Spouse Has Psychological Problems? Loving without Leaving

If your spouse has psychological problems, you have to have a balance between taking care of your spouse and taking care of yourself

spouse has psychological problems
If your spouse has psychological problems, you don’t have to choose between being unhappy and leaving your spouse.

If your spouse has an ongoing psychological problem, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, or OCD, it’s easy to change from being a partner to being a martyr. You know if you are a martyr because if you are, you will be in your relationship entirely for the benefit of others. You will feel like there is nothing that you get out of it, and you are resigned just to stay stuck in a hopeless situation. While I admire your dedication to your family, I would like to help you to have more meaning and joy in your life, while maintaining your responsibility to your family. Too many people are needlessly struggling between the ideas of sacrificing their happiness and leaving their spouse. Most of the time, neither of these extremes are necessary. There are ways to find meaning and happiness without leaving your relationship.

Avoiding codependency and complacency

Love, patience, and selflessness are good virtues, but taken to an extreme are not virtues at all. At an extreme, love becomes neediness, patience becomes hopelessness, and selflessness becomes codependency.  They must be balanced. We must love, but we must not be all accepting. We must be patient, but also proactive in setting the right conditions. We must be selfless, but not when it leads to ongoing problems. God is an excellent example of this kind of balance. He cares for us, but doesn’t give us everything we want.  He is more concerned about having a good relationship with us than He is about pleasing us. And, He will not help us with things that He knows is damaging for us. These qualities of God are part of the reason we know He loves us.

Three impacts of a spouse with psychological problems

In deciding when to be accepting and when to use boundaries, it is important to consider the impact of your spouse’s behavior on his or her well being, your relationship, and your own well being.  For a relationship to be healthy, all three of these things need to be in line. Boundaries are used to stop these behaviors when they are damaging. If you are doing something that seems to make your spouse feel better, while damaging your relationship or yourself, you must stop. For example, allowing a hoarder to accumulate more and more stuff may make him or her feel more secure, but will damage your relationship and stress you out. Taking on all work responsibilities for your spouse would also cause the same problem. As would letting your spouse be in some way verbally or emotionally abusive. Simply doing too much for your spouse can also be harmful. Good caregivers (including doctors, nurses, and spouses) take care of themselves first, so that they are in better shape for taking care of others. If you gradually allow yourself to become burned out, your spouse will not see that and stop it, but rather will get used to it and expect it. You must take care of yourself.

Short term vs. long term caring

Overextending yourself for a short period of time is not really a big problem as far as relationships go.  It can even be helpful.  If your spouse has had a shock due to a traumatic experience, you may need to carry the weight of the relationship and household chores while your spouse gets help. If the problem starts to appear to be a chronic, ongoing condition, you will need to find a way to restore balance to your relationship.  This can be done either by getting extra help for any part of your load.  It can also be done by lessening your load.  You must be careful, however, not to cut out personal time for relaxation and recreation.  Long term sacrifice can become long term resentment and burnout, especially if your relationship gets worse.

Beware the belligerent spouse

Through your patience, it is quite possible to train your spouse to expect you to wait on him or her hand and foot, to take all kinds of abuse with a smile, and to adjust your life to his or her disorder.  This expectation on your spouse’s part is not a good one.  It is not your spouse’s job to make sure that you take care of him or her. It is his or her job to love you and to take care of the relationship–just as it would be if he or she didn’t have the disorder. There is no diagnosis that prevents someone from being a loving spouse, except those that cause major brain impairment requiring custodial care or hospitalization.  If your spouse cannot or will not be loving, you need to use boundaries just as you would if your spouse did not have a psychological problem.

Example:

Spouse with Disorder:  “I can’t go out with you.  Don’t you get it?  I am depressed.  That means I don’t feel like doing anything.  So get off my back about going out with you!”

Caretaking Spouse:  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Spouse with Disorder:  “I would think by now you would have learned.  Just don’t bug me anymore.”

Caretaking Spouse:  “Ok, ok.  I will stay right here and take care of you. “

Spouse with Disorder:  “I should hope so.  I didn’t ask to have this problem, you know.”

In this example, the disorder is depression, but you could easily substitute any other disorder.  I don’t know about you, but my level of saintliness is very low.  I could put up with this kind of behavior for about a day…maybe.  Yet, incredibly there are many people who are replaying this scenario over and over and blaming themselves if they become impatient. The caretaking spouse in the example has actually trained the spouse with the disorder to be this way, just as a parent could spoil a child.

Love requires sacrifice, but not all sacrifices are loving

The sad thing is that the sacrifices of the spouse without the disorder in the example above do not actually aid his or her spouse in recovery.  If anything, it may add extra incentive for the spouse with the disorder not to recover. The main problem is failing to distinguish between the psychological symptoms which are still beyond the partner’s control, and the other behaviors which are not a direct result of the disorder. You can work with a therapist or coach who is trained in psychological disorders as well as relationship improvement. Many of my clients have made the surprising discovery that they have been rewarding their spouse for bad behavior rather than creating any positive change for either of them.

But, my spouse doen’t feel like going out…

With depression and panic disorder it is true that people will not feel like making an effort to go out.  That is one of the symtoms of their disorder.  Just as people with OCD may have difficulties with any environmental changes or people with ADHD may be irritated by too much stimulation. But, rudeness, inconsideration, and emotional abusiveness are not symptoms of either depression, panic disorder, OCD, or ADHD.  In the above example, rude behavior is something that the person with the disorder has in addition to the disorder, and for which the healthy spouse is being codependent.  Such codependency doesn’t help either of them and needs to stop.

Is your kindness hurting your spouse?

Sometimes, this kind of behavior happens with well meaning parents who feel sorry for their child.  When I worked with the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC), I got to see many developmentally delayed children and adults who had been allowed to have all sorts of behaviors that made it more difficult for them to be able to be in public.  They needed to be trained, and their parents needed to be trained in how to set limits and stop behaviors which were interfering with socializing their children. To allow your spouse to do with you what would never work with others makes your spouse less functional.

When to be nice and when to use a boundary

My opinion is, that if someone is dying, be as patient as you can, but stay safe.  However, if someone is not dying, then do whatever you can to help them to live better.  Sometimes that may mean that you are nice, but often it may mean that you set healthy boundaries, and make sure you are not codependent for their problems. Just as we don’t buy alcohol for an alcoholic (substance abuse disorder), we don’t  sit at home with our depressed spouse, rush to remove all dangers from our overanxious spouse, or tolerate verbal or physical abuse from our explosive spouse (impulse control disorder).  To do so wouldn’t be doing them any favors. To effectively use boundaries, you must overcome the idea that your spouse getting angry is the same thing as your spouse being injured. If your spouse is angry because you are having a few hours out with your friend, you are not harming your spouse.

Avoiding martyrdom with healthy boundaries

Healthy boundaries protect you, your spouse, and your relationship.  They are the opposite of allowing harm to come to you, your spouse or relationship.  Here is an example of the spouse in the example above, after learning to apply a healthy boundary:

Example:

Spouse with Disorder:  “I can’t go out with you.  Don’t you get it?  I am depressed.  That means I don’t feel like doing anything.  So get off my back about going out with you!”

You:  “I get it.  Thank you for being clear with me.  It is helpful to know.  I will just leave the invitation open, but not keep asking you.  Instead, I will go out without you.”

Spouse:  “What?  You are going out without me? Don’t you think that it is a little selfish for you to go out and have a good time while I’m miserable, all alone, at home?”

You:  “Yes, I can see how it really feels that way to you.  I wish you didn’t need to feel miserable or be alone.”

Spouse:  “Then you will stay home.”

You:  “No, that would only make me burn out and that wouldn’t help you.”

Spouse:  “Oh, that’s all bullshit and you know it.”

You:  “I’m not going to argue with you.”

Spouse:  “Go then.  I don’t care!”

Never expect people to like your boundaries, whether they are your friends, parents, children, or spouse.  If you are sure that what you are doing is healthy, they will soon get used to your boundary and your relationship will improve. Their initial anger is their way to try to stop you from making this change. Once they can clearly see that their anger will not result in changing things back, their anger will fade. For this to happen, you need to be consistent and persistent, not in arguing, but in your behavior change.

A special note on borderline personality disorder

If your spouse happens to have borderline personality disorder, then he or she may make a suicide attempt when you first set boundaries.  But, the healthiest thing for the person with borderline personality disorder is to realize that such control tactics don’t work with you.  Otherwise, he or she will escalate his or her behaviors more and more. It is important for you to have professional help to set such boundaries.

More normal reactions to boundaries

People with mood and anxiety disorders are not likely to make suicide attempts when you set boundaries.  For sure, they won’t like your boundaries, but what will happen is that after a while, they will adjust.  If you are going out without them, their desire to go out with you will increase.  That will help them to overcome the symptoms of their disorder.  If you always sit home and take care of someone, they may not be able to be persuaded to get out of the house.  Going out without them, while maintaining a good relationship, may be the healthy push they need.

If you can’t leave your spouse alone

In the case of children or adults who need supervisory care, you will need to arrange for that before going out.  Be sure that you make a habit to do that, though, or things will get worse.  Time does not stop passing just because you are taking care of your spouse.  You may have personal goals that you won’t be able to catch up with later on. Make sure you avoid future regrets by living your life now, even as you also do what you can for your spouse.  You need to be a happy partner for your spouse.  You do that not by painting on a smile and giving a cheery “good morning,” but by actually living and loving your life.

If you feel trapped and guilty

If you are feeling trapped in your relationship and guilty because you have to take care of your spouse but don’t want to, there are things you can do.  First, learn as much as you can about the actual symptoms of your spouse’s disorder.  This is to make sure that you don’t become codependent for unnecessary, harmful behaviors.  Secondly, take yourself off the hook for making your spouse happy.  That would not be your job even if your spouse didn’t have a psychological disorder.  Thirdly, work on your relationship.  You don’t have to wait for the disorder to miraculously go away for you to do that.  Some disorders won’t go away, or will come and go.  Lastly, get help.  A psychologically trained relationship coach can help you to improve your relationship, get to work on your happiness, and still have proper consideration for your spouse’s psychological problems.

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