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Marriage, mental well-being: Making mental wellness a family priority

Dr Chido Rwafa

Mental Wellness

As discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

Marriages are an integral part of our families and communities. 

The state of a marriage greatly influences the mental well-being of each spouse, their children as well as the greater family and community. 

A happy, stable marriage can be a place where individuals feel like they belong, can have their needs met, gain the confidence and strength needed to reach their full potential, face life’s challenges and make a meaningful contribution to their family and community. 

What is the effect of marriage on mental health and wellness?

Marriage should ideally provide a primary relationship that provides physical and emotional support for the individuals involved. Marriage and health are intricately linked. Research has shown that individuals in happy, stable marriages live longer, have better physical health, are more likely to eat well, take fewer risks generally and when they do fall ill, are more likely to recover faster compared to those who are not married. 

Mentally, those in stable, happy marriages are at a lower risk of psychological distress, anxiety and depression. 

The mental health of parents is also crucial for good parenting. Parents who are mentally well are better able to create a conducive environment for children and young people to develop into happy, healthy individuals. 

Marriage also provides a place where our needs can be met. Abraham Maslow in 1943 described a set of human needs that help motivate us as people and help us to grow to our full potential. These needs are:

 physical needs (food, water, warmth and sleep) 

 safety needs (physical, psychological and financial safety) 

 the need to belong and to love (to love and be loved, sexual intimacy and the need to belong) 

 self esteem needs (self esteem, self respect, the respect of others) 

 self-actualisation needs (the need to grow as an individual, a sense of autonomy and self-direction, having a voice and being able to express oneself) 

Marriage can help to meet some of these needs through a committed relationship where our physical needs are met, we feel safe and secure, where we can love and be loved, where we feel valued and learn to value others, where we feel respected, where we feel we have a voice and where we feel heard. 

As humans though, we often have to depend on others to help meet our needs and this can be the beauty of marriage; we meet the needs of our partner as they meet ours. 

Unmet needs sadly are often the source of many arguments, disputes and disappointments in marriage. 

When our needs are not being met, we often react with fear or agitation, sometimes we resign to sadness and become discouraged. This can put a strain on our mental health as individuals. A stressful, strained marriage where one’s needs are not being met can have a detrimental effect on the mental well-being of the partners. 

It is critical therefore that those struggling in their marriage relationship seek help and support to prevent emotional distress and deterioration of their mental health. 

What is the effect of mental health on a marriage?

The mental health of the partners in a marriage greatly influences the condition of the union. When we are mentally healthy, we are:

 self-aware: we are aware of our own emotions and can manage them appropriately and not take things out on our spouse. 

 able to bond with others: we can love others and receive love from others 

 positive in the way we see ourselves and others: we speak to ourselves in a positive way and can be kind to our spouse. We can avoid demeaning, degrading or overly critical language

 able to maintain a healthy work-life balance: to be able to make time for our spouse despite demands of the work we do. 

 able to live with a sense of purpose and meaning: we can build a joint vision for our marriage and family with our spouse 

Mental illness in a marriage

If one partner in a marriage is affected by a mental health problem, be it stress or burnout, anxiety, depression, psychological trauma or substance use, it is often unfortunately a shared experience with their spouse and other family members. 

Even the stigma associated with struggling with a mental illness maybe extended to a spouse and family members. Mental illness may make it seem as if your partner’s personality or character has changed. You may struggle to recognise them and this may put a strain on the marriage. Some of the problems that your spouse may be facing may make you blame yourself unnecessarily for their challenges. If your spouse is unwell, the burden of caring for them and the family may fall on you and this can be overwhelming and if not well managed can lead to caregiver burnout. 

It is important as a spouse of someone who may be struggling with a mental health problem to:

 understand and educate yourself on mental health and mental illness so that you can provide informed, appropriate support 

 continue to support and communicate with your spouse but realise that you are not their therapist or doctor. Encourage your spouse to get professional help if they need it 

 take good care of yourself and build a system of support around you. The quality of support that you can give your spouse is directly linked to your own state of mental and physical health

As we strive to be more aware of our mental health and well-being, it may be time to reflect on our marriages and the impact our mental health challenges may be having on our marriages. 

If you think that you or your spouse may be struggling with a mental health problem that could be affecting your marriage, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

l Association of Healthcare Funders of Zimbabwe (AHFoZ) article written by Dr Chido Rwafa Madzvamutse, Consultant Psychiatrist.Feedback :+263714987729) ( ; [email protected]).

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