I married my husband five years ago, and we have a son who is two years old. Our marriage has hit a really rough patch, and I am writing you because I don’t know what to do.
My husband was diagnosed with a serious mental disorder this past year, and right now he is in counseling. Things seem to be getting better, but I am afraid that he will stop seeing his therapist at some point and I will be trapped. When things are good, they are really good. But when things are bad, he is manipulative and punishing.
I am afraid to talk with my closest friends and family members about all of this because I don’t want to damage my husband’s reputation. They know about his diagnosis and that he is in counseling, but they don’t know how much I’m struggling.
More than anything, I want us to have a healthy, thriving family. I was raised to treasure and value marriage. I never thought that divorce or separation would be an option for me. But there are times when I truly fear for my son’s well-being and for my own as well. I keep hoping for the sweet, loving man I married, but he seems so far from us.
What should I do? How do I know when it’s time to get out?
Ready or Not
Dear Ready or Not,
Loving someone through severe mental illness is one of the hardest things we do as human beings. It is difficult because there is no handbook, no set of rules or guidelines or steps to follow to make sure you get it right. It is difficult because our pity and our sympathy often blind us to the truth of a situation. It is difficult because the person with the mental illness is the one who has to do the inside work while those of us who love them can only support the work and take care of ourselves.
Ready or Not, it is not your fault that your husband has this mental disorder (and it’s not his fault either). It is not your fault that he does and says things that make you feel afraid and manipulated and punished. I know that you want to protect your husband from what other people think of him, but the truth is that is not your job. In this moment, your job is to take care of yourself and give your son a safe place.
The first thing you need to do is find the people who know you and see you and tell them the truth. You are further punishing yourself by withholding this important information from people you trust. You are robbing your tribe of the opportunity to surround you and support you and wade with you through this.
When I was going through my divorce, I made a list of people who had shown up for me, who were real and honest and true. I looked them in the face and showed them my fear and brokenness and asked them to walk with me. It was the best thing I could have done for myself in that moment. Find your cocoon of safe people and let them wrap you up in their love and care.
You mention that your husband is in counseling, and you should be, too. Loving someone who suffers from mental illness can make you feel unsure and confused on the inside. Their pain can cause you to question reality and make it troublesome for you to know which way is up. You need an objective advocate who can help you see your marriage and your life through a clearer lens, so I encourage you to have your own therapist. This relationship will empower you and give you a safe place to fall when things feel unbearable.
You ask me how you will know when it’s time to get out, and I wish I had an answer. I knew it was time for me to get out when I saw the damage that my then-husband’s emotional affliction was causing in the lives of our children. It took years, but I finally had the courage to face the truth of my life: with this man, I could never build the thriving family of which I had dreamed. He was unwilling to do the work, and I was unwilling to stay in a threatening, unhealthy marriage.
Your son, though just two years old, is being molded and shaped by the relationships around him. By watching his mama and daddy, he is learning how to love others and live in this world. Parents cannot be perfect, but there is a big difference between making mistakes and allowing our children to witness and experience abuse.
I decided I would have to break my own heart so I could build a loving, thriving family with just my children and me. I loved their father, but I knew that I could not maintain a marriage relationship with him. It was a gut-wrenchingly painful loss. And I doubted myself a lot along the way. But you know what? I did it. Years later, I still say it is the bravest, most beautiful thing I have ever done.
That breaking of my own heart, that undoing.. it was the place where my healing began.
Ready or Not, I know it feels like you are staring down a burdensome path. And you are. But the love and care shining through your letter tell me that you have a heart strong enough to face the truth of your life and wrestle it to the ground. And you don’t have to do it alone.
You can’t know where all of this will take you, but if you allow your tribe to walk with you; if you lean into the sorrow and fear, allowing it it to soften and strengthen you; if you embrace this pain and questioning, trusting that all of it swirling together is working for your good and your healing, I know you will find your way.
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