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When mental issues break a marriage

By Gardy Chacha | November 13th 2020 at 11:00:00 GMT +0300

Elizabeth Apondi and her husband David Wanjala lost their unborn child during pregnancy. [David Gichuru, Standard]

There are endless reasons many marriages go south: for instance when there’s too much money or too little of it.  Interference from in-laws. ‘Advice’ from chama friends.  Unrealistic expectations. Domestic violence. Marrying for wrong reasons. Disrespect. Discovering secrets, like sorcery in the family or secret families. Meeting at a nightclub only for one partner to get saved. All these are deal-breakers.

Marriages also end when disaster happens: giving birth to physiologically-challenged children or getting physically challenged after a fatal accident has also seen some partners abandoning their families. Other times, one partner meets a better looking, richer, more connected lover 10 years and three children later but still calls it quits.

Then there are the unspoken reasons. Like when the wife is the ‘Commander-in-Drinks’ almost to rehab level. Or when she prays overzealously, foaming at the mouth at 3am like she joined a cult.

Then there is mental health challenges in families. Until recently, it felt like a foreign concept.

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In the years before their divorce, Maina and Betty* struggled to rekindle their love life as it was when they wed in church.

“The honeymoon period did not even last two months,” Maina says, recalling the first major argument as having spilt from him visiting his parents.

Betty had not approved of it, yet, “I did not need permission to visit my relatives. But my wife felt that she needed to know everything including the content of our conversations.”

It’s only years later that Maina learnt his wife was bipolar and had a mental issue that made her become insecure and suffer low self-esteem.

“She hadn’t quite made inroads in the family and so, I guess, she was feeling that some people in the family did not like her enough,” Maina says in retrospect.

Looking back, those first episodes of disagreement, Maina says, were never dealt with and resolved and so they only spawned greater mistrust.

By year four of their marriage, fists were flying, threats were being made, insults hurled and weapons wielded. “It became so toxic that I too started wondering what I had gotten myself into,” says Maina who divorced after seven years in 2013.

Betty took custody of their children and to date refuses to let him in their lives.

“It was acrimonious, but really funny, considering at some point I wouldn’t have gone an hour without calling just to hear her voice.”

David Wanjala and Elizabeth Apondi got married in 2014, but are open about the struggles in a marriage, especially when the man loses an income and the wife is left as the sole breadwinner.

In 2016, Wanjala moved out of the home to chart a new path in the city “because I felt that my wife did not appreciate me. I wasn’t providing a lot but even the little was not appreciated.”

The company Wanjala worked for the closed shop soon after their honeymoon and “I tried to keep myself busy with some freelance work but the pay was next to nothing,” leaving Apondi, who worked at a bank and earned well enough to feed the family, stepping in to fend for the young family.

Apondi, however, failed to be humble in her role as the sole breadwinner. “A lot was happening back then. The job was quite demanding. I would come home stressed. And I would channel all the frustrations on him. I was rude and disrespectful,” she says.

Apondi never missed the opportunity to belittle Wanjala and make him know exactly what she thought of him.

“I was brought up knowing that a man’s job was to provide for his family. A man is the one who wears the pants. But here we were: my husband wasn’t providing. I did not like that I would go to work and leave him in the house and come back in the evening and still find him there. I think I wanted him to try harder,” she says.

Apondi felt bad every time she mistreated her husband but somehow just did not know how to go about their situation differently.

 Jennifer Karina, a renowned marriage counsellor and author say, “I meet many people who are not mentally healthy and they don’t even know. The problem is that mental health is highly stigmatized in our society and this discourages people from seeking help.”

Karina explains that “In a marriage setting, mental health dysfunction presents as domestic violence, unfaithfulness, lack of trust, alcohol (and drug) abuse and so on. Some mental illnesses – like bipolar disorders – are known to impact a marriage hard.”

A lot of mental health challenges in marriage, Karina explains, start from stress and anxiety; which – if not addressed – transforms into depression or even to severe types of mental illness.

Karina says studies have shown links between mental health and genetics – whether it’s from family or upbringing is not very clear but “trends show that a person who has exhibited signs of poor mental health comes from a lineage where the same symptoms of mental illness had been observed.”

How come one doesn’t notice mental instability during courtship?

City psychologist Catherine Mbau explains that during courtship, people put up a façade and “the real person will show up after the deal has gone through.” Love turns sour in a second. Anger, loathing and hatred start seeping into the marriage as cracks open.

And frankly, Mbau says, the average person may not be able to identify the subtle signs that the person they are dating is mentally unstable.

“Sometimes the person with mental health issues might come across as amazing. Like for instance, someone who has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), may come across as very clean and very neat. That’s until you start living together and they have a compulsion to criticize everything you do because you are not doing it to their standards,” says Mbau, adding that, “slowly, a quality that felt admirable becomes the source of trouble in the marriage because you realize that you will never do anything to meet your spouse’s criteria of good enough.”

Back to Wanjala and Apondi.Their marriage teetered on the brink for about two years. Then in December 2018 – Apondi lost her job and Wanjala had found another one – the boot was on the other foot.

“We resolved to give the marriage a try. But we also agreed to start with counselling,” says Wanjala adding that while he endured being belittled by his wife, he always knew that he still loved her.

“I never stopped loving her. Taking off came about as a result of feeling useless, unwanted, and burdensome. I also needed to cool off my mind and not feel useless anymore,” he says.

The couple is working on their marriage every day and Apondi admits during her moments of rudeness to Wanjala “I was extremely mentally unfit. When I lost my job things went from bad to worse. I reached a point I was contemplating suicide. I was depressed. My emotions were everywhere. I was not in a good place.”

 Apondi decided to go to counselling this February and by herself. “I realized that I had experienced a lot of things in my past – some even when I was a child growing up – that I needed to confront and deal with. It is only in facing this painful past that I am able to understand who I am and why I feel the things that I feel and what I can do differently.” 

Pullout quote: Some mental illnesses – like bipolar disorders – are known to impact a marriage hard- Jennifer Karina, marriage counsellor.


Mental issues Marriage Domestic violence
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