Healthy Self-Sacrifice in a Marriage Marked by Mental Illness

If a woman leaves her husband because he gets cancer, pretty much everyone will decide that she’s a cold, heartless rhymes-with-witch. If a woman leaves her husband because he gets diagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, a lot of people will decide that she’s smart, she’s dodged a bullet, she’s spared herself a lifetime of pain.

I hate the disparity between these two reactions. On one level, I get it. Cancer doesn’t mess with your personality the way severe mental illness does. On the other hand, the second woman is just as heartless and just as cold as the first.

In the words of Edward Sri, a Catholic writer who penned MEN, WOMEN AND THE MYSTERY OF LOVE, both women are committed to their husbands “only insofar as—and as long as—[they] receive pleasure or advantage from the relationship[s].”

They’re both selfish, and they both throw aside their husbands when they decide these men can no longer give them what they want.

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I want to be clear. I’m not advocating for anyone to become a martyr to a spouse’s illness. If your husband refuses to acknowledge his disease, refuses to get treatment for it, and refuses to take your feelings about the situation into account, he’s being the selfish one. He’s focused primarily on his own preferences and desires, and he’s not taking what’s best for you into account.

Due to the irrationality that can take hold during a psychiatric crisis, this kind of tunnel vision probably isn’t unusual. But if this thinking persists once the crisis has passed, or if he never gets the help he needs to allow the crisis to pass, it’s clearly a problem, and not one that you, his spouse, can solve.

In the case of an emergency, airline attendants always instruct parents to put their own oxygen masks on before assisting their children. You have to take care of yourself before you can help anybody else.

What I am saying is that a mere diagnosis is no reason to abandon ship. The fact that an illness exists doesn’t mean your life will be ruined. Yes, you will most likely make some sacrifices because of it, but so people whose spouses contract cancer, lose their jobs, or are relocated to a new city.

Marriage requires a certain level of self-sacrifice, and that’s true whether your spouse is mentally ill or not.

Sri writes:

In self-giving love, men and women recognize in a profound way that their life is not their own. They have surrendered their will to their beloved. Their own plans, dreams and preferences are not completely abandoned, but they are now put in a new perspective. They are subordinated to the good of the spouse and any children that may flow from their marriage….

The person with a mature love is not focused primarily on what feelings and desired may be stirring inside him. Rather, he is focused on his responsibility to care for his beloved’s good. He actively seeks what is good for her, not just his own pleasure, enjoyment and selfish pursuits.

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So what does healthy self-sacrifice look like when you’re married to someone who struggles with mental illness?

Most important, it cannot come from a place of obligation; it has to come from a place of love. As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states, “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender… From it stem all forms of spiritual disease.” You must recognize that the illness is not your partner’s fault, that he didn’t become ill to hurt you, and that he would change his circumstances if he could.

When you can see things from this perspective, it becomes much easier to do extra chores, to move to a smaller house, to stop being a stay-at-home mom and instead become the family’s breadwinner. You’re not giving up your whole life to manage your partner’s illness—you still have your friends, your dreams, your ambitions, and you let him do what he can when he can (you don’t coddle or baby him)—but you’re not focused on what you can get out of the relationship. Rather, you’re focused on what you can give.

When you’re coming from a place of loving service, the sacrifices you make don’t feel like sacrifices—you want to make life easier for your spouse, and you know he would do the same for you if he could.

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2 Responses to Healthy Self-Sacrifice in a Marriage Marked by Mental Illness

  1. John Mc says:

    Wow. This is something I’ve struggled with for a while. First let me say that I am very thankful for your blog! I actually consider it an answered prayer.

    My wife has been diagnosed with a host of disorders, and honestly, there are times when I am skeptical of their validity. Lots of mistakes and misdeeds have been blamed on her illnesses, which include bipolar, anxiety disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder, all coupled with addiction issues. My wife quit her job, then drained our bank account. I struggle with obligation versus love, and I also struggle with trying to get her to contribute around the house. Our house stays in disarray, even though she is home all the time. I try to get her to take care of the house, but she relies on me to ask/tell her what to do, all the while doing only what seems to be the minimum. I think that she needs to be more responsible around the house. Is asking to do more than the occasional load of laundry and the dishes too much? I can’t imagine that it would be.

    • Thank you for your kind words, John. I’m sorry that your wife is struggling so much, but I’m glad the blog has been helpful to you!

      When my husband was in the midst of his psychiatric crisis, it was very clear to me that enabling him to stay sick was not in his best interest. I don’t think it’s in your wife’s best interest, either. That said, how you address her contributions around the house/to your marriage will be important. Perhaps the two of you can, together, come up with a plan for how she can contribute more in these areas. Instead of you telling her what to do, you can set joint goals that she’d then be responsible for achieving. This would give her more of a sense of ownership, as well as a sense of accomplishment when the tasks are complete.

      You might also need to adjust your expectations of her. It might be too much to expect that she will have the ability to take initiative around the housework right now, even if she’s not working. You mentioned that her issues include both mental illness and addiction. Is she in treatment? If so, that might be where her energy needs to be for the moment.

      Have you ever taken the NAMI Family-to-Family class or attended an Al-Anon meeting? Both would probably be very helpful to you in gaining a better understanding of your wife’s issues and learning how to “detach with love” and set appropriate boundaries with her.

      Best wishes to you and your family!

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