I remember the night she told me.
We weren’t officially together, but we liked each other and knew it was going somewhere. We sat in the car out the front of her place after coming back from a date.
“Matt,” she said, the streetlight turning her face into a silhouette. “There’s something I want you to know…”
She went on to tell me about the reality of her anxiety condition. We’d been in a Bible study together for over a year, so I knew part of her story; but not the full extent of her struggle. She wanted me to know that she’d dealt with anxiety since she was a kid, and that it was something she’d probably continue to wrestle with.
Although I thought it was admirable, her opening up before things got more serious, hearing about her struggles was confronting. I realised it was more serious than I’d thought, and that if I wanted to pursue her, I couldn’t take that choice lightly. What would it look like, to be in a relationship with someone who suffered a mental illness?
Later that night, I took that question to God. I’d been single for three years by this point, and I wanted to be wise about stepping into another relationship. I asked God whether I was ready to pursue a girl who struggled in this way, because it was foreign to me and I didn’t know if I’d be able to support her the way she needed.
In the stillness, I heard God’s prompt: Don’t let that stand in the way. I felt that God was telling me that the last three years of singleness had been preparing me for this relationship; that I’d grown through that season to be in a place where I could support and love someone like her who had these struggles.
So I pursued her.
The following few months of dating were a steep learning curve. Up until that point, my only experience of mental health struggles had been through family members, work mates and leading in youth group. I’d been exposed to mental illnesses, but had never walked that journey intimately with someone.
I won’t lie; it was hard. But I’m now three years (and a wedding) down the road, and have learned so much about what it means to be in a relationship with someone who struggles with their mental health. If sharing the journey my wife Maddy and I have been on can help encourage anyone else, then it’s worth it.
Here are some things we’ve learned along the way:
1. Keep asking questions.
I’m a problem solver and I like to fix things, but mental illness isn’t something you can just switch off and solve. I may never understand what Maddy’s anxiety feels like, and that’s hard to acknowledge. Those early months took a lot of patience, and I had to keep telling myself that I was there to sit and listen and learn.
Maddy was really good at bringing me along on that journey, and explaining how she felt as she was able to. I had to surrender my desire to ‘fix’ and come at it with a posture to learn. I got good at asking lots of questions and seeking feedback.
“Just teach me,” I’d say to her. “Talk to me about what’s going on. How would you like me to react next time?”
I worked out that I couldn’t ask those questions in the moments, though. Instead, we learned to debrief after Maddy had a panic attack or we encountered a difficult situation, which led to conversations about what I could do the next time that happened, and how we could communicate better in the future.
2. Make adjustments where you can.
One of the first encounters I had with Maddy’s anxiety was one night when I changed plans on her. We were meant to be hanging out, but my work ran late and I asked if we could reschedule. Over text, Maddy was understanding.
The next day, she told me the truth: “Hey, I know it seems irrational and I feel silly saying this… But when you change plans, it makes me feel like I can’t trust you.”
It made no sense to me, and I thought it was ridiculous. But rather than argue back, I had to recognise that I don’t understand what it’s like living with an anxiety condition, and because I don’t understand, I have no right to tell her how she should feel. What I can do is keep learning and make adjustments where I can.
Ever since that night, I’ve made a big effort to not change plans on Maddy if it’s within my control. And, if I’m coming home later than I originally told her, I make sure to openly communicate that, knowing that it’s really important for her to be able to take me at my word.
We’ve now been married almost two years, and making adjustments is something that I’m still learning how to do. Recently, I suggested to Maddy that we rearrange the furniture in our home. She was livid. It was such a disproportionate reaction, but I could see that me suggesting we make changes to her safe space was hugely triggering for her. So instead of pushing the idea, I took time to understand her feelings and slowly made the changes over three months. Sure, it felt a bit silly and inconvenient at the time, but it made her feel loved and understood, and eventually, the furniture was rearranged. (She ended up liking the changes, for the record).
3. Surround yourself with a support network.
When you’re used to playing the ‘carer’ role in a relationship, you can forget to take care of yourself. And part of caring for yourself means having a group of people you can turn to for advice, encouragement and support.
There’s a verse in Proverbs 15:22 that I’ve always taken quite seriously, which says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Throughout my life, I’ve sought to surround myself with wise and trusted people who know and love me. They’re the people I can go to and say “Hey, I’ve got this situation, will you pray on it and let me know what God says to you about it?” I can’t count how many times having the wisdom and guidance of those people has helped me make better decisions and encouraged me in my own faith journey.
What’s even more important is having regular time to spend alone with God. As James puts it so simply, “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8). My morning quiet times with Him are a chance to release any anxiety or questions I’ve got heading into each day and hand them over to Him.
For me, my faith has been the one constant, unchanging thing in my life. God is forever and He is my provider; I don’t have to strive or worry, but instead I can actually just be and enjoy His presence and the life He’s given me. I think of verses like Philippians 4:6 that encourage us to present our requests to God “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving…”
Faith in God isn’t just something I believe on an intellectual level; it’s something that I feel – His Spirit is within me. When I’m having a difficult day or I feel worries weighing me down, I can go to God and enjoy His presence. It’s as simple as saying, “God, you’re so good”, or asking, “What do you want to say to me today?”
4. Play to your strengths.
It’s good to be pushed out of your comfort zone, but I learned early on that it’s also okay to play to your strengths. God has given each of us strengths – and weaknesses – for a reason. Rather than beating ourselves up for not being naturally gifted in an area, we can focus our time and energy on what does come naturally to us. By doing this, we’re less likely to burn out and will have more capacity for the things that are important, like loving those around us.
I’ve found the same to be true for the things Maddy finds difficult because of her anxiety. Take phone calls, for example. To Maddy, they’re the most anxiety-inducing part of her day; but to me, they’re easy. When we started dating I knew I wasn’t there to ‘rescue’ her, but instead, to be a partner. I didn’t take over doing everything she found hard, but I was happy to help share that burden of hers when she asked for support. Me taking on most of the phone calls in our relationship has saved a lot of anxiety and freed Maddy up to spend her energy on her strengths.
Since getting married, we’ve learned that often, it’s best to divide and conquer. Maddy finds driving stressful, so I usually take the wheel. But she’s great at doing other things I struggle with, so we’ve learned to share the load and tackle things as a team. Figuring out little ways that we can make each other’s lives easier and minimise the anxiety one of us might feel has been really freeing.
5. Allow yourself to struggle, too.
In recent months, I’ve struggled with my own mental health. That came as a bit of a surprise to me at first, because I haven’t experienced mental health challenges in the past, and I thought I was supposed to be the one who was ‘mentally stable’. But what Maddy and I have learned is that when one of us struggles, the other can step up to support, even when they don’t feel able, through God’s strength.
Since getting married we’ve gone through some pretty heavy changes, and days that have been quite dark. There have been times where I’ve had to carry more of Maddy’s load, but also plenty of times where she’s needed to step up and support me when I’m down.
I find that as she has been vulnerable with me, I’ve been able to open up more and trust that it’s okay for me to have down days, too. We’re learning that it goes both ways, and we’ve had to lean more on God each time we’ve felt the burden of mental illness creeping in on us.
It’s a privilege to be trusted.
There’s one final encouragement I want to leave with you.
When I first started dating Maddy, she told me that no one else got to see her at her worst. She shared with me that those moments of raw vulnerability, where I saw her in the midst of unfiltered anxiety or in the throes of a panic attack, were actually a privilege.
Hearing that helped me reframe how I saw her mental illness. I’ve learned to appreciate that the struggles I see her going through are a sign of the way she trusts me, and something I can be grateful for.
If you’ve ever loved someone who suffers a mental illness, you’ll know that it isn’t always easy. But don’t let that deter you. Keep learning together, and sharing openly about what you’re going through. And over everything, when it feels like too much to carry alone; remember to find your strength in the One who sees and knows you (Psalm 139:1). This blog post was originally published at anxiousfaith.org, the site where I write for work. Anxious Faith is a community of people sharing real, raw stories and tackling the big questions around faith and mental health. Come join us on the site or socials (@anxious_faith)!
Matt and I were recently interviewed in Season 2 Episode 6 of the Anxious Faith podcast, When Your Partner Has Anxiety, where we shared our story of going from friendship to dating to marriage, and how we’ve learned to deal with my anxiety disorder as a couple through those seasons. I hope that our journey will encourage other couples who also carry a mental illness between them! You can listen to the interview or watch the full video here.