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How to Improve a Relationship with a Husband who has Psychological Problems

Are you trying so hard to help your spouse with his psychological disorder that you have stopped being a partner and are more like a mother?

loving husband with psychological problems
If your husband has psychological problems, help, but don’t become his mom

Good intentions don’t always make a good relationship.  When help becomes excessive, partnership becomes parenting.  When that happens, his sexual interest falls, he will go to you for help and support, but otherwise increasingly do his own thing. Eventually, you will stop enjoying being his parent because you will not be getting much in return for all your love and care. What’s more, he is likely to leave you for someone else if he should start to feel better. This is because, if you are behaving like his mother, some day he will want to have someone who is more like a girlfriend. At that time, he may have an affair, but still try to hold on to you, to continue to receive love and support, without actually being your partner. It is a pattern that I see every day.

The importance of partnership

There are a few ways that people can end up either as a parent or child in their marriage.  The most common way is for a needy spouse to become afraid of her spouse’s anger or rejection. This transfers the power in the relationship to her husband, who is free to behave as badly as he wants.  The only healthy way out of such and imbalance is for her to overcome her neediness.  If she does not do this, the emotional connection between her and her husband will gradually diminish to nothing. Even if an affair or divorce does not happen, they will both be unhappy in their marriage. They will be roommates rather than partners. Loss of partnership can also happen if a woman fosters dependence in a husband with psychological problems.

Sharing must be more abundant than caring to preserve partnership

In your efforts to love and care for your husband, you are likely to make a switch from empathizing with your husband to sympathizing with him. Empathy is a way of connecting through shared feelings that makes us similar to our partners.  Empathy fosters equality and a more intimate connection. Sympathy, on the other hand, is a way of taking care of someone. It fosters a vertical relationship, such as that between doctor and patient, teacher and student, parent and child. While your role as wife includes some caring for your husband, it must not predominate if equality and a partnership connection is to be maintained. Being his caretaker and adviser may make you feel important, but it comes at a cost. If he recovers from his illness, he may no longer need you. He may also connect with someone else who provides more empathy than support, and begin a partnership with some other woman.

Some help is more helpful than others

Helping someone does not always mean doing something for them. When I was a child, my shoes would always come untied (don’t you hate that?).  Velcro shoe ties were yet a thing of the future.  When I had such shoe tie failures, my teachers would tie my shoes for me.  That is, until I ran into a second grade substitute teacher named Mrs. Brown.  When I pointed out my flopping laces, she did not tie my shoes.  What she did was to teach me how to tie them so that they wouldn’t come untied.  While the other teachers helped me tie my shoes, Mrs. Brown helped me to become more competent.  I guess that was my first lesson in life about coaching. It is important to ask yourself if you are metaphorically tying your husband’s shoes or are you helping him to not need your care? As much as possible, you want to get him out of the need for your help, while you promote more a girlfriend-boyfriend, equal level connection.

Guidelines for helping a spouse with psychological problems

There is no reason that you should have to lose your relationship because your spouse has a psychological problem.  Learning what to do will help you to feel more in control, without needing to manage your spouse.  You will want to aim at neither providing too much, nor too little help.  Here are some guidelines for helping “just right”:

  1. Learn as much as you can about your spouse’s disorder the route to health from such a disorder. Coddling your spouse usually maintains the disorder rather than enabling your husband to do better on his own.
  2. Use boundaries in your relationship to encourage your spouse to get the proper psychological help and medication, if necessary. Do not fall for any of your husband’s excuses about why he can’t or won’t get help.
  3. Learn to separate your husband’s psychological symptoms from his behavior.  Many of his behaviors may not have to do with his disorder.
  4. Do not allow your spouse’s feelings to become an excuse for his or her behavior.  His feeling bad does not justify his treating you badly. There is no wisdom in letting him treat you badly.
  5. Help in ways that don’t handicap yourself.  If you start to get burned out or feeling unhappy, those are symptoms that you may be doing too much, or getting too little in return. Retake your life while also appropriately helping your husband.
  6. Do not take responsibility for either your husband’s problems, your husband’s happiness, or  your husband’s recovery.
  7. Take responsibility for your own problems and your own happiness.  Your spouse’s problems can’t cause you to be unhappy unless you let them.
  8. Try to help in ways that increase competence rather than just provide support.For example, if your depressed husband wants you to sit with him, offer to walk with him or go to the mall with him instead.  If your anxious husband wants reassurance, give him a piece of paper and ask him to write out the evidence for and against his worries.
  9. If increasing competence is not possible, then support is appropriate.  All of us have areas where we need support—psychological disorder or not.
  10. Ask for and expect your spouse to continue to be an equal participant in your relationship.

Be careful not to be overprotective

One of the strongest signals of parenting vs. partnering is being overprotective. The wife in the following example may be well intentioned, but her behavior actually works against her husband’s recovery and against his being attracted to her as a partner rather than a parent:

Husband:  “I think I would like to try going for a walk around the block.  It’s been a while since I have been out of the house.”

Wife:  “That’s true, but what if you get another panic attack?  Do you remember what happened two years ago when you had a panic attack at the department store?  Do you really want to go through that again?”

Husband:  “No, I guess not.  It was just an idea.”

Wife:  “Someday you can do such things.  Right now, you need to just focus on taking your pills and getting better.”

This wife needs to learn to encourage her husband to challenge his anxiety rather than waiting for it to go away.  The only way she can know to do that is if she learns about panic disorder and its treatment.

An example of help that helps

A little knowledge can really pay off in both promoting a healthy marriage and a healthy husband.  Here is the above example, with a better response from the wife:

Husband:  “I think I would like to try going for a walk around the block.  It’s been a while since I have been out of the house.”

Wife:  “That sounds like a good idea.  Would you like me to walk with you?”

Husband:  “No, that’s ok.  I think I would rather go by myself.”

Wife:  “Ok, have a good walk.”

Greet him with a hug and kiss when he comes back from his walk. Make him feel like a desirable man rather than a good boy.

Am I too tough?

Too tough is when what we do to help actually ends up doing damage.  I help people to save their relationships from the realities of life.  Realities of life include such things as affairs, abuse, financial problems, loss of love, loss of others, addictions, neediness, selfishness, rejection, and psychological disorders.  Nobody fixes any of these problems just by being nice.  And they don’t do it by pretending the problems don’t exist or by blaming them all on their partner.  They fix them all with tough love, which means,

“I love you so much, I won’t let bad things happen to our relationship, and I will take responsibility for change.”

I want to help you learn to tie yourself and your partner together in a way that you won’t come untied (thank you for this lesson, Mrs. Brown!).  If you would like to get a one session consultation with me, I would be glad to help.

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