How bipolar disorder has affected my marriage
Sometimes marriages fail suddenly due to an unexpected physical or mental illness, an act of unfaithfulness, or some other dramatic event. But most marriages die a slow death.
It’s usually the little things in a marriage that pile up, accumulating until their pain becomes unbearable. These seemingly minor “issues” can be like a small pebble in your shoe: For the first half mile of walking, the discomfort is hardly noticeable. But after a mile or two, that tiny pebble becomes an excruciating stone that makes every step painful.
Many marriage coaches observe that couples who are still together don’t necessarily have fewer adversities. They remain married because they’ve developed ways to cope with or overcome snags before the problems get out of control.
For more than thirty years, we lived with some unhealthy patterns in our relationship. While it’s certainly true that Jim’s bipolar disorder added terrible pressures and uncertainties to our marriage, we have learned that a mental illness is seldom the sole culprit in an ailing marriage. There are almost always other factors that have been at work in unraveling a relationship—the mental disorder just adds to the marital stresses.
Jim, how has your bipolar disorder affected your marriage?
My mental illness has produced several negative results that have plagued our marriage: my self-esteem was slashed, my moods caused my family and me to live in a constant state of unsteadiness, and my depressive isolations alienated me from family and friends.
My self-esteem was damaged, and it tainted my relationships. Due to an unhealthy, unstable family background, I grew up with a negative self-image. Fortunately, athletic successes enabled me to use sports accomplishments as a crutch to help me feel better about myself. But when I had my mental crash in 1988 and became suicidal, I could no longer keep up my mostly positive front.
For the twenty years prior to my breakdown, I’d counseled scores of people who were depressed, often including three or four suicidal men every month. Now I became the counselee, the one who had to be hospitalized and attend talk therapy. This shift seriously injured my self-esteem, and in turn hurt my relationship with Leah.
As a result of my hospitalization and mental illness diagnosis, I felt judged and abandoned. I, who had been a well-regarded professional, became a social leper, an outcast. I, the strong leader, was looked upon by many as a fragile, unreliable “sicko.” Some friends never answered my calls.
Fellow pastors seldom returned my phone calls and rarely initiated any conversations with me. I, who’d been a respected pastor, was soon blamed and shamed for numerous spiritual shortcomings that “caused” my bipolar condition. Accusations and “sermons” from lay leaders and clergy stung me:
Jim, your problem is simply that you never could say “no.” You just bit off more than you could chew. . . . Maybe you’re demon possessed. Why don’t you come to our exorcism meeting and we’ll cast them out . . . Your real issue is some secret personal sin that’s in your life, and you need to repent of it. . . . You don’t need shrinks and pills, just have more faith. Trust God. Read your Bible more. . . . Face it, you’ll never return to the ministry. You’ll never hold a job again because of your bipolar disorder.
These misunderstandings, judgments, and rejections hurt me deeply and eroded my sense of self-worth. I mused:
What can I do with my life if I can’t work as a pastor anymore? Are there any other kinds of work I could do in spite of my current unpredictability? Since I’m on disability, and so many others have lost respect for me, Leah’s probably lost her admiration for me as well. Surely she doesn’t love me anymore. Maybe she’s planning to leave me.
Those thoughts tapped right into some of my childhood abandonment issues and constantly gnawed away at my relationship with Leah.
My mood changes forced Leah and our sons to live continually off-balance as I see-sawed between serious depression and agitated manias. Within a week, a day, or even an hour, I could go from high-energy productivity and optimism to angry outbursts, isolation from everyone, or even suicidal depression.
I became far more sensitive to hurts from other people, including Leah. When others criticized or rejected me, or if I worked too late at night, it would often set off an agitated mania or a severe depression. Living with me was like tip-toeing through a minefield. Old issues that she and I had previously dealt with often re-surfaced and exploded.
Although I battled mostly with depression, my manias were equally disruptive. In my manic states, I’ve gone for months on less than two or three hours of sleep a night. But even in shorter durations of mania, I became ultra-talkative, easily angered, and excessively argumentative. Leah says my manias were harder on her than my depressions.
These constant ups and downs left my family and I riddled with anxiety, edginess, resentment, and fear. Because of this, we were never able to establish a safe rhythm in life and never knew what to expect. There was no stability.
My depressive isolations cut me off from family and friends. Oftentimes I would leave the house because I didn’t want my family to see me in one of my upsetting moods. I was always worried that I might say or do something that I might later regret. Those absences and erratic moods caused a lot of collateral damage to Leah and our sons, and I missed out on a lot of life’s important moments.
Leah, how has Jim’s bipolar disorder affected your marriage?
All marriages have difficulties, even under the best of circumstances, but it’s especially tough when a mental illness is involved. Jim’s bipolar illness has negatively disrupted our marriage in a number of ways: I’ve suffered many painful emotions related to his illness, I’ve had to adjust to an unpredictable social life, and I’ve had to live with the reality of Jim’s possible suicide.
Because of Jim’s temperament and behavior changes, I’ve suffered my own painful emotions. Emotionally, I didn’t have much left for Jim. I had a hard time reconciling the old Jim with the new Jim. Living with him as he battled his moods was, for me, terrifying, frustrating, and anger-inducing. I eventually realized that his treatment of me was verbally and emotionally abusive.
My feelings of love for and trust in him were gone. I often worried, “What is our future together going to look like?” Many times, we grieved the loss of what we’d had in our relationship when things were better. During this time, Jim and I both went through scary feelings of intense anxiety, mistrust of each other, and dreads of abandonment.
Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, was once asked, “Having been married as long as you and your husband have, you’ve must have had your share of differences over the years. Have you ever considered divorce?” Ruth responded, “Divorce, no. Murder, yes!” I can certainly relate.
I often grew very frustrated with Jim’s inability to do simple tasks. Because of his medications, he had problems with concentrating and remembering. Filling out simple forms, especially insurance forms or applications, was difficult for him. He had always had a tendency to lose things, but it became much worse after being on psychiatric medications.
It angered me that Jim was not troubled by the reality that he had such a short fuse—that he was so easily angered, overwhelmed, frustrated, disturbed. What many people don’t realize is that manic times are as devastating as depressive ones, if not worse. His mood swings were extremely difficult on me and our boys. I had to be continually on guard not to say or do something that might set him off.
With the progress we’ve made, these swings happen much less often. Yet even now, when I come home from work and walk into the house, I’m still not quite sure what I’ll find. I tense up until I figure out where Jim is emotionally. I can be met by the gray cloud of his depression, or the agitated tension and boundless energy of his mania. Sometimes I come home and he is “normal”—in that nice, comfortable, “middle” mood. And that makes it a good day.
I’ve had to adjust to a fragile, unpredictable social life. Although Jim’s mood shifts became more predictable due to medication and counseling, I often had to remind myself that socializing might never be like it used to be. This was and is our “new normal:” a social life with limited predictability.
It’s very difficult to plan get-togethers with others because I don’t know what kind of mood Jim’s going to be in. I’m never quite sure whether or not he’s going to be able to attend a social event with friends or a church function. When he is able to go, we make the best of it, but sometimes we have to cancel or I go by myself.
I’ve had to live with the fear of Jim’s possible suicide.The suicide statistics for people living with bipolar disorder are sobering: nearly half of bipolars try to kill themselves, and one in five completes the suicide.
This precarious state put a lot of stress on me. Often, during Jim’s most fragile stretches, I felt edgy, frustrated, fearful, and angry. But despite feeling totally helpless, I felt like I had to at least do something.
I knew that many lives have been saved by putting a suicidal person on a psychiatric hold in a mental facility for 72 hours. So at first, I considered calling 911 to have the police forcibly take Jim to a mental facility.
But I resisted this choice because of Jim’s previous experience in mental hospitals. As a patient, he’d been frequently intimidated by the insurance company to leave the institution prematurely, against his medical team’s advice. The insurance people repeatedly warned that they could have him forcibly discharged against his doctors’ orders and that they could drop their coverage, leaving his family responsible for all the bills.
These injustices left Jim utterly determined to never again be hospitalized and forced to endure similar threats. He made it clear that rather than having to once again suffer such turmoil, he would end his life—in or out of a hospital.
Instead of subjecting Jim to the extra pressure of a mental hospital, I chose to pray for Jim’s safety, surrender him to God’s care, and confide with a trusted friend. I had to accept the fact that I couldn’t “fix” Jim—only God could do that. I had to turn Jim over to God, to protect him from harming himself.