Seeing your spouse struggle in any way can be very difficult. After all, your spouse is a part of you, and you made vows to “have and to hold in sickness and in health”. So what does it mean to be a healthy and supportive partner when you see him/her dealing with mental health struggles?
In any relationship, there is a tension between being empathetic and present and being codependent. Codependency is defined as a relationship enmeshment, where there is an emotional or psychological dependence on another person. There are typically two parties in a codependent relationship, a rescuer and the rescued. An individual can be either roles depending on the situation or relationship. Codependency is especially difficult to avoid in marriage or romantic relationships. For example, if a woman is struggling with depression and isolation, it can feel natural for her husband to want to take care of her and find any way to help her feel better. In this scenario, the wife may need to be rescued, and the husband will feel obligated to try and rescue her somehow. When this dynamic occurs, it can be subconscious or it can be conscious. The wife may not necessarily expect for her husband to do something about it, and the husband may take on the responsibility just because he feels it’s the right thing to do. Or, the wife may become openly angry or resentful when the husband doesn’t step in in time. Either way, this dynamic is not healthy and eventually leads to burn out, frustration, resentment, and a lost sense of personal responsibility.
What does rescuing look like?
Rescuing can take many forms. Here are a few examples taken from the scenario listed above:
- The husband feels guilty for experiencing positive emotions while his wife is depressed. “This way she doesn’t feel bad or isolated in her depression”
- The husband feels he must also isolate since his wife is isolating - ie, saying no to social gatherings. “I don’t want her to feel more alone than she already is, so I’ll be alone with her”
- The husband feels like a failure because his wife is not doing well - as if it’s his fault or his responsibility.
- The husband may placate her symptoms to others, so as to not “make it a big deal”.
- The husband may attempt to get treatment for his wife, and she may resist out of fear, and he quickly backs down thinking it may be “too much for her right now.”
- The husband may deny any issue and find ways to blame others for why she is struggling (also known as enabling).
The bottom line: The husband feels unable to be his own healthy self because he is enmeshed with his wife’s condition. The husband is also fearful of challenging his wife or being honest about how much change needs to happen. This is typically driven by guilt, fear, or simply having a lack of self. Some specialists call this “digging a grave” alongside the ill person. Or another way to say it “I can’t be ok, because you’re not ok. But if you’re ok, then I’m ok.”
How is rescuing different from empathy and compassion?
Rescuing assumes that it’s up to the other party (in the case above, the husband) to take full responsibility. Compassion and empathy, the healthy response, are the capacity to see and understand the pain that the other person is experiencing and see it from their perspective. But there is no “taking it on for them” taking place. Why is taking it on for them unhealthy? There are a few reasons:
- The “ill” person doesn’t learn how to practice skills or take responsibility for their actions. If someone is always there to fix, placate, defend, or enable you, why try to help yourself?
- The “ill” person stays sick. Again, if you’re always being rescued, why change?
- The rescuer loses themselves - when you are all-consumed with the well-being of someone else, you lose your sense of self, and can lead to its own list of symptoms (hopelessness, anger, anxiety, isolation, etc)
- Codependency is ultimately self-seeking - if you are rescuing to avoid feeling the fear or guilt of seeing your loved one in pain, you just made it about you. If you expect your loved one to rescue you instead of taking responsibility, it’s about you and your avoidance. This is the opposite of love, empathy, and compassion.
The reason that this can be especially difficult to navigate in family relationships, is there’s a cultural notion that you are 100% responsible for your family members…. And thus, if they need help in some way, it’s 100% on you to fix it or make sense of it. A healthy psychological approach is understanding that both persons in the relationship are whole, independent beings, and each takes responsibility for their own actions. The solution to codependency in marriage (and any relationship) is boundaries and interdependence.
Setting boundaries does not mean that you don’t care, that you don’t want the best for your spouse, or that their situation doesn’t pain you. It may seem that way when you first start practicing boundaries and interdependence, but it’s simply not true. Setting boundaries simply separates what is your responsibility from others’ responsibilities. Practicing this is ultimately loving and supportive of your partner, because you are allowing them to grow rather than hinder it with rescuing or protecting. Here is a non-extensive list of what is not your responsibility as a spouse:
- Making sure your spouse has a good day
- Coping or regulating their emotions
- Whether or not your spouse practices healthy habits
- Making sure they don’t embarrass themselves (especially if substance use is involved)
- Whether or not they fit in or act appropriately
- Whether or not they have friends
- Communicating their needs, wants, limits, and expectations - don’t assume what they are or speak for them, these must be communicated directly by the person in need
- Meeting personal needs
What is your responsibility as a spouse?
- To take care of you - so you can be the best person for your spouse and for yourself! This includes healthy coping skills, healthy habits, and allowing yourself to have good days even when your spouse has bad days. (Yes, it’s possible to feel sad for your spouse who is struggling and be capable of feeling happiness at the same time)
- To acknowledge and honor your limits
- Communicate and meet your own needs
- Communicate your expectations of self and others
- To be present and emotionally available to your spouse - holding space for their pain vs try to fix it
- Be willing to challenge your spouse to make healthier choices - this includes pushing them to make hard decisions to get help because it’s best for their health
- Communicate your boundaries for what you will not take responsibility for, or what you will not do
Working through this is a process, and frequently doesn’t come naturally. As mentioned before, it can feel unloving or like outright betrayal if you are stuck in a rescuer role. This is when working through boundary work with professionals is essential, so that you stay accountable and not fall back into the addictive codependent dynamic.
Contact Solstice at 949.200.7929 to see your options for you and your family, to set you free from exhausting and unhealthy dynamics.