What I have done to heal my marriage despite my mental illness
I realized pretty quickly that I’d have to take personal responsibility for healing our marriage. Although I have messed up plenty of times, I’ve worked really hard to heal and rebuild our relationship.
I initiated daily communication about our feelings. We share our highs and lows, and how we feel about them. This helps us communicate on an emotional rather than factual level. I wanted to avoid simply swapping a rambling list of activities we’d done that day, saying, “I did this and I did that.” Most of the time we do this while at the dinner table or after dinner while sitting on the family room sofa. We try to communicate this way nearly every day.
I made time for weekly dates. When you have a young family, it’s tough to afford the babysitting and other date expenses. But we discovered that we couldn’t afford not to have some kind of date each week. It can be any kind of easy, fun activity where we could be alone together without our sons or anyone else. Sometimes our date is as simple as zoning out at a movie or taking our dog for a walk on the beach.
Of course, we’ve occasionally had to skip our date times due to life’s interruptions. Yet, for most of our married life, we’ve tried to have weekly dates. Just getting out of the house and away from phone calls, household tasks, other people—even our sons—always brings a welcome change of pace.
I injected surprises and humor into our relationship. I used, and still use, laughter to help relieve Leah’s and my stresses. Humor adds levity to serious situations. A couple of years ago, I surprised her with a date, telling her, “Dress appropriately because we’re going to a summer dinner theater.”
She was ecstatic and got all dressed up. She looked stunning. I kept our true destination a secret until the very last minute when she finally guessed what I was up to.
The dinner theatre was actually a Los Angeles Angels evening baseball game. As we drove down the freeway exit to get off at the stadium, she growled, “Jim are we going to a baseball game and not a dinner theatre?” I said, “Sure. It’s a unique kind of dinner theatre. The ball game will be a ‘live performance,’ and our dinner will be gorging on peanuts, hot dogs, and soda.”
I won’t tell you what she said, but her one word, unchristian exclamation said it all! Nevertheless, we actually had a great time and a lot of laughs over the surprise “dinner theatre.”
I took Leah on mini honeymoons. Besides weekly dates, I usually initiate taking two or three “mini-moons” a year, when we escape for one or two nights. A mini-vacation furnishes us with a chance to get away and talk without interruptions. These brief getaways help to distance ourselves from the pressures of our daily schedules. My planning takes the burden off of Leah. All she needs to do is pack and enjoy our time away. We check into a hotel and just read a novel, watch TV, catch a couple of movies, take walks, and enjoy meals out together.
I found tools to manage my stress. I realized that when I was frazzled about something, its effects spilled over and also upset Leah. To prevent this, I developed a set of stress-reducing tools. For example, when worried about something, I intentionally distract my negative, obsessive thoughts with activities like movies, sports events, TV, videos, walking our dog, and reading.
I also handle my stresses by writing about them. Putting them on paper doesn’t eliminate them, but it helps me slow down and process my racing thoughts, shielding me from their constant mental attacks.
Another anti-stress tool I use is calling friends to sound off when I was anxious, angry, or overwhelmed. All these tools help reduce my nervous tension, and, in turn, reduce Leah’s.
I monitored my workload. I wasn’t always sure whether it was my Type-A, hard-working personality that made me this way or if it was a burst of manic energy, but I discovered that when I dug in to various tasks, I had a hard time knowing when to stop. To prevent this, I have to keep an eye on my schedule to make sure I’m not overcommitted and won’t overwork on a project. I pace myself with more breaks, and have learned to flex my self-set deadlines.
If I was pushing too hard or too long, or was feeling overwhelmed by a home task or ministry project, I tended to be irritable, curt, or impatient with Leah and the boys. I noticed that these reactions caused Leah to pull away from me until I cooled down. To protect our marriage, I knew I had to be careful to keep a healthy work-life balance.
I was careful to get enough sleep. There were times when I got wrapped up doing a hobby or work assignment and worked late into the night. In my enthusiasms, my mind often refused to shut down when I went to bed.
I learned that for a bipolar person, going with little or no sleep is a clear warning sign that a manic episode is right around the corner. So, before it was too late at night and my mind was off to the races, I made it a habit to shut off my computer—or turn off the TV—to slow my racing thoughts and put me to sleep.
I would make every effort to somehow knock myself out before I stayed up too late or all night. Sometimes I had to experiment, because what worked one time wasn’t always effective another time.
Besides getting over-involved in some project or hobby, I occasionally got extremely troubled over some situation and obsessed over it until the wee hours of the morning.
Time and again, lack of sleep set me off into a manic phase which left me easily agitated or depressed and withdrawn. My mania-induced hair-trigger anger sometimes flared up over something Leah said or did. Or my silent moods erected a barrier between us. My responses set off in her unwarranted self-blame, resentment at me, or outright fear. Getting enough sleep helped me prevent this.
I helped with household chores. Due to Leah’s long work hours, I try to relieve her from the pressure of doing many home chores by becoming “Mr. Mom” around the house. Since I don’t have a mechanical or electronic bone in my body, I am pretty helpless as a handyman. But I am able to do simple things like shopping, cooking meals, doing the dishes, taking the garbage out, vacuuming, and washing the car.
I encouraged and affirmed Leah. I encourage her in little ways by writing her poems, leaving notes for her on her car seat, or by complimenting the way she looks. I try to recognize her accomplishments by praising a talk or sermon she’s given, the great job she’s done counseling someone, or for her discipline in doing walking exercises with her friends.
I learned as much as I could about rebuilding our marriage. Because I grew up in such a horrific home background and had very inadequate role models, I’ve needed to learn these skills on my own.
Throughout our married life, and even before my bipolar hospitalization, I committed to educating myself about being a good husband and dad. I did this in several ways: I used “academic” methods like reading books and articles, or by listening to CDs. I observed and copied other men whom I thought were doing it right as husbands or fathers. And I received individual and marriage counseling that provided helpful insights, guidance, and sensitive support. Through these efforts, I’ve managed to learn much of what my parents weren’t able to teach me about healthy relationships.