The impact of illness on marriages

One last nugget from the book Madness on the impact of serious illness on the marriage relationships. Marya explores the impact of her bipolar disorder on her second marriage and her very devoted husband who spent two years entirely focused on caring for her. When she begins to recover, she notices that he is rather a shell of himself.

In some ways it is simpler to be married to someone who is all need and no give. It’s an enormous drain. But there is benefit too: you become the hero, the center of someone else’s existence. You are the saint. You have, in this sense, a great deal of power. You tell this person what to do, and she does it. You feed her. You hold her, You are her mother, her father, her husband, her priest. And you are never required to her on an adult level. There is never anything wrong with you; any problem is caused by her, her illness, her meds not working, her malfunctioning mind.  …

You relish your role and resent it enormously at the same time. And when your role is upset–when the patient climbs out of bed and walks on her own, makes her own food, drives her own car…–you see she now does everything wrong….And–who does she think she is?–She doesn’t always agree with you…she doesn’t need you anymore. This is unacceptable. This won’t work. (222-3)

What she describes is oh so true. Whether mental illness, disease of some other organ, or impact of an affair, one spouse picks up the slack to make life work. And so it does for a time. But when the sick one gets better, when the alcoholic gives up the bottle, when the adulterer gives up the affair and wants to renew a partnership again, the “strong” spouse often then experiences rages, resentment, distance, etc. At the just the time when a partnership is possible–the thing that the strong spouse most desired and fantasized about, they find it now difficult to allow or participate in such a partnership.

Why is this? In part it is due to comfort in one’s role and the dislike for change. It is a changed belief that the “sick” spouse is now incapable of really being a partner. In part it is due to the the hidden belief of the unfairness of the previous imbalanced relationship and the desire for some level of payback.


Filed under anger, conflicts, marriage, Psychology, suffering

7 responses to “The impact of illness on marriages

  1. Mark O.

    Phil, these have been enlightening posts about the personal experience of bipolar, and I’ve appreciated them.

    I was thinking that in addition to spouses, parentified children may also resent the relationship they’ve been given and have a hard to adjusting to parents that get better and attempt to resume a parental role.

    In either situation, it’s sad that the human heart would rather cling to the suffering and resulting bitterness it knows than the freedom it’s being given when the person gets well.

    This same sort of thing seems to go on in all of our hearts to some extent when we are offered freedom in Christ…

    • Mark, thanks for the comment. I *think* that what happens in the moment is that one isn’t trying to cling to brokenness but that one so easily forgets what is broken and what is good. If you’ve ever gossipped or lusted or any other sin and then felt badly about it you probably want to never do it again. But we do repeat these kinds of sins because we forget that they are poison. Afterwards it seems so clear to us…but amnesia kicks in and we return to the vomit, so to speak.

  2. This is a powerful quote for anyone in a caretaker role. As my daughter with fetal alcohol and mental illness nears adulthood, we have struggled with issues of dominion and control. She is the first child I am parenting to reach this stage of “shaking off” parental authority. I don’t have a comparison other than my own transition. And, I was an easy compliant young person! 🙂

    I am sometimes concerned that her needing to more forcefully pull away rather than gently shake off her dad and my as caretakers has a lot to do with the issues written about by this author. My child’s decisions are not my decisions. Her choices are often based on immediate felt needs rather than any long term goals. I want to protect her from bad decisions but not at the expense of allowing her to learn from them.

    Tough stuff… right now, because she is 16, one of the things that makes it more difficult is that I share financially and legally in the consequences of her choices. It is hard to “let go” and assume the risks.

    • Acceptance, thanks for your vulnerable comment here about your daughter and her FAS. It is very hard to let go and yet still assume the risks. This would still be true even if the risks were only emotional agony and not monetary. Our prayers are with you as you navigate this ongoing storm. I had the privilege of working with a family with to FAS/E daughters and saw firsthand their heartbreak. Sadly, the community mental health clinic did not serve them well.

  3. William

    It would be a big change and I can see how resentment and control could be issues.

    But it is also a change that changes the identity of the care-giver. They need to re-learn how their marriage will work. As hard as life might have been as a care-giver the system was working. Now it’s not working anymore and the whole system has to adjust.

    It actually reminds me of the reflections of someone at my church. When he retired they were excited to have more time together, but they soon realized both of their lives would have to change dramatically as the balance has been thrown off. It was a hard change.

  4. Jess

    It seems to me that there may be an odd sense of loss on the part of the “strong” spouse. It may be as simple as feeling like “something is missing” now that the pressures of caregiving have been lifted. I would imagine that the spouse that had previously been “unwell” might have a similar, opposite sense of loss. “Something is missing.” (ie., My overdependence on the other person is no longer in effect).

    I don’t feel like I understand all the dynamics at work here, but I can well imagine this sense of loss and the resulting adjustment period in the relationship.

  5. This makes so much sense–thank you for posting this wise insight, Phil. And thanks for reviewing the book, too. I’ve added it to my ever-widening wishlist.

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