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Question

I have been married for 25 years. It’s been a rocky journey but we have always been a team and strong. Lots of foundations built with deep intense love. My husband had a difficult time with our daughters when they were teenagers. He served in the Navy but was discharged with posttraumatic stress disorder. His mental illness, which included several serious suicide attempts, had a massive impact on us all. He would spend weeks in a depressed state. This went on for 14 years. As you can imagine I have been overprotective towards my kids and have been a soft mother to counteract his treatment of them. In February this year his mother passed away and two weeks later our marriage fell apart.

In a recent argument, he was criticizing me about our daughter and I had what I can only describe as a mental breakdown. I went berserk. I said some really terrible things and kicked a door in. I’m sure I would have been taken away if the police had been called. I hated that person I became but I’d had enough.

He is now blaming me for ending the marriage. I haven’t a clue what’s going on in his head. He’s grieving for his mom and this has been such bad timing. I feel like he’s punishing me and really wants me to hurt. It’s working. The last couple of days we’ve talked a bit more but only the odd exchanges of conversation, but it’s been more than it has been for a while. I am so broken and this emotional pain is so intense that it’s destroying me. He’s said that he’s being hard and cold because he needs to protect himself. It’s such a mess. He’s just lost his mother and now his marriage has failed. I’m clueless as to what to do.

Answer

You’ve been put in a difficult position of caring for a spouse who has a mental illness and trying to create some normalcy for your two daughters who need stability in their home life. First, please be gentle with yourself for experiencing a nervous breakdown. I’m amazed you have held it together this long without breaking down. The conditions you’re describing would have broken most people in less time. It’s totally understandable that you are struggling to hold things together.

Before you figure out how to help your husband or decide what to do with your marriage, it’s important for you to get support for yourself. Your breakdown is a strong signal that you’re neglecting your own self-care. You’ve been dealt a heavy load to carry and you can’t do this alone.

Living with a loved one who has a mental illness means that you’re often a caregiver for someone who doesn’t truly understand the impact they’re having on their loved ones. Depending on the particular illness, they’ve often so consumed in their own struggles that they lack awareness of the needs of those around them. That’s why it’s critical for you to take charge of your own care.

I hope you have trusted loved ones you can turn to for emotional and physical support. See if you can allow someone to help you care for your daughters, your home, and other responsibilities. You’re clearly a very capable lady, but this isn’t the right time to fly solo and do everything by yourself. You don’t need to give specific details about your husband’s struggles, but you can communicate that you’re overwhelmed and need emotional and other support.

Your husband has faced tremendous loss in his life, including the recent loss of his mother. He’s not handling his emotions in a healthy way and is using blame to help him feel more stable. It’s only creating more instability, so it’s best to not take his blame personally. Your marriage troubles can’t be blamed exclusively on your recent breakdown, so please don’t personalize his comments about the marriage. He’s admitting that he’s going cold to manage his overwhelm right now, so you have to decide how you’ll respond.

You can also keep your distance and protect yourself, or, if you have the emotional resources, you can keep trying to invite conversation with him. It seems he’s open to talking, so as long as your conversations are respectful and calm, I encourage you to keep talking with him. Even though there are deeper things to talk about in this troubled marriage, your ability to keep talking to each other, even superficially, will provide a base of security for both of you. You can both help each other not be alone in all of this grief and confusion.

Your family life has been messy and difficult, but you mention there is a deep love for each other. Even though your commitment to each other has endured years of chaos, make sure you stay safe and take good care of your mental health. You’ve had a long run of not caring for your emotional needs and if you choose to stay in this relationship, you’ll need regular reinforcements to help you manage multiple aspects of your life. Counseling, comfort from loved ones, healthy breaks, boundaries with your husband, and other supports will help you in the immediate crisis, but you’ll need to restructure how you live with him so you don’t find yourself losing control again.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

If you or a loved one are struggling with the devastating impact of pornography issues, sexual betrayal, and relationship trauma, I have created a 6-part audio program to help married couples strengthen their recovery. You can purchase the 6-hour audio program here for a limited time at the reduced price of $29 – https://geoff-steurer.mykajabi.com/marriage-recovery

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT