Deciding to divorce when your spouse has a mental illness is a difficult, complex decision. It often involves first helping to get your spouse properly diagnosed and treated, and then figuring out the logistics of separating while also coming to terms with emotions of leaving someone who is sick.
One of my readers, “Jeff” is married with two young sons. His wife has bi-polar disorder. For Jeff, the marriage is over but he feels unable to leave until his wife is somewhat self-sufficient. In the meantime he tries to stay actively involved in her care although that has its challenges. Here’s Jeff:
It’s a unique situation. Because of her mental illness I’m the sole provider financially, but I’m also the primary emotional provider for our sons. I’m in a situation where I’m trying to get her to get a job and move out.
It’s tricky. The typical situation is it’s a male with bipolar who’s going through all of these things. All of the examples that I find to protect myself were geared towards women. I guess it’s predominantly a woman in the situation, to the point that one of my counselors kept on remarking that I had the woman’s role in all of this.
I have to be very careful about what I say to my wife about her illness. Bipolars go through cycles. She had a manic episode about a week ago. I can’t directly tell her she is in a manic episode, because I’m viewed often as the enemy or the source of her problems. I have to get outside help to convince her what’s obvious to me.
I’ve volunteered for travel for work to get some distance. She went off again today and I’ve got long emails in my box from the whole thing.
At first, she was diagnosed with ADHD which is much more common than bipolar. When you get diagnosed with ADHD, they give you speed for it and things got worse. I had to approach her ADHD doctor and tell her what was really going on. They put on a very good outside face and they’re very horrible to people inside their family that are burdening them.
So, when I told her doctor what was going on, that led to a bipolar diagnosis and a round of treatment that eventually didn’t work. Then, I had to intervene again with her treatment and get her on something else.
One of the contentions I have with the treatment is that they never stopped treating for ADHD. I consider it to be a misdiagnosis, because when you give a bipolar speed, they try to take on more than they should. It empowers their mania a little bit more.
I think she is doing a little bit better now, but it’s unfortunately been too many years of emotional abuse to get in there.
When I talk to her physician, she’s not in the room and there isn’t a privacy issue because I approach them and say, “I’m in the middle of this. This is a one-way street. I’m telling you everything and you benefit from it in any way you want. I don’t want any feedback. I don’t want to know anything about her. I just want to give you more information on what’s going on and if you think it’s relevant and it affects the treatment, I’m hoping it will. If it doesn’t, I don’t know what to do.”
It was to a point of desperation, actually.
Unfortunately, when you’re the spouse it’s a lot different than more distance family. All of my family says, “I can’t believe she’d ever scream those things to you. I can’t believe she’d ever do that.” It’s a two-faced situation.
I made a decision to never be vulnerable to her, never be intimate, because she’s taken a lot of things that she’s known about me and the closeness and it’s hurt me in her bipolar episodes. That was the one thing I could do was not let her be any closer.
Now that she’s better again or trying to be or whatever you want to call it, I can’t release and trust her again, because if she does hurt me again, I won’t have anything to pick myself up with.
I’ve drawn a boundary for myself. No matter what she does, I have that promise to myself. I’ve had to really try hard to stick myself to that promise and she’s actually helped me keep it by being worse. Now, she’s rebounding and going through the good phase of the cycle, now, she’s medicated, it’s going to be a lot for me to break that promise to myself and remain with her.
I don’t feel guilty about wanting to divorce and I’m not even angry with her.
I know she has a disorder and she’s not choosing to behave this way, but I have to keep her at arm’s length. If I was angry with her, it would just create more opportunities for her mania and episodes.
It’s kind of pathetic, but I need to play along. I’m not playing her like, “Oh, we’ll be together someday,” I’m playing her like, “Let’s go baby steps. I’m not going to do anything with you until you get a job.”
I draw lines. I have to say “no.” She asks for things. She asks for intimacy and closeness and I say, “Okay, you need to give me what I need first. I need you to get a job. I need you to do this. I need you to do that.” I’m having to make the love very conditional, very transactional, which is a horrible way to conduct a marriage, but when you have somebody that never follows the agreements you make, you have to make it a cash-only transaction kind of reciprocation in the marriage.
The Divorce Coach Says
I think there’s enormous social pressure and guilt involved in deciding to end your marriage to someone who’s physically or mentally ill.
Part of that comes from the traditional wedding vows, “in sickness and in health” and part comes from a fear of others judging you which is often rooted in them not understanding what it’s really like to live with the illness.
It’s a complex decision and I think it helps to separate the decision to end your marriage from how to end your marriage. Deciding on the how, will be easier once you’ve reached the point of truly believing that divorce is the best option for you.
In getting to your decision, it’s always helpful to learn as much as you can about your spouse’s condition – typical symptoms, treatment, on-going concerns and long-term prognosis. This will help you formulate a picture of what the future holds and understand the possibilities for change.
From a practical standpoint, I encourage clients to think in terms of loving detachment. That means:
- recognizing that this is a process and will take time
- considering how to help your spouse be self-sufficient
- building a parenting plan that keeps your spouse as actively involved with your children as is safe and feasible
- not holding your spouse’s condition against them to penalize or harm them
And it means doing this without anger or resentment, as Jeff is doing.
Are you dealing with mental illness? What’s the biggest challenge for you? What advice have you found particularly helpful?
If you’re trying to decide if it’s time to end your marriage, check out my free course, Is Divorce The Answer? Working through this may bring you the clarity you’re looking for. It’s absolutely free – no obligation.
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