The Rev Will Van Der Hart is Pastoral Chaplain of HTB in London and a director of The Mind and Soul Foundation. He has been working to support people with emotional and mental health issues within the church for the last 10 years.
When I had an anxiety breakdown in 2005 following the London Bombings, I was as terrified for my marriage as I was for my mind. Having only been married for a couple of years, I was still overawed by the fact that this beautiful and talented young woman had committed to marry me. Suddenly I found myself without confidence, signed off work and lying on the sofa. I was having multiple panic attacks every day and my limbs shook involuntarily.
A partner’s mental health issues can be incredibly hard to understand. Most of the symptoms are invisible and require careful explanation – something a newly diagnosed sufferer isn’t able to do. Symptoms can include confusion, intense fear, anger, guilt and sadness, none of which make difficult conversations any easier! I remember thinking, “Well, this is it. Why would this precious, gifted young woman want to stay with a useless wreck like me?”
I read a study carried out by the University of Groningen in Holland, which claimed that mental health issues could increase the possibility of divorce. However, despite such issues affecting 1 in 4 people, they still aren’t one of the leading causes. Thinking about it, I realised that during my time doing marriage support work, even though I had met lots of couples dealing with these issues, I never came across anyone who left their partner because of them. I’ve worked with people who had everything from psychosis or bi-polar disorder to personality disorders, chronic depression and debilitating anxiety – and somehow they all managed to stay in strong, happy marriages.
Fortunately, my wife hadn’t shared my pessimistic outlook on the future. In fact, looking back over the subsequent 10 years of our marriage, I can honestly say that despite my fears, this painful period actually helped our relationship rather than hindered it. I was insecure, afraid that I had to perform well enough to earn love, but through this struggle I finally got over my insecurity and accepted that I could be loved unconditionally.
That said, getting through this together wasn’t easy. Mental health issues can impact every area of your life if they’re left unaddressed. However, there are actually very few that can’t be treated or well managed.
Protecting your marriage is important when you face these challenges. Here are some tips that can make a difference:
- Communication – face and learn about the issues together. Seeing a GP together is an essential first step. The more insight you both have, the better.
- Encourage the ‘ill’ partner as they develop understanding into how their mental health issues affect them, and urge them to seek help when they struggle to motivate themselves.
- Be careful that the ‘well’ partner doesn’t become a ‘therapist’. This can change the relationship in a marriage and result in the ‘well’ partner becoming resentful and exhausted.
In reality, all of us are likely to suffer from some sort of mental distress or disorder during our lives. Marriage is our opportunity to show compassion to each other, even in our suffering, and to see the transformation that love can cause. I remember reading a comment by sociologist Dr Robin W. Simon: “… having a deep emotional connection with another person provides individuals with social support and coping resources, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, an important social identity, and feelings of … mattering – which are all important for both the development and maintenance of mental health.”
Remember – a mental health issue may pose a challenge to your marriage, but your marriage will pose a stronger challenge to the mental health issue!
Will’s book, The Perfectionism Book is available here