Q I'm really struggling in my marriage. My husband has been unemployed for the past six months and we're in a very difficult financial situation. I'm working and basically keeping everything going. The financial strain we're under is causing huge stress in our marriage. We live on my wage week to week, with nothing left over. He is not very motivated and keeps his head in the sand a lot of the time. He is looking for work, but it's in a niche area so there aren't many opportunities. He has suffered from depression and anxiety in the past, so I'm mindful that the stress he's under is difficult for him to manage. He has received counselling for this. I am extremely stressed trying to keep him motivated, keep positive, stay on top of bills and basically keep the show on the road. I'm becoming resentful towards him. I don't feel as though he's meeting me halfway at all.
We have spoken about this many times, and while he says he’ll change and help out more, it never happens. I’m caught between being sensitive towards his situation and low self-esteem, and at the same time wanting to scream “enough”. It’s come to the stage where I’m wondering if he is the kind of life partner I actually want, and the more I think about it the more I realise I have been minding him for years. I don’t want that for myself any more. I started to have a panic attack the other day, and he turned away from me. We don’t have children and we have no savings. I’m daydreaming a lot lately about us taking a break from each other. I’d love to think this is a rough patch, but it’s been going on for so long I don’t know if I can continue for my own health and sanity.
A This is an extremely stressful situation that has all the factors that lead to burnout: financial stress, mental health issues, isolation in the relationship, irritability and panic. Burnout happens when our resources no longer meet the demands of our lives, and the longer it goes on, the more brittle we become until often a major crisis happens. The problem is that if you wait for the major crisis to resolve the situation, you may have to cope with huge and often life-altering consequences. Your husband clearly is close to crashing: losing his job, a history of depression and an inability to support you even when you are clearly in trouble. You also sound like you might lash out at any moment, and the effort of holding everything together is giving rise to panic. Both of you are not operating from your full capacity. In fact you both have almost no capacity left, and yet you might make major decisions about your lives from this place. Is this a good idea? Might you live to regret making a decision from this very stressful place?
That said, if nothing changes, the situation will more than likely deteriorate. It sounds like you alternate between being your husband’s minder and his wife. The first position draws compassion and patience from you, and the other draws frustration and anger. For you this is emotionally draining, mentally agitating and physically straining, but consider what effect it has on your husband. He must find that he does not know what he will get from you, and this might bring out a wariness and distance in him. All his energy is being consumed in self-condemnation and this is leading to withdrawal and defeat. So what can you do?
Your husband needs help both for his self-esteem and for his employment issues. Is it possible to draw on support from friends or family in this situation? Could he get practical help in sending out CVs, setting up networking meetings with someone in the industry or just discussing his plans? Staying at home with all his thoughts focused on himself will decrease his capacity and exacerbate his feeling that he has nothing to offer. If no community support is available, there are many agencies that offer support for those suffering from anxiety and depression: try MentalhealthIreland.ie.
A panic attack is telling you that your resources are spent and that you are in need of recovery and rest. You might well need the relationship break that you crave, but this can be done in a supportive and positive way rather than as the end of a marriage. Could you draw on family to discuss this as an intervention, or, if this is not available, could you use couple counselling as a way of framing and containing this possibility? Low-cost couples counselling is available, and most counselling organisations have a sliding scale of fees.
Trish Murphy is a psychotherapist. For advice, email tellmeaboutit @irishtimes.com. We regret that personal correspondence cannot be entered into