Because an emotional disorder was a major component of why my marriage was so painful and multiple people have brought this up recently, I thought it might be helpful for me to share some of the things I learned. I was very blessed to live near one of the best institutions in the country, and while they were unable to really help my ex, I learned a ton. I am going to avoid going into details publicly about her situation, but so much of the knowledge I gained was very transferable.
Before I continue, I want to be clear that emotional disorders and abuse are not the same thing. Many people who suffer from emotional disorders do so because they are victims of abuse, and many have been able to heal or navigate their conditions without becoming abusive themselves.
First (and most important): As a spouse, it is not your job to fix your loved one. You can’t, and if you try you will waste yourself. Support? Absolutely. But fix? No. Repeat as necessary:
I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, and I can’t control it.
Second: An emotional disorder does not excuse behavior, especially abuse. This is not to say that an extra portion of grace may not be required for a spouse who is really struggling, but there is a big difference between a heart that is repentant and wants to heal, and one that feels justified to abuse. The institution where my ex was made it a point not to allow excuses for behavior, though they did try to help spouses understand it.
Third: If your spouse hurts you, no matter how understandable it is or repentant they are, acknowledge to yourself that it hurt. I was terrible at this, I admit. But be honest. It isn’t judgmental, it’s part of the process: your soul knows it, so don’t try to ignore it. Your pain will come up eventually, and if it isn’t acknowledged then it may also come with a heavy dose of resentment.
Fourth: Some may call it a “sickness” and liken it to cancer. Be careful. It is not cancer, especially if the patient causes pain to you. Cancer does not actively lash out at the spouse of the afflicted.
Fifth: Your spouse must take responsibility for healing. A person with an emotional disorder cannot fix him or herself, but without taking responsibility healing will never come. One thing that fascinated me about the way the institution dealt with patients is that while they lived on campus they were forced into a very rigid behavioral pattern. Meetings, medications, everything was overseen. But once they left there was no accountability unless the patient elected for it by establishing a mentor relationship. There were no follow-up calls and no visits to make sure things were going OK. Just the promise that if they didn’t follow the treatment plan, they’d be back. They also emphasized that it wasn’t the job of the spouse to enforce treatment either. We weren’t to schedule their meetings or pick up the meds when the patient failed to do so. All of this was intentional. They wanted patients to realize that their healing belonged to them. If they didn’t own it, it wasn’t going to work.
Sixth: Set boundaries. Boundaries are not for fixing your spouse, but for protecting yourself. Decide what you can or can’t live with. Going off meds or not sticking with appointments and treatment programs should result in consequences for violating boundaries. These programs and medications are part of the treatment for being able to establish a future level of trust that will make your marriage a safe place. Neglecting treatment is neglecting the marriage.
Seventh: Get in therapy, and make sure it’s with someone who will be your advocate. If your spouse is taking responsibility and working the program, he or she is taken care of. You need to take care of you. I remember talking to my therapist while my ex was in the institution. I wanted to talk about her and her problems. He stopped me and said “she is taken care of. She has some of the best therapists in the country around the clock and people monitoring her meds. So you tell me what you need right now.”
Eighth: Medication takes time to work. Most drugs for emotional disorders will take one to two months before effects are seen. A lot of the drugs have negative side effects, and a lot of the prescription is trial and error. With over a hundred different variations of drugs, it can take a while to find the right mixture.
Ninth: If you are abused, you may not realize it. I certainly did not. I was looking back at a journal entry I wrote during that time and I specifically wrote “she is not abusive”, and yet I was in so much pain. And when I explain to others my story I always get responses of amazement that I couldn’t see that her actions were hurtful and abusive.
Tenth: Don’t let Christians tell you mental health is a secular replacement for the Bible. There are some really nasty emotional disorders out there and drugs along with therapy can really help if the patient’s heart is in it: these disorders are addressed nowhere in Scripture. I know one woman who went years without taking medication for depression because she thought Jesus would heal her. When she finally did, her life changed dramatically. She expresses a lot of regret for the way she treated people before the meds, but now she is in a loving marriage with a husband and a child and they are thriving. It’s true that sin can masquerade as an emotional disorder (or more likely work in concert with it), but there is no reason to reject drugs and therapy on religious grounds.
I am not an authority on this subject, just a fellow traveler who has been there. These are some of the lessons I learned, so I hope passing them on to you will help. Ultimately, if your spouse is an abuser, no treatment program in the world is going to stop them, so we all need to be very careful not to be too optimistic that pills and group therapy will fix a broken marriage. At the same time, there are many people who come out of these programs owning their disorders and enjoying very happy marriages and fulfilling lives. Be honest with yourself, get a good therapist, and pray for wisdom.
[April 3, 2023: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to April 3, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to April 3, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to April 3, 2023 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (April 3, 2023), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
14 thoughts on “Coping as a Spouse of Someone With An Emotional Disorder”
Very well said. I don’t believe my spouse has an emotional disorder, but this paragraph definitely still rings true. I thought I was doing good to him by stuffing hurt feelings when he did hurtful things. It led to tons and tons of resentment that I can’t seem to work through. And I finally realized that it doesn’t do him any good when I don’t tell him when he’s done something hurtful. Granted, when I do speak up, his response historically has been to blame me, so there are some things that I still choose not to speak up to him about, but I will talk to my counselor about it or my very trusted friend just so I’ve talked about it.
Also very true. If someone asked me 4 years ago if he’s abusive, I would have said “no”. Yet, I was still hurting. Now, you’ll get a very different answer.
I agree that it isn’t always wise to share our hurts. The key is acknowledging them to ourselves. I really wish I’d done better about this, but I thought acknowledging pain was judgmental, selfish, and an admission of a sinful heart.
One of the most helpful little words is “ouch”. It can help to utter it in one’s head, or out loud to the person who hurt us, or out loud to a trusted friend (depending on the circumstances). I like it because is summarizes so much without having any sense of vengefulness attached to it.
My first husband probably was bipolar type II. He was physically abusive. He would abuse me and our oldest daughter then I would pack the kids up and leave. Things would be better for a while and I would come back. I was like a yoyo for about five years. He seemed genuinely ashamed to be abusive but “couldn’t” stop. I really feel that if the medicines available now had been available then things might have turned out differently. He never did get on medication and died a few years ago. I can’t justify what he did and once I had the self-esteem to stop putting up with it I did.
On a similar note my mother was verbally / emotionally abusive. After my grandson was diagnosed with Asperger’s I started looking at how the disorder looked in adults and it fit my mother to a T. It is really spooky watching videos of Temple Grandin because it is like watching my mom. Since Asperger’s is a developmental disorder that affects social skills I am not sure how it fits in with mental illness. Your 10 points still apply.
After a lifetime of dealing with the after effects of being abused from early childhood on I am still trying to figure out how to take care of myself. At 60 I figure it will be a lifetime process. I am still learning what is “normal” and what is not.
Regarding your deceased husband, there is every chance his abusiveness would not have improved even if he HAD got on the right medication. We have a post coming up soon by one of our readers, who has that exact story to tell. You can read a “trailer” for her story here.
Regarding your mother, you might like to look at our post called Domestic Abuse, Asperger’s and Autism — is there a connection? We try to take care to point out that autism and Asperger’s are not in and of themselves causes for abusive behaviour, and that people with those disorders are not necessarily abusive. I hear that your mother was abusive, but I would suggest that (like Jeff S’s ex-wife) she was not abusive because of her mental health disorder; rather she had a disorder AND she chose to be abusive. Two different things, but one can certainly make the other worse!
Some of our readers on this blog have children or relatives who have ASD, or have ASD themselves, and we have to be careful not to be negative about people with ASD or their prospects for healthy relationships. With good intervention and training and wisdom from a the ASD person’s caregivers, people with ASD can grow up to lead happy lives and have mutually respectful relationships. 🙂
To add to that, Barbara, my mother-in-law is bi-polar and paranoid schizophrenic. She had her children taken from her when they were young because she couldn’t take care of them but she is far from abusive. She is one of the sweetest women I have ever met and would never dream of hurting anybody. She has yet to find a balance of medication in 55 years and is not able to take care of herself. She is a shining example of someone who is mentally ill but not abusive.
What a story, Bethany. Thank you for telling us that. Bi-polar AND paranoid schizophrenic, what a double whammy! Poor lady.
This comment could also be in response to Barbara’s reply to my earlier comment, but in Christy Paul’s book, she wrote about her husband’s alcoholism and that she excused his behavior for awhile because he had this disease. But he didn’t take responsibility for it. She remembered a mother of small children that she had profiled for the news channel she worked on that was suffering from cancer, and this woman was so loved and suffered with such dignity and grace. We don’t choose to get cancer, or mental illness, or emotional disorders, but we can choose how we react to those things and find a way to heal from them. As this post so perfectly explains, it is the responsibility of the person with the disease. Thanks everyone for all the great information and support!!
This is some good and helpful information….I would like to post it on a site that deals with adultery….OK?
Thank you, Jeff S, This is a wonderful post. I wish I had had some of this advice when I was dealing with my abuser.
Will do. Thanks. 🙂
Thanks, Bethany: I wish I had had it too. 😉
Jeff S’s points would be of benefit to many, whether inside or outside of abusive relationships.
Learning to say “ouch” can be a difficult task….
When my counsellor was 15 minutes late for a session, we discussed how this affected me. She then taught me how to say “ouch” for the first time in my life. I didn’t know the words to use….it took her over half an hour to help me find and speak them.
Rhetorical questions: How does one learn to say “ouch” if no one teaches them? How many have ended up in abusive relationships for this lack of knowledge?
Seems to me, learning to say “ouch” is the equivalent to learning to draw boundaries.
And, oddly enough, it is only as I finished writing that sentence — over a decade later — that I understand this is what she was trying to teach me.
I love the way you are reading through so many posts and sharing your measured and thoughtful responses to them.
You certainly are a “pattern thinker”. 🙂