Do we have to talk?
Do we have to talk some more??! I feel like all we do is talk!!
In my head, I would always answer him ‘Yes we do, and yes we do!!’
Several times have I heard Charlie say this as we would hit another hurdle on the path of anxiety, depression and anger. As we’ve mentioned before, these struggles hugely cloud communication, and can turn even a seemingly straightforward conversation into a battle. And so I think for those whose marriages contend with issues of mental health, the levels of communication necessary can shoot through the roof.
We used to mock (in a nice way) the wooden and formulated approach advocated by the Marriage Prep videos that we watched, teaching formulas for how to have difficult conversations or for how to be listened to. But actually, there is a lot in what they say that has been helpful over the years.
One of the things we have learnt is that using the right words makes all the difference. Starting a sentence with a word of appreciation before making a request, body language and eye contact when communicating, being proactive about communicating plans and arrangements, checking in at the end of the day once the kids are in bed (even if for just two minutes), the language of apology, the love languages (we’ve both learned I’m awful at buying gifts), trigger words and ‘flag’ words – words that if either of us says them we know what it means…
Flag words have been very helpful…for a while, our conflict was difficult and we never seemed to be able to reach the end of the conflict with a positive solution. One of the things that helped us a lot was that if either of us felt like the conflict was escalating or we weren’t in a good headspace to talk, we could say ‘I think you need to take a 10 minute break’ or ‘I need to take a 10 minute break.’ Once that had been said, there was no further discussion, the person needing the break would take it, and wrapped up in this was the agreement that we would then return to the topic, committed to trying again. Being allowed to exit the room, being able to pause the conflict and feeling able to pause things if either of us began to feel upset or misunderstood, was hugely helpful in navigating through a particularly tricky patch. We only needed to use this approach for a few months until things had changed a bit, but it served us so well for the difficult place we were in.
I think talking about communication and the specific ways we as a couple needed to approach things like conflict, have been hugely helpful. Figuring it out has taken us hours, quite literally, with many false starts and mistakes along the way. But I think knowing that our communication was often so severely impacted by anxiety and anger made us deeply committed to it.
In all marriages it is something that needs constant readdressing. And something that is different for every couple. I also think that it can be exhausting, and demands such concentration and self-giving. Often Charlie would go to bed straight after talking through something that had cropped up in our relationship or to do with his mental health struggles, through the sheer emotional exhaustion of it.
It’s one of those aspects of mental health and marriage which are hidden but hugely demanding: communication is crippled because of the mental health issues, but then demands more communication to work out how to communicate better. Frustrating, tiring, demanding, and totally necessary in figuring out the way forward in a marriage involving anxiety and depression.
May this blog be a reassurance that others out there have found this hard (and still do) and are working hard at it too.