Three is NOT a crowd
When dating, it is quite an acceptable thing to discuss the relationship fairly openly with friends, colleagues, family members…if a relationship begins to feel tricky, the default for most people is to find their closest confidants and discuss the problems, seeking advice, wisdom, inviting the insight of someone outside of the situation.
As soon as that relationship becomes a marriage, things change. In some ways, this is appropriate and right – marriage changes the status and availability of the individuals, whose priority becomes even more each other and building life together – firmly without the over-intrusion of other people. And whilst this is important and healthy, I also think that it is in the huge adjustments to marriage and new life together where support from others is needed, and not just in the form of new kettles.
Throw into the mix some mental and emotional health issues, and the need for external support is critical. But when the assumption all around is that the marriage relationship is firmly private and off-limits in terms of conversation, it removes the possibility of anyone else becoming able to support, and further isolates the suffering within the marriage. It’s not always been the case that marriages and family life were played out in such privacy; living with extended families or in closer quarters denied the possibility of the hiddenness experienced in the family homes in modern life. For all of the privileges and ease that more privatised nuclear families enjoy, there is a certain isolation which adds a pressure on couples and families to ‘go it alone’.
When Charlie’s mental health issues began having a real effect on our marriage, it felt like I was breaking loyalty and fidelity to talk to other trusted people about the struggles we were facing. Initially I felt guilty, like I was somehow betraying Charlie and the confidentiality of our marriage. And yet the only thing that makes suffering worse, is to suffer alone.
Over the years we have been gifted with various people who have had a critical role in helping us both navigate, deal with and heal from the struggles of mental health in our marriage, which we will reflect on in these blogs. For me, one of the most helpful was my supervisor, who I began speaking with because of my work. However, it very quickly became focussed on these very issues. Every month I had an hour’s conversation where I could say exactly how I felt (without needing to consider how it would impact her), regardless of how angry, emotional, vulnerable it was. She listened to me, validated my feelings, and helped me to know what to do – these conversations became indispensable. Five subsequent years of supervision taught me skills, strengthened my soul and mental resilience, and sustained me in supporting Charlie.
The thing is, marriage is hard. And so are mental health issues. As is anger. I just don’t think its realistic to expect married couples to tackle these dynamics alone. I don’t know who would want to. Charlie has always been very supportive of my seeking support and counsel from other people, as I have of him. I think realistically we have both known that there would be no other way.
And whilst at times it has felt very exposing to have the more personal side of life known by other people, there has been a sustained feeling of relief to be honest and vulnerable, and to receive help, support, kindness, and challenge. When it comes to the marital relationship, three is a crowd, but when it comes to dealing with the mental health issues in a marriage, it is definitely not. We have not welcomed any old soul into our journey – conversely we have been very particular about who has accompanied us; and welcoming them has been the key – unasked for opinions or advice is rarely helpful, and thankfully we have had to navigate very little of that.
But we have intentionally sought out confidants, companions, professionals, guides who are wise in the ways of marriage, mental health and faith; it has been the best investment of money, time, and energy, and has coached, encouraged and equipped us to step more surely towards freedom and wholeness.