The stories we bring to our marriages
In every marriage, both the husband and wife bring their own problems into their new relationship: life’s past wounds, unmet expectations, misplaced priorities, and countless other issues. Because of this marital reality, life coach Rob Liano suggests, “Everyone has baggage. Maybe we should help each other carry it.” We both brought lots of baggage into our marriage—here are our stories.
Jim, what’s your story?
Many people diagnosed with a mental illness come from happy, well-adjusted homes—I did not. I grew up in a home where my parents fought constantly. My father was an economics professor at Penn State University. My mother, a schoolteacher, suffered from severe and chronic mental illness.
My mom left our family at least eighteen times before I was twenty-one. Much of the time I never knew where she’d gone, or if she’d ever come back, and I often worried that she would commit suicide. She usually blamed my father and me for her leaving. Even when she didn’t, I often blamed myself. The guilt, resentment, and fear caused constant inner torment.
Starting at about age four, my mother and maternal grandmother sexually molested me. In seventh grade, I developed bulimia, an eating disorder, to control the weight that I’d gained following the worst times of sexual exploitation.
In college, I participated in three sports: football, wrestling, and boxing. Through the influence of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, I became a follower of Jesus Christ while I was at the University of Pittsburgh. While in college, I worked with teenage gangs in New York City’s Harlem and Lower East Side, coached semi-pro football, and did social work.
I then transferred to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where I met Leah on a blind date in the fall of 1964. Like most courting couples, we discussed all sorts of topics, including hobbies, home backgrounds, marriage expectations, parenting roles, faith, and others. We were convinced we knew each other inside and out. I certainly believed Leah was the perfect soul mate for me, and I saw only a bright future for us.
After graduating, I enrolled at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. During my time there, I worked with teenagers and students at Harvard, MIT, and other universities. I also served for half a year in the Danvers State Mental Hospital as the student chaplain to the Men’s Violent Ward.
After graduating from seminary, I went on to pastor in five churches around the country, working in Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and California. My last full-time pastoral position was at a church in Newport Beach, California, with a congregation of over 3,000 members.
In 1988, having been in Newport Beach for two years, everything seemed to be going great in my ministry.
Eventually I faced a couple of seemingly minor problems at work, which, in normal circumstances, would not have become a major issue. But, when combined with all the home distress I’d suffered during my childhood years, as well as the recent memories of unfair, brutal treatment by a few members in the three prior churches I’d served at, these work struggles threw me into a mental breakdown.
Although I still managed to carry out my professional duties in the church, I grew severely depressed and suicidal. I started seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist. But even in the midst of my productive, vibrant church ministry, and with the help of counseling and medications, my condition worsened.
I voluntarily entered the psychiatric unit of a local hospital for what I thought would be a weekend of rest and recovery. Five months later, I walked out with a diagnosis of “severe depression.”
After a month at home, and still feeling mentally unstable, I decided to try a different mental hospital about an hour from home. Hospitalized there for about three weeks, I was diagnosed with “manic-depressive illness” (now known as bipolar disorder). Later on, that conclusion was updated to “ultra-rapid cycling bipolar disorder,” which meant that sometimes I could have radical mood swings up to a dozen times a day.
Since my breakdown, I’ve been on fifty different psychiatric medications, trying most of them several different times to see if they might finally work the second or third time around. I could have died on six occasions due to pharmacy or physician errors. For my own safety from medications and their side effects, and as a result of dangerous medicine mistakes, I began to read voraciously about psychiatric medications.
In addition to navigating through the mental health system and suffering nearly constant medication problems, I had frequent conflicts with my church denomination’s insurance company over its psychiatric coverage.
Needless to say, these ongoing struggles were extremely stressful for Leah and me, and our marriage suffered. We tried to keep these worries from our two young sons, but we couldn’t hide our problems from them and they suffered too.
Leah, what’s your story?
I grew up in the 1950s in what outwardly appeared to be a very close, harmonious family: a mom and dad who loved each other, and an obedient son and daughter. To others, our household looked like the ideal family.
My parents grew up in an environment where their feelings were not shared, or even acknowledged, and they continued that tradition in our family.
In my home life, revealing any kind of feeling—happiness, anger, fear, frustration, or anything—was almost non-existent.
I knew my parents loved me. They provided what I needed, physically. Both Mom and Dad were concerned and compassionate when I was sick. They also met some emotional needs. We laughed together over TV shows and conversations. Bed time meant reading stories and saying prayers. I felt safe and secure in my younger years.
When my younger brother or I acted badly, we were spanked appropriately. But all was forgiven and harmony was restored.
Things seemed to change when I grew older. Looking back, I can see that as I entered adolescence, my father didn’t know how to handle my growing up. To cope, he emotionally detached himself from me.
Sometimes Dad wouldn’t talk to me, and he came across as cold and distant. I would agonize that I had done something wrong, and when I would apologize all seemed well again.
But to me, this new distance between us signaled that I’d somehow messed things up. I began to feel I had to earn his love and approval in the only way I knew how: by good behavior and good grades.
Since I felt I had to perform to gain my parents’ love and approval, I often felt I was less than adequate. Peer pressure in school added to these insecurities. Any success I had was minimized or barely acknowledged. After sharing an accomplishment, I nearly always walked away feeling that what I had done wasn’t good enough.
Because my father didn’t know how to process his anger and disappointment, he often gave me the silent treatment, which communicated to me that I wasn’t good enough, or that there was something wrong with me.
Because my parents couldn’t recognize or acknowledge their own inner feelings, I also learned to suppress mine. It took me years to understand and identify what my feelings really were, and even longer to learn how to deal with them.
Later, during college, I met Jim on a blind date. I was intrigued that he was going to study for the ministry. Even though I loved God and thought I had a strong faith, I could tell he had something I didn’t have, and I wanted it.
Finally, after reading about the cross of Christ, and that Jesus had died for me personally, I was able to understand God’s personal love and acceptance of me, and I became a follower of him.
Jim and I were excited about serving Christ together. I graduated from college and we were married on June 24, 1967 of that same year.
Full of early marriage bliss, we were convinced that we knew each other inside and out. Everything seemed great until we’d been married a couple of months. One afternoon Jim got angry at our landlady’s behavior and put his fist through our apartment door. I thought, “Whoops, I guess there’s more to know about Jim than I thought.” I’d just found out the meaning of the phrase, “Love is blind; marriage is the eye-opener!”
I began to observe Jim’s mood swings, withdrawals, silent treatments, and angry episodes, and I started noticing patterns.
He is a tremendously driven person with great vision and talent. He would charge into a church and have all kinds of great ideas about where to start. He would just push, push, push until he’d accomplished what he’d set out to do.
Often, after achieving his goals, he’d experience an emotional crash. At first, I thought was just a natural letdown after the adrenaline rush of a major achievement, but in reality it was a situation where he needed some time off. I don’t think he knew how to give himself permission to take a break, or how to explain to me his need for some solitary time to unwind.
In these circumstances, I seemed to be the only safe person he could vent to, or pick a fight with. So following a hard energy push and the subsequent letdown, he would often start a fight with me because I’d somehow done something “wrong.”
He would use that “issue” to justify taking off for a few days of what he called “R&R,” which I called “pouting.” He’d leave early in the morning and come home late at night. He would give me the silent treatment, sometimes for days. But after a while he’d feel better, be ready to kiss and make up, and want to move ahead.
Whenever Jim gave me the silent treatment, it dredged up old, painful memories of rejection and insecurity from my family. His actions and attitude left me holding a basket of unresolved self-blame and resentment. Over the years, this behavior became a very corrosive pattern in our relationship and set us up for some serious trouble.
When we came out to California to begin our work in a new church, we knew our marriage was in rough shape. We started marriage therapy, and were soon told we needed individual counseling, which we both started. During this period, Jim suffered his major meltdown.