Hope for a Marriage Challenged by Mental Illness

A couple sits next to each other on a couch, holding each other's hands tenderly in a marriage challenged by mental illness.
Nearly 50 million Americans are affected by mental illness. Navigating mental health conditions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be a confusing and draining experience for spouses. But this does not mean the end of your marriage — there is hope for your marriage even if it is riddled with mental illness.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Mental Illness and Its Carnage in Marriage

If your marriage is in chaos because of erratic behaviors of one or both spouses, there is hope for restoration, even if you’re convinced it will take a miracle to keep your marriage alive. An unhealthy marriage challenged by mental illness is a result of the disease, not a failed marriage.

For the first 22 years of marriage, Harry and I coped as best we could with my severe mood swings. The result was an estranged relationship. An accurate diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bipolar disorder finally gave us the information and hope we needed to begin the healing process in our marriage. Here’s our story:

I slammed the front door behind me and stomped to the car. Once again, tears streamed down my face. What is wrong with me?

I had just erupted in rage at my family and couldn’t even remember why. As my angry words were tumbling out of control, my husband, Harry, stared at me in shock and confusion. Our kids barricaded themselves in their rooms to stay out of my way.

As I stood next to the car, I realized this time something was different. After past outbursts, my husband had tried to stop me from leaving. This time, he willingly let me go.

Does he still love me? I wondered. Do I still love him?

“For Better or for Worse”

Even though Harry and I enjoyed fun and fulfilling days in our early marriage, we unknowingly were dealing with PTSD and bipolar disorder, which manifests in moods alternating between extreme joy and happiness to deep despair and pain — sometimes within minutes, and usually without warning.

For more than two decades we hid our problems. We kept up appearances while treasuring our children and attending their wide range of activities. We were active in our church, and friends have told me we seemed like a model Christian family. But they didn’t see the reality of our chaotic life behind closed doors.

What My Mental Illness Did to Me

This is how extreme my moods were: One day I was invited to teach a women’s Bible study. I bounced around the house collecting my Bible, computer, and other supplies. The following day, I continued to feel elated and not only finished the Bible lesson but also cleaned out a couple of closets and made a nice dinner for the family. Life made sense. How could I be so blessed?

My thoughts were so positive, I’m so excited to teach Bible study at church! I love these women. I have lots of ideas and I want to start on the first lesson right away. I’m so glad they asked me to teach.

Two days later, I crashed into depression and could hardly leave my bed. Doubt and fear gripped me. Life didn’t make sense, and I felt lost. I pulled the covers around me and clutched a box of tissues.

My thoughts turned negative, I’m so tired. I don’t feel like doing anything, especially more Bible study. Why did the church even ask me to teach? I’m not that great at it. What if I say something wrong? Maybe I should tell the women I’m not available. I think I need a nap.

During the down days, I doubted everything, including my husband’s love. He can’t love me. I’m a horrible person, I told myself. Those phrases ran through my mind along with unreasonable guilt and shame. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my PTSD and mental illness were causing me to lose hope in our marriage.

“Handling It Yourself” Is NOT a Good Way of Handling Mental Health

For years, I thought I could handle my mood-swings. I occasionally sought treatment, but then I would stop. I was denying, avoiding, and resisting change.

As my symptoms worsened, my husband began to experience increasing resentment. He felt as if our entire marriage had been a bait and switch. Where was the kind, patient, generous woman he married? As his frustration grew, he began to withdraw into his own activities.

Despite our challenges, we didn’t want to end up in divorce. We believed in the permanence of marriage described in Mark 10:6-9: “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” We prayed individually (and sometimes together) that God would bring reconciliation and restoration.

Turn to Others when You Hit Rock Bottom

At my lowest point, I left the house rarely and learned to hide my mood swings from everyone except my family. I hoped they would still love me despite my behavior. Because that’s what families do, right?

But my husband didn’t know what to do and my kids fended for themselves. One day my oldest daughter stood in my bedroom doorway, my other three children standing alongside her. “Mom, let’s go for a walk,” she suggested.

“No, I’m too tired,” I said. “I just want to stay in bed.” Our roles felt reversed — they were trying to take care of me — and I wished they would leave me alone.

Several months went by, and my bedroom became my home. One day as I contemplated how the world would look without me, I felt the Spirit’s presence for the first time in months. He pulled me out of my bed and onto my knees. Ready or not, God made it clear the time had arrived for healing.

“Lord, help me,” I prayed. “I know I need help. I don’t know what to do.” Sobs racked my body. I realized I had to get well, for myself and for everyone around me.

That day was the turning point for me. My family experienced the fact that only the spouse with the mental-health condition can take the first step in the healing and recovery process. With that step, the door opens for family and friends to encourage the spouse to persevere.

This principle falls in line with Ecclesiastes 4:9-12:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him — a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Hope for Our Marriage Came with Treatment for My PTSD and Mental Illness

It is essential for someone who has experienced trauma to work through the events that took place. Many times, therapy alone can help an individual find healthy ways of coping with a traumatic event. With mental illness, most people respond to a combination of therapy and medication. In addition to treatment from mental health professionals, having a strong, compassionate, and understanding support system in place is essential for healing to take place.

When I began the intensive therapy necessary for improved mental health, I discovered I had to prioritize my needs before I could be the wife and mother God desired me to be.

My therapist found an approach that worked for me. Next, I saw a psychiatrist and began taking medication. Friends recommended Bible verses and I immersed myself in Scripture. My husband and I began a counseling process together. Everything worked together. I felt a little stronger with each day.

Can a Marriage Survive Mental Illness?

Yes, your marriage can make it through the challenges of mental illness. During this time, my husband took his own journey. He worked hard to be patient as I healed. He persevered through bad days and held on to the peace of Christ through prayer and contemplation.

My husband embraced the attitude of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” With unconditional love, a marriage grows stronger and spouses find a restored relationship through the healing process.

I began to grow closer to my husband than I had thought possible. Our marriage will always be difficult at times, but the rewards of healing are immeasurable.

Our children also experienced many challenging days as I focused on my treatment plan, but, as time passed, they began to realize the importance of Mom getting well. They started to say, “I hope you’re feeling well today,” “I love you, Mom,” and “What can we do to help?”

The unconditional love of my husband, children, and the few friends who knew about this part of my life carried me as I fought hard to regain control of my emotions. It took a few years, but I eventually felt like a new and improved me.

My husband and I have now been married for 40 years. Those challenging years gave us the strength we need to walk hand in hand as life partners, with God’s help. We are more in love than ever having persevered through “better or worse.”

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