How can I help my friend help herself and her kids?
July 23, 2012 7:27 PM   Subscribe

My friend, Ann, is a married woman with two young children. Her husband has severe, chronic depression but refuses to get help. She has had an affair. She is not sure how to leave him, as she has no career or money of her own. More than that, I just don't think she's able to comprehend ever leaving him. How do I help her?

Ann has been married to her husband for many, many years and he's always suffered from depression. She has begged for a decade to get him into therapy (couples or single) and he has refused. His parents accuse her of causing the depression. He says in front of their children that he never should have been a father. He calls her a bad mother. He has cut himself off emotionally from his family - refusing to play or help with the kids, zero interest in sex, goes for days on end without speaking to anyone, and he spends hours on the computer. However, he's not (physically) abusive or vindictive. He's just clearly suffering from untreated depression.

Meanwhile, Ann engaged in an affair with another man. The man's wife found out and could easily tell on her, but she hasn't so far. The affair ended a few months ago, but the man and Ann still email each other and run into each other on the street. Ann's husband has not found out about the affair. Currently Ann is in therapy.

She says she wants to leave her husband but she has no money that is her own and no career to pursue. As she's taking care of her two young children until they go to bed at night, any job would be on top of a 60-hour work week. She lives in NYC, where childcare is enormously expensive, so putting them in daycare may be more money than it's worth.

It seems to me that her only option is to head back to her family 500 miles away and simply start over, but I think this is too drastic a move that she won't consider because she'd be disrupting her children's lives, because her husband isn't physically abusive or extreme enough in his behavior to warrant her defection, because she feels guilty over having the affair and now thinks she can make it better by staying with her mentally ill partner. It is painfully obvious that she truly believes she has no choice but to be married to a zombie for the rest of her life, or at least until the kids are in college.

I realize that the decision is ultimately Ann's, and if she chooses to stay in a loveless marriage "for the kids," then, well, that's her call. But I want her to know that she has options. So what can I do, other than offer to babysit when I can? Any good books or memoirs by people in her situation? I'd also appreciate any insight and to hear from people (particularly stay-at-home moms who've initiated a divorce, or people with SOs who refused treatment for depression) who were close to similar situations. Right now, I think the most important step is to help Ann realize that she's not the only person who's been in this situation, and that plenty of stay-at-home mothers have left unhappy marriages before.

Thanks in advance for any help.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
She lives in NYC..

Someone involved needs to start reading up on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Women, Infants and Children (additional food income,) and get in touch with the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (who do EBT/food stamps.) Here is NY's general benefits site. The HRA does insurance, so she'll need to get in touch with them as well. There are non-profits that can help her out with this, but I don't know any off the top of my head.

...but I think this is too drastic a move that she won't consider because she'd be disrupting her children's lives...

I, and many of my friends and peers growing up all moved to America (with more or less or sometimes no extended family in tow,) between the ages of five and twelve. It's not that disruptive. I'm not saying it's the right thing to do, but it's not some sort of inherently horrible and traumatic event. The kids will adjust, and they'll probably adjust a lot faster than she does.
posted by griphus at 7:37 PM on July 23, 2012

This book, specifically about women initiating their divorces, might be of interest to her.

That said, I would ask her directly A) if she wants help at all, and B) how much help she really wants from you. The key is to be straightforward and non-judgmental: "I can see you are really unhappy, which makes me want to help you. Is the idea of leaving the marriage something you would like to consider seriously? And if so, what can I do for you in terms of exploring your options?" Then really listen to her answer.

The key is to try to meet her right where she's at, not where you think she is or should be. Sometimes, people aren't ready to be helped solve a problem, because the idea of solving the problem is itself too scary to contemplate. (By the same token, she may be incredibly relieved and ready to make a plan. But the point for you is to be prepared for either response, or anything in between.)
posted by scody at 7:40 PM on July 23, 2012 [9 favorites]

Also, if she's living in NYC now and has no car (as many of us don't) or money of her own, moving somewhere she would need a car is a really bad fucking idea. She's going to either buy a rattletrap that will constantly break down and cost her a lot of money over the long run, or (assuming she has bad/no credit) take out a loan at borderline usurious rates to purchase and maintain said car. Again, someone needs to do the math on this.
posted by griphus at 7:41 PM on July 23, 2012

Basically, there's very little you can do unless she specifically asks for help.

But, you could point out that her children's lives are already being disrupted by a father who doesn't want them (which actually is abusive) and that moving back home to her family is not about disruption, it's about surviving. Her children's quality of life with suffer enormously if they stay in that situation (not to mention her own).

If her husband were to find out about her affair, it would be very difficult to know how he would react, but I sincerely doubt things would turn out well for any of them. Things might be unpleasant now but they could be a whole lot worse.

By acting with purpose before any drama, she would have far greater control over the outcome - but if she's in a position where she's merely responding to whatever happens, then she will have to act in defence, and that's not a good position to be in.
posted by heyjude at 7:52 PM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Really, this is none of your business.

But, if she wants to divorce him, she should speak to a divorce attorney. She may be entitled to alimony/child support. However, the affair complicates things. But she should know her options.

If she doesn't make enough money to justify childcare (which is reasonable), she might want to consider moving to a cheaper place. Nearby to family that can help her is a good idea.
posted by k8t at 8:10 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ask her if she wants help. You can't make her want a divorce. People stay in bad marriages all the time and it sucks but it's their decision. Be there for her. Listen, ask thoughtful questions, and offer help. That's probably all you can do.
posted by manicure12 at 8:23 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

If she wanted your help you could definitely suggest that maybe moving back home (if she has good familial relations) might not be a bad thing. Children might have grandparents to spend time with and different schooling options than available in NYC. That kind of disruption over a 'broken home' with a depressed father and mother mentally and physically checked out might not be such a bad thing. Plus I would imagine most cities (wherever she's from) have to be cheaper than here!
posted by bquarters at 8:48 PM on July 23, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks so far. I want to add that my friend has specifically asked me for help and I'm the only local person who knows her real situation. She has taken to sending me long, emotional emails about how unhappy she is and how she has no real way out of this mess, which is why I'm seeking out reading material and resources for her to have at her disposal should she choose to end the marriage. I could be wrong, but I think both her therapy and her admittance to me of the affair and her husband's condition are the first steps she's taken to facing how unhappy she's been for many years. The affair was the wake-up call and now she's left with its even less appealing aftermath.

Going over her emails: She has asked, "what would you do in my situation?" and "would it be wrong to leave him?" and "what steps do you think I should take if I ask for a divorce?" She doesn't seem to have the first clue how to do this and I don't really either. She has not stated unequivocally that she is seeking a divorce, though.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:54 PM on July 23, 2012

You know what? You should advise her to scrub every piece of evidence of any affair from all email accounts and computers, she should go to the library and research divorce lawyers, and then she can make phone calls to them.

If you do anything for her, you will prolong her agony.

She's not going to take responsibility for doing the footwork on this, then you can not take on that responsibility for her. Full stop.

Offer to babysit while she researches at the library and meets with attorneys to get a perspective on her situation.

Doing the work for her will not help her.
posted by jbenben at 9:04 PM on July 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

"what steps do you think I should take if I ask for a divorce?"

Talk to a lawyer first. Before telling him about the affair, before telling him she's considering divorce, before she breathes a word about any of this to him she needs to talk to a lawyer.

Also seconding the above idea to remove evidence and do all research outside the home.
posted by griphus at 9:10 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was a stay at home mom. I had very demanding special needs kids. I didn't technically file the paperwork but I was the one who decided to divorce and informed my husband. He handled the paperwork because I was very ill at the time the divorce was initiated.

It took many years for me to get situated where a divorce was feasible. I did therapy. I went to college. I worked on getting my special needs kids more functional and independent. When we divorced, I was initially 100% financially dependent on my ex. It took more than a year to get a job.

She needs to figure out what has to be overcome in practical terms and then start working to bridge the gap between where she is now and actual solutions. They will likely take time. But not working on solving it won't magically make any of it go away.

Don't "feel her pain". Don't be her shoulder to cry on. Being a sounding board and helping her brainstorm can help. But being a shoulder to cry on can give her just enough emotional relief to not have to do any of the scary hard work involved in actually fixing anything. Give her info and give her time to act on it. Accept that it likely won't be quick. Work at not getting dragged into the emo drama. Emo drama is often a means to avoid really fixing anything.

posted by Michele in California at 9:13 PM on July 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

Is it possible that you're not hearing enough of this story to be sure you're helping? On the face of it, Ann's not the wisest person, having made a bad situation worse, and although her husband obviously has a deeply problematic point of view, I don't know that an armchair diagnosis of his condition gives full credit to what he's seeing.

Ann might eventually be willing to tell her therapist a lot more about what's going on. So applauding her for taking that step and encouraging her to take it seriously might be the best thing you can do in the short term.

I have to guess the emotional emails, the affair, the things her husband and his parents are seeing, etc., all point to untreated issues in her case as well. If she were suffering physical abuse, I'd be the first to say get out immediately. But otherwise, let her therapist help her figure this out, and reassure her that she's doing the right thing if she opens up to a professional, even if only to build up an emotional foundation for leaving (although, ideally, to try and get a handle on everything that's been going on here and perhaps try not rushing from turbulence to turmoil, since it's distantly conceivable that she'll offer her husband a good example to follow).
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:39 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Encourage her to get her kids into family therapy. If she can then get the husband involved, it may result in an improvement in how he interacts with the kids. He may actually need a third party to wake him up to things. Regardless of what decision she ends up making, the therapy should help her and the kids and perhaps even her husband (and thus her and the kids). If she does decide to leave, her kids will already be engaged with a counsellor where they feel safe, which is a lot better than looking for one 6 months after she leaves.

Nthing the therapy recommendations for her, too. A therapist can help her sort out what she wants to do.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:16 PM on July 23, 2012

I realize that the decision is ultimately Ann's, and if she chooses to stay in a loveless marriage "for the kids," then, well, that's her call. But I want her to know that she has options.

Her options are potentially not great. I know we're uniformly supposed to cheer for women who want to leave dismal marriages and tell them it will get better but statistically, single mothers and their children are more likely to live in poverty than any other demographic. Be aware that there is considerable peril here without an extremely sound financial plan, and if there isn't enough money to cover everyone's needs, it's going to suck (at least in the short term.) How much or how little it sucks for how long basically depends entirely on his income.

She has asked, "what would you do in my situation?" and "would it be wrong to leave him?" and "what steps do you think I should take if I ask for a divorce?" She doesn't seem to have the first clue how to do this and I don't really either. She has not stated unequivocally that she is seeking a divorce, though.

She needs to be told that leaving him is the best thing she can do for her kids is to remove them from their father. The steps to take are consulting a NYC divorce lawyer now so she has a good idea how child support, asset division and spousal support work in New York State. That will make all of this seems possible in a very concrete way, but does not obligate her to file for divorce - it just answers the question "what would happen if I did?" NYS is actually a pretty great place to get divorced because child support and visitation, as well as initial spousal support when there are young children, are very clearly laid out in statute. Her legal fees would be covered by him.

Consulting with a divorce attorney (which, by the way, I totally am not) will give her very, very concrete answers to mull over. If she's not willing to do this, then she doesn't really want to be helped.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:47 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I were in Ann's position and my family was supportive and encouraging, yes, I would absolutely move 500 miles away and start over (after gaining appropriate legal advice, which certainly needs to be Step One), assuming it meant a nurturing environment for me and my children. If the family is grudging or judgmental, then I don't see much being gained by trading one emotionally toxic situation for another, with the added difficulties of settling the kids in a new community.

As Ann's friend, this is probably what I would gently advocate for (assuming the family outlook is encouraging). We don't know what her therapist suggests, if anything, but it seems unlikely that Ann isn't suffering from some degree of depression herself under the circumstances, which can make it difficult for one to imagine a plan or an outcome that might lead to release from an seemingly binding dilemma... but, from the viewpoint of the children's welfare, it seems to me that living with one stable parent and supportive family in a new environment is better than two depressive parents in a familiar setting.

If family support is doubtful or discouraging, I'd help as much as possible to go into long-view mode, structuring a plan that will allow her to prepare to find work when the children are old enough for that, and including breaks and support from friends... perhaps two-day retreat stays with a friend once or twice a month with the kids? Babysitting help so she can get some time on her own? Basically, as much as friends can close ranks and buoy her in this situation, practically and emotionally, so that she can pursue a solution will be incredibly helpful. And of course, lawyer first, so she can get an accurate picture of the landscape. Good luck to you and Ann.
posted by taz at 2:25 AM on July 24, 2012

She has begged for a decade to get him into therapy (couples or single) and he has refused.

Everything you describe sounds like depression, but therapy is not the first place Ann should be looking for assistance. Ann's husband needs to see a doctor, because there is a very good chance he can be helped by medication. My recommendation is that she call his GP and tell him about her concerns. The GP can write a letter asking that he come in for a routine check-up and then raise the issue with him there.

Depressed people are notorious for not seeking appropriate help, but are often relieved when approached in the right manner by the right people. Doctors are trained for this and have experience with this. There is every chance that he can be treated.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:55 AM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Michele in California's advice is great. Ann may very well not be able to divorce her husband right now BUT, she can start working toward that goal - perhaps taking some classes to work toward a skill/degree, saving money here and there, scoping out her best options for living arrangements. She should talk to an attorney to see if she will be awarded child support/alimony.

You, as a friend, could babysit the kids while she's in class, at appointments, etc.

Divorce may not be an immediate event, but she can absolutely work toward that end. She needs to come up with a plan and put it into action - registering for school, cutting household expenses in order to save up some money, and talking with an attorney. And while she's doing all of these things she's limiting her exposure (and her children's exposure) to her husband, which sounds like a good thing. The children will see their mother as being proactive and bettering herself despite the circumstances and I think that's a wonderful thing for children to witness.
posted by Sassyfras at 4:17 AM on July 24, 2012

Wikipedia summary of NYS divorce law. NYS annual child support obligation by income amount in $100 increments. NYS pendente lite maintenance formula (the amount immediately granted by the courts in spousal support/alimony pending divorce finalisation.) This stuff is highly codified in New York.

The pendente lite amount is not absolute as it can be adjusted to account for child support, but your friend is entitled to spousal support under NYS law, and the children are entitled to child support under NYS law. The variable is the husband's income and whether this will be enough to maintain two households.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:57 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I always encourage women to be financially independent no matter what. Your friend needs to start right now.

She can attend school while her kids are at daycare/school/pre-school, etc. She can work with another parent to do co-op daycare/night care. Whatever it takes.

I recommend a career with skills that are easy to obtain and fast. Administrative work is goo, call-center/customer service is good. Bank tellers. Retail Sales. All are decently paying, low barrier to entry professions, she can do this while training for something better.

I think that if she's focusing on doing for herself that a lot of her bad decisions will go away. Also, once her husband sees that she's willing and capable of taking care of herself financially that he may step up.

She's in therapy. Great. Stay there.

If she doesn't love her husband anymore, it's possible the feeling is mutual. If so she can work out a plan with him to co-parent their kids, perhaps even live together for financial reasons but lead separate lives (until they can divorce, divide assets, etc.)

In the meantime, your friend needs to understand exactly what assets she and her husband have together. She should know all the account numbers and balances of deposit and credit accounts. Pull Credit Bureau reports for herself and for her husband (to make sure he isn't runing up huge debts.)

Getting her ducks in a row is the best thing to do in this situation.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:34 AM on July 24, 2012

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