Marriage marred by mental illness will take work to save

I have been married for 10 years. Last year, she attempted suicide. She left a note that basically said, "I don't want to hold you back any longer ...." The suicide was attributed to excessive drinking and addiction to prescription meds that I was unaware of. We started out as most married couples do in love and exciting sex life. And after a few years, sex slows down, that bothers me. And now, after the suicide attempt, I (do not desire her) at all, and we NEVER HAVE SEX. All I can think of is she is a crazy suicidal person I cannot trust. She has stopped drinking and does not do drugs anymore, she went to therapy for a few months but since stopped. My job has me traveling three weeks out of the month so I do not know if she truly has stopped. I feel like a prisoner. I am afraid if I tell her I do not want to be married anymore I fear she will try it again. She has nothing, no home outside of this one, no credit and NO AMBITION, NO DRIVE. I am so guilt-ridden and afraid that she will accomplish her goal of death if I tell her the way I really feel.

-- J.F., Las Vegas


I wish I had a time machine. I wish you and your wife and I could go back in time before the suicide attempt, before the drinking and prescription drug abuse. If I could, all we'd be talking about is a rather normal, if very uncomfortable "stuck place" in marital development. As marriages grow, almost all couples find themselves sooner or later in a time of feeling disconnected. The gradual or sudden decline of sexual interest is a symptom of this so common as to be cliche. As you say, sex "slowed down."

But it doesn't have to slow down. Change? Yes. Ebb and flow around babies, illness and the chaos of modern life? Yes. But it does not have to slow down. It slows down only when couples decide -- intentionally or passively -- to allow it to slow down. Thriving couples nurture great, frequent sex. On purpose. With every intention.

But now, it can't be that simple. Drug addiction. Loss of vitality, "no drive, no ambition." A suicide attempt. There's a lot of damage here.

I'm a compassionate man. And much of that compassion comes from learning to be compassionate with myself. And, in hopes of credibility, let me come clean: I've been acutely suicidal before. Once. Michael, my friend, intervened. Somehow divined it. Stopped it. And then he proceeded to kick my butt from here to kingdom come. It wasn't pretty. But it was right.

See, all the compassion in the world doesn't alter the fact that choices have consequences. Nor does compassion change the fact that our lives never belong entirely and only to us. We are rightly obliged to those people we love, to those people who count on us to endure. To be present to life.

J.F., if any part of you has any energy left to explore the possibility of reconciling this marriage, my sense from your letter is that there are significant mental health issues here that will require intervention and treatment. Then will be the rigorous work of marriage for both of you -- accountability, forgiveness and recommitment to your life together.

Four to eight sessions with a terrific marriage counselor? What do you have to lose?

But, if you're done, then you're done.

And if that's the case, and if your wife's response -- or your fear -- is that she will complete suicide when you leave, then all I can say is this: Staying married to her for the next 40 years so that she doesn't kill herself is not an act of love. Not for her. Not for you. It's a ransom paid to a perpetrator who has kidnapped your loved one and demanded payment under threat of death.

Only, in this case, the perpetrator and the kidnap victim are the same person.

Originally published in View News, May 25, 2010.