Is it right to divorce a depressed spouse?
December 4, 2007 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Is it right to divorce a depressed spouse?

My wife hasn't been the happiest person as long as I've known her, and during our seven years of our marriage she's gradually spiraled into increasing depression and anxiety, to the point that she's been fighting back suicidal thoughts on and off over the last year or so. She dearly loves our two daughters (one four years, one nine months) but often has trouble dealing with them by herself for more than an hour without turning into an emotional wreck. This is all rooted in an incredibly poor self-image; she sees every moment of every day as proof that she's fat / stupid / a bad parent / universally disliked / a failure / etc. She has a great life by all objective measures but nonetheless she's miserable. Sometimes she's, well, functional for an afternoon or so, but this is the exception rather than the rule -- for instance, she has too much anxiety to talk on the phone, and can't put our older daughter to bed or finish eating a meal with the family because otherwise she'd end up yelling at the top of her lungs and stressed to the point of tears. She finally sought treatment this year, but after six months, two (well-recommended) therapists, and at least a half-dozen different combinations of medications for depression and anxiety, she felt nothing was working, quit both medication and therapy and is very unlikely to try either again for quite a long time. I'm really the one stable thing for her to lean on, the one healthy thing in her life. But after years of this, I'm drained and miserable. I'd love nothing more than to be able to help her to lead a happy life, but so far have had no success, and what once seemed a limitless future now looks grey and bleak. Would it ever be fair to leave her, or do I have a moral duty to continue to devote myself to supporting my wife and the mother of my children, regardless of what effect that has on my own life (and, possibly, our children's)?

I'm particularly interested in hearing from any of you who've been in a long-term relationship with a depressed person; what did you do, and in hindsight, was it the right decision?

I am not looking on advise for helping my wife out of her depression -- that's an entirely different question, and one for which I'd need to provide a lot more background, and what we've tried and what she's likely to be willing to try.

(More details in the first comment. Apologies for the length -- I want to provide some context, but I've already trimmed any kinds of details or examples. Feel free to skip the rest, or to ask for particular examples to determine if I'm a complete loon or jerk with a biased perspective).
posted by UtterlyDrained to Human Relations (59 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: This isn't about the usual marriage troubles. Nobody's been unfaithful, and we never outright fight. It's not about money -- I make a good salary and although she spends a lot as "retail therapy", I don't need free cash to spend on luxuries in order to be happy, and our current tight finances are more a source of stress for her than they are any problem in our marriage. It's not about sex -- due to her self-image issues, we haven't had any since the conception of our nine-month-old daughter (which is only a bit longer than usual -- once every four or six months is probably more characteristic of our relationship after its first year), but if everything else was great then I could live with that. It's not about love or affection -- I rarely feel that (beyond being emotionally dependent on me) she truly loves or even respects me (in the sense of considering my opinions, feelings, time, etc to be as important as her own), but that's really more a product of her own insecurity making her deeply unable to care about anything outside her head, and anyhow I made a promise and couldn't break it simply because I feel she "doesn't love me enough". It's not even that I'm angry or bitter, despite how this question probably sounds; just the opposite, I'd be overjoyed if she could just be happy for a few days in a row, as she's actually a very smart, talented person.

The problem is quite simply that she's miserable, and I -- who was really a rather imperturbably happy person eight or nine years ago -- have realized that it's been a long time since I've actually enjoyed life. The calm demeanor which has always been at the core of my personality has unraveled to the point where it's an effort of will to remain patient with our children (at least when she's around; unsurprisingly, I tend to be calmer and happier when I manage to leave the house for a weekend afternoon, even when I bring both kids along as usual -- and even more so on those occasions, a few times a year, when I'm gone for a day or two on business). I've been giving everything I can emotionally and physically for nearly a decade, and I'm drained to the point of absolute exhaustion; it's even affecting my job. The reservoir I call on daily to provide detachment and force myself to be (or act) patient, stable, and relatively happy is, bit by bit, drying up.

Obviously I've made mistakes myself along the way. I married her knowing I wasn't entirely happy with her state of mind or with the relationship, in the earnest if foolish (and egotistical) hope that I could change her life and make her happy. I agreed to kids, even more foolishly, because I hoped that having someone to care for who depended entirely on her would finally provide her with a sense of self-worth. In hindsight, those choices were both naive and terribly misguided, but they're not worth dwelling on -- this question is about the future.

So what's keeping us together? Well, I made a promise, which means a lot to me personally, but I'm beyond the point where that alone could keep us together. It's not the kids -- indeed, I have a feeling they'd be happier if I could raise them alone, as callous as that sounds (although I do fear that if we separated and I wasn't given full custody, and I'd assume I likely wouldn't, the kids would have a hard time on days spent with just her, especially if she gets worse; I don't fear for their safety as she has never physically abused them, but most interactions between her and the older daughter take the form of my wife yelling constantly at the top of her lungs, scolding and restricting everything the kid does, resulting in a feedback look where the four-year-old decides that if everything results in a scolding anyway, she might as well do whatever she wants). Really what keeps us together is the strong likelihood that divorce -- both the betrayal my wife would feel and the loss the main person keeping her afloat -- would destroy her. Possibly kill her, quite literally, given her struggle with suicidal thoughts. So we're still together after seven years of marriage. I feel I'm a pretty solid individual with an impressive, if unhealthy, capacity to detach myself and push my own feelings aside, but even I'm starting to have trouble with the joyless life I'm leading -- and the nonideal situation I'm bringing my children up in.

Unfortunately, the easy answer -- "share your concerns with her, and work through them together", or even do couples therapy -- really isn't feasible here. If I were to confront her gently but directly with even a fraction of this, she would take that as damning evidence that even her husband hates her, and she'd push away and isolate herself even further than she already is, destroying the years I've fought to get her to open up about her feelings even a little; the result would be the worst of both worlds. Case in point -- I occasionally have to bring up money issues and gently insist we curb spending, and invariably on these occasions she sinks deeper into a hole for weeks, obsessing over money and talking constantly about how she's a terrible person who has spent way too much; until she climbs out of the hole, finally, by spending a few thousand dollars on some recent obsession. No, unfortunately I need to be as positive and supportive as I possibly can until and unless I decide I'm willing to end the relationship entirely.

Therapy for myself is something to consider as well, but ultimately that'd just be helping me deal with a difficult situation which looks unlikely to resolve itself any time soon. At best it simply delays the question, and so it's not really an answer to the main question.
posted by UtterlyDrained at 2:19 PM on December 4, 2007

Where are you in the child care continuum? If you know she goes batshit caring for children by herself, are you stepping in and carrying your load or offering to hire help? I don't know how you can describe what you are describing and sound so much removed and as if you were watching that train wreck on TV. You have already divorced your wife. Now it is just a matter of making it official. I hope she finds some support. If she had a baby 9 months ago, she could have some serious post partum depression.
posted by 45moore45 at 2:24 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Can you afford a nanny / au pair or other help with the children? Obviously, it may affect her self-image again but could well relieve some of the stress which causes her problems with the children. It's there that my concerns lie - certainly, your wife is sick and ill but I think you must consider your two daughters here. Having their mother yell at them during every interaction isn't healthy on so many, many levels. They need a more rational and caring role model in their lives. If that can't be you all the time (and if you're at work, that's understandable during the day), then it should be someone.
posted by humuhumu at 2:26 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Man, I don't have any qualified advice, but my heart goes out to you. I can see similar behaviors in my spouse, but to a much lesser degree. You sound totally trapped and immersed in the situation, and also as if you need to get away for a few days with your kids in a safe environment.

I wouldn't discount the worth of some cognitive behavioral therapy for yourself, in the short term. I found it helpful when dealing with other crises (which resolved themselves).

Here is an earlier thread. I am not suggesting that it has pat answers or will be helpful.

April 20th, 2007: how to divorce a potentially suicidal spouse
posted by craniac at 2:26 PM on December 4, 2007

Sounds like you're in a very difficult situation, and that you've done your best to keep both of you afloat for a very long time. I don't have kids, and haven't been in a long-term relationship with someone who was depressed.

I can only speak as a daughter of a Mom who was seriously depressed throughout my childhood. My Mom pretty regularly overshared as to her suicidal ideations and her feelings of worthlessness as a parent, leaving myself and my brother to comfort her as best we could. My Dad wrestled with the same issue you're trying to decide on now, and ultimately decided to stay in the marriage. They are still together (both my sib and I are adults now) and today, she is much happier.

In retrospect, however, I think the best thing for us kids would have been if my Dad separated from her or got a divorce and got us out of that environment. I know it affected both of us kids in ways that we're aware of, and in ways that will only become evident as we mature. I love my Mom dearly and have a great relationship with her today, but I think we all would have been better off if we had grown up in different houses, or at least if she'd had a "breather".

I'm not sure if my personal experience speaks to the pain that you're experiencing right now, and can't guess what the right decision might be for you. Best wishes, and I hope it all turns out for the best.
posted by arnicae at 2:27 PM on December 4, 2007 [7 favorites]

If you thought she would agree to another go at therapy would it change how you felt about the situation?

It sounds to me that because the therapy option seems "off the table", you now feel *you* have no hope either, other than divorce.

Your wife may be unwilling to try more therapy / drug combinations because she feels a failure already.

Not to be trite, but everyone, however good at stuff, has had situations where they needed to "try, try, try again".

How many combinations of stuff did it take to get the light bulb?

If you have any hope that you can try again with the therapy, then go for it. Otherwise, not.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 2:41 PM on December 4, 2007

Response by poster: 45moore45:

Some measure of detachment is the only way to survive being the sole support system for a clinicially depressed person for years at a time, but real love is about how one behaves -- and I can't imagine being more supportive of her than I've been, so I feel it unfair to deem that I've "already divorced her". And yes, I'm "carrying my load" -- I actually spend slightly more hours caring for the children through the week than she does (I work from home, and this is part of how the situation has impacted my job). I agree that post partum depression is likely part of the issue, but I've observed her for the better part of a decade and I feel confident that the pattern is much longer-term than that.


The nanny suggestion is an excellent one, but I'm not sure we can use it right now. In fact, when we started the older daughter in preschool, that did help my wife deal with day-to-day life a bit. Unfortunately, I'm afraid we just can't afford more round-the-clock help right now. Fortunately as I mentioned above I do work at home, so when things get too out of hand I'm able to step in and take care of one or both of the kids until my wife can have some time to calm down; I think that helps a lot (both the kids and my wife), though it makes it very tough to draw a consistent line between work and home.


Getting myself and my kids away for a few days is a good idea; in fact, I'd been considering taking them to visit family for a weekend around Christmas, so maybe I'll consider that more seriously. And thanks for the link -- I'd somehow missed that one.


Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, that means a lot. That's exactly the type of insight I was hoping for.
posted by UtterlyDrained at 2:42 PM on December 4, 2007

In sickness and health. For better or worse, dude.

These are the very things that test the relationship. Now, that's not to say you are stuck together in the same house forever. Definitely, your wife needs serious assistance. Beyond simple therapy, she may actually need to be institutionalized. Again, these are the things that test the relationship. Moreover, I would argue that these are the very things that relationships are meant for. She'll need your strength, no matter what transpires.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:47 PM on December 4, 2007 [12 favorites]

I think you should explore therapy for yourself to deal with your feelings of guilt about the situation, as well as your delusion that you have control over her disease.

I don't really think this is much different than living with an alcoholic. At some point, the alcoholic either gets help, or the spouse leaves.

(Don't take my bluntness as unsympathetic - I really, really feel for you. I'm just pressed for time.)
posted by desjardins at 2:49 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

If she had a brain tumor, would you divorce her?

I think it's fair to insist she get treatment if she wants to continue being married but this IS an illness.
posted by konolia at 2:51 PM on December 4, 2007 [6 favorites]

your delusion that you have control over her disease.

should be: your delusion that you have ANY control over her disease.
posted by desjardins at 2:51 PM on December 4, 2007

Wow, your wife sounds very, very similar to my mother. I don't really have any advice, but growing up with a yelling, haranguing, overly critical parent who spent a lot of time putting herself down, crying in bed and sharing her bleak inner thoughts with the rest of the family resulted in all the kids in my family to grow up with some deeply rooted emotional and mental health issues. Her behavior got worse as the kids got older and less dependent and she began to project her own insecurities and anxieties on her family and blame us for her problems.

All of us have spent a lot of time in therapy and have hardcore anxiety issues. What's worse is that this is how we learned how people in relationships and families treat each other. We each had to unlearn that.

I used to fantasize about my parents getting a divorce, but they didn't. I don't want to say you should leave your wife, but you have a responsibility to protect your children from verbal and emotional abuse, as well as to provide a loving and non-chaotic environment for them to grow up in.
posted by pluckysparrow at 2:55 PM on December 4, 2007 [7 favorites]

I've no idea whether this would help your wife or you or both, but the posts by Dooce following the birth of her daughter detailing how difficult she found being a mother and coping with a difficult infant, leading up to her breakdown and short spell in a mental hospital (and subsequent recovery, of course) might be useful. Heather is a fantastic writer and relates events and feelings with an openness that is utterly welcoming. There are a few core posts (1, 2, 3) detailing the weekend locked away from her daughter but the general archive on her battle with depression may also help.
posted by humuhumu at 3:00 PM on December 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

You have my heartfelt sympathy. You are suffering and it must be extremely difficult. But I think it that this needs to be repeated over and over until you hear it: your wife is sick. She has a disease. You must insist that she gets serious, comprehensive treatment for this disease immediately, even if that means inpatient treatment. Like, tomorrow.

The longer you wait, the more damage she's doing to herself, to you, and to your children.

Honor your vows by taking care of her in this way. And take care of yourself by getting yourself into therapy right away. Like, tomorrow.
posted by minervous at 3:02 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I hope that I can respond to you with the kindness and sensitivity that so many mefi's showed me when I asked a similar question in an anonymous post:

I first got help for myself. Being on my own medication helped me to think things through more clearly. I also got my daughter help--now three out of the four members of our family are on anti-depressants and in therapy. I decided to end my 25-year marriage to a clinically depressed man because it turned into a clinically depressed home. You did what I did--completely believed that you could help the person you love to be happy. No one can do that for someone else.

What has happened for me is unbelievable: we are divorcing amicably; my husband has suddenly realized how ineffective his therapy was and is trying something new; he will do whatever it takes to help us through this divorce and do what is best for our kids. One mefi suggested that this could be what it took to motivate him, and I dismissed that response completely. Turns out that so far that's exactly what has happened.

I believe that this level of depression can only be treated by therapy and medication, and that it may take awhile to get the right combination with the right therapist. But, she has to be willing, and that is very difficult for the clinically depressed. If she was an addict of some kind who was refusing to get help, no one would blame you for removing yourself and your children from that situation.

You cannot be responsible for another's happiness, but you are responsible for your children's safety and well-being. I will have a difficult time forgiving myself for not removing my daughter from our situation earlier. I encourage you to separate, not only for yourself and your children, but to give your wife the space to focus on herself and her healing, if she chooses. I encourage you to talk with a professional who can be objective and help you see other sides to this scenario that you may not be aware of. You can decide in a more normal environment for you and your children what is best for their future.

Frankly, your wife may attempt suicide, but you're already living with that threat every day. Save yourself and save your children. I hope your wife gets the help she needs and you can all find happiness for yourselves soon, in whatever situation that may be.
posted by SMP at 3:05 PM on December 4, 2007 [22 favorites]

My parents were once in the same situation. Mom was incredibly unstable, depressed, and very possibly psychotic. After 20 years of marriage, after countless medications and therapists, my dad gave her an ultimatum, "try to change or I want a divorce". She committed suicide that night.

This is just one of the many things you need to put into consideration. If I were in your position, I would demand that she get more treatment until something does work. It's obvious that you still love her, so make this work.
posted by Sufi at 3:11 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

i think you have the right to demand that she return to treatment. six months ain't nothin'....considering that it takes 2-3 months for a medication to become fully effective, it can take a year or more to find a good fit.

your wife may also benefit from an inpatient program. really. talk to her about it.

being the child of a depressed mother, i have to say, it's not something you want to do to your kids. you have to think of them. children are SO sensitive to their mothers, and an unstable one can really undermine a kid's self-worth in ways that will last their entire lives.

you did make a promise to your wife, but you also have an (arguably more important) obligation to your children. don't assume you wouldn't get full custody during a separation. for one thing, she may not want it, and for another, you may be able to argue convincingly for it in a courtroom.

can you talk to your family and/or her parents about this? it sounds like you might need some family support here. it will be easier with the rest of the family on board, too.

good luck.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:25 PM on December 4, 2007

I would revisit something sondrialiac said and empathize that while you have free will and a measure of control over your existence, your children do not. Every day, you and your wife are forming and honing your children's lifelong concepts of what normal human behavior is like and what marriage means. They are powerless; you are not, and I believe you owe it to them to make your decisions with their needs first and foremost.
posted by itstheclamsname at 3:27 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I can never recommend a miserable situation if changing the situation will reduce the number of miserable people.

The only roadblock to divorce is childcare, as she obviously can't handle it. So I hope you can afford childcare (either in-home care or daycare), as that's what they'll need no matter who gets custody (presuming you work outside the home).
posted by iguanapolitico at 3:28 PM on December 4, 2007

FWIW, I don't see detachment here and I don't think it's useful or fair to respond to a heartfelt and serious question with this kind of criticism. I've BEEN in the past the depressed partner, watched my then-boyfriend/fiance (now husband) struggle constantly to try to make me happy when - as has been pointed out - he couldn't. That's just not how depression works.

Everyone is quick to point out that UtterlyDrained made a marital comittment here - and I agree. But from whatever evidence his words give, it also looks to me like he takes that vow very seriously.

At some point, the stress of constantly caring for another (while receiving little or no mental and emotional support back) can have negative mental health effects for the caregiver. UtterlyDrained is an adult individual, working (does his wife work, or is he balancing more than a fair share of responsibilities - financial, childcare, household, and care for wife's illness? How does that stress affect his ability to do the necessary to keep a functional family? I suggest that it's POSSIBLE that any detachment people are reading is a symptom of depression!!! Frankly, as much as UtterlyDrained "owes" support to his wife as a part of his marital vows, he also "owes" it to his children to consider his own mental health (and how it affects his physical health). It sounds to me like two young kids are staying afloat because they have 1 healthy, adjusted parent. What if they lose that?

Frankly, I second the therapy for UtterlyDrained himself suggestion for a couple reasons. A therapist may help cope with some of these feelings, particularly guilt. Also, a therapist might be able to assist in suggesting some approaches to handle these discussions with Wife in the most gentle yet direct, appropriate manner. A therapist might be able to assist with creative suggestions to get Wife to reconsider therapy on her own. Even if not a mental health professional, but some kind of talking with a trusted adviser might be really helpful. UtterlyDrained, what you NEED is someone "helping [you] deal with a difficult situation which looks unlikely to resolve itself any time soon".

As for experience, as the depressed girlfriend/fiancee/spouse, I eventually gave up on mental health treatment that I felt to be making things worse, and was able to put faith and trust in myself with the support of a devoted, unconditionally loving husband, and sort of really make serious life changes. I don't think that works for everyone, or even most people. I think feeling like you can "fix" your wife, while very laudable, loving and stereotypically male (in the good way), is a pipe dream that will leave all parties in worse shape. Truly good luck, and don't add your own guilt to the full enough plate you already have,
posted by bunnycup at 3:30 PM on December 4, 2007 [6 favorites]

I think you may be looking for permission. I'd seek a good rabbi, priest or minister and ask for a visit to discuss the ethics of your situation. Yes, you did promise "in sickness and in health." It may be that a separation, where you find her a temporary place to stay while you care for the kids at home, would be recommended. She may need to understand the seriousness of your unhappiness, and the effect on your health, which sounds severe. She needs her health care professionals to understand the severity of her condition, and work really hard at helping with treatment, and treatment means meds and possibly hospitalization.

My Mom is bipolar, and it made childhood difficult, but we live in a culture that's intensely critical of parents. I am in some ways damaged by my childhood, and in some ways stronger and more compassionate. I struggle with bouts of depression, but it's controllable with medication. However, my now-ex-husband blamed every problem in our marriage on my depression, even when I wasn't depressed, and that took some time to recover from.

Part-time child care might help; it's not as expensive as a nanny, and kids benefit from the socialization. You should be seeing a therapist to help you sort out dealing with your wife's serious illness.

You have to decide for yourself whether to go or stay. Either way, both of you need to focus on how to care for your children through whatever transitions you make.
posted by theora55 at 3:31 PM on December 4, 2007

So I would suggest that you contact a lawyer, without telling her about it, and ask how to start a paper trail to document her depression.

If nothing else, this is excellent advice. There's no way of knowing exactly where things may go in the future, and if divorce truly becomes the only option, you'll be needing as much documentation on your side as possible. For whatever reason, child custody often resolves in the mother's favour in court, even in cases where the mother is obviously a less fit parent. It's much better to have this documentation and not need it, than to need it and not have it. And as the quoted said, given your wife's condition, I would absolutely make sure she can't find this information.
posted by Nelsormensch at 3:32 PM on December 4, 2007

I think therapy is incredibly important for you right now, regardless of what she does.

Whether or not you choose to officially separate, I think you and she need to get her out of the house so that she can focus on the big issues. Whether that means she lives with family, seeks residential treatment, lives on her own, whatever it takes. Nobody is being well-served under the current circumstances, and part of the difficulty of battling depression is how incredibly hard it is to gain perspective (and momentum) without some sort of unignorable shakeup to the routine.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:37 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

GET THE KIDS OUT. Now. No, really, now.

Then get her help, even if it means checking her into a program/hospital somewhere.

Not being able to put the baby to bed without losing your mind is NOT acceptable and refusing to continue to get help on her own is also not acceptable.

Yes, depression is a disease, yes, its not her fault, yes yes yes, all of the things you are going to say about dpressed people have rights too, I have personal knowledge and experience, but this is NOT just about her, there are children involved and they DO NOT need to be dealing with this kind of stuff while they are trying to build their own emotional system. This isn't just one woman sitting in her one room apartment and not bothering anyone with her refusal to get help.
posted by legotech at 3:39 PM on December 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

You made a commitment to stick with her in sickness and in health. This is not to be taken lightly. From the thoughtful nature of your question I assume you agree and hence your struggle. Only you can determine if her problems have gotten so bad that they are destroying your own life such that you need to leave. Leaving would be no picnic and will bring its own problems. By the way, six months does not seem like much time to devote to making this better. More like six years. There are no quick fixes to depression this deep.
posted by caddis at 3:46 PM on December 4, 2007

I re-read the part about the kids. You need to get them out of this situation as soon as possible. Like some of the others in this thread, my mom's mental illness has had lifelong effects on me. She was hospitalized multiple times, attempted suicide, etc.

If your wife is constantly yelling at a four year old, she's a danger to another person, whether she ever touches your daughter or not. I think it would be morally reprehensible to knowingly keep a child in such a situation.

The solution may or may not involve divorce. Other options include inpatient treatment for your wife or giving temporary custody of the kids to their grandparents. Some kind of intervention is in order, and if she's actively suicidal perhaps you can get her involuntarily committed. I am not a lawyer and I'm not sure of the legal ramifications of these options. What I do know is that you owe it to your kids to keep them out of harm's way and provide them with the best environment you can. Their safety is your moral responsibility.
posted by desjardins at 3:57 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Someone wanted to post this anonymously, so I'll go ahead and copy what they wrote me:
My mother was your wife. A few years ago, after my parents had been married for nearly 35 unhappy years, she died of cancer because her illness had progressed over the years from refusing to treat her depression to refusing to seek any medical treatment at all. We didn't know that she had cancer until it was too late to treat it.

I blamed my father for her life and for her death for a long time. At first, I blamed him for not forcing her to get treatment for her depression. He was her husband! He should have fixed her! He should have made her get better! Once I got old enough to realize that was unreasonable, I started to develop a different kind of anger at him: I was angry at him for not leaving her. He couldn't have forced her not to be depressed, but he could have prevented her from forcing her depression onto us kids. He could have made it so that we didn't have to walk on eggshells the whole time we were growing up. He could have made it so that my little sister, whom I love more than my own life, isn't today afraid to express any opinions of any kind for fear that she'll upset someone and make them not love her.

My mother didn't hit us or rage at us or throw things. She simply faded into the background and was unhappy. And to a child, "Mommy is always unhappy" is indistinguishable from "I have made Mommy unhappy, and nothing I do is good enough to make her happy again." No matter how many times a child is told that Mommy's feelings are not his fault, the child doesn't believe it, because a child can't separate his ego from anything else going on in the world. So when my mom was sad, that was the center of my world, and all I knew was that I had to be more perfect in order to make my mom not be sad anymore. I still feel like everything is all my fault when other people are unhappy, and I suffer from deep anxiety about it.

I'm just now starting as an adult to move past my childhood. My sister is still suffering with it, and because she has only ever known a depressed mother, I'm afraid that she idealizes depression and seeks it out in her relationships with friends and romantic partners. She's scarred. I'm afraid we both are. We both take medication for depression and anxiety. And I'm not sure how to forgive my father for not seeing how damaging that would be and for not protecting us from it. Because even though he made a vow to love and honor my mother in sickness and in health, I feel like when he became a father, he made a more important vow to protect us from harm, even when that harm was coming from my mother.

My father and I aren't on speaking terms, and it breaks my heart. I would love to have a relationship with my one living parent, but I'm just not ready to forgive him for deciding that he had a higher responsibility to protect a grown woman than to protect two helpless children from her.

I don't know what would have happened to her if he had left her. She might have died either way. She might have gotten worse faster. And that would be sad, definitely. But that would also be at least partly a situation of her own making, because she has a choice in this situation to get help. Your children don't. And one thing I do know is that it would have been better for us to know that someone cared more about our feelings than they did about tiptoeing around hers. Just to know that we mattered, that our happiness was as important as hers. That would have been so huge for me.

Your children are so young now, young enough that if you get them out, they may not even remember how bad it was. Get the best lawyer you can find and fight like hell for them. Document your wife's illness and her incapacity and her suicidal ideation and insist that, for their own safety, your children not be left alone with her unsupervised. I understand that leaving this woman you love to fend for herself may break your heart. But letting your children grow up in the shadow of this disease will break your children.
posted by mathowie at 4:08 PM on December 4, 2007 [34 favorites]

I've been you, the partner that emotionally and financially supported someone through years of depression. So much of your post echoed my own experience it made me cry remembering how exhausting the relationship was. And the brief flashes of my partner being happy were like crack and the reason I kept trying to hard.

It is a disease, as others have pointed out, but it is HER disease. If she is not willing to seek treatment or therapy then yes, I believe you are fully within any moral justifications to divorce her and fight hard for the children. How she interacts with them breaks my heart as a mother. Not every woman is meant to be a full-time mom. Has she explored working outside the home to pay for childcare? If she is incapable of working because of her depression then it comes back to her taking responsibility for her illness and seeking treatment. Sorry to sound harsh but the line between depression and laziness can become blurry when there is someone else willing to completely take over their responsibilities and stop them from hitting bottom. The comparisons between alcoholism and depression is apt, as the partner can sometimes actually make the situation worse by being an enabler.

If you have been protecting her emotionally all this time, hiding your resentment and concerns then you aren't really having an authentic relationship. I hope you are able to get therapy for yourself because surving in a relationship and trying to be a good parent during this must be very difficult. You need someone to really work in-depth with you on making the best decisions for you and your wife and daughters.
posted by saucysault at 4:16 PM on December 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

I had a depressed spouse for eight years. It may or may not be right, but there does come a point where you can't live with it any more. My child was three when I left and is now capable of having a good relationship with his dad for occasional visits and mostly phone calls because he can't directly remember daddy saying all those bad things about himself (or the things like "I never wanted a kid anyway")--but my son does sometimes say similar things about himself.

I can't imagine the wreck I'd be by now if I'd stayed, and I don't want to imagine how my son would be. If she won't try seriously to get help, get the kids out as soon as you can. Even if she's not a direct danger to them, she's not doing their senses of self-worth any good, but the level of depression you're describing could put them in jeopardy.
posted by Cricket at 4:59 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've been the depressed on in a relationship, but the degree of depression and anxiety wasn't as pronounced for me. I do recall being very hurt, but also very relieved when it ended because I just felt guilty the whole time about keeping someone tied to me when they could have a normal, un-depressed person, but again, everyone's different and plus there were no kids in my situation.

I wasn't suicidal-hurt about the relationship ending, though. It was normal heartbreak hurt, the kind you take out on friends' shoulders with lots of alcohol. So if you think it's possible your wife might react in this way, if she's got supportive friends and a good supply of booze, it might be a good idea to get yourself out of there (and yes, of course the kids, but I think that's been mentioned enough on this thread - you have a moral obligation to yourself, too.).

I'm not sure how safe it is to duplicate my story, but all the SSRIs and supportiveness in the world didn't help me as much as getting my heart shattered and then putting it back together. We broke up, I came out of depression, and now I'm really, truly enjoying my life. :) It could've been a coincidence, or it could've been the cause. Who knows?

Just an additional data point. Good luck.
posted by reebear at 5:05 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Simply regarding treatment: half a dozen drug combinations and two therapists in six months?! These things take time - both the drugs and the therapists. Unless there are negative side-effects, it's generally a good idea to spend at least a month or two on a given drug. Some of them (Prozac, for example) can take at least a month to really kick in, though this is of course dependent on individual neurochemistry... and it can take a while to find the correct combination of meds for a given problem. Similarly, it can take a while to establish a rapport with a therapist/psychiatrist/etc. It can be really tough to learn how to open up to a stranger - how to help them help you. Furthermore, depression can make it really hard to get started on a course of treatment, or to follow through: it's easy to convince yourself that the treatment is useless, and that you're not worth it. This is doubly the case when you've been denying your depression for years. I'm speaking from experience here.

In other words, if you and your wife can work together, there is still hope that treatment might make a difference. This is not to say that you have an obligation to deal with someone mentally ill for the rest of your life, or risk raising your children in a warzone. Maybe it isn't possible to do anything further right now - maybe she's not ready to try any harder. Still: in the end, only you can figure out whether the damage to your family and yourself is bad enough that divorce is the only answer. But go to a therapist yourself. Really. It'll help you put things in perspective, help you deal with the situation, help you decide what to do, and figure out how to positively yet productively support her and your children. Maybe that will include a return to meds and therapy, maybe something more drastic - inpatient care, separation, etc. You and mental health professionals and your wife will have to figure that out.
posted by ubersturm at 5:12 PM on December 4, 2007

Best answer: In sickness and in health, yes. I wonder, if your wife was an alcoholic who hit your children and wasn't seeking treatment since she decided it wasn't working, would posters respond the same way? After all, alcoholism is also a disease, correct?

I have suffered from major depression and self-esteem issues. I have sympathy for the depressed. And if it was just you and her, this would be a more difficult question. But the fact that you have two children, and she cannot handle the children for a few hours, is an indicator that you need to make drastic changes. "In sickness and in health" does not include "Even when she is psychologically and emotionally abusing our kids". The alcoholism analogy is absolutely right in this respect, as psychological abuse is as damaging (and more long-lasting) than a broken arm. My mom was psychologically abusive in some ways and it fucked me up--it was one of the main causes of the depression I mentioned above. And her abuse wasn't near what you're describing.

Being depressed does not give her license to behave that towards her children. The minute you had those kids you had a solemn responsibility to give them the happiest, healthiest life possible. Your wife cannot provide that right now, at all.

Talk to the lawyer and get documentation of her depression. Suggest, in the strongest manner you possibly can while maintaining a gentle tone, that she needs to seek help immediately in the form of in-patient treatment. Seek therapy yourself to help sort out how you should deal with her and your future. And any chance you get, remove the children from her care.

If she shows no signs of attempting to help herself within a week or two, you need to start considering separation. Even if you haven't gone to therapy yet. Just get the papers ready.

I firmly, absolutely believe in the compact of marriage. But the welfare and health of your kids always comes first.
posted by Anonymous at 5:13 PM on December 4, 2007

I was a depressed spouse. Before that, I was a depressed girlfriend. We're talking major-league depression here - the kind your wife seems to be at now, possibly worse.

I had been that way since childhood (about age 10). There were several factors, but having depressed parents probably wasn't much of a help.

I was actively working to end my depression from about age 17. After 7 years of deep, deep depression, I finally felt able to start trying to make an effort.

It took me (with and without help) until I was 24 to completely pull out of it. I am still prone to depressive episodes and cycles. I am not yet fully recovered. At my current rate of progress, I may be recovered by the time I'm 30 or so - but I'm not counting on that.

I had a lot of motivation to get well again, and I had my spouse to lean on when I forgot I was strong. Which, admittedly, was pretty damn often.

I tell you this, because the recovery process was very extended. About 7 years, for the primary phase, and it's still going, in some respects. Being depressed is a fundamental habit, and an extremely difficult one firstly to break, and secondly, not to slip back into by default. My husband saw 5 years of that phase, and continues to support me when I'm Just Not Dealing. Part of the Not Dealing is because it's taking so long to get really well, and obviously it means i'm a failure, because all I am trying for is normal, how hard can it be, I suck, etc. In my more rational moments, I know this is complete bunk, of course, and that these things take time. As cited in numerous studies, etc, by people who've got more technical expertise than I, it's totally normal to take as long to recover from being depressed as it takes to get that depressed, and all that stuff (.. which may help your wife, to know that it's totally normal for it to take ages, which means she's not a failure ... but it may not help, because logic often doesn't apply in the middle of a funk).

You are already burnt out by the downward slide. Can you, in all honesty, deal with another 7 years of this on the upswing? And that's only if she works actively on it. I advise you to think carefully about that when making your decision.
posted by ysabet at 5:24 PM on December 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

If I were in your position, I'd be rereading my copy of Codependent No More before making my decision.

It's too hard to suss out everyone's motives and needs in this forum. I think, as long as you can be honest with yourself about any part you may have in this, that that book will give you the tools to do it. Also, it'll give you some hints as to what kind of feelings you'll go through afterwards if you do go through with the divorce.
posted by RobotHeart at 5:30 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I should also mention something. Maybe this is different for other posters who have battled with depression, but I can say without question that when depressed I was incapable of caring for children, incapable of being a mother, and if I did have kids I hope to God someone got them away from me, especially if they were young. I could only provide them pain and I should not be in their lives. I would protest and be upset about it at the time, but well I'd agree it was the correct decision.
posted by Anonymous at 5:34 PM on December 4, 2007

Sometimes therapy and ad hoc medication are not enough, and people need to go to the hospital. This is particularly true when suicidal ideation is involved. When someone lives for years with clinical depression and anxiety that is untreated, it can require 8-10 days or more in a hospital setting with constant treatment and supervision in order to get precisely the right diagnosis and the right combination of medications and the right perspective on the illness. This can be successful, and when it is successful walking out of the hospital feels like being reborn. This may be worth a shot. Good luck.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 5:40 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Please accept my apologies for not having time to read all of the above.

I hope and assume you will divorce your wife for your own good and for the good of your children.

Before you do so, please consult a sympathetic divorce lawyer, and under his/her guidance, put together the evidence and documents you will need to convince a court to give you sole custody of the kids.

This would become more difficult if the divorce was already under discussion, or in progress, or if -- the worst scenario -- you had moved out as a preliminary step of separation before the final divorce. Stay on site and quietly prepare the best exit strategy for the good of the kids.

I wish you all the best in this difficult time.
posted by JimN2TAW at 5:59 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I found myself facing this exact question 6 years ago, and except for the fact that kids weren't part of my equation, most everything else you wrote had a very strong ring of familiarity.

First off accept this will be hard, very very very hard. No matter what choice you make, it will be very hard and there will be a lot of strong emotions on everyone's parts. So don't go through it alone. Start therapy for yourself and with the guidance of your therapist, figure out when/how to start therapy for the children (and maybe even couples or family therapy for everyone). Stay or go, it will be important that you have someone on YOUR side who can help you sort through everything.

The promise of "in sickness and in health" I took very seriously too and I stayed in a marriage far longer than maybe I should have (14 years). But then (through therapy) I realized there are other promises. One is a promise you make to yourself -- that of self-preservation. Its a promise to keep yourself healthy, well and functioning. And because there's kids involved you have a promise to them too -- to look out for them. There's a flip side of that sickness and health promise too, namely that if there is a sickness, each person has to pull their weight (the person who isn't sick pitches in, supports the other, takes on a disproportionate share sometimes, but the person who is sick has to work to get well. ) In my situation, my wife basically stopped taking care of herself and seemed unwilling to make the changes necessary to stay well (she suffered from severe depression). Combine that with the physical and emotional toll it was taking on me and I came to feel that my situation was severe enough, that this promise of self-preservation trumped a line in a marriage vow. Some people come to other conclusions in similar situations, but that's the conclusion I came to. Everyone's situation is different and there isn't a universal right answer.

I can say I'm happier now than I have ever been in my life. I know I made the right decision to end my marriage. My ex-wife is also happier, or at least as happy as she will ever be able to be. Not having the pressure of a failing marriage helped somehow. Again, not everyone will experience the same result.

Lastly don't let those who see this in such a black and white way ("for better or wose dude") keep you from pursuing what you think is right. They don't know your situation and while their advice may be well intentioned, only you can figure out what's right for you. I had a lot of people who were happy to give me quick, absolute answers (both in favor of leaving and staying.) I'd just smile and thank them because these quick answers are pretty useless. As you know, this isn't a black and white situation. If the solution was as simple as that, it wouldn't hurt so much to be in your position.

You have my sympathies. Stay strong, look after yourself and your children and best of luck. No matter what you decide I hope you find peace.
posted by cptspalding at 6:04 PM on December 4, 2007 [5 favorites]

To a much much lesser extent than your post, I have been on both sides of this equation. When I was the unhappy and unwell person in the relationship, my then-boyfriend was extremely supportive and lovely. It had close to zero effect on my wellness/happiness. I became well/healthy much later, through Science! and my own work, path, choices. Completely unrelated to the earlier supportive relationship. Years later, in a different relationship, the roles were somewhat reversed. Ultimately, I left.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:39 PM on December 4, 2007

I was you, through all of it, the sense of duty to my vows, providing a stable space for the kids, being there in the dark times, etc, etc, etc.

I also recommend that you get some therapy, if only to assuage your conscience.

My wife suffered from depression for most of our 23 year marriage. She also tried many different antidepressants, with varying temporary relief. After 10 years I felt I had to get out, but we both got some counselling, and we stuck together. Not much changed really. Finally it was determined that she also had a thyroid imbalance, and when that was addressed the medications took hold and she became much better.

3 months later (one year ago) she filed for divorce. All my vows and hopes and sacrifice? whatever dude.

Do what's right for yourself & the kids. You may divorce her, but she will still mom to the children, so you will still have a relationship with her. Within that relationship you can still try and help her out of her depression, but you may be happier, and the kids may also.

So, like cptspalding said: you'll get no answers here, only within yourself. You have my sympathies; look after yourself & the kids, and good luck.
posted by pgoes at 6:49 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree with minervous about the necessity of taking care of yourself in this position. and I couldn't agree with cptspalding more. As a father, a son, a brother (?), and a human being - you have every right to help yourself get out of this situation. That definitely does not mean that you have to divorce your wife for things to change, but do know that your needs are important too.

I agree also, that six months is far too short a trial period to see if therapy or medications will help change the situation. I think that at this point, you do need to insist that she seek more help - whether that is in an inpatient or outpatient basis. Unfortunately, depression seems to often be a lifelong battle, that waxes and wanes. But, that doesn't mean that she can't return to a better baseline or that there aren't options out there that will help both of you.

You have been put in the position of a caretaker here - not only for your children, but for your spouse. And I think you are experiencing caregiver burnout - something has to change for the whole family. I think all the comments by people who grew up in such a household add a lot about what your kids need, but again, you deserve help too.
posted by hurricanemag at 8:27 PM on December 4, 2007

The knee-jerk reply is: Love, honor, and respect, for better or for worse. If it doesn't mean anything now, it didn't mean anything then.

That's a harsh thing for me to say, and what do I know anyway, 'cause I have never been married myself. And in fact, when a good friend of mine refused to deal with or even acknowledge his own mental illness, I sympathized with his recent bride who moved out and declined to hide him from his dad who was looking to put some sense into him. Well, at that time he finally decided to stop letting his disorder walk all over him and everyone who loves him, after so many efforts from all of us, efforts whose positive effect was quite invisible for a long time; and once he did, they got back together and are now very happy.

So I'll amend and ask: Is this situation chronically and inevitably destructive of human dignity, as frank, unreforming abuse would be, or is it redeemable? I can break that down into two subquestions. (My breakdown is far from perfect, so you're welcome to analyze it your own way too.) First, is she doing what she can to get support/help, or is it only you and others trying to stop the gap? Because everyone's in a poor position to help, but the patient herself is in a good enough position that she can make everyone else's efforts an unspeakable blessing or an unprintable waste. Second, what happens to each person's human dignity in the divorce vs. the non-divorce scenario?

I ache for you, all of you. And I pray the famous courage, serenity, and wisdom will be with you. They're not just famous because they sound good.

Come to think, I suspect they are the superhero secret identities of mild-mannered faith, hope, and love respectively. Hmm.
posted by eritain at 8:38 PM on December 4, 2007

Here's the thing that the people talking "in sickness and in health" are missing, UtterlyDrained: Once you have kids your primary responsibility is to your kids not your spouse. Don't get me wrong, you do have a responsibility to your spouse. But when it directly conflicts in a serious way with your responsibility to your kids, your kids have to win. Every time.

This is awful on your kids and you need to provide a safe environment for them. If your wife is willing to seek help then work with her. That doesn't mean half a dozen drugs in 6 months. This stuff takes a while to kick in.

If she refuses to get help, get out. Not because you don't have a responsibility to your wife but because you have a bigger one to your kids, and getting them out of that situation is what's best for them. Assuming, of course, that you pursue that option correctly with a lawyer and documented evidence of her problems, etc.
posted by Justinian at 8:42 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

The knee-jerk reply is: Love, honor, and respect, for better or for worse. If it doesn't mean anything now, it didn't mean anything then.

Do you not think the responsibility of caring for small children supercedes this if they are incompatible? We don't tell people they should stay with spouses that abuse children, for example.
posted by Justinian at 8:43 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this enters into your decision making process but there is relevant research that demonstrates that children of depressed mothers are more likely to have behavioral problems and more likely to have abnormal EEGs readings in the frontal cortex by mid-childhood. This effect is also heightened by having a parent who deals with marital conflict in a "depressed manner" (that is by withdrawing from the conflict, rather than engaging constructively or destructively.)

Your wife's depression isn't just influencing her and the way she deals with your children, it's also directly influencing your children. I wish you luck with this difficult situation and hope you come to a resolution soon, you've walked on eggshells long enough.
posted by 517 at 8:47 PM on December 4, 2007

I'm particularly interested in hearing from any of you who've been in a long-term relationship with a depressed person; what did you do, and in hindsight, was it the right decision?

I was in a similar situation (no kids, thankfully) and made the decision to divorce.

There have been two effects:

1) Four years later, I am still hurting from having broken my wedding vows. Like you, I did not take those vows lightly.

2) Every time it hurts, I still know that I made the right decision.

Also, I think you are deluding your self if you think that whether she commits suicide or not is in any way, shape, or form dependent on your actions. Yes, you might trigger a crisis for her, but at the moment just about anything can trigger a crisis for her.

Last but not least you *do* have children in the equation, which in my mind trumps your attachment to your wedding vows or anything else: what is happening for those kids right now is NOT a healthy situation, and as their sole functioning parent you need to do whatever it takes to fix that.
posted by tkolar at 8:51 PM on December 4, 2007

I'm not a psychologist. I've never been married. And actually I'm only 20. But I deeply feel for you and so I offer my words humbly. I tried getting into your wife's head and thinking about what you could do. And first I thought that a confrontation was necessary, that you should tell her she needs to understand her priorities, to get outside of herself, and that it's time for self-reckoning. But in playing this in my head it seemed that was a very bad idea. Ultimatums with unstable people, depressed people I think would not galvanize the depressed person into seeing as a normal person would, and more to the point, I don't think your wife's problem is a mismanagement of priorities. I would bet that in her mind, in ideal, she loves her children so much, and wishes she could be the best parent. It's not as if she chooses to neglect or be impatient with the children; and the confrontation could possibly result in her angrily, frustratingly lashing back. I'd wager she's consumed, and totally self-aware of her perceived failures, and constantly struggles to reconcile these issues; and to bring them up in this way, would only make her feel alienated and unappreciated. And then I read the post about the wife committing suicide later that night.

There is something about her mind that traps her in a cycle, in which all her thoughts double back to this source of self-hate of self-loathing. I wonder if ever since a child she has had these issues, if even just below the surface. It reminds me of my younger sister, who has horrible self-esteem. She has been through counseling, but it was not so successful. She didn't like telling her most intimate thoughts and feelings to just someone. She has gotten better over the years I think largely due to the patience of my parents, and their loving support, and her gradual acknowledgment of their love. She has realized that she's not alone, and it has helped her get outside of herself. But I am aware that your sister and my wife have entirely different histories, circumstances. Anyways.

It makes you almost wish there was a reboot system. As if she could reset her mindset to before the problems happened. Before she wandered too far and now can not find her way back. Would reviving old traditions, harking to the days before the kids, when you guys were much in love and she was well and healthy, sound at all plausible in effecting, stimulating any respite? Going through old memories, through old photographs or past patterns might implicitly show her how far she has strayed, and remind her of herself, before this all happened? Allowing her to draw on her own past. My point being that she is able to draw inspiration from the person she used to be, and proving that if she used to be this person, she may be again. The above assumes a lot, as if these problems just manifested themselves, and that maybe she wasn't harboring these self-doubts since youth, and maybe recalling the past may even remind her of the problems she had back then and how even all these years later she hasn't progressed. That would be bad. Oy.

I wish you the most sincere luck.

And I think that if things don't work out with your wife, that a divorce is in the best interest for the kids.
posted by albernathy0 at 9:00 PM on December 4, 2007

Also, you wrote...

It's not about love or affection -- I rarely feel that (beyond being emotionally dependent on me) she truly loves or even respects me (in the sense of considering my opinions, feelings, time, etc to be as important as her own), but that's really more a product of her own insecurity making her deeply unable to care about anything outside her head,

It took me a long time (even with a good therapist) to get this into my head, but hopefully you'll get it in one go:

It DOESN'T MATTER why she is not showing you love and respect. Lack of love and respect has already made a good go at destroying your marriage and will continue to do so. Once again, it DOESN'T MATTER what the cause is. Your marriage will not work without love and respect.

The other thing that kills marriages is contempt, and don't bother to deny it: there are times when your wife's inability to care for herself or her children brings that out plenty. It particularly shows in that you feel unable to talk about these issues with her: right or wrong, you have now taken over the reins and are making decisions because you think she is incapable of doing so. That's a hard precipe to come back from.
posted by tkolar at 9:00 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Having to get away from her does not mean you do not love her. Accepting that she is harmful to you and your children does not mean you do not want to help her. This isn't a dichotomy. The choices are not "leave her and good riddance" or "stay and suffer."

The first thing you need to do is admit that you cannot help her. Perhaps not at all, but especially not now. You are broken down. You are broken. I know what it is like to have to deal with someone in such a state (though fortunately not for nearly as long). I know what it can do to a person. And I know what it feels like to finally get to the point where your skin crawls and your muscles tense, your eyes just stay wide, and, for the life of you, you cannot find it in you to offer one more reassurance, one more bit of assistance, one more kind word. At no point do you ever get to feel calm, and at no point can you feel even the slightest distress, the slightest bit of weakness or unhappiness, because you're the healthy one, you're the one who's supposed to be supportive, you're the one who needs to keep it together, and it tears at your insides and your mind. It's painful, and it turns you sick.

If you're in that position, you need to get out. For any amount of time, you need to realize that it is good for no one if you stay. As others are saying, you need to look out for yourself. Until you are in a better mind set, there's no chance of you and your wife getting through this.

I have far considerable experience being the child of unhealthy people. I don't feel like remembering many details, but let me tell you a story.

When I was 12, both my mother and my brother were out for the day, meaning my then-father and I were home alone. He came downstairs to where I was watching TV, he said, "I'm afraid things aren't working out between your mother and I. I'm leaving. Bye." And he left. He left me there, alone. My brother did not come home for about an hour, and then my mother did not come home until many hours later. So, for a considerable time, I was alone with this knowledge, that my family was breaking apart, that my then-father had left. And it was the day before Christmas Eve.

My mother, brother, and I spent that Christmas feeling fairly broken. Something major had just occurred, and we are not people good at dealing with change. All the same, however.. I look back on that Christmas as a great moment of relaxation, like finally feeling warmth after being very cold for too long. It was the best Christmas we had had until that point. It was good. It was wholesome. We were not well, and we were far from functional, but things were better.

All I can do is repeat what other people have said. Marriage may be important, but it is not more important than your children. Your wife's well-being may be important, but it is not more important than yours. Caring about someone may mean being near them most of the time, but not always. Loving someone may mean supporting them most of the time, but not always.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:07 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Since she's only nine months post-partum, you really need to take post-partum depression into account. It can easily take up to a year. If I were in your situation, I think I'd determine to hang in there until the baby is two and give this time to work through.

My wife has bipolar II, with occasional long depressions, and we have a 17 month old. The last five months have been much easier for her than the previous 12.

I do think you should be able to expect her to seek appropriate treatment. There are a lot of good meds out there, and there is a combination that will help--but it'll take a while to get there. In the meaning, the suggestions to make sure she has a regular break from the kids are good ones.

I don't get the sense from what you have said that this marriage is irreparable. I do think, though, that you are going to have to figure out how to be happy while she's depressed. It is possible, and the more you can separate your emotional state from hers, the easier it will be to be patient and supportive.

I understand the how draining this can be. There are days when I could have written a question a lot like this one. But in the end, I think it's worth it. I want to be the kind of person who has cultivated depths of inner patience and compassion. I want to take my marriage vows seriously, and my own sense of integrity tells me that I shouldn't have said "in sickness and in health" if I didn't mean it. I like to think that ten years down the road I'll be a better person in ways that I never could have been if my wife didn't struggle with depression.

Are you morally obligated to stay with your wife? You'll have to figure that out on your own. For me, the answer is yes--not because of who she is, but because of who I want to be. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, or a hopeless romantic, but I said 'till death do us part, and I meant it. There are some long dark chapters in every good story, and I'm hanging around to see how this one wraps up.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:36 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

It sounds like your wife does not have the tools to make things work right now. Post-partum depression can start during pregnancy or appear up to two years later. And taking care of two kids under 5 is really hard work with little recognition for effort. Your wife may not have the tools to cope with parenting, let alone her mental health. Plenty of people here have talked about the therapy and depression angles and you've already attempted to explore that. However, could you both build up your parenting skills? Have you considered taking some parenting courses together? Or hiring a child psychologist to coach both of you (not the children)? Could you hire a nanny or babysitter, get some time away from the kids or change your own work hours to give her a break during the day? Could your wife go back to work, even as a volunteer? She may not be in a position to take care of herself because she's overwhelmed as a parent. If you start with that angle, it will have benefits, no matter what you choose to do. I'm not saying that's the only thing you should do, but I really think it's important. As I said, it's really hard to take care of small children.
posted by acoutu at 11:34 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here's another data point, I guess:

Your wife sounds similar to my mom during my childhood - depressed, unstable, extremely stressed, self-esteem issues, sometimes bizarre/irrational behaviour, verbally very frightening and cruel, constantly scolding and restricting, etc.

I am so glad my dad didn't divorce her. I am so glad my parents stayed together.

This isn't to say that I wasn't affected by my mom's behaviour then; I was. I grew up with quite a lot of issues that can be (at least in part) traced back to my mom's behaviour and parenting then. Depression, self-injury, lots of self-esteem issues, things like that - much like what others have already described on this thread.

My mom is so much happier and healthier now. And I'm so grateful for the relationship I have with her now. I really respect and admire my parents for staying together despite all of that unhappiness, misery and instability during those long years, for honouring that 'till death do we part' vow. I am thankful they persevered, and it's given me a hope and conviction that my future marriage should be made of the same faith and strength. It's given me something to model my values and ideals on.

In a way, I honestly don't know and probably can't begin to understand how both my parents coped and dealt with things - I really don't know whether I'd have had the same strength they did if I'd been in their shoes. And I guess it seemed like the unhappiness would never end, then - I think I used to assume that things would always be that way.
My parents are a lot happier together now. My mom has changed a great deal. She's so much more relaxed, less critical and depressed, she takes more pride in who she is and how she looks, she's so thankful for her children and her husband - she's generally so much nicer and more positive. She does regret the earlier years - but I think there is so much to be thankful for in the present.

I know that not everyone's stories turn out this way. I also know that people have different value systems and priorities.
In my family's case - we are Christians; my parents converted to Christianity about 6 years into their marriage, although I don't think we or they were really Christians in spirit or behaviour during the years following that. We stopped going to church for a few years too, at one point. But I personally think that God, and my parents' relationship with God, had much to do with keeping our family together and pulling us through all that sadness and mess. My mom has found a lot of support in church friends and Christian friends... she's part of a pretty close-knit group of married women around her age, now, and I think they all help to make each other better people. Their advice and support (practical, emotional, spiritual) have really helped her a lot.

Change didn't happen overnight, but the process of change has been valuable in itself, helping us all grow as people. I love my family, I love how we have grown closer (not just in spite of those hard times, but perhaps -because- of those hard times), and I really respect both of my parents for not leaving each other. This is reinforced by my personal belief that a family is built upon its parents before its children; that the marriage comes 'before' the children - in the sense that the children are best served if their parents don't divorce each other, although periods of separation may be necessary if a parent is really endangering the children. I know that not everyone believes this; and some in this thread have said that your children are of greater priority than your wife. I personally believe my parents really cared for their children by sticking together, by demonstrating to their children what commitment looks like, by loving God in that sense, as best as they knew how or were capable of, at that time. I think a family begins from a marriage, on so many levels.

I'm not trying to downplay the mess in the past, and I hope I don't come across as oversimplifying things. I know it's all very well to believe in certain things, but find it excruciatingly difficult and draining to see those values through in practice. When I consider the past and all its struggles, I'm so much more thankful for the present, though I do have periods of bitterness and resentment. It was all very painful, and it has definitely shaped who I am as a person - but hopefully, it has shaped me for the better.

I really admire you for sticking by your wife and supporting her throughout all of her depression and your family difficulties. And I hope that I can love my future spouse the way you have loved your wife. I hope you can get the support that you personally need, and that your wife can get the treatment and care that her illness needs. I hope that your family comes out of this all the more stronger for it.

I think it's beautiful that, despite all this, and beyond your promise and beyond your kids, you still care about your wife's welfare and want her to lead a happy life. I think - there is definitely hope, and your situation with your wife can be saved, but it also depends on the kind of support you and your family get and how you move forward in this situation. If you can't afford a nanny, are there any extended family members or friends that could help in any way, whether it's with childcare or running errands or emotional support? I think us (the children) growing up and becoming more independent helped to take off some of the strain my mom felt in the earlier years; it didn't magically solve everything, but it helped. Every little bit helps, really.
posted by aielen at 2:16 AM on December 5, 2007

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the money issues. You need to open a new bank account in your name only for your income, right now. Whether the answer is ultimately going to be a divorce or inpatient therapy or live in child care or whatever, you will need money. And as long as she has access to your income, you won't have it.

You need an Escape Fund. Think of it as an 'escape this situation' fund, rather than 'escape this marriage', because you don't have to decide yet what you need to do long term. But in the short term:

1. Your money goes into your own account, and from that, you will pay the household bills. (I assume from your description of her condition that you are already responsible for most of the finances.) She doesn't get a debit card or checks for this new account. This new account must be completely under your control alone.

2. Close all joint credit accounts. This may be harder than the first step. Bank policies may require her signature on this as well. You may have to go up the chain a bit to insist 'Yes, I know I'm responsible for the balance to date, but I don't want to be responsible for any further spending.'

3. She most likely has credit in her own name. You can't legally stop her from spending on this, but you don't have to pay the bills. I would advise making the minimum payment only on these, because you really need to be building up your Escape Fund.

Start doing this right now, because it's a lot easier to think clearly and make sensible decisions when there's money in the bank.

Good luck to you.
posted by happyturtle at 3:14 AM on December 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

I think you need to make some sort of public declaration, such as in a newspaper, if you don't want to be responsible for the bills. And you might have to prove that any debt she runs up is not in anyway of benefit to the household or children.
posted by acoutu at 10:02 AM on December 5, 2007

I fall on the side of "for better or for worse" - as much for you as for her because I know how breaking the marriage vows wears on your very soul. However, coming from a dysfunctional family I have the ultimate sympathy for children who are upset and distressed by grown-up issues that they can't understand or defend themselves against. I would recommend a separation if you feel they children are suffering at all, or staying together if they are comforted by that. Under no circumstances would I recommend you "get on with your life" (divorce, remarry, more children etc.).

I hope I'd be able to put my children first and foremost. They didn't ask for any of this and they ARE entitled to as much happiness as they can get. Parents are left with the pocket change in my (humble) opinion.
posted by MiffyCLB at 4:36 PM on December 5, 2007

Good point from acoutu, though I think that's a bigger step than you need to take at this point. The goal is not, like it might be if she were an alcoholic, to cut her off from all spending at once. Unlike alcohol or drugs, her purchases (I assume) don't cause her any additional harm other than the lost money. The goal is to keep her disease from draining the family's income. Because all of the best advice that is given on this thread will happen a lot easier with money.

Even if Mrs UD is not willing to go to therapy, you and the 4 year old can probably benefit quite a bit from it. Maybe a nanny or a housekeeper could be brought in a few days a week to give Mrs UD a break. Or maybe you need this money to handle divorce and custody. Or maybe if she didn't feel like the finances were stretched then, she wouldn't feel so guilty about the cost of her antidepressants and actually stay on them a little longer. No matter how this plays out in the future, Mrs UD needs to be cut off from the main family income, for the sake of the whole family.

Your job in all of this--the most important job--is to fight as hard as you have to fight for your own mental health, because if you go down, your children have no one.
posted by happyturtle at 5:32 PM on December 5, 2007

I guess I'll bring this up, since no one else has.: if your wife was seriously depressed for years and you knew it, why did you get her pregnant not once, but twice?

I'm remembering Andrea Yates and what a bastard her husband was, how dead her children are. I'm not implying that you are like him, but I see your two children as the elephant in the room. You must have known after the first child that your wife wasn't particularly maternal. So why is there a second?
posted by clarkstonian at 7:04 PM on December 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

if your wife was seriously depressed for years and you knew it, why did you get her pregnant not once, but twice?

because life is not just a fairy tale for everyone
posted by caddis at 7:40 PM on December 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

if your wife was seriously depressed ... why did you get her pregnant not once, but twice?

Only UD possibly knows his own answer, but I've seen very similar situations where the unconditional love and acceptance that a baby provides is a tremendous boon to a depressed mother ... right up to the point that the child starts inexorably pulling away and doing all the separation that comes naturally. Everything collapses then, so you need another baby to fill the gap.

That provides a strong impetous for the mother to want another baby, and a spouse trying to keep a depressed person afloat might even unwisely go along with it.
posted by tkolar at 8:06 PM on December 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

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