suicidal spouse
April 20, 2007 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any suggestions on how to divorce a potentially suicidal spouse?

I have been married to a clinically depressed man for 24 years. He has been on medication and sporadic counseling for 7 years, at my insistence. Before that we went to marriage counseling several years earlier; again, at my insistence. No significant changes in behavior or communication were achieved. He has Type 2 Diabetes, but does not properly care for himself. People who know me try to help me be encouraged by the fact that he is seeking treatment; however, I have reached my limit. I know that I may sound extraordinarily cold, but I cannot stay married to this man. Know that I have given all that I can, and more than I ever thought that I could. But, I fear that he will commit suicide if I leave him. Has anyone else been in a similar situation who could give me some advice?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You cannot be held responsible, legally or morally, if this guy is troubled enough to take his own life. Obviously, you've tried to make it work and you should be commended for hanging in there as long as you did. Let the people who guilt you into staying by saying that he's seeking treatment take a flying leap; its not enough to transport himself to a therapist at the prescribed date/time, he has to be willing to work for change and improvement. If what you say is accurate, the situation isn't going to get better.

In the end, you have to do whats right for you and let the chips fall where they may.
posted by dr_dank at 9:12 AM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

You've probably thought about this, but could you ask for advice from whoever is treating him?

Good luck.
posted by tremolo1970 at 9:16 AM on April 20, 2007

I'll start by saying I've never been in your situation.

If you want advice on leaving him and getting a divorce, speak to a lawyer. I don't know where you live, so you might find that you don't have "grounds" for divorce (might sound stupid, but please remember that IANAL, and I don't know what constitutes as "grounds"). If this is the case, and you're in the UK, stop living together. In the UK, after 5 years of not living together, a marriage is pretty much automatically anulled. I know next to nothing about USA law.

If you want advice on dealing with the emotional aspects, get yourself to a counsellor, either a marriage counsellor or a therapist. This is quite probably going to be hard, and you'll need some support.

If you want advice on what other people think, remember that it doesn't matter. They weren't living with him. Ask them how they would cope in a situation like this. In the end, it's got nothing to do with them.

People get divorced for much more minor reason than this. Just look at Britney Spears.

Yes, your husband may kill himself if you leave him. That is not your fault, though. It's his own. I'm assuming he is aware of himself (ie, not insane), and as such, it's his right to do with his body as he pleases, including killing it. You have the same right. The right to get your body out of this situation. It's up to you whether you exercise that right or not, but if you do, don't look back.
posted by Solomon at 9:26 AM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

In weighing the "let the chips fall where they may" approach, which has something to be said for it, I would consider whether you two have any children . . . not that this means you're irretrievably responsible for preventing his suicide, but it affects the balance in my view, as well as the risk of suicide. If you have kids, though, I tend to doubt you would want to seek their approval or permission.

One potentially comforting thought: maybe there's an upside for him. It may be that his depression is associated in part with a sense of responsibility for your unhappiness. It may also be the case that you've done all you can, as you say, and that your concern that your divorce will cause his suicide exaggerates your influence over the situation.

Finally, consider whether the first stages of divorce or separation will maintain enough hope for him to keep on going, and that by the time he appreciates that it is irremediable he will have adjusted.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 9:27 AM on April 20, 2007

Leaving him may be the wakeup call he needs to get his act together. Then again, he might fall apart. Talk to his caregiver and explain your fears. Come up with a plan, should he threaten or attempt suicide. In the US, you can get someone admitted for observation if they threaten harm to themselves (or others). No, he's not going to like you for that, but he's not going to be happy with you anyway, and at least he'll be safe under watchful eyes.

Compassion for others is great, but take care of yourself first. (This applies doubly if there are kids involved.)
posted by desjardins at 9:31 AM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

What does your husband say? Have you talked about a separation or divorce?
posted by subatomiczoo at 9:33 AM on April 20, 2007

Did your vows mention for better or for worse?

Would you leave him if he were in a car accident and in a wheelchair?

If he is truly clinically depressed, it is an illness. Brain chemicals. If he is actually still seeking treatment I think you are wrong to divorce. If you need to separate because you need a break, that is something else entirely.

Would you want him to leave if the tables were turned?

Look, I'm not trying to be harsh. You really truly probably DO need a vacation from this. I do not minimize the difficulty of living with a depressed person. Nor do I think you would be responsible if he killed himself. But I think you probably would FEEL responsible.

Get some counseling and some support for yourself before you make any major decisions on this.
posted by konolia at 9:47 AM on April 20, 2007

Well, you could separate, not divorce.

If you moved out, started living your life alone, but left the door open to a possible future reconciliation by not filing for divorce immediately -- I don't see how that could be bad. If you are entitled to child or spousal support, you will have it during the separation. If he felt that it was possible you two could reconcile, he would probably start making the changes that will do him good out of a desire to win you back, and gradually get used to not having you around. And hell -- 24 years is a long time. All you know now is that you don't want to be in this relationship now -- maybe after a six months reprieve, you would find that there is something worth preserving. Or maybe not -- either way, a formal separation would give you the time alone you need without sounding so sudden and final to him.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:47 AM on April 20, 2007

Did your vows mention for better or for worse?

Suffice to say, konolia, he is not attending to his wedding vows either, if this has anything to do with that, which it doesn't. At what point does a person completely forfeit all claim to the fundamentals of self-respect and happiness in their own life and go down with the ship, because of a vow they made decades ago?

tr45byt, your plot sounds more cruel and suicide-inducing than the cold shock of a divorce.

Anonymous, this can be done with a clean conscience. Get your divorce papers, get everthing arranged that you possibly can. If you don't make the break clean and fast, he will find a way to emotionally extort you into staying. It is a lot easier to prey on someone's conscience and emotions than it is to really fix one's problems, and if his problem is as bad as you say, I doubt he'll have no qualms about stooping to this.

And please, if you are close enough to anyone in his family, after you have let him know, talk to them and express your grave concerns. Whether or not they are grateful for your gesture and this opportunity to help their family member, you will have done what you can.
posted by hermitosis at 10:18 AM on April 20, 2007 [6 favorites]

You're in a situation that my brother was in. His wife had suicidal tendencies, and often would spend a few days checked into the mental health wing at the hospital. At least she was in therapy, but it often seemed that she was making herself worse the deeper she got into therapy. Meanwhile, my brother was the only one working, and taking on all the responsibility for raising their child, because she was completely focused on herself and her illness.

I know he devoted himself to her for years, but there comes a time when the illness takes over, and there was nothing else my brother could have done to help her. For the first year or two after the divorce, I'd feel a pang of regret that he hadn't honored the vow of "sickness and in health". But my overwhelming feeling was that he had made the best of a bad situation by leaving her and making a new life for himself and my nephew.
posted by saffry at 10:18 AM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I know that I may sound extraordinarily cold

You don't; konolia does a bit, though.

I think this is the time to seek help for yourself. See a counsellor/therapist/whatever to talk about how to best leave; make your plans, stick to them.

Years ago, I said somebody's depression problems were more than I could handle alone; round-the-clock professional help was called for, I needed my life back, etc. He did kill himself. Hate to say that, but. He was overtly suicidal and had been that way for a long time. Of course I still feel wretched beyond what I can describe in a post on-line, but I don't know that I could have handled the situation differently. In retrospect, though, I would've spent more time making sure said professional help was more solidly in place. E-mail is in profile if you want more on that.

Enlist the help of his family and whatever friends he has left. I have been depressed; I have tried to help various depressives, and I'm not even sure the latter can be done. At one point not that many years ago, a relationship ending was the best thing that could've happened to kick me out of my own misery; it just might work out well for him if he's forced into more self-care. Good luck.
posted by kmennie at 10:40 AM on April 20, 2007

Anybody who says that our OP probably doesn't really want to leave her husband has never lived with someone who just shrugs and looks away when addressed directly, who can never say anything except "I suck, you suck, the world sucks," and who does not contribute to the household.

It's soul-destroying for the spouse. And it's not good for kids to have to live with someone like that.

Someone who is has been clinically depressed for twenty-four years is going to keep on being clinically depressed.* The spouse, however, has an option.

Yes, get your own therapist to manage the transition. And leave.

*Assuming he is being treated to the fullest extent possible. If his medication is not working, it should be reviewed. If medication doesn't work, there's ECT. If ECT doesn't work, there's brain surgery. All these biological treatments work better with the support of Cognitive-Behavioural therapy; and CBT can work better with the support of biological therapies. Getting a person whose disease is defined as hopelessness to act on the hope of effective therapy is tricky though, and after 24 years you have probably emptied your bag of tricks.

Good luck.
posted by kika at 10:43 AM on April 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Wny now? After 24 years together, after 7 years of his being medicated and in counseling--why now? What changed? I think you should answer that question before you take any further action toward a divorce or separation.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:48 AM on April 20, 2007

Perhaps you could arrange solid professional and family support when you tell him you want a divorce including and up to institutionalisation if you think he may be a risk to himself? Fundamentally, you can just take these decisions out of his hands.
posted by zia at 10:48 AM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Holy shit, konolia! 24 years of hell isn't taking your vows seriously?

Way too many sociopathic spouses spout the same manipulative lines: (best if said in injured whine) "Don't you know that heroin addiction/ alcoholism/ bipolar is a disease? How can you be so cold? If I'd known I was marrying someone who didn't take their wedding vows seriously..." Jesus.

It'll take years for the OP to recover from the sort of mental and emotional beating she's taken from living with this sort of hell. She should get out, and if she has kids, she should have gotten out even sooner.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:04 AM on April 20, 2007 [6 favorites]

My friend was in a situation similar to yours, except he was the suicidal one. He did a complete turn around when his wife divorced him - it wasn't the divorce that did it, but the fact that his depression was made worse knowing that he was emotionally taking her down with him. It ended in divorce, but this situation doesn't always end badly.

Regardless of what happens, you need a support group outside of family, friends and random people on the internet. Your family will tell you what they think is best for the family name (in my experience anyway, they do), and friends are always biased in one way or another. Random people on the net are not going to be able to provide the advice you need. Talk to a therapist, get some counseling, find a support group, and do whatever it is you need to do to make a decision.

Guilt should not be a factor, either in leaving or staying. Your happiness and safety should be though. Good luck.
posted by sephira at 11:13 AM on April 20, 2007

I've actually been going through a very similar situation recently. Luckily, I think she's going to be okay--but the possibility of suicide was definitely a concern of mine while I was making the decision.

I just thought I'd chime in to echo the above sentiments concerning counseling. I've been going now for a few months and it has been a great help to me. Seek support from a good counselor before making any big decisions. But at the same time, I think you should allow yourself the freedom to love yourself and to do what you need to do to make sure that you're taken care of. It's a very difficult balance to strike, I know, but a counselor may be able to help you work out a way to get both of you in a better spot.

Best of luck to you.
posted by soonertbone at 11:45 AM on April 20, 2007

I was going to write what zia did, only with more words.

Had a friend who's wife was the suicidal one. She was regularly institutionalized and he took one of the terms of institution to announce the divorce. That way she had as much support around her as she could. He had also discussed it with her (supportive) family members and friends a day earlier. Not any more so they didn't let the cat out of the bag, but they were all supportive.

From my personal experience (breaking up with a suicidal girlfriend) is that you will probably want to get yourself therapy either now, or immediately after. OR you'll have years of guilt regardless of what the outcome is.

You deserve a life of your own.
posted by Ookseer at 12:48 PM on April 20, 2007

I think before you move forward that you should definitely go through counseling. Not to talk you out of it, but rather to give you a safe & unbiased place to work through your feelings. It sounds like this process will put you through the ringer in terms of feeling grief, guilt, relief, frustration, etc, and it's good to have someone without an ulterior motive to talk to.

I also just wanted to note that I konolia is taking a beating without good cause in this thread, though. I don't always agree with her, and I don't necessarily agree with her comment, but I think she gave valid suggestions in a pretty thoughtful manner and basically just suggested that the OP try some alternatives before completely giving up.
posted by tastybrains at 1:07 PM on April 20, 2007

Holy shit, konolia! 24 years of hell isn't taking your vows seriously?

Way too many sociopathic spouses spout the same manipulative lines: (best if said in injured whine) "Don't you know that heroin addiction/ alcoholism/ bipolar is a disease? How can you be so cold? If I'd known I was marrying someone who didn't take their wedding vows seriously..." Jesus.

It'll take years for the OP to recover from the sort of mental and emotional beating she's taken from living with this sort of hell. She should get out, and if she has kids, she should have gotten out even sooner.

She didn't say he was sociopathic. She didn't give us many details except he was clinically depressed.

Look-I have been married for almost that long myself. I HAVE bipolar disorder myself, and I know what depression is and does to EVERYONE in the family. I also know how treatment modes have changed in the last three decades, and how rapidly they continue to change.

The poster's desire for a divorce could very well be a need for a break and for some selfnurturing. Nothing wrong with that and she does not necessarily need to divorce to have it.
posted by konolia at 1:34 PM on April 20, 2007

How do you divorce this man?

As others said, as efficiently, and firmly as possible. Go to a lawyer first, get as much done as possible, and then let him know what is happening. You cannot be and will not be responsible for any harm he chooses to do to himself, and you have no way of knowing whether a divorce would make him more or less likely to do anything, good or bad. If his responses were rational and predictable, you wouldn't be in this situation. Don't give in to any pleading or emotional manipulation.

Having said that, I do want to mention that sometimes filing for divorce can be a shock to the system that finally wakes up a spouse who had been unwilling to do what it takes to keep the marriage working. You may find that your husband starts putting in good effort to make things better. In your case, I would start thinking about whether you are willing to be open to such gestures, and what you would consider to be significant enough step that you would be willing to slow down or halt the divorce proceedings. Sometimes the months between filing for divorce and actually terminating the marriage can be a golden window of opportunity to actually make some significant improvements. A trial separation while he gets his act together could ultimately let you hold on to a marriage you've already invested two and a half decades in.

If that doesn't happen, you can continue on with the proceedings. But consider what might happen if the threat of you leaving motives him to finally get healthy.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:36 PM on April 20, 2007

motives=motivates, of course. I'm scared to look again for other typos.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:37 PM on April 20, 2007

"You can't live someone else's life for them".

Words to live by. Move on and take care of yourself. You can do no more and are not obliged to. That's easier said than done, but it bears reminding.

The issue is that you will feel a great amount of guilt if you leave and he does commit suicide. That's emotional blackmail and you really can't give in to it.

Get yourself into counselling to help you with moving on, and to be the support you need if he does go through with trying to hurt himself or end his life.

Just don't consider carrying someone else's cross your responsibility. You know this, you just have to believe it too.
posted by qwip at 1:51 PM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

My highschool AP English teacher left a man exactly like this. He told her, "If you leave me, I will kill myself." And she said, "That is your decision." And she left.

She told us never to allow someone to use emotional blackmail against us, and that's the best advice I've ever been given.
posted by Medieval Maven at 2:03 PM on April 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

You obviously love him, so I'll agree with some of the folks above: get him into an environment where he's surrounded by support and assistance, time it so there's no pressing matter making your lives more complicated, and enlist the support of his friends and family members (as much as you can without someone tipping your hand too early and causing undue stress.)

I'll differ in one way, though: do all of the above, then let him know you've reached a point at which you can't stay with him any more, for the reasons you've shared with us. Tell him you don't want to leave, but you can't justify spending the rest of your life with him if he won't take care of that which is within his control. Tell him you want to give him one more chance, and that if he wants you in his life, he's going to have to take care of himself as much as you've been taking care of him.

Then, if he comes through (unlikely, but may happen) you're in a great place to keep working on it -- and if he doesn't hold up his end of the bargain, divorce him with the understanding that you can't commit to a person for the rest of your life if they can't commit to you -- or to themselves.
posted by davejay at 3:18 PM on April 20, 2007

Anonymous, if you read my previous post I sincerely hope you realized it was a joke, and apologize if you did not. At the time I wrote it, I thought a ridiculous suggestion might bring a smile to your face in such a time of struggle. Apparently however, judging by others comments, it wasn't clear that I was joking. My attempts at humor usually go over like that and so I should have known better. I sincerely apologize again. I had planned to scamper away and bury my head but after reading a few posts above I just felt such a need to comment.

First, from the description of your situation, I think you are a saint. You are anything but cold. You have endured 24 years of miserableness. I know that I personally couldn't have lasted 24 months.

I think comments such as "Did your vows mention for better or for worse?" should be completely ignored by you. If you have already looked at them try to forget them. It sounds as though you have too much guilt already. You have nothing to feel guilty about. You deserve more.

I do also disagree with the comments telling you to do this coldly (i.e. seeing a lawyer first, being ultra efficient). It looks like you have firmly made up your mind that you are going to leave and I think that is good. I think that both of you would be much better served if you approached this from the standpoint of "I love you very much and I always will, and I will help you through this as much as I can but I can no longer stay married to you. It has just taken too big a toll on me." You are not responsible for anything he does to himself, but even though he may be manipulative, etc., he is not well. I think that during the divorce it would be much better to treat him less like an adversary and more like a loved one.

It would seem very cold to me to go to a lawyer first and just spring it on him (all of what I am writing assumes that he would never harm you). I would explain to him again and again that you love him, want to help him but you just cannot make it anymore in the relationship. When he begs you to reconsider I would just explain the same thing again. I would very much keep this about you, and your inability to make it anymore in the relationship. If he threatens to kill himself I would let him know that you want to try to help and get him help, but that you just cannot personally make it anymore in the relationship.
I would then let him know how you are going to proceed and then I would proceed exactly that way.

I had a father who committed suicide when my mother left him. Needless to say it was very sad for my siblings and I. My mom tried to break ties very abruptly because she thought that was in his best interest. I think that the sudden feeling that he wasn't loved more than anything caused my father to commit suicide. We never blamed my mother. She was justified in everything she did. But I do believe that there might have been a better way.

Later in life I faced a similar situation. I stayed very close to the person (letting them know that I still loved them and would be there for them but also never intimating that I would stay or get back together with them) and I do believe that it prevented a very sad outcome.
posted by tr45vbyt at 3:26 PM on April 20, 2007

It would seem very cold to me to go to a lawyer first and just spring it on him

He's not going to like it, no matter what you do. You can try to ease into the idea, and leave time for a lot of wrangling and trauma, or you can get it over with. I don't think there's anything cold about doing what you've already determined to do. By all means, be as gentle and supportive as you can when you do tell him, but I still advise he and you are both better off if you make it clear that the decision has already been made. It's not like he doesn't know that the marriage is troubled and you are unhappy. (And if he doesn't even know that...well, so much less reason to hope it can be saved.)

My concern is that I've seen way too many of these situations where the divorcing spouse is trying to be warm and sweet and gentle, and just winds up getting her heart further ripped apart by the drama and recriminations of the process. It's better for both you and him if you demonstrate your earnestness from the start. We're way past flowers and puppies here. After all the counseling, conversations and commitment you have shown up to this point, he already knows that you care for him. Now he needs to know that your limit has been reached. There is no way to do this gently or "warmly" enough that he won't be torn up by it. That can't happen. So do it in the way that makes it easiest for you to be supported, stick with it, and not be overly vulnerable to additional hurt. When you are dealing with someone who is clinically depression and not doing well with meds or therapy, there's just no such thing as calmly and gently getting a divorce. You're going to pass through the valley no matter what, but you can choose whether do it on the express train or hike the scenic route.

All of this is predicated on the notion that you are determined to get this divorce. If you are wavering, things are different.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:44 PM on April 20, 2007

Somewhat disagreeing with the thought that you should be open to an immediate reconciliation, especially since it seems like you've put your foot down before and he hasn't changed. I've been with (and broken up with) people who begged and pleaded and promised that they would change, and did in fact change... for two or three days, sometimes even a whole week!... but when not actually faced with the prospect of me leaving, they reverted. Going through this cycle is awful, and probably even worse for your husband then a single break up. So I think it would be best to go into this with the expectation that it will be permanent unless he shows serious, committed change over a long period of time.

Also on preview what Pater Aletheias said. I've unpleasantly experienced situations where "I like you but I don't think we should be together" ended up triggering a long, whiny, "but pleeeeeease I'll be soooo gooood I prooooomise". Cute in a two year old, not something you want in a husband.
posted by anaelith at 3:53 PM on April 20, 2007

When you are dealing with someone who is clinically depression and not doing well with meds or therapy, there's just no such thing as calmly and gently getting a divorce.

Pater, I agree that it's important to be earnest and decisive but absolutist statements such as the above, while they do make you sound authoritative, are just factually incorrect. I can anecdotally prove so for this one. Life is rarely so black and white. And while in most cases things will not proceed "calmly and gently", the real aim is to just make it slightly calmer and slightly more gentle. Often that is all it takes.
posted by tr45vbyt at 4:06 PM on April 20, 2007

I am a bipolar, borderline, diabetic man who has been married for 30+ years. My wife is fed up, justifiably. I've lost too many jobs, had too many meltdowns, been too crazy mean too many times for the love to survive. I take my meds, see a counselor weekly, and still my life I know why she's tired of the drama. I am frequently suicidal, almost permanently depressed. My manic episodes are no fun any more--I just go straight to insanely irritable.

We have tried some counseling, but her heart really isn't in it. I don't blame her, and I wouldn't blame you for leaving. I know some people suicide as an attack on their family, and some use the threat of suicide to control the people in their life. If that is what he is doing, you may actually be helping him by refusing to reinforce the behavior.

In any event, his actions are not your responsibility. If his pain exceeds his coping skills he will suicide, and he may even feel bad for those left behind, but he can't give what he doesn't have--AND NEITHER CAN YOU. Get some counseling for yourself and good luck.
posted by RussHy at 7:12 PM on April 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

RussHy - so how, when you're not crazy mean, do you let her know you understand her frustration? Or is that not how it works?
posted by dragonsi55 at 9:41 PM on April 20, 2007

Actually, RussHy, that's a bit personal, let me change the question to a measure of compassion for you and anonymous.
posted by dragonsi55 at 9:49 PM on April 20, 2007

I tell her I understand. I tell her I am sorry. I encourage her to let me know when I have made her feel bad, or when I have crossed a boundary, etc. I have never had people skills to speak of, so I am trying to develop them now. My current operating metaphor is that I have a huge bucket of shit that I need to get rid of, but I need to learn how to empty my bucket without filling someone else's.
posted by RussHy at 4:43 AM on April 21, 2007

« Older Where do I find a technology conference planner ?   |   in case he grows up and gets rich, i need to know... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.