In 2010, after seven years of marriage, my ex-wife was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during a two-week hospital stay after a profound manic episode where she went three days without sleep.
In honesty, the diagnosis came as something of a relief. Certain situations made much more sense looking at our life through that lens.
We started the next stage of our journey together.
Right in the middle of our experience, a study conducted in 19 countries found that mental illness increased the likelihood of divorce by up to . After six years of trying, my family didn’t beat those odds.
The specific details of what went wrong are between her and me, but here are the four most important lessons I learned. It’s my hope people can use them to avoid my mistakes and succeed in meeting this challenging, but ultimately rewarding, situation.
Know the right questions
There’s no problem a loving couple committed to their marriage can’t solve... but asking the wrong questions means focusing on the wrong problems. You spend time, effort, and emotional energy but don’t make progress on the real issues. In our marriage, we both asked the wrong questions.
As a spouse, I asked questions like:
- What can I do for you?
- Can’t you see what you’re doing to our kids?
- How can I help you?
- When will you be able to _____?
Instead, I should’ve been asking questions like:
- How can we solve this together?
- What can we focus on for today?
- What do you need most right now?
- How are you feeling?
Meanwhile, my wife was asking questions like:
- When will work be like normal again?
- How can I “pass” for neurotypical?
- Are people judging me?
- Why can’t I just be “normal”?
But questions like these would’ve been less damaging:
- What do I need to maximize my health?
- Am I eating the best things?
- Am I getting the right amount of sleep?
- How are my most common symptoms today?
Have realistic expectations
This is hugely important in any endeavor, but it takes on extra significance when one partner is dealing with mental health issues. That’s because your partner carries a heavy load of guilt over not being neurotypical. If you both act as though the mental illness isn’t there, or shouldn’t be there, every time you come up short erodes your partner’s confidence and self-worth.
Look at it this way. Only a jerk would ask a spouse with a broken leg to go play soccer. Nobody tells someone with cancer they can just will their way to health. When your spouse has the flu, you let them rest until they feel better.
Mental illness is a physical ailment with symptoms impacting behavior, personality, and the brain. Those symptoms have real and unavoidable effects on what people are capable of doing. Because most mental illnesses are hereditary, they’re no more a person’s fault than a short person’s inability to reach a high shelf.
The most challenging part of this is that “realistic” is a moving target. For individuals living with mental illness, so many things go into how capable that person is on a given day. You have to be flexible without underestimating.
Far too late for my marriage, I came across a fantastic set of questions to help with this. You can read about them here.
See to self-care
This might be where I failed the hardest of all. My ex-wife’s symptoms peaked immediately after the birth of our son. I let her have the rest and space she needed, meaning I’d sleep maybe four hours a night, work my (thankfully telecommute) job,care for our oldest child, and keep the household running.
I’m a beast, if I do say so myself. But that’s too much even for Chuck Norris. It wasn’t long until the physical and emotional exhaustion began to turn into resentment, which I’m ashamed to say slipped over a couple of years into anger and even contempt. By the time we started seriously working on our marriage, I realize now I wasn’t 100 percent on board.
Remember the words of every flight attendant ever: In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, make sure your mask is on and working before helping others.
A Navy SEAL I know put it to me this way: “Your wife was wounded and you had to carry her for a while, but you worked until you were wounded, too. A wounded person can’t carry another wounded person.”
The folks over at the Family Caregiver Alliance give some great advice about self-care:
- Do what you need to manage your stress.
- Set realistic goals to make time and space for your needs.
- Stay solution-oriented.
- Learn how to communicate constructively with your spouse and others.
- Accept help when offered.
- Become comfortable asking for help.
- Talk to your doctor and mental health team.
- Make the time for 20 minutes of exercise daily.
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat right.
Know the difference between helping and enabling
Although realistic expectations are important, it’s equally vital to let your spouse do everything your spouse is capable of doing. It’s easy to unconsciously start thinking of a partner with a mental illness as another child in your family and to underestimate what they’re capable of doing. Besides being insulting, this leads to two kinds of enabling:
- deeply underestimating your spouse’s capabilities so that you never ask them to do what they’re capable of
- assuming all resistance from your spouse is healthy and realistic, instead of helping them push through perceived boundaries to become their healthiest selves
Both are bad for your marriage and for the person you love. And they’re bad for you, because they can lead to the resentment I talked about earlier.
Although the term “enabling” is most often used in terms of addiction, it’s equally applicable to people with mental illness. It’s hard to tell the difference between helping and enabling, but here are a few of the most common warning signs:
- protecting your spouse from the logical consequences of intentional decisions
- making excuses for unhealthy behavior
- denying or hiding the impact of their choices
- making decisions for, instead of with, your spouse
- taking on responsibilities your spouse is easily capable of
To sum it all up
It’s not all gloom and doom, even in my failed marriage. We’re both in healthier, stronger places, because divorce teaches you things, too. If you keep these things in mind and learn how to apply them to your relationship and mental health condition, you have a good chance. I can’t guarantee success, but I can guarantee a better shot at it than if you don’t apply these lessons.
Jason Brick is a freelance writer and journalist who came to that career after over a decade in the health and wellness industry. When not writing, he cooks, practices martial arts, and spoils his wife and two fine sons. He lives in Oregon.