In episode 294, I received a question from an individual looking for advice on supporting their spouse with her mental health when she refuses to seek professional help. In this post, I discuss this in more detail and offer my thoughts on how you can move forward in a situation such as this.
My wife has suffered from anxiety for a long time, and seems to be really bad recently. When I have brought up the topic of seeking professional help, she has made it clear that she does not want to go this route, essentially since she has no hope that her problem could ever be solved. Moreover, just bringing up the topic seems to make her anxiety worse. I want to help her to overcome or live better with her anxiety, but I really don’t know how (I’ve been failing at this for 15+ years).
I’m assuming this may be common. Would you by any chance have already recorded a podcast or written any material on this, to help me help her?
This is a good question. I’m not sure if I’ve covered it on the podcast before, but it’s common enough of a concern that I don’t mind covering it again even if I have.
I want to address one specific part of the question first, which is your comment that you’ve been failing at this for 15+ years. You can’t fix your spouse. I can’t fix my spouse either. That’s not how it works. Even if you are the best therapist in the world, which I might be ;-), it just doesn’t work that way. You can’t fix your family. So you can try to be supportive, be inquisitive and interested, provide help or lead to resources where you can, but your wife’s anxiety issue is not on you. Now, of course, there are dynamics in a life and a relationship that can contribute to anxiety. I don’t know much about your situation or life together. But if she has a chronic anxiety disorder, that’s not something that you caused and it’s not something that you are going to be able to fix. I understand the burden that you feel as a spouse. It sounds like you truly care about this person and want her to be more mentally well both for herself and for those around her. But you have not been failing for 15+ years in this regard. It’s an uphill battle and one that you, on the outside, have only limited control and influence over.
Now, on the topic of her getting help – this is an interesting one. You said that your wife primarily avoids getting professional help because she has no hope that her problem could be solved. That is something I think could be workable. But you also need to consider whether she herself is actually concerned about her situation or if this is more about your own personal concern. If it’s your own personal concern, that’s not necessarily wrong or a bad thing. For example, if her anxiety appears to be significantly impacting your relationship in some way. That does involve you and it’s valid for you to be concerned about her anxiety. You may also see her anxiety hurting her in other arenas of her life such as her work, relationship with her kids (if she has any) etc. She may or may not feel as though she has a significant anxiety issue. She is allowed to have anxiety… and you are also allowed to be concerned. If she does not see that anxiety is a significant issue for her and you DO see ways in which it is really impacting her life and your life together, it may be helpful for you to point out the impact that you see.
If there are ways in which anxiety is impacting your own ability to be happy and fulfilled or your relationship, you might help her understand what those are while also making it clear that you know it’s not personal. That you don’t blame her or think she’s not good enough, but that you see areas of struggle that are impacting your life together. This may also be a good prompt for you to work on codependent tendencies – there are going to be ways in which someone’s behavior in a marriage impacts the other person and you are obviously going to be empathetic to what she is dealing with. But you also need to be your own individual to an extent. You need to be able to live, even when she is having a hard time. Difficulties on her part are not inherently a failure on your part.
If you think that she might be receptive to information that helps to counter her concerns, you might direct her to some helpful resources – for instance, the research that shows that therapy is effective for anxiety. There’s a huge body of literature on this. If professional help is going to be too much of a leap, how about books? I essentially wrote my anxiety book for this type of person. For people that aren’t totally bought into the whole psychology thing and don’t want a bunch of confusing psychobabble. A lot of people have told me that they read my book and went on to get professional help. This isn’t to say that my book is the one for her. I don’t know her personality – but maybe there is one that is in line with her personality that you could get for her that might grease the gears a bit. Just be aware that when coming from you, it’s always going to be a bit personally charged. Something as simple as a light suggestion might seem like a criticism or a personal attack when it comes from your spouse. For that reason, if you think that she really is struggling or that this is a must-work-on situation, you might consider talking to other trusted people in her life about the situation to see if they might have some influence in a way that you don’t. Of course, you need to be conscious about privacy and such. If the person that you are speaking to doesn’t already have a great picture of the full story, you should be aware of that and try to avoid violating your spouse’s privacy in a way that would be upsetting to her.
She may have had some sort of exposure to therapy that soured her on the experience. That or she just has a negative perception of therapy. One thing that I find is that people who aren’t super interested in therapy to begin with don’t realize that there are many different forms of therapy and that they aren’t all just lie on the couch and talk about your mom (unless you want to). So, it could be helpful to show her information about other types of therapy. Again, you know her better than I do, so if she would benefit from a more nuts and bolts approach, maybe CBT would be called for. If she has significant trauma, maybe EMDR would be called for. There are different types of therapy and there are different types of providers. If she begins therapy, it’s not like she’s signing a long-term contract either. If she finds that she doesn’t like the approach or doesn’t hit it off with the therapist, she can always stop or find another therapist. There is also always medication if she doesn’t want to talk to anyone about her issues. Either one or both are helpful.
The last thing that you can do is really just educate yourself. Learn more about anxiety. Do your due diligence to learn more about anxiety, learn coping strategies that someone with anxiety could use, understand more about the sources of anxiety and how someone with anxiety is likely to see the world. This could help you to better contextualize what you see from her and to be a better support when the opportunity presents itself. No matter what, the fact that you care is a good thing. You don’t carry the burden of fixing this for her. You care and want to be as helpful as possible, which is awesome. But don’t see her continued struggle as a personal failure on your part.
You can listen to this on Episode 294 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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