symptoms of the illness, and it's not personal. At the same time, set your boundaries and gently let your spouse know when they have crossed the line and hurt your feelings. You can be supportive without being a doormat.
5. Know your spouse's limitations. Living with mental illness can be frustrating and discouraging. Don't worsen the situation by unintentionally setting your spouse up for failure by expecting them to do things that they aren't capable of doing. For example, don't ask your spouse to go out to a social event and then be upset because he or she doesn't act like the life of the party. Know and accept their limitations.
6. Give yourself the space and freedom to have your own emotions about the challenges that accompany mental illness. Living with a spouse who has mental illness isn't easy. A great deal of emotional energy is often allotted to the person with the mental illness naturally causing you to put your own emotions on hold. Find a friend or a professional with whom you can talk when you begin to feel sad, angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed. Staying emotionally healthy will allow you to be a better support to your spouse.
7. Open communication. Encourage your spouse to talk about his or her feelings. In the midst of a depressive episode, anxiety, or a bipolar state, your spouse may not have the best self-insight. However, If the two of you can learn to communicate during the difficult times and express your emotions, it can help each of you find a bit of peace.
8. Give your loved one the freedom and space to share when they are having a hard time. Support your spouse by learning to listen without judging or trying to fix the problem. Your spouse may feel like it's necessary to try and hide feelings of depression or anxiety out of fear of judgment or disappointing you. Communication and good listening skills are key to taking the shame and embarrassment out of the mental illness.
9. Educate yourself. Informing or educating yourself about the illness is absolutely essential in supporting a spouse with a mental illness. Mental illness affects every aspect of life. The more you know, the more supportive and compassionate you will be toward your spouse.
10. Be willing to exercise tough love. In the midst of deep depression or a manic episode, your spouse may not have the capability to know when it's necessary to seek help. By the nature of the illness, your spouse or partner may not be the best judge of his or her current mental state. You may need to seek medical help on your spouses behalf. Prepare yourself to hold them accountable to take their medication and manage their illness.
Together, you can work through this issue and become stronger—both individually, and as a union.
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