A research team at Pennsylvania State University, the University of Nebraska and Virginia Tech, have been monitoring about 2,000 couples, since 1980 on a variety of issues, including health. John Edwards, professor of sociology at Virginia Tech says, "What we find is that declines in health have an adverse influence on marital quality." (Kilborn, May 1999)
Susan: How long have you been married?
Beth: Bill and I have been married for 25 years.
Susan: And has Bill been healthy the entire time?
Beth: On the whole he has been healthy until recently. He has always been the main provider for our family, while I stayed home and took care of our 5 children. So when he got sick and couldn’t work, it really created a financial crisis for us.
Susan: When and how did he get sick?
Beth: Early in our marriage he was diagnosed with a chemical imbalance that causes depression. For years he took medication to keep him in balance. But then one day a friend convinced him he should stop taking his medication. The friend made him feel like he was doing something wrong by using conventional medicine, so he quit taking it without consulting his doctor. Shortly thereafter he started becoming volatile and angry. This went on for 2 1/2 years, progressively worsening. One day he finally raised his hand and almost hit me. At that point I told him that if he did not go for help, I would have to leave him.
Susan: That must have been a really tough time for you. Two and a half years can seem like an eternity for a relationship.
Beth: I felt like my world was falling apart. My home was no longer a safe place for me. I felt such a loss. Who was this man that I was married to? Where was the father of my children? I didn’t know him anymore. I was afraid of the future and felt intense pain and loss. Because it was a daily event, I felt like I could not take much more.
Susan: How did the situation get resolved?
Beth: I finally went to his doctor with him. He told us that cutting out Bill’s medication so abruptly caused his brain to have a severe chemical change which altered his personality. The doctor prescribed new medication but it took months to find one that worked. Meanwhile Bill sunk deeper into depression, so much so that he could hardly walk around the block. I wasn’t sure if he would ever be well again.
Susan: What kept you beside him?
Beth: Some of my friends advised me to leave him, but I remembered my commitment to him, “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health”. So I decided to stick by him, even when things got tough. During the illness a friend took me out to eat weekly. This brought a sense of normalcy to my life and a much-needed escape from the stress. I also prayed a lot! It took a long time, but I’m glad that I stayed. Eventually his chemical imbalance came under control and I had my wonderful husband back!
Beth and Bill’s case had a happy ending because of Beth’s perseverance. When any debilitating illness or severe injury occurs, it is natural to feel loss, frustration, anger and depression. Over time both spouses are likely to struggle with such emotions. That is when it’s especially important to reach out for help from trained professionals who will work not only with any physical needs, but the emotional ones as well.
If your spouse becomes depressed:
- See a doctor together. Discuss not only the symptoms of the affected spouse, but the toll it is taking on you individually and as a couple.
- Reaffirm your commitment to each other.
- Spend time together, doing something that you both enjoy.
- Try to remain encouraging toward one another. Focusing on your spouse’s needs can actually help lift your spirits when you’re depressed.
- The supporting spouse should be sure not to neglect him or herself. You can’t help your spouse unless you remain healthy. Activities outside of your home will help keep you sane. Enlist family and friends to give you necessary breaks from the situation.
- Get emotional support for both of you. Consider getting help separately, and be sure to see whoever it is on a regular basis. But avoid people who push you to give up on the marriage.
- For some people, keeping a journal may be a great way to unload negative emotions and relieve stress. Writing can be a safe way to vent feelings that would damage a relationship if directly expressed. And often the act of writing them down causes them to lose their steam.
- If you have a faith tradition, spend time in prayer or meditation. Studies show that both prayer and meditation actually alter brain wave patterns and can produce deep relaxation.
- Make up your mind not to become bitter, but better!
When depression strikes, seek help for it immediately. Depression can cause physiological changes in the brain that become more resistant to change the longer they last. Consider using an approach to treat it that combines both medicine and therapy. And be sure to continue putting energy into your marriage so that you emerge not only as an intact couple, but a much stronger one.