Being a spouse with mental health issues



How often do you stop everything and take some time to really talk with your spouse? I’m willing to bet that many of us overlook its importance and let the days roll by without spending the time to hear how things are for your husband or wife.

Recently my husband and I have started sitting quietly together at the end of the day. When the day’s work and activities are finished, it’s refreshing to stop and reflect. No reading, writing, or sudoku. We are only there for each other, with whatever either of us might like to talk about. Problems, plans, feelings, reminiscences – any number of things. Our discussion gradually reveals our needs and desires. What is it that gives us joy? And what is it that gives us pain? What do we hope for? It’s a great way to get to know where each of us is at.

If you’re anything like me, you might be focusing on your own troubles a bit more than you should. Try to move consideration from your needs to what your spouse’s needs might be. What are your needs as a couple?

It’s a good time to sort out what strategies to use for mental health difficulties I’m currently dealing with. We consider what my problems might mean for us in our future. Will I be able to manage better than I have been? And how?

Managing my mental health issues is something we need to do together, as partners. I’m very fortunate to have such a partner in my life. I believe this is why God joined us together as husband and wife. “In sickness and in health.”

A few weeks ago, I suggested taking these talk times together. My husband is not a great talker, but to my surprise, he very willingly comes to sit with me each evening.  In fact, he seems to welcome it.

Following are some guidance from John Gottman, Phd, a person whose wisdom we will borrow from as we go through this series:

Dr. John Gottman’s three skills and one rule for having an intimate conversation.

The rule is that understanding must precede advice. In our Workshops, we tell couples that the goal of an intimate conversation is only to understand, not to problem-solve. We say this because premature problem solving tends to shut people down. Problem solving, and advice should only begin when both people feel totally understood.

Skill #1Putting Your Feelings into Words

The first skill is being able to put one’s feelings into words. This skill was called “focusing” by master clinician Eugene Gendlin. Gendlin said that when we can find the right images, phrases, metaphors, and words to fit our feelings, there is a kind of “resolution” one feels on one’s body, an easing of tension. In intimate conversations, focusing makes our conversations about feelings much deeper and more intimate, because the words reveal who we are.

Skill #2: Asking Open-Ended Questions 

The second skill of intimate conversations is helping one’s partner explore his or her feelings by asking open-ended questions. This is done by either asking targeted questions, like, “What is your disaster scenario here?” or making specific statements that explore feelings like, “Tell me the story of that!

Skill #3: Expressing Empathy

The third skill is empathy, or validation. Empathy isn’t easy. In an intimate conversation, the first two skills help us sense and explore another person’s thoughts, feelings, and needs. Empathy is shown by communication that these thoughts, feelings, and needs make sense to you. That you understand why the other person’s experience. That does not mean that you necessarily agree with this person. You might, for example, have an entirely different memory or interpretation of events. Empathy means communicating that, given your partner’s perceptions, these thoughts, feelings, and needs are valid and make sense. You have your own perceptions. Both of your perceptions are valid.