Marriage and Psychological Disorder

Have you ever wondered if your spouse has a psychological disorder that might be disrupting life and/or your marriage? Well, believe it or not, this is something that many people will wonder.  So, what do you do if you have these concerns or already know that a psychological disorder is present in your marriage?  This article will attempt to answer some common concerns and provide some options to consider if you or your spouse are concerned about the possibility of living with a psychological disorder.

What is a psychological disorder?
To start, it is helpful to understand some things about psychological disorders. A psychological disorder does not mean that one is “crazy.” It means there has been some breakdown in one’s mental, emotional or behavioral functioning that causes distress or impairment and is beyond typical or cultural expectations.  A diagnosis of a psychological disorder means that a trained professional has made a reasonably objective attempt to classify certain observed and/or reported signs, symptoms and behaviors into a category that can be observed and agreed upon by others.  The primary reason we have diagnoses is to have a systemized way to characterize certain things that are distressing and out of the ordinary in order to assist, provide for, and protect those who are suffering and those around them.

Diagnosis is not always an exact science. You might have noticed from your visits to a physician that some physical problems are easily diagnosed and others are not.  There is actually still some guesswork involved in diagnosing medical problems and the same applies to psychological problems.  Thus, it is not always clear cut if a psychological disorder exists, although there can be some very reasonable and fair assessments of the signs and symptoms that are seen.

Psychological disorders come in many varieties such as depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorders (PTSD), etc. Although there are some common symptoms among those who have a disorder, there are generally individual differences in how the symptoms are expressed, how frequent they are, how severe they are, etc.  There is no “one size fits all,” when it comes to diagnosis as each person has to be examined and understood as the individual they are.

The good news is that most of the recognized disorders have treatments, research, information and support available to help those who are diagnosed. Much of this is available in many communities and online making help readily accessible by the majority of us out there.  So, if someone you live with is experiencing the effects of a psychological disorder, there is potentially information and support available to you and them.

My spouse has been diagnosed with a psychological disorder, what can I do?
Learn all you can about the disorder. Try to do this together as a couple if at all possible.    Today more than ever there is good information available for the sufferer of a psychological disorder as well as for their spouse.  Depending on the specific disorder, you can often find websites and organizations that provide a wealth of information and support opportunities.  One thing to remember: your spouse is a person, not a disorder.  Be careful not to make them the disorder but to understand and learn about the disorder as one part of them.

Take advantage of support systems and available help. You are not alone.  There are others out there dealing with something similar to you.  Some communities have more assistance available than others, but do your best to find out what is in your community and online.  Once you have identified something, utilize it.  The greatest risk would be to try to handle this all alone.  Much like on an airplane when the oxygen masks deploy, you need to get air to breathe so that you can be in a better place to care about, have compassion for and support your mate.

Take the time to grieve. Most of us do not go into marriage thinking anything is going to go wrong, but sometimes very difficult things come up.  If the disorder means that you, your spouse or the relationship lose something, then grieving is a natural response.  Grieving only happens when it is something you care about.  So give yourself some time and space to experience and express the painful emotions.  Sometimes it is helpful to have some help with this from a family member, trusted friend, pastor or counselor.

A word of caution: Guard yourself from making the diagnosis the “truth” about your spouse. See if you can let the knowledge you have keep you in a caring, compassionate place that is interested in knowing your spouse vs. trying to get them fixed.  Something small that can help–instead of saying that your spouse is bipolar, depressed, narcissistic, etc.; consider saying instead that your spouse has those things.  This will help you not to make the disorder the definition of your spouse.  Remember too that the diagnosis will explain some things, but it won’t explain everything.  Human beings are much more complex than that.

My spouse has a psychological disorder but won’t get help.
Assuming that your spouse has been properly evaluated and diagnosed, this is a difficult situation and there are no easy answers. Consider the following:

Embrace your helplessness. Acknowledge that you are powerless to get your spouse to see what is wrong with them.  You are helpless to make them go to counseling or take their medicines.  You simply are not powerful enough to affect change in them.   Can you give yourself permission to let go of any responsibility you might be carrying to make these things happen?

Discover what you do have ability to do. You have the power to gather information and seek help in knowing how to be a spouse to someone who is dealing with a disorder.  You have the power to at least be interested in learning about your partner.  You cannot make your spouse share, but you can be ready to listen.  You can also seek loving ways to let your spouse know what you are observing and experiencing.  In addition, you are not helpless when it comes to being the person that you are designed and called to be.  Consider taking time to discover who you are, strengths, weaknesses and all.  Then figure out how to be as healthy and whole as you can be in the circumstances you are in.  Make sure to get the rest, exercise, nutrition, time away, etc. that you need to keep your batteries charged.  You can also pray.  Prayer is an act of admitting that you are dependent on someone greater than yourself who actually is in control.

Stay safe. Most people with a psychological disorder will not be dangerous, but if the symptoms of your spouse’s disorder are aggressive or violent, make sure you have ways to stay safe.  Develop a plan of safety with action steps and important phone numbers and/or addresses just in case.  You may never use it, but if needed it would be there.  You can find online helps for this by doing a simple search for safety plans.

My spouse has not been officially diagnosed but all the signs and symptoms are there.
Have you talked about this with your spouse? Does your spouse acknowledge these signs or symptoms?  Do they think that there is a problem?  Are they open to evaluation?  Start with discussion.  If your spouse is absolutely closed to the idea, read the response above.  If open to it, seek evaluation from a qualified professional—a mental health professional who has training and experience with assessment and diagnosis.

A word of caution: Be careful if your spouse has not been officially evaluated and diagnosed (also, be careful if they have). While you might have their diagnosis right, there is potential here to put your partner in a box from which they may never escape. Remember you are likely not fully objective about your spouse’s condition. It is vital to seek professional help from a psychologist, counselor, psychiatrist, or physician trained and experienced with psychological diagnoses. Your experience and perspective are extremely valuable in the diagnostic process, but be careful and not assume the diagnosis just because it makes sense to you alone. See if you can hold an open mind.  Whether the disorder is present or not, can you try to see your spouse as God does?  His perspective is better and truer than ours.

My spouse has a psychological disorder and is open to evaluation and treatment.
If your spouse is open to it, consider going with them and being a support. Do your research and learn how to come alongside someone that is dealing with what your spouse is.  Keep an open mind to learning more and more about your spouse and their experience as opposed to solely what you read in books or online.  Remember that there may be some time of grieving that this disorder is part of your spouse’s life and now your life.  Grieving is an expression of care.

The presence of a psychological disorder can have profound effects on a marriage relationship but it doesn’t mean that your marriage is doomed. Today more than ever, these effects can be understood and managed in a way that can be potentially beneficial to the relationship.  If you want to know more about how to get help for psychological disorders, feel free to contact us at 1-800-A Family or visit our website at www.focusonthefamily.org.  If you want to know more about addressing the struggles in your marriage, feel free to visit us at www.nationalmarriage.com.

Dr. Brett Sparks
Licensed Psychologist, Intensive Therapist
Focus on the Family’s
National Institute of Marriage

7 Comments
  1. Great article! My wife has made a choice to not connect sexually with me anymore based on very non biblical reasons. We both have Lyme disease and co infections. I’m wondering if the Lyme has triggered something in her brain that also ties in to her past of heavy drug & alcohol addiction? 3yrs in a cell of celibacy is not a fun place for a Christ centered man/husband! 1Corinthians 7:1-5 is a command not a personal choice/option. I know of many fellow Christ centered husbands that are in the same boat as myself. It’s a very challenging test of ones faith. Married and alone is no fun for a husband who desires his wife but is rejected and the same applies for a wife who has a husband who denies her. Not good!

    • Dwight,
      I know it has been months since you posted your comments but I wanted to still try and reply. Your situation is not as uncommon as some might think. As clear and accurate as one may be about what is a scriptural “command” it doesn’t change the challenge of how to stand with integrity in the face of someone else’s struggle or even rebellion. Rejection will always leave us wounded. As I think you are already aware what we do with our wounds and the circumstances surrounding them is what illuminates our own character and integrity.
      It is a delicate balance to maintain a message of desire for change without slipping into expectation and demand. It is possible to sensitively, even compassionately maintain your message of wanting a different relationship with your wife without crossing the line of directing, and demanding change from her. When that line is crossed she is likely to here you as more interested in your definition of marriage than you are in her as a person. Sexuality and it’s expression in marriage is influenced, as you probably know, by many factors and variables. Two people with some of the health challenges you mention will need gracious amounts of patience and insight to wade through the healing necessary to establish and maintain meaningful sexual intimacy. I couldn’t possibly outline all that could be involved in this very late but simple reply.
      I do want to draw attention to some elements that could be food for thought and provide some challenge to consider some professional assistance even if you have to begin by going alone. Please call our Counseling team here at Focus on the Family, 1-800-A FAMILY. You can call our office as well to learn more about the Hope Restored Intensive Experience programs for couples, 417-335-5882.
      I apologize for waiting so long to reply but hope these thoughts will encourage you.
      -Dr. Bob Burbee

  2. I think you need to add about emotional safety. I tried to get my husband help, even convincing him to check into a psych ward. Since a series of losses…
    Our difficult marriage was broken. My husband became angry, bitter, verbally abusive…
    l had to leave…
    The guilt is destroying me, in spite of counseling. My husband has poured guilt on me for leaving him, but he left us emotionally and in everyway first. My husband now says he wants to work on our marriage yet is not willing to go get personal counseling for himself, something I have been in for years. I had to take my daughter and myself out from the emotional abuse. I pray he wakes up to his need for healing.

    • Anonymous,
      I wish I would have responded earlier. I thought I would still reply in hopes I could encourage you to stay strong with your boundaries. After the abuse you described I think it is entirely appropriate for you to ask your husband to have some personal counseling before agreeing to couples counseling. You may want to receive some counseling as well to support your own healing. Your having some confidence of safety could make all the difference in your being able to work on the marriage.
      Praying for you,
      Dr. Bob Burbee

  3. Psychological disorders can be hard on the family as well as the person diagnosed. Try not to be too hard on yourself and make sure to take care of yourself as well as your spouse. Yes they need you but you will be no good to them if you are stressed and unhealthy.

  4. about 5 1/2 years ago My spouse has been diagnosed with clinical nervous breakdown, severe depression, mi-life crisis. This after losing her job (which she identified her self worth greatly by), not sharing that with anyone including me. She said she was leaving to take care of some things and abandoned me and my two kids (15 and 19 at the time.) She has not communicated with me or her parents, sibling or extraneous family in this same amount of time. We have been through many attempts of Christian counseling which she usually bailed out on after two sessions. I have always been the one to exert all the effort and make all the sacrifice while digging our wait of severe financial disaster. 2002-2010 failure to file IRS and State taxes, (a responsibility she held tight to and would not let me get involved) in addition a long list of credit collectors, near foreclosure and a foreclosure on a rental property she allowed over over a few thousand dollars of back payment. The Lord has performed many miracles of support and guidance for me to pay and walk our family out of this dark forest and we have now started to level off financially. She has not contributed any form of support emotionally or financially, for lack of a better way to put it, she had emotionally and psycologically disconnected and abandoned our family.
    She’s been on dating sites, launched her own business and failed, It has been by people in our community that she has commited adultery and has been verified in two cases. After all of this while maintaining a high demanding corporate job and financing my son and daughters college educations which we are in the midst of, I have told her I was going to a lawyer, her response was you just draw up the papers and I’ll sign them. When I advised her divorce would be hard on our family and either way, she needed to come out and we needed to work on communication, she agreed to meet once a week, so far we have met twice in a row, I had found out about a support group for her named CODA? not sure if it is right, supposed to be for people with severely low self esteem and image/emotional/phsycological issues who depend upon the approval of others for their own self worth. I told her I would go with her and she was going to think about it and let me know for this week. I really do not have a lot more to give at this point, this has reached the point where I am concerned about my own mental and emotional well being and we really need help. Needless to say I am dealing with an elderly ill mother and a host of other life issues. My love and faith in the Lord is strong most times and fading at others, I attend a great church and my relationship with my kids is healthy, they live in the house the Lord saved for us and he gives me the support and grace to continue to support. Please help.

    • Arthur,
      I’m so sorry for your situation. I apologize for not replying sooner. Even though it has been some time since you posted your comments I thought I would still reply to simply encourage you in your efforts to be a man of integrity and faithful to your promises to God and your wife even in the face of her apparent unfaithfulness and irresponsibility. Loving when it is not reciprocated can be a very hard path to walk but God sees, and God knows you heart. If you haven’t already done so call the Focus on the Family Counselors at 1-800-A FAMILY. You could also call our office directly at 417-335-5882.
      Blessings to You,
      Dr. Bob Burbee

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