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When Your Partner Is Down and Can’t Get Up

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My wife has written, bravely and beautifully, of her struggles with mental health (here for instance). I’m often asked what has helped me as her husband.

I offer these 10 thoughts with her blessing and with the caveat that they may not translate into your situation. But here is what has sustained me.

1. The Priesthood of Christ Is Precious

Jesus carries you both on his heart before the Father. Despite your feelings (or lack of them), it’s Christ’s relationship with the Father that is central, not yours. In the midst of the darkness, you can’t trust your feelings. You can’t even trust your faith. Just know that Christ himself secures your standing before the Father. Whether you’re up or down emotionally, he’s always up—eternally so—and he’s got you.

2. The Bondage of the Will Is True

You must realize, contra everything the world tells you, that human beings aren’t decision-making machines, calculating outcomes and acting rationally. We’re foolish lovers who abandon ourselves to terrible masters that only enslave. If addiction is part of your loved one’s story, know that they are bound. Not bound against their will. They’ve chosen what they’ve chosen all right. But they’re trapped. Really, really trapped. And they’re not deciding to be unhealthy to spite you. Neither are they able to choose their way out of this. If you think that way, you’ll only end up hating them. Unless you believe in the bondage of the will, you can’t love people through their self-destructive behaviors.

3. The Theology of the Cross Is Vital

Martin Luther (who taught about the bondage of the will and also suffered bouts of deep depression) said there are two ways to think about God and life. One way is a theology of glory: God is up there and we ascend through our strength. The other is a theology of the cross: God comes down here because we have no strength of our own. One theology says: “There’s light at the end of the tunnel; keep trudging.” The other says: “I know it’s dark. But Christ is here.” This is the theology of the cross, and it’s indispensable for sufferers—which is all of us.

4. Don’t Aim for the ‘Way Things Were’

You know—and your loved one really knows—that they are not their old selves. The great temptation is to think and even speak about getting the “old them” back. This may be unwise. It seems to me that redemption works differently. The Israelites in the wilderness yearned for Egypt with its decent food and a roof over their heads. But the Lord doesn’t take them back to the old place; he takes them through the desert to a new place. Their true home is aheada spacious land they haven’t yet seen. This is the whole pattern of God’s dealings with uswe’re moving from a garden to a city. I think it’s a mistake to try to return to the way things were. It’s possible “the way things were” got you into this mess in the first place.

5. Feeling Powerless Is Horrific—and Good

Perhaps the overwhelming feeling of the caregiver in these situations is impotence. It’s agonizing to see the person you love trapped in a pit or hurtling toward an early grave. This feeling of impotence is inevitable, but it can be turned to good. Because—guess what?—we can’t help anyone at their deepest level through the efforts of the flesh. Only the Spirit, only his gospel, can truly change people. So allow your impotence to turn you to prayer. As a husband I’m never 100 percent sure what “headship” might entail practically, but I’m convinced the Lord thunders at the “head” of his armies (Joel 2:11). I’m meant to go into battle for my bride.

So the right kind of impotence is good: it drives us to prayer. But at points you will also need to challenge your feelings of impotence because there are things you can do. That’s the next point.

6. You Will Need to Change

Addiction is contagious. It doesn’t merely affect the addict, but those around as well. There will be unhealthy dynamics you’ve fallen into as a couple, and there will be patterns and sins you will need to address in your own life. If you’re a sinner—and you are—then there are ways you’re exacerbating the situation.

This isn’t meant to condemn. Actually it gives great hope. It means a certain release from impotence! There are ways you can pray and move toward freedom yourself. As you begin to repent, it will help your loved one to know they are not the problem. This battle is one you’re fighting together.

And this is vital because . . .

7. Your Oneness Is Deeper than This Problem

It’s never “you vs. your problem spouse.” It’s always “you and your spouse vs. this problem.” Never allow the enemy to cast your beloved as the problem. A major way of maintaining this truth is to keep practicing truth number six: keep repenting, and openly so. It encourages your partner—and your oneness—if you’re also transparent with your struggles.

8. Firm, Buoyant Love Is the Tone to Strike

If your loved one is set on self-destruction, how should you respond? Two natural reactions appeal to the flesh: either we go along with their desires, accelerating the decline, or we slam on the brakes in anger. I do both in turn. I play along nicely for a while. After all, Love means saying yes, doesn’t it? Then I get mad at the state we’re in. So I lurch between “saccharine nice guy” and “bitter grouch.” The answer is to meet your loved one with firm, buoyant love.

It’s the Lord’s tone in Genesis 18. Sarah has just laughed at his promise of children. God asks, “Why did you laugh?” Sarah says, “I didn’t laugh.” He replies, “No, but you did laugh.” And that’s the last word in the scene.

This is wonderful. The Lord isn’t threatened by Sarah, nor does he threaten her. He’s not trying to stand against her or stand over her, but he does stand for the truth. If your loved one is struggling with an addiction, you’re going to have a thousand opportunities to display firm, buoyant love. You’ll screw up 990 of them—either caving in or lashing out—but occasionally you’ll give a taste of the Lord’s own character: a love that won’t let his beloved be destroyed.

9. Dance Them into the Light

You can’t have this spiritual buoyancy by yourself. To use the analogy of a dance floor, your loved one may be struggling at the fringes, hunched over, lost in the shadows. Your temptation may be to simply stay there with them. But in doing so, you cut yourself off from the community that is so vital for you both.

Your calling in the Lord’s strength—with the support of your brothers and sisters—is to woo, win, and dance your partner back into the light. They probably won’t like this plan, by the way! But the “cross” of re-entering community is far better than the “hell” of isolation. Therefore at some point you will need to help your loved one away from the shadows. With the perspective, prayers, and practical help of your church family, you will need to move together from the darkness of isolation to the light of community.

10. This Isn’t a Distraction from Real Life; This Is It

It’s always tempting to think these struggles are a departure from the trajectory you’re meant to be on. Life is meant to be an unbroken ascent into . . . wait . . . that’s a theology of glory, isn’t it? As theologians of the cross, we ought to know Jesus is at work right here and right now, even—and especially—in suffering. He’s willing and able to redeem us from all evil (Gen. 48:16).

We aren’t meant to sidestep or outwit this “departure” from our plans. The Lord knows how to redeem the years the locust has eaten (Joel 2:25). Maybe you’ll be able to comfort others with the comfort you’ve received in your affliction (2 Cor. 1:4). But whatever happens, you can let him handle those details.

So friend, receive from Jesus, get in community, look at your own sins, love your partner, and pray, pray, pray. Jesus enters the mess and says, “Here I am. Let’s engage right here, right now.”

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