To Stay or Not to Stay with a Bipolar Spouse

Patient Expert

Recently there's been a lot of talk on the message boards about problems with bipolar spouses written by the non-bipolar spouse. These men and women are trying to be faithful and helpful, but it some cases it seems they are fighting a losing battle. At what point do you say, "Enough. I have to protect myself and my children."

Recently a woman wrote to the syndicated advice columnist, "Dear Amy," complaining that her new husband had ruined their honeymoon a few years earlier because of his anxiety disorder, and she still resented him for it. Yet she was trying to stay with him "through sickness and in health" as promised. She wanted to know how to get rid of her anger and resentment.

Some people would say that since you wouldn't leave a spouse who had a physical illness like cancer, or one who became disabled in a car accident, you have the same obligation to a spouse with a mental disorder. Yet the truth is, some people simply don't have what it takes to remain faithful to a sick spouse, whether the sickness is mental or physical.

It's easy to feel superior to those people, but I don't think any of us need judge before we've walked in their shoes. And staying with a sick spouse out of pity or guilt isn't necessarily doing them a favor. Almost half of all marriages end in divorce anyway, and most people who divorce will marry again. By staying with a mentally ill spouse out of pity and guilt rather than love and respect, you may hurt their chances to find someone who can love them as they are.

Another reason to leave a mentally ill spouse is when your staying is enabling them to continue destructive behavior while refusing to get help. And in some cases, you need to leave in order to protect your own mental health and the well-being of your children. These are not easy decisions, but talking them over with a therapist can help.

My first husband had problems we never really sorted out, though the symptoms included drug addictions and an inability to find a job. Being bipolar myself (without diagnosis), I wasn't the easiest person to live with. But I held a job and supported us, staying faithful to my husband in spite of his problems. It was only when we had a child and I realized I didn't have the strength to take care of both of them, that I took my daughter and left him. I have now been happily married to my current husband, Adrian, for twenty-six years.

How have you managed life with a bipolar spouse? Share your stories, questions and comments with us.