How Do I Care for My Depressed Wife?
On this podcast, we talk a lot about joy. And that means we field a lot of necessary questions about joylessness. We’ve also talked in the past about husbands taking the lead on seeking to grow the joy of their own homes — I’m thinking back to APJ 255: “Dad’s Role in Homemaking” — one of my favorites in the history of this podcast. But what about when this task seems especially impossible? It’s a question from an anonymous man.
“Hello, Pastor John. I would love your advice for my marriage. My wife and I have been married for nearly eighteen years and have three young children. By her own admission, my wife is an ‘Eeyore’ type personality. There are seasons where her gloominess, and maybe borderline depression, persists and has a significant impact on the joy in our home. I feel helpless to help. When I try to address the issue with her, she ends up feeling like a failure and sinks even lower. What can I do to help her, Pastor John? I’m committed to our marriage covenant and desire that she and our family flourish.”
As I thought and prayed over this situation — and I know several marriages like this, long marriages like this, even marriages where there’s been hospitalization over and over again for a depressed spouse — I thought of ten words of counsel that I would share to this anonymous husband. And some of them are very short and others a little longer, so let me just go through them quickly.
1. Give thanks for grace.
Join me, brother, in thanking God for giving you the grace for eighteen years of faithfulness. It is a beautiful, Christ-honoring thing. That’s my first word of counsel. God is amazing that he has brought you this far, and that you care for her and want to be a blessing to her.
2. Know she’s right for you.
Put out of your mind every thought that you may be married to the wrong person. The best way to know whether you are married to the right person is to look at the name on your wedding certificate. If it’s her name, that’s God’s will for your life.
3. Remember that God gives growth.
Recognize that some Christians will never in this life grow beyond certain limitations. I don’t say this because God can’t do it — and indeed he might do it — but because 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
Paul seems to say that there will always be this kind of diversity of weakness among believers — not that there should be, but that there will be. God assigns faith and growth according to his own inscrutable wisdom. Paul says that in Romans 12:3. In other words, it may be God’s plan for you to shepherd your wife, not out of her depression, but with her depression to the end.
4. Persist in patience and gentleness.
There’s a principle of patience under God’s sovereignty in 2 Timothy 2:24–25:
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.
In other words, even though that’s not talking about marriage and depression, there’s a principle here: kindness, patience, gentleness, willingness to endure sorrow might bring about change. Whether it does or not, it’s our calling to be that way.
5. Commit to your calling.
Our calling as husbands is clear from Colossians and Ephesians.
Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:19)
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25)
This is our calling, no matter how little effect it has on our wives. Let this sink in: Christ is married to a wife, the church — including us husbands — that falls far shorter of the command to love him with all our hearts than our wives fall short of any expectations we have.
In other words, we fall shorter of what Christ deserves from us than our wives fall short of what we deserve or hope for. No husband is promised a cheerful wife. It’s not in the Bible, no matter how prayerfully he chooses at the front end of that relationship.
6. Lead in the habits of grace.
Stay with her as a patient, gentle leader in the disciplines of grace, no matter how seemingly dull her emotional response may be. That is, read the Scriptures with her, speak promises from God to her every day — not criticisms, but promises. Pray for her gently and out loud for her joy and strength, but not in a “teachy” way or a condescending way. Don’t use prayer as an indirect way to chastise her or teach her.
Take her to church and sit with her in worship. Point her to passages of Scripture that show that the saints go through darkness, like Micah 7:8:
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be a light to me.
You have no idea what the long-term effects of steady-state spiritual disciplines of grace may accomplish.
7. Feed your own soul.
Do not fail to feed your own soul with the word of God. Do it alone, and do it with a band of brothers — not a big one, but a few trusted friends who can pray for you and hear your sorrows and bear your burdens and exhort you to stay the course with joy.
8. Seek wise counsel.
If it seems appropriate, and if she’s willing, encourage her to seek help from a wise, Bible-saturated, prayerful Christian counselor. He or she may be able to discern obstacles to her joy that you might have missed and she might have missed.
9. Embrace what God has given you.
Learn from Scripture and from the stories of difficult marriages that the Lord has reasons for your trials. Take, for example, the marriage of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. It was not a happy marriage. He brought many flaws. We can talk about those in another episode of Ask Pastor John. But let me just focus for a moment on the question at hand: God’s purpose for Abraham Lincoln in a very difficult marriage with a woman who, according to Mark Noll, often flew into rages.
She pushed Lincoln relentlessly to seek high public office; she complained endlessly about poverty; she overran her budget shamelessly, both in Springfield and in the White House; she abused servants as if they were slaves (and ragged on Lincoln when he tried to pay them extra on the side); she assaulted him on more than one occasion (with firewood, with potatoes); she probably once chased him with a knife through their backyard in Springfield; and she treated his casual contacts with attractive females as a direct threat, while herself flirting constantly and dressing to kill. (“The Struggle for Lincoln’s Soul,” Books and Culture, vol. 1, no. 1)
But the two stayed married. “What was the gain?” Noll asked this question: “What was the gain?” And he gives two historical suggestions. How was it that Lincoln, when president, could work so effectively with the rampant egos who filled his administration? “The long years of dealing with his tempestuous wife helped him prepare for handling the difficult people he encountered as president.” In other words, a whole nation benefited from his embracing this pain.
And second: “Over the slow fires of misery that he learned to keep banked and under heavy pressure deep within him, his innate qualities of patience, tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness were tempered and refined.” In other words, embrace what God has given you and be made strong in the slow heat of the refining fire.
10. Remember the joy that’s coming.
Picture the thankfulness of your wife in the resurrection, when she has been set free and thinks back over the remarkable patience and kindness that you showed her for decades.
Right now, she does not even have the emotional wherewithal to respond to you as she should and as you desire that she would. But one day, in the resurrection, she will have that capacity, and her memory of your patience will be part of your joy.