Honest reflections about marriage and mission work when dealing with the anxiety and depression

  • Charlie Clayton

To enable or not to enable. That is the question.

In order for someone with anxiety to survive in a relationship, it requires a spouse to be overly considerate to their needs.

There is no doubt about it, anxiety / mental health / depression will dominate your relationship if left unprocessed, unmanaged or unchallenged.

Being in a relationship with someone with anxiety / depression will require more from you. For example giving them extra times of rest, being understanding about them missing parties / gatherings / functions, being tolerant of increased 'sick' days or sudden body pains requiring them to need sleep or stay behind; allowing for behaviours you wouldn't normally tolerate, an expectation that your needs are below those of your partners and an ever increasing burden of responsibility for childcare, jobs and positive steps forward in your relationship.

It may sound like I am being harsh here, but after being the person demanding the above from my spouse I know what I expected of her - even if not cognitively fully processed. I have also been in relationships on the other side of this dynamic and when looking around at other marriages and relationships that involve mental health issues, I see the same scenarios time and time again.

The question is, how much do you enable the coping behaviour out of compassion for your partner, and how much should you challenge the behaviour and the impact it is having? If you have a partner with mental health issues, you will know this question all too well and I imagine is a constant source of internal tension.

Lets take a common example.

You have arranged previously to go over to your friends house with your partner and children. You are looking forward to this as you haven't seen your friend for a while, and it will be nice to catch up, whilst your partner spends time with your friend's spouse. An hour or so before, your partner announces he is not feeling up to it, feels quite overwhelmed and needs some rest, so would like to skip going out.

At this point you have a choice to enable or to challenge.

If you enable in this scenario, the positives are that your partner will feel loved and understood, get the rest they need, it may enable them to feel ok to engage with another pre-arranged activity and there will be a temporary peace in your relationship. The negatives are that you accept that your needs will not be met, that you are going alone to your friends house (again), the childcare is on you for the remainder of the day, your partner has been able to avoid dealing with something, and a small part of you slightly hardens towards them, creating further resentment in the relationship.

Conversely, if you challenge, the positives are that you have been able to express how you feel freely, your partner may reluctantly agree to come (giving you chance to see your friend as you hoped without having to single handedly manage the kids), and he may have a nice time too. The negatives are a potentially explosive argument, your partner feels like you don't care about his needs, that he comes along but gives off a vibe of not being happy (which means you spend most of the time being aware of him), and when you get home he will certainly say he needs to rest because of being out, leaving you little chance or reason to refuse him.

Mental health struggles make normal conflict very complicated. The grey fog lingering between both parties clouds and weighs down on communication. And you can see there is an unfairness of the dynamic in the relationship, even though the person struggling with anxiety isn't likely trying to be difficult and is just feeling like they are only just about coping with the day.

Enabling, of course, is the easiest short term fix but with the hardest long term impact, with so many relationships settling for an ever-imbalanced lifestyle and unspoken emotions, where the lives become separate with an ever-increasing determination needed for the supporting partner to convince themselves that 'things will get better'. In fact many supporting spouses develop anxiety themselves with their own coping mechanisms and it is at this point that external intervention and support for both is needed.

Challenging is the hardest short term response, but, with a willing partner, the response with the most chance of a long term successful relationship. It can be hell to go through, and will leave you wondering whether it is worth it, but if a supporting partner is not able to express their emotions about how it is impacting them then it is not a relationship any longer but one of a support worker.

Clearly there are times for both responses, and there will be other factors and emotions involved, but the trend of which response you choose to go down will impact the health of the relationships and the ability to grow emotionally as individuals.

Abby was / is a challenger. Sometimes too much I think. There are times she could have let me have some more wiggle room. Sometimes her challenge felt too hard and at the wrong time. Sometimes it would leave me feeling unloved, rejected and a burden. But her challenge was strong because she wanted a real relationship and didn't want to settle for what it was. I, of course, longed for the enabler, someone who would allow me to get away with things and have my own way. I often asked Abby to be more 'gracious' and 'caring' but all that really meant was 'give me my own way'. Maybe there could have been scenarios where an enabler could have been better placed, but long term that would have left me with a terrible marriage (if not divorced), lonely and extremely unhealthy emotionally and mentally.

And in reality, the easier choice for her would have been to walk away. I would have given her enough excuses to do this. But she wanted to fight and although she came out of the other side having her own emotional damage, she also came out with a husband who was able to love and care again, and the foundation for a relationship that could grow healthily for both parties.

Sometimes challenging looks like being uncaring. Sometimes allowing things to go unchallenged looks like love. Looks can be deceiving.

But in reality, if both parties are determined to work at building their marriage through having difficult conversations, facing mental health issues head on and a commitment to personal growth, then enabling or challenging won't be the only choices you face. Instead, you will have the option of healthy interaction and a range of emotions in building a mutually beneficially marriage.

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