What my wife has done to heal our marriage despite my mental illness

Restoring a marriage that has been injured by mental illness starts with a deliberate choice to begin again and again and again. As a couple works at rebuilding their strained marital relationship, it takes rugged willingness and patient endurance. Sometimes, the healthy partner must give 99 percent of the effort because the other may be unable due to an emotional or physical disability.

While this is certainly tough, it’s often the only way to heal a marriage struggling with the effects of mental illness, and as things improve, the effort will become more balanced.

Early on in Jim’s illness, I tried and tried everything I knew to help make him better, but nothing seemed to work. His moods still intimidated me. However, through counseling, reading, and talking with family members of mentally ill persons, I finally realized that the only person I could really improve was me. My primary responsibility in healing our marriage was not to focus on manipulating, coercing, or pushing Jim to improve—my job was to make appropriate changes in my attitudes and actions.

The Serenity Prayer really helped me grasp this reality: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

I went to professional counseling. After our initial marriage counseling, our therapist suggested that we get individual counseling. Fortunately, we both found excellent therapists.

Through counseling, I discovered how codependent I was. I had thought it was my responsibility to “fix” problems and make everyone around me happy. It brought a huge relief to discover that the only person I could really “fix” was me!

Counseling helped in many ways, but the three most important benefits were: a safe place to unload my frustrations, angers, and fears; an understanding of how my childhood issues impacted my current thoughts and emotions; and better coping skills.

When mental illness is involved, Jim and I believe it’s important to get professional counseling, both individually and as a couple.

I prayed, both for Jim and with him. God is central to both Jim and me. Our faith in him through Jesus Christ is really the core of what’s kept us going despite our conflicts and wounds. Sharing with each other something from a sermon, the Bible, a book, an article, or a faith-related conversation with someone has helped us grow spiritually together.

Our common trust in God’s management over all of life, our relationship, and our individual lives was, and still is, the key part of our relationship. We have blessings at meals; we pray for each other’s needs, tasks, decisions, and opportunities; and we pray together about our sons and their families, among countless other things.

I chose to reattach to Jim. We could have just gone ahead merely coexisting under the same roof, but we decided we really wanted to heal our marriage and make it the best it could be.

Earlier in the book, I mentioned that I had to emotionally detach from Jim. At the time, that was the right thing to do. But eventually, I had to actually make a deliberate decision to choose to reattach to him so we could try to heal and rebuild our relationship.

Emotionally detaching was a good way to help heal myself. But once I was healthy, I had to jump back in to work at healing our marriage. This time, however, I was reattaching not because of co-dependence but because of love.

I must admit that it’s still not easy to know how or when it’s safe to move ahead and rebuild. It’s an ever-changing process, and there are no shortcuts, no easy answers. But reattaching is an active choice that’s important to make.

I asked God for help to restore me from my hurt and mistrust. Jim’s words and behaviors over the years, both before and after his hospitalizations, had left me with layers of unresolved resentments, self-condemnation, and anxiety. I asked God for his help in restoring my feelings of affection for Jim, and they’ve slowly come back. At the same time, we gradually rebuilt our trust in one another.

I took up hobbies we both enjoy. Jim is a natural athlete and loves bicycling, so I’ve also taken up the sport. It’s a great low-pressure way to spend time together, and by riding together we can get some exercise and enjoy the fresh air.

We also love to travel and see new places. With Jim retired and me working only three days a week, we have time to travel. Part of our family lives across the country, and we enjoy traveling to visit them. We are blessed with two awesome sons, two super daughters-in-law, and four delightful grandchildren. Any time we can spend with them is pure joy, and visiting them combines our two favorite pastimes: being with family and travel.

I alerted our sons to watch for warning signs of mania or depression. Both boys are aware that there is a chance they may have inherited their father’s bipolar illness. Of course, as their parents, both Jim and I are concerned about that.

They understand that if they start to experience any warning signs of mania or depression, they know to get help right away and not let it escalate.

This relieves Jim and me of lots of worries and has given us greater peace in our relationship. Because we’ve done all we can to prepare our sons for the worst possibility, we’ve stopped blaming ourselves for somehow putting them at risk.

I worked on my sense of humor. Jim loves practical jokes. It’s taken me time to appreciate them, but I’m getting closer, and I’m learning to laugh more. I’ve begun to see the truth in the saying, “We don’t stop laughing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop laughing.”

I’ve also learned to have a sense of humor about life. Something both Jim and I find amusing are our role reversals. It’s really funny when we go to get into bed at night because he’s planning what to make for dinner the next day, and I’m thinking about what work meetings I have the next day—quite the opposite of earlier in our marriage.

I developed realistic expectations. I’ve learned to hold my expectations loosely. If it’s a good day, I take it in, enjoy it, and celebrate. And if it’s been a bad day, I accept it for what it is, let it go, and move on. It’s been forty-nine years since Jim and I were married and twenty-eight years since his bipolar diagnosis. We realize that our relationship will never be all that we dreamed of it becoming, but it’s still good, and it’s getting better!


Hi, I'm Jim. I've been through the emotional wringer. I've been a successful pastor and leader and a loving father, but I've also been suicidally depressed. I'll teach you the techniques I used to heal myself, and give you the tools to reclaim your life and move forward!

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