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How to Live with Mentally Ill, Unstable, or Addicted Loved Ones (a Christian’s Top 10)

Happy couple at kitchen table
September 22, 2021

The frustration takes such an emotional toll on you.

What can you do, especially if your loved one refuses to get help (for now)?


This hopeful, practical post is for Christians who are married to an unstable individual. Most of these principles apply to relationships with other family members as well.

Imagine waking up tomorrow with new hope because you understand the secrets of living successfully with an unstable spouse. How good would that feel?

Here are your 10 steps to a better morning—tomorrow!

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#1 – STart with the Right Perspective

You cannot control or change your challenging spouse.

But you can control your own thoughts and do certain things independent of your spouse’s behavior.

Believe that you can feel better and make more effective decisions by focusing first on the things you can control.

If spouses married to unstable individuals can be spiritually strengthened and learn practical things they can do independently, more marriages can be saved.

The remainder of this post will help you find spiritual strength and point you to those practical things.

You will find that you must address all three dimensions of your relationship:

  1. Needs and wants that are common to all men and women in a marriage
  2. Needs related to each spouse’s mental health or addiction issues
  3. Your own sin and selfishness (I know, that sounds harsh; we all have it)

Only God fully understands what is going on in your relationship and what it can become in the future.

Practical step #1 is to decide now to make believing and trusting in God your top priority. You absolutely, without question, need His perspective and power in your life and relationship.

#2 – Learn to Feel (the Healthy Way)

Feelings are okay. Feelings happen and they are a critical part of who you are. Once they start flowing, they should not be suppressed. Feel them, then let them flow out of you. Notice the “ahh…” as you allow frustration, hurt, or anger to simply be felt and pass through you—instead of fearing or trying to stop them.

There is a great difference between feeling negative emotions and acting negatively.

Be warned. The effects of suppressing our emotions are so damaging that doing so can be considered self-abuse.

The triggers of sadness, anxiety, and anger are the AGRUP feelings: accused, guilty, rejected, unloved, powerless. An awareness of these can help you heal and manage future emotional flare-ups.

Try this simple exercise: Think back to the last painful interaction you had with your spouse. Allow yourself to feel the combination of sadness or anger or frustration you were feeling. Now ask yourself, was there anything that happened that made you feel. . .

Accused?

Guilty?

Rejected?

Unloved?

Powerless?

As you identify one or more of those five emotions, you will likely notice a release of energy and a sense of “aha” and at least a little more peace about the situation.

It is a research-based fact that those five emotions are the first emotions we experience that lead to the secondary emotions of sadness, anxiety, or anger. (See https://keycorebeliefs.org/)

Why does it matter? Recognizing these primary emotions can help you get to the root of what is really bothering you so you can more accurately decide what to do about it.

#3 – Anchor Yourself In Reality (and Faith)

A person who suffers from mental, emotional, or addictive issues can be like a deep-sea diver wearing a helmet with defective eye, ear, and mouthpieces. Such a helmet distorts their reality, making communication more difficult.

Imagine their earpieces playing sounds of swirling sharks and eyepieces that have blurry, reddish streaks, appearing like blood. Those defects distort their reality. No amount of your persuading or lecturing can change that perception.

Your spouse may be experiencing a different reality than you. They may be very articulate and persistent about getting you to see things their way. But trying to pry the defective helmet off their head is not your role; it is the role of a qualified professional. In most cases, you cannot help them see things differently, and trying to do so usually escalates the situation and puts your own emotional wellness and sanity at risk.

Research their disorder, if it has been diagnosed. If not, research their symptoms and look for patterns and recommendations for how to interact with them. It will place your feet on solid ground so that you can differentiate your true spouse from the awful effects of their illness.

When facing such challenges, it’s not uncommon to begin doubting that God is good or is even there, but we can nurture our faith to a better place through being willing to admit our struggles, having raw, blunt dialogue with God about our feelings, and having open, vulnerable conversations with Christian friends or spiritual advisors.

#4 – Seek an Answer from God

You have likely received a lot of advice from friends and family already. But do they know the heart of your spouse as God does? Do they know what your spouse is capable of in the future (for good or evil)?

God will give you an answer to the complex question, “Should I stay in this marriage?”

If you have not already learned how to pray and develop confidence in the answers God can speak to your heart, look into this no-cost resource. It’s detailed and extremely insightful: How to Get Answers and Guidance from Prayer, an 18-page PDF by R. Christian Bohlen.

In most cases, the answer will be to stay, but abuse and illegal activities and God’s foreknowledge of what our spouse will or will not do may prompt you to separate, at least temporarily. God does NOT expect you to submit to abuse or endanger your children.

Fundamentally, marriage is about commitment. It is a covenant relationship with God as well as your spouse. Marriage is not like buying a car or accepting a new job. Leaving your marriage without sound justification is breaking faith with a promise made to God.

Marriage triangle, showing husband and wife at the bottom and God at the topAs the marriage triangle shows, when we commit to follow God first, we actually get closer to our spouse.

#5 – Live Fruitfully Despite the Unfairness

Your marriage is not going to be fair. No marriage is completely fair, not even the “normal” marriage.

God uses unfairness to teach us many virtues, as he did for many of the heroes in scripture, like Joseph (Genesis 37 – 50) and David (1 Samuel 17 – 31).

It appears that placing us in unfair conditions is one of God’s favorite pruning tools when it comes to forming the godly character He desires in each of us.

We can learn to accept unfairness in our relationships more effectively when we understand that God is using those conditions for our good and very likely for the eventual good of your family.

Focusing on the joy of doing good—like Jesus did—helps us endure severe pain and unfairness. Jesus understood that His paying the price for our sinfulness and foolishness was the only way we could be redeemed and saved in His kingdom. The joy of knowing the good He would be able to offer each of us—personally—is what sustained Him. The scripture says that is how He was able to endure it. (See Hebrews 12:2)

By the way . . .

The 10 points in this post are taken from the book that seamlessly combines spiritual principles with mental health and marriage recommendations from world-renowned professionals, along with the incredible story of hope of the authors’ 35-year marriage with multiple mental health issues. (Continue reading #6 below.)

Healing the Stormy Marriage book cover

#6 – Meet Your Needs and Your Spouse’s Needs

Meeting our spouse’s “typical” male or female needs and wants can help prevent conflict and create a more satisfying relationship.

Just because mental health issues rain down on your relationship, doesn’t mean these universal needs go away. Focusing on these can help diffuse stress and prevent flareups.

Consider this list of the top 10 needs and wants of a wife:

1 To know she’s loved through simple daily actions, such as remembering her preferences, small gifts, etc.
2 Understanding and forgiveness, especially after being moody
3 Real conversation—not just about the kids, weather, problems
4 Quality time with you (and the children)
5 To hear more yes than no when expressing an idea
6 Better listening skills (not tuning her out or ignoring her)
7 Affection, kindness, and manners, including gentle touches
8 Shared household and child-rearing responsibilities
9 A day off now and then (and dates!)
10 A healthier attitude about health—in other words, wives want husbands to take better care of themselves.

And how about this list of common needs and wants of a husband:

1 Affection (and yes, sex, but this is about truly liking him)
2 Belief in his abilities
3 Understanding (you “get” him)
4 Appreciation and affirmation of his work and efforts
5 Acceptance and allowing for differences of opinion/tastes
6 Less chatter (at times)
7 Respect, listening to him, and taking him seriously
8 Free time, both in and out of the house
9 Trust
10 Companionship/friendship

We all want to be loved, but people prefer to receive love in different ways. Learning the five love languages can be a positive, eye-opening experience and help meet mutual needs. (Look into the wildly popular and effective book, The Five Love Languages.)

And don’t forget, as with our devotion to God, marriage is a 100 percent commitment to our spouse, not 50 or 110 percent, regardless of how much our spouse is contributing (which we cannot accurately assess anyway). When you focus on your 100% and keep your eyes a bit shut regarding your spouse’s 100%, you’ll feel more peace—but that’s not to say you should be your spouse’s doormat. Make sure you read #8!

#7 – Receive God’s Strength

We tend to look to sources other than God to find relief and comfort, but it is far wiser to look first to our God for these things. Watch out if you have been turning to negative activities like drinking, flirting with pornography, wasteful pursuits like endless hours on video games or social media, spending money, overeating, etc. as a way to cope with your stress.

Like the gifts Abigail presented to the mistreated, worn-out David (from the Old Testament story in 1 Samuel 25), Jesus comes humbly before us, kneeling, as it were, and offering us the grace, love, and understanding we have not received from our spouse.

Check out this 8-minute video I produced recently, describing the story of Abigail and David, and see how God can help us get the help and strength we need from Him: Help from God for the Hurting: A Life-changing Bible Story. It all starts with a humble, believing heart, of course, but this story is a powerful metaphor of how Jesus can fill us when the unfairness of our relationship is draining us. Watch the video or read a similar post: When Your Mentally Ill Spouse or Family Member is Draining You (This Works Miracles).

How can we love our needy, unstable, often-hurtful spouses without our own “love tank” being filled by God? Are you perhaps running out of gas? God’s tanker truck never runs out and you can learn to tap into it.

#8 – SEt and Enforce Boundaries

You have the right and responsibility to set and enforce boundaries to protect your safety and overall wellness.

If you feel like your spouse or other family members are doing things that violate your needs and your life feels out of your own control, study the topic of boundaries very carefully.

God enforces boundaries with us all the time. It is not accurate to think that God expects us to be endlessly patient when people cross the line to violate our safety, health, emotional needs, spiritual freedom, financial needs, etc. You have a right to define your needs and to respectfully, wisely speak up.

We can and must risk establishing our boundaries, or we may give up on our marriage out of sheer exhaustion.

Not all disagreements require a firm boundary. All marriages experience gridlock regarding nonessential preferences, which, though we may never completely resolve, we can learn to manage as one might deal with a bad back or pesky allergy, to leverage an analogy from boundary experts Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

This critically important topic requires a detailed look, which is richly explained in one of the most consistently popular posts on this site: How to Set and Enforce Boundaries in Marriage (Jesus’s Way).

#9 – Plan Your Life Despite uncertainty

You can learn to live in greater peace even with the unpredictable nature of your life.

Learning to live in the present moment is an essential skill to finding peace. Discover a great analogy for how to do this with a trustful, patient heart that waits for the Lord’s timing by reading this post: There’s a Trick to Becoming Patient (Here It Is). One of the blessings of our challenging marriages is that we will learn true patience.

The other key skill to learn is TPR:

  • Think flexibly.
  • Plan flexibly.
  • Roll gracefully with the changes.

Thinking flexibly means you stop taking your plans quite so literally. You think of your plans as penciled-in versus engraved in stone. You can’t take your plans to the bank and check them off the list anymore. They’re a little more lively. They wiggle a little and may jump off the page. With every plan, your heart has to be ready to watch that plan change or be canceled.

Planning flexibly means you mentally run through a few backup plans when you schedule events. You routinely consider the impacts of having to cancel. This big shift in thinking makes planning more difficult and perhaps unpleasant but it is realistic and will help you find greater peace. It will also help you communicate with others. You may have to carefully express that your family has some special needs that require flexibility.

Rolling with the changes means handling them with grace. It requires spiritual strength and a lot of maturity on your part to not blame your spouse—either in your heart or verbally to others.

#10 – Make Peace with Your new Destination

Everyone has deeply held dreams of what they hope their lives and marriages will be like, almost like a “promised land.”

Your dreams for your own life and your marriage have probably been shattered a long time ago. This may be your deepest hurt and greatest fear. Should you give up on those dreams forever?

Like the ancient Israelites, you and your spouse are wandering in the wilderness instead of living in your hoped-for promised land. But eventually, they did arrive in the promised land—a little more haggard than they would have liked but the promised land nevertheless!

Moreover, God is determined to lead you to His promised land, not necessarily what you had in mind for yours. He is determined to land your soul with Him for eternity, which often requires tough choices and willingness to endure suffering and disappointment for His sake.

Here’s a great activity to help you envision a new destination for you and your beloved spouse—because surely you love your spouse or you would not be researching how to help yourself so that you can stay married and find joy.

Make a T-chart like this from a blank sheet of paper and give this some long, careful thought. Fill in both sides. Keep in mind that some items are far weightier than others. What positive future can you envision for the two of you, even if God does not choose to deliver your spouse from their afflictions and disorder(s)?

T-chart to explore a new destination

My Testimony to You

Today, my wife, Helen, and I experience joy and peace in our marriage. I believe we are both more Christlike because of our experiences. We still have occasional-to-frequent tensions—severe at times—but discussions about differences of opinion are generally calm, and our marriage continues to be a God-inspired union that blesses us and others.

R. Christian Bohlen portrait in church with pews and stained glass behind

As I write these very words on September 22nd, 2021, my own Bipolar Disorder II condition has come back to afflict me more than it has in many years. I don’t know why and it’s been disappointing. It places additional stress on both of us because I can’t think as clearly or have as much positive, friendly, spontaneous energy.

Why do I share this? Because hope and progress don’t mean perfection and the absence of problems. But we are SO much happier and have SO much more peace with God and each other than we did years ago. I credit the loving guidance of God and thank Him that I was able to soften my heart, look to Him first, and humbly try new ways of communicating and new ways of looking at my life and our lives together.

May God richly bless you as you continue to seek His will and help your marriage prosper!

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Hope-Filled POsts you may Enjoy

Learn more about our story and resources for gaining spiritual strength through these posts, some of which were linked throughout:

Happy After All: Our Harrowing Story of Hope and Healing

What You Didn’t Know about My AMAZING Wife

Hope for Families Who Suffer with Borderline Personality Disorder

Help from God for the Hurting: A Life-changing Bible Story

When Your Mentally Ill Spouse or Family Member is Draining You (This Works Miracles)

For a bit about my own drug addiction/recovery, read My Story: God Never Gave Up On Me, which describes why I devoted over twenty years to writing the #1 Amazon bestselling book, Jesus Christ, His Life and Mine.

Learn MOre about the Book, “healing the Stormy Marriage”

See why book critic BlueInk Reviews called it “. . . an invaluable resource . . . a must read.”

“If spouses of the mentally ill or addicted can be spiritually strengthened and learn practical things they can do independently, more marriages can be saved.”

Helen and R. Christian Bohlen

 

You’ll find that you’re not alone as you relate to the super-transparent access into our inner lives—from each spouse’s perspective—as we experienced the gut-wrenching anguish and exhausting effects of mental illness on our thirty-five-year relationship.

Relief, understanding, wisdom, and happiness came gradually. Today, extreme pain is rare but it’s still there from time to time. Back then, peace was rare.

Healing and peace could have come much sooner had I understood what is neatly documented in these pages.

This simple, hopeful, practical, and at times comical, self-help resource seamlessly blends secular research with spiritual wisdom.

Critics and readers are praising “Healing the Stormy Marriage” 

 “. . . for Christians dealing with the challenges of mental illness in their spouse, this is a must-read. (BlueInk Reviews, starred review)

“. . . empathetic . . . relatable . . . practical . . . a warm, inviting faith-based self-help guide for married couples seeking to understand and overcome their respective challenges and remain together.” (BookLife Review)

“. . . highly recommended . . . neatly wound into Christian beliefs in a way that psychological perspectives alone can’t fully address” (Midwest Book Review)

“So thrilled that a book like this is available. Coupling marriage and mental health, with a lens of faith, is a gift for newlyweds to forty-year partners.” (Ganel-Lynn Condie, bestselling author, video host, suicide prevention advocate)

“What a profoundly helpful and moving book! . . . full of hope and wisdom for any marriage in an easy-to-read format. . . practical, spiritually sound recommendations. The author and his wife’s transparent stories of their struggles provide rare windows into the complexity of these challenges and illustrate how spouses can rise above through Christ. Highly recommended” (Robert Reich, synod leader and pastor)

“. . . opened my eyes about ways to improve my own marriage of 41 years.” (Mardie, reader)

Click the Cover Image to View on Amazon Now:

Healing the Stormy Marriage book cover


Another Book to Connect with christ like never before

If you would like to dramatically deepen your connection to Jesus Christ, this resource is among the easiest and fastest ways to learn and apply the life and teachings of Jesus to modern contexts. (eBook cover shown below)

Jesus Christ, His Life and Mine book cover 114 positive ratings

What if you could eyewitness the life of Jesus from His birth to resurrection—as if you were there?

And imagine a personal tour guide helping you understand and apply His story to your toughest challenges in this overwhelming age.

Twenty years in the making, Jesus Christ, His Life and Mine reflects R. Christian Bohlen’s award-winning skills as an instructional designer plus his thirty years in ministry and church leadership, resulting in this uniquely easy-to-read experience with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Carefully researched and biblically based, this non-denominational book is suitable for all Christians, Bible study group participants, your family members, and friends.

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Here’s a short clip from the audiobook: Click Play to listen to the “Introduction.”

You’ll love how this modern approach to practical faith helps you:

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For those who struggle with the idea of faith, there’s a special chapter with fresh points to ponder and non-judgmental recommendations.

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Click here to view on Amazon. Available in paperback, audiobook, and ebook.

The two reviews below were among the first.

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To see the latest reviews and preview the first few chapters on Amazon, click here.

R Christian Bohlen at Christian book conference with bookstore owners

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Estimated Reading Time:
About 12 – 15 minutes

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