Every Monday I like to post a reader question and take a stab at answering it. And today’s question is about how to encourage your husband when you can’t seem to reach him because you’re scared he’s depressed. A reader writes:
My husband is a good man who is struggling. He feels isolated and unloved in our church even though he is an elder. He feels constantly criticized, and sees criticism as an entirely negative thing. In fact, he seems to see most things in a negative light these days, and while he seemed to be the life of the church a few years ago and very loved, he has withdrawn a lot and now I think is becoming more genuinely isolated. Both my pastor and I (the people who know him best spiritually) have separately told him he has problems with aggression and taking things too personally, but he vehemently disagrees, and thinks all his pain is other people’s fault. We have also suggested he may be suffering from depression, or should see a counsellor, but that also upset him as he felt we were trying to blame him. He now feels so alienated that he wants to leave our church, which I love.
I’ve just now found all your warnings about enabling and am worried I’ve been doing this. I’ve often told him I thought he was wrong, to the point that he feels I’m unsupportive, but have always done it as gently as possible and have sometimes ignored issues out of fear of conflict.
I’m afraid if I give him a really hard time he will feel completely alone. And I know his pain is real, even if he has made mistakes, so it’s really difficult knowing how to offer consolation along with an opportunity for change. He’s a loving husband and father, a good elder and leader, theologically astute and principled. Just struggling.
Great question! Let’s take a stab at it today.
I’m going to give some random thoughts that may or may not be relevant for the letter writer, since we don’t know a lot of the background (what behavior really worries her? Does he erupt in anger? Is the aggression at home too? Has he simply become silent? What’s his work life like?). Let’s start with if the problem really is dangerous:
If there is danger involved, you need to get help.
I’m not sure what’s really happening here, but if the aggression she’s noticing means that she or the kids don’t feel safe at home, then this woman really needs to get some help. And if you ever feel in danger, please call the police.
But perhaps you feel that he is a danger to himself. Maybe he’s getting so depressed that you’re worried he may hurt himself. Or maybe he’s getting so down that it’s affecting his ability to hold a job. In this letter writer’s case, the fact that her husband seems to feel persecuted could very well be a sign of mental illness.
In that case, he may require some medication. Sometimes mental illnesses crop up and we don’t identify them that way because it seems as if there may be other explanations for the mood swings or personality changes.
Talk to him frankly about going to see the doctor. Have a friend or family member talk to him with you, if necessary. Insist that you’re not saying he’s a bad person or that he’s crazy, but that you hate to see him suffering when there may be a solution. Ask him to do this as a favour to you.
Mental illness is far more common that we think, and it usually takes people completely by surprise. If you think your husband is suffering from this, and he won’t get help, reach out to some support groups or see your physician and ask for advice on what to do and what warning signs to look for.
But let’s assume now that it’s NOT mental illness. Then what could the problem be?
Church Boards Can Be Toxic Places
My husband served on a church board once. Before he went on the board we thought the church was actually quite healthy.
Then he saw up close and personal how churches are often run. That board spent two years debating something which Keith felt was so inanely stupid. I was a praise team leader, and they were debating whether it was okay for me, as a female, to lead the congregation in prayer (“God, we come before you this morning to worship you. To praise you. Let the concerns of the week float away as we look upon Your face”). And whether, when I would read a Bible verse between songs (“Better is one day in your courts then thousands elsewhere”) and offer a commentary (“Let’s enter into His courts today”) I was therefore preaching.
He fought hard. People started to ostracize him. The meetings went later and later, and he’d often come home after midnight. It was exhausting.
He saw how the board treated the pastor. He saw how there were bullies on the board.
And when Keith finally won that fight (after two years), he declined serving another term.
We left that church a few years later.
He has since been asked to be on more boards. He has always said no. He just find that church boards think too small, and we can get more done for the kingdom by spending our energies outside the church walls. It seriously wasn’t good for his mental health.
I know some people have to serve on boards, and perhaps, if we were ever part of a really healthy church and the other people on the board were healthy, Keith may say yes again. But I understand how church boards can chew people up and spit them out.
It took a few years after stepping down off of that board for Keith to become himself again. He went through the darkest period of his faith because he questioned so much of church life after seeing it behind the scenes. Perhaps, then, our letter writer’s husband simply needs to get off of the church board.
There’s a difference between struggling and sin.
I do believe in not enabling sin. If the husband is throwing temper tantrums or acting really aggressively at home, this is a real concern.
But I also know that God looks at the heart, and in this case perhaps the problem is not a sinful heart issue as much as it is a wounded or broken heart issue.
If you read the Psalms, they’re often David just weeping and crying out to God. Perhaps sometimes David is blowing things out of proportion. But after years of being chased and being attacked, he sees the world in such a negative light.
God was so patient with David, and God knew that He was struggling.
Personally, I think that when anxiety, depression, and anger flow from toxic experiences, it isn’t a character issue as much as it is an issue of brokenness and woundedness that needs to be healed, and God does want to heal that. Our role, then, is not to try to change a character issue in our husbands as much as it is to step back so God can work.
Sometimes healing from brokenness, though, takes time.
He has to fully grieve what he’s lost, and he seems to have lost his personality here and his outlook on life. For whatever reason he’s become really disillusioned.
My husband had to struggle and wrestle with God for a few years before he was able to pray and rejoice again. And my job during that time was not to attack him for doubting and not to force him to talk to me about it, but just to pray alongside him. He did come through it, because God carried him.
Stay a safe place for him.
If your husband is walking through a time where he is struggling with his faith, are you a safe place where he can talk about his doubts? Or do you try to convince him why his doubts are invalid? Can he talk to you without incurring your judgment? Can you step back enough to let him process his thoughts, knowing that he’s safe in God’s hands?
My husband is an extrovert, which means that he processes things by talking about them out loud. I think one of the reasons his period of doubt took so long was because he didn’t talk about these things because he didn’t want to worry me. If I had done a better job of being a sounding board, perhaps he could have talked through things more.
In this case, her husband says he wants to try a new church, but the letter writer loves their current one. If your husband is hurting that much in that church, perhaps he knows more of what’s going on than you do. Please support him in this and agree to go. It sounds like he really needs it.
Let him know that you support him
Most men will go through times, often lasting several years, where they struggle with anxiety or depression because of church life, because of their jobs, or because of family. It’s quite common. At some point in your marriage, you’re likely to go through this.
So what do we do during those times?
We can try to tell them all the reasons why they should feel the way they feel (which is extremely unhelpful and often belittling), or we can help them process things and work through their feelings.
My husband has a line he likes to always say at marriage conferences to the guys:
A psychiatrist asks a lot of expensive questions your wife asks for free.
Can you just ask your husband questions, without trying to change him? Things like:
- How did that make you feel?
- Why do you think that person reacted that way?
- What do you feel that God is saying in this situation?
- That must have really hurt you. Have you ever felt hurt like that before? Has that hurt reminded you of something else?
- What do you think would have been a better way for them to have handled that?
- What do you wish you had said then?
- What would it take to get this situation to change?
- Is there value in keeping fighting, or is it time to make a change?
Just ask questions that will help him dig deeper and process things. And maybe your husband’s time in the wilderness won’t last too much longer!
Read more about what to do when your husband struggles with faith here.
I’m not sure if that’s a lot of help, because I really don’t know if the problem with this letter writer is connected to the church board, is related more to unhealthy anger or aggression, or is a symptom of mental illness. But the big thought that I wanted to give to you all today is to let ourselves be safe places for our husbands when they are struggling. Not all doubt and anger and sadness is sin. Some is just disillusionment and disappointment and doubt, and these things need to be worked through. Be his ally during this time, and don’t attack him. Maybe the reason that God chose you as your husband’s wife is for just a time as this!
Let me know in the comments: have you ever had to help your husband through a period where he was struggling? What made it better? What made it worse? Let’s talk!