Diagnosable mental illnesses are so commonplace that it’s inevitable for a single man to meet a woman who is “mentally ill.” Should he still consider her as a wife or try to find another woman? This is a difficult decision that must involve God, his priest, and Christian family and friends. I want to offer some practical guidance on discerning between mild mental illness and the more severe kind that can easily wreck a marriage.
Every woman will have passions
Every man and woman born in this fallen world will have severe problems with their passions until they are purified by the Holy Spirit. Maybe you are prone to lust like I am. Maybe you are of a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern ancestry and are prone to daily bursts of anger. Maybe you are prone to intoxication. Maybe you are prone to pride, sloth, gluttony, or greed. We all inherited a mix of passions from our ancestors that, while unpleasant, sanctify us when we struggle against them with the help of Lord Jesus Christ, but we don’t instantly become saints after baptism. For some of us, the passions remain for an extended period of time, declining ever so slowly. It is guaranteed that you will meet a woman, whether Orthodox or not, who has a thorn in her flesh in the form of a passion that—if unbridled—can cause serious damage to any relationship.
When evaluating a woman with an active passion, you must ask yourself several questions. Is she actively struggling against the passion? Has the passion’s control over her declined from its peak? Have you witnessed her try to correct herself in the middle of experiencing an attack of the passion? If her passion does not improve, how will it impact a marriage with children? With your life experience and faith, can you handle her passion without risking your salvation?
As a man of Middle Eastern descent, I am most familiar with the deadly combination of pride and anger. Many of my family members have it, and I have it as well. This translates into a persistent attitude of I-am-rightism that starts with an assertion and rapidly progresses into shouting, physical fighting, and an oath never to speak to a friend or family member again. I’ve witnessed one of my relatives get into multiple physical fights that, from my perspective, were not warranted, and countless more verbal arguments, to the point where going out in public with that person is difficult. With the help of Christ and much prayer, I’ve been able to block many angry thoughts from exiting my mouth. Sometimes, however, I am tired and my spiritual guard is low, so I deliver invective that hurts someone’s feelings. Any woman that is thinking of marrying me must evaluate me for this problem and make a decision on whether she can handle it.
Since I have so much experience with pride and anger, I believe I can handle it in others. As long as a woman is not regularly getting into fistfights, her anger will likely be less than what I’ve already experienced, and therefore something I can work with. But how about a woman who is slothful? I do not have experience with slothful women. My mother is consistent with cleaning the home and cooking. She anticipates my needs and does things before I have to ask. It would not make sense to me if my wife claimed she was “too tired” to cook me a meal, or needed a “day off” from being a mother. In the face of such sloth, I would get angry and think my wife is lazy, and she’d respond with anger and more sloth, and certainly our marriage would be in trouble. It would be most ideal for a woman to complement my faults with strengths of her own, but whatever the case, I must be able to envision handling her passions within the context of marriage.
We all fall short of spiritual perfection, so occasionally we will display passions, but a woman you’re considering for marriage should be aware of her passions and actively struggle against them, or those passions will dominate the relationship and threaten the marriage. If you do identify passions in a woman, that is not reason enough to dismiss her, because every woman will have a passion of some sort. What you should consider is if her specific passion is something you can endure. During your courtship, get to know her well enough to witness the passion and how it impacts both you and the relationship. Woe to the man who thinks his future wife does not have any passions! In secular dating, it’s very easy for a woman to present her best foot forward, hide her flaws, and hypnotize a man with pleasurable fornication (a passion on its own). As Orthodox Christians, we do not have sex before marriage, as I advise against even hugging the woman you’re courting.
Mental illness or immaturity?
To have a passion is not to be mentally ill. With that we arrive to the problems of definition and diagnosis. The medical industry has so broadened the definition of mental illness (to dose people on lucrative pharmaceutical drugs) that a huge percentage of the population is “verifiably” mentally ill. The diagnosis has become so common that saying “You’re mentally ill” is hardly an insult these days. As men we have to discern between a broad definition of mental illness that is common and genuine mental illness.
Many women on anti-depressant medication take it because they are “sad.” Winter came around and they weren’t having fun in life so the doctor eagerly prescribed them pills. Another woman was “tired” from her busy schedule and didn’t get “enjoyment” out of casual sex and other secular activities. Another woman started being “depressed” when she couldn’t find an office job she enjoyed. In cases like this, I believe the problem is not mental illness but a lack of Orthodox faith and coping mechanisms to the normal stressors of life. By the time we reach adulthood, we should have a toolbox of ways to deal with difficulties. What used to be “common sense” to people of the past, like daily prayer, is now either a strange revelation or “lifehack” that needs to be learned from a book or Dr. Oz, and if it is not learned, a host of negative feelings arrive that a woman doesn’t know how to address. Unlucky for her, the doctors are all too quick to give her psychotropics, and so she becomes dependent on the drugs without ever properly maturing. Her problem is not mental illness but immaturity. She’s a child in an adult body, and never learned the things that human beings in previous eras learned (men are no exception to this problem). Her misguided trust in the medical industry has not solved the root problem but merely kept her in an immature state.
Should you marry an immature woman who is on anti-depressant drugs? How about if she took them in the past but does not take them anymore? Will a woman with anti-depressant medications in her bloodstream negatively affect a gestating baby? Is a woman who has the coping mechanisms of a child ready and eager to learn maturity from you?
When evaluating such a woman, you will have to test her for increasing maturity, responsibility, faith, and perseverance. If she doesn’t have the basic qualities an adult should have, and she has to learn them during the marriage, expect rough patches. Without children, the marriage may proceed pleasantly for a time, but once children come—and understand that having and raising children are the most difficult things a woman will ever do—any immaturity that you overlooked will boil to the surface. Just like with a woman who has passions, an immature woman should be self-aware enough to recognize her immaturity, dive into the Orthodox faith and practical self-improvement to plug in harmful gaps to show you moments of undeniable maturity during the courtship. On the other hand, if she gives you a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, and declares that she is fine just the way she is and will change for no man, you have all the information you need.
Severe mental illness
It is my opinion that most people diagnosed with mental illness are merely immature, but there are people with what I’d call “severe mental illness.” How do you discern passions, immaturity, and severe mental illness? Passions are connected to our fallen human nature and are generally pursued to please the flesh. Over-eating, having sex, and being lazy feels good on the body. Being angry and prideful makes one feel superior and can be perceived pleasurably in the mind. The passionate person gets something tangible out of their passions. Immaturity is linked more to improper upbringing, harmful medical intervention, bad education, ignorance of Christian spiritual life, and maladaptive coping mechanisms that are not directly related to feeling bodily pleasure. No one would be proud of being immature, but many people are proud of their passions, as I was proud of my sexual passions, bragging about it online for many years. Severe mental illness, on the other hand, begins to involve brain dysfunction, heavy demonic influence (including possession), self-harm, and a disconnection from reality, to the point where the sufferers lose touch with the self and have reoccurring mental episodes where they cannot control their mind or body. With passions, immaturity, and mental illness, there is overlap, and it is not difficult in modern times to find a woman or man who is badly afflicted in all three areas.
When someone with severe mental illness is not experiencing an episode (often called a “mental breakdown” or a “psychotic break”), they may present as merely immature or even entirely normal, but during an episode, the engine grinds to a halt. They may not be able to take care of themselves and must be continuously watched over to prevent them from committing self-harm. They are “incontinent,” not digestively, but of emotions and bodily movements. They do not want to use horrible language on you but they do because they cannot control their speech. They don’t want to starve, but they must be fed by a caretaker because they can no longer cook for themselves or remember to eat. They do not want to kill themselves, but they have a compulsion to grab a knife and start cutting. Voices and demonic thoughts in their head are telling them to do things that they do not want to do (the Holy Fathers would have something to say about what’s really going on in such a case). It’s the total lack of control during an episode that justifies the diagnosis of “severe mental illness.”
I once witnessed a person during a mental break lose awareness of if he was thinking in his head or speaking aloud. The line between inner monologue and speech was eradicated. I once witnessed a person who took on the countenance of a growling beast and used all their human power to make an attempt on their life (thankfully he was stopped). I witnessed a person who did not want to laugh but could not stop laughing for hours and hours. These are not instances of someone succumbing to passions, or merely being sad, but a disconnection from material reality, whether demonic or not. In the context of being married to such a person, this is a hard trial that the Church teaches is ultimately salvific for the sufferer and those who have to take care of them, assuming the healthy spouse doesn’t come apart themselves. It’s a humbling condition that forces everyone involved to lean more on God, strengthening their faith in the process, but the decision to involve yourself with such a person should not be taken lightly, because if you take on more than you handle, you can spiritually harm both your spouse and yourself. You must know what you’re getting into lest you end up losing your soul.
How to screen women for mental health issues
If you’re attempting to meet and date secular women, you will never possess an honest portrait of her mental health history. There is no barrier for secular women to lie or omit information in order to gain advantages or favors in this life, so she will only reveal damaging truth if she believes you will find out somehow or if she’s convinced you “love” her so much that you wouldn’t leave her because of emotional reasons or sunk costs. Orthodox Christian women, I’ve found, are way more honest, and will reveal damaging facts of their lives, but subconsciously they may downplay the severity or leave out small details that reveal the true extent of their problems. No matter who you are dealing with, you will have to read between the lines to complete the picture, and attempt to gently verify that picture to arrive at the truth. The weaker a woman’s faith, the more investigation and filling in you will have to do.
Before entering a courtship with a woman, I’d ask her the following broad questions:
1. Do you take anti-depressant or psychotropic medication? Have you taken them in the past? How long did you take them?
2. Have you ever cut yourself with a sharp instrument or otherwise hurt yourself? (If yes, continue by asking her if she’s ever made an attempt on her life.)
3. Have you ever had a mental breakdown where you needed medical care to get back to normal? Have you ever needed emergency mental care?
If she answers yes to any of these questions, I’d tactfully retrieve a full medical history from her. Beforehand, I would tell her that I’m asking these questions to discern if I can handle whatever problems she has, and that I’m not judging her for having a condition, because I surely have problems as well that I insist on divulging. If she doesn’t want to answer your questions then either she doesn’t yet trust you or she’s not serious about giving a potential husband the full truth of who she is.
An ideal scenario for a woman with mental illness is that the problem has since been resolved with maturity and faith without re-surfacing in several years. Perhaps she graduated from college, had trouble adapting to adulthood, was regularly sad (but had no mental breakdowns), took anti-depressants for one year, and then stopped taking them. In such a case, the drugs were a bridge from an immature to a mature state, and may not be a sign of severe illness, but rarely is a woman’s medical history so open-and-shut.
A sign of a more challenging condition is visible scarring on her arms and legs, long-term use of psychotropic drugs that continues to the present, and a history of multiple mental breakdowns that required emergency psychiatric care. A woman who suffers from these problems is deserving of Christian friendship and love, and should not be shunned, but you must carefully contemplate upon prayer and the seeking of spiritual guidance if you are able to handle such a heavy cross. It’s important to understand that mental episodes are often triggered by stress. If you observe a woman with a rough history but who is currently faring well, it’s likely because she has removed the stresses from her life. The problem with marriage is that, once children enter the picture, the stresses are nonstop. Even for mentally healthy individuals, marriage is exceedingly difficult (you may marry a woman with a clean mental bill of health, with no prior history, who goes on to have mental breakdowns after childbearing). Personally, I would assume that any woman you marry will show an increase in mental dysfunction during the marriage, some more and some less.
Within a marriage, a woman has her prescribed duties. She cleans the home and cooks (if she’s a housewife) and does most of the child-rearing. When a woman has an episode, she will be unable to do most or all of her duties. She will also be unable to fully take care of the children. Not only do you have to do the work she was doing, not only do you have to do the motherly childrearing, but you also have to take care of her as if she were a hospital patient. And you will not know for how long the episode lasts, but even if she comes out of it quickly, she will need extra time to fully heal. The effects of an episode could last for weeks and months. Can you see how marrying any woman without having strong faith is a foolhardy endeavor? Without complete trust and reliance in God, you will not be able to endure a mental health emergency, and will simply hand her off to the psychiatrist to dope her up while you resort to alcohol or other flawed coping mechanisms, even infidelity.
By highlighting the risk of marrying a woman with mental illness, I do not attempt to deny them love from a man. Instead, I share these points so men have all the information they need in making the best decision they can, because if they get into a marriage they can’t handle, and if a woman has children that she cannot handle, they both will be worse off than they started and may lose the faith they have. Writings of the Holy Fathers are persistent in advising us not to test God by doing more than we can bear. Any decision to marry a mentally ill woman must be made with the truth of her condition and help from God. I do believe, however, that the more difficult woman you marry, the more blessings and rewards you receive from God if you are able to maintain the faith, but that’s a big if.
I desire an easy marriage. I want to find an exceedingly beautiful woman who is mature and completely healthy with fewer passions than myself. I want a marriage that lacks the trials I see in other marriages, where I can focus on my writing in peace and expect my wife to be a superhero who takes care of the home and children without any fuss. This is a fantasy. Marriage, even with a picture-perfect woman, is difficult, with good days and bad days, and any holes you have in your faith will quickly reveal themselves as you deal with innumerable trials that you never would have expected no matter how thoroughly you vetted her. Whatever the case, my decision to marry a woman must first and foremost involve God. I must pray to Him to enlighten me, to place the right woman for my salvation before me, and to help me endure whatever is to come.
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