I'm Worried

My Husband Hasn't Been Himself

by Gabriele Rienas

Q: I am worried about my husband. He has been a pastor for 5 years, but he has not been himself for several months. He seems to be unhappy with everything. He does not show it at church, but at home he is lethargic, unmotivated, and depressed. On the rare occasions he talks, he seems bitter and critical of everyone, including our children, our ministry, and me. How should I respond?

A: Your husband is struggling, and as his closest companion you are sensing his distress. You mentioned that he is not himself. I am assuming that what you see is a fairly recent development rather than a long-term relational pattern. If you are accurate in your observations, there are things that could explain this withdrawal.

Physical causes. Some physical ailments have emotional side effects. Thyroid issues, diabetes, and even nutritional deficiencies are three examples. In addition, side effects of certain medications can affect the demeanor and emotions often without the person being aware of these changes. A physical examination and discussion with a physician can rule out biological factors.

Depression or exhaustion. Several things you mentioned are symptoms of depression: lethargy, withdrawal, irritability, isolation, self-doubt, and lack of motivation. Exhaustion or burnout will also affect a person’s emotional state. With proper intervention, depression is treatable, and exhaustion has an obvious cure.

Situational factors or chronic stress. The aftermath of a very difficult situation or prolonged stressor could also explain his behavior. People commonly experience emotional distress in the aftermath of dealing with significant drama or stress. In this case, the emotional impact is temporary and fades as time passes and realities are processed.

Transition. Do not rule out the possibility that this is the beginning of a transition process in the journey of ministry. If your husband struggles with vision and purpose for his current ministry, consider the possibility that God is moving you toward the next step in the process of your life.

The question then becomes: What can you do about what your husband is going through? First, recognize the limitations of what you can offer. You cannot make him look within, delve into his emotional state, or get help. You can, however, suggest the above possibilities in an atmosphere of caring and grace.

Work on creating a safe, noncondemning atmosphere in which to speak honestly and listen carefully when the opportunity arises. Honesty with grace and compassion is always the goal. “Honey, I’m worried about you. I’ve noticed that you haven’t been yourself lately. Can we talk about what you’ve been going through?” is preferable to, “What’s wrong with you? I think you’re depressed. You need to go see someone.”

Even with the most carefully chosen words, he may not want to talk. If this is the case, resist the temptation to worry the issue like a loose tooth, trying to reach him by bringing it up again and again. You may have already found that this leads to frustration for both of you, and even conflict.

You will need God’s grace, both for your husband and for yourself. This is where prayer comes in. Whatever prayer habit you have on behalf of your family, step it up a notch during this time. Pray for your husband’s state of mind, for his heart, and for his healing. Pray that God will reveal and address the causes of your husband’s distress. Pray that God will continue to fulfill His will in your family’s life. For yourself, pray for stamina, patience, and independence during a time when you cannot depend on your spouse for emotional support. Pray against fear and despair. In the midst of this kind of emotional pain, it is easy to feel that life will never again resume to normal. This is not true. What you are describing is almost certainly temporary as your husband works through whatever has arisen in his emotional world. Prayer will adjust your perspective and remind you that God is in control of the situation, already acting on your husband’s behalf.

Having said that, it is appropriate that you set boundaries when it comes to your husband’s irritability. Let your husband know when his comments cause you pain. End conversations that are nonproductive and hurtful, especially when they begin to escalate. Give him space when he seems unable to reach out to you in a caring way.

In rare cases, outside intervention might be needed. Know when it is appropriate to ask for help despite your husband’s protests. Ask for outside intervention if:

  • he talks of self-harm or suicide.
  • he has had a clear moral failure.
  • his lethargy and discouragement become debilitating.
  • he seems incoherent or clearly unable to function.

If you decide to reach out for help, act decisively and firmly. Enlist the help and advice of seasoned professionals as well as those in leadership over your husband.

In most cases, you will not need to take drastic measures. Think of this time as only a season in your lives. In time, your husband will bounce back to be the person you know him to be. Remember, this is part of his faith journey — necessary for his development. Challenge yourself to use this trying time to draw closer to God, to make you more dependent on Him, and to grow in compassion and grace toward others.

Gabriele Rienas, a pastor’s wife for 27 years and a professional counselor, lives in Beaverton, Oregon. She speaks at retreats, conferences, and events worldwide. Contact her at 503-705-9230.