After 35 years of marriage, serious thoughts of divorcing my husband took me by surprise. I never thought I would ever consider leaving James, as divorce is contrary to our Christian values. But when our contention over difficulties with our adult children escalated, I started to entertain thoughts of separation, and so did he.
Let me be real with you. I suffer with depression; it runs through my genes. Our son is diagnosed with mixed bipolar disorder, and our adopted daughter suffers with severe separation anxiety. Throw in a spouse who is an A-type personality, and you have a recipe for conflict.
The crisis peaked when our youngest daughter moved back home with an infant and a 5-year-old. Her husband was deployed overseas. Not only was she experiencing debilitating separation anxiety, she was making unhealthy choices and spending much of her time with old friends. Her checking out caused a lot of clashes. My mental and physical health disintegrated. Many times I had to leave our home for days just to get rest, as she expected me to pick up the slack of caring for her kids.
I felt alone, fatigued, and mad that my husband was not there for me. I discovered, through our many "talks," that he didn't like the way I was acting. He wondered why I couldn't rise above the madness. He didn't grasp the emotional and physical strain of day-to-day life at home because he escaped by going to work, school, or other activities away from us.
Differences Can Create Wedges
In a crisis, it's typical to want to escape. The mayhem created by constant appeals for help from both of our adult children created a vacuum in our relationship. This is how my husband described it on our blog, "Not Losing Heart":
"[My wife] seemed to have a different understanding than I at first. Our beliefs were at odds and it was putting a wedge between us. I believed that if our children would do this or that, or do things my way, they would get it right. When my wife challenged my thinking, I became angrier inside. I felt she was coddling them."
A wedge is a good way to describe what can happen to a marriage when mental illness raises its ugly head. Parents tend to think a change in a child's behavior is due to the normal developmental challenges of adolescence. Disagreements on what causes these behaviors or what should be done can create a wedge. These differences are even more apparent when dealing with an adult child who should be living independently.
A wedge creates a gap and a gap can create a chasm if a couple will not stop and assess what is happening. It is so easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of chaos that mental illness causes.
In our marriage, these factors created our wedge:
• We had different perspectives on solutions. My husband wanted our children to be more independent. He wanted a "quick fix"; I wanted to nurture and stay engaged with them. Both of us felt we were supporting them, but with totally different styles.
• Our communication broke down. A difference of opinions is expected, but when those opinions keep a couple from reaching a solution, anger, anxiousness, frustration, and loneliness set in. It's like a tug-of-war over who is right. Each is working against the other, and it's exhausting.
• We neglected our marriage. When we were caught up in our separate whirlwinds of emotion, focusing on our marriage was impossible. Resentment, snapping at each other, and being easily annoyed were a few indicators that we had lost touch with each other. Our relationship suffered.
• Our emotional responses were different. My husband withdrew to escape the chaos and stuffed his emotions. I resented him for his lack of involvement and became overcome with sorrow and depression, which affected my physical health.
What happened to our desire to live as one in Christ? To allow the Lord to live through us, to be a godly wife and husband? The unexpected super-storm sucked away our purpose as a Christian couple, because we let down our guard. We prayed, but we each had choices to make about where we were going.
As you contend with the difficulties surrounding a child with a brain disorder, there is no "easy button" to push. The truth is, it will feel like pushing a 10-ton boulder up a slippery slope. Perseverance is a key. And awareness of what is happening can be a catalyst in the meeting of the minds.
"Should Haves" to Do Now
My husband and I are healing now, thank God. In looking back, we discovered our "should haves"—a little late, perhaps, but still in time to save our marriage and to shrink the gaps developed by our ever-increasing differences. I'm including them here for you, to help your marriage stay healthy while you weather the storm of your adult or young child's life with mental illness.
- Acknowledge you and your spouse are on different wavelengths. You might find more clarity if you write down what you think are the points of disagreement concerning your child.
- Seek help. Find a trusted counselor to help mediate your differences.
- Be honest with how you feel. Feelings are neither right nor wrong.
- Respect how your spouse feels, even though it may upset you. (This is not easy.) And don't make assumptions about the ways he/she is reacting.
- Make up your minds that your relationship is a priority no matter what is happening around you. Set boundaries, which can guide you in which crises really demand your time.
- Talk and listen. Don't assume your partner is wrong in his or her assessment of the situation.
- Get a diagnosis for your child, or if he or she is an adult, encourage the adult child to get a diagnosis. Knowledge is power.
- Most important, educate yourselves on what that diagnosis means for your child (adult or not) and for your family.
- Don't forget humor; it really helps.
- Above all, give each other grace to work through the crisis. God has a separate timetable for each of us. He makes all things beautiful in his time.
Again I'll quote my husband: "I remember when my wife began to look for information and searched the Internet, the library, and any resource she could find, and then shared that information with me. Something clicked inside. To our relief, we eventually found NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness). It was as though someone had thrown me a lifeline and given me the tools to make a difference in the life of our children, my marriage, and others. My wife and I needed to be on the same page as it came to giving compassion and finding empathy for what they were going through. She needed my support and I needed hers."
It is my hope and prayer that if you're in the kind of upheaval my husband and I experienced, these suggestions will aid you in getting a grip much sooner and arrive at the place where you can support each other. Don't forget love. Love is the ultimate ingredient to stepping outside yourself. Love and perseverance will rekindle your marriage and reestablish your bond—keeping your connection intact no matter the how fierce the raging storm mental illness can cause.
Diane Ramirez is a freelance writer, wife, mother of three adult children, and grandmother of five. She volunteers for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), co-facilitating a support group and the NAMI Basic classes for parents, and she blogs about this topic at NotLosingHeart.com.