I married my husband five years ago, and we have a son who is two years old. Our marriage has hit a really rough patch, and I am writing you because I don’t know what to do.
My husband was diagnosed with a serious mental disorder this past year, and right now he is in counseling. Things seem to be getting better, but I am afraid that he will stop seeing his therapist at some point and I will be trapped. When things are good, they are really good. But when things are bad, he is manipulative and punishing.
I am afraid to talk with my closest friends and family members about all of this because I don’t want to damage my husband’s reputation. They know about his diagnosis and that he is in counseling, but they don’t know how much I’m struggling.
More than anything, I want us to have a healthy, thriving family. I was raised to treasure and value marriage. I never thought that divorce or separation would be an option for me. But there are times when I truly fear for my son’s well-being and for my own as well. I keep hoping for the sweet, loving man I married, but he seems so far from us.
What should I do? How do I know when it’s time to get out?
Ready or Not
Dear Ready or Not,
Loving someone through severe mental illness is one of the hardest things we do as human beings. It is difficult because there is no handbook, no set of rules or guidelines or steps to follow to make sure you get it right. It is difficult because our pity and our sympathy often blind us to the truth of a situation. It is difficult because the person with the mental illness is the one who has to do the inside work while those of us who love them can only support the work and take care of ourselves.
Ready or Not, it is not your fault that your husband has this mental disorder (and it’s not his fault either). It is not your fault that he does and says things that make you feel afraid and manipulated and punished. I know that you want to protect your husband from what other people think of him, but the truth is that is not your job. In this moment, your job is to take care of yourself and give your son a safe place.
The first thing you need to do is find the people who know you and see you and tell them the truth. You are further punishing yourself by withholding this important information from people you trust. You are robbing your tribe of the opportunity to surround you and support you and wade with you through this.
When I was going through my divorce, I made a list of people who had shown up for me, who were real and honest and true. I looked them in the face and showed them my fear and brokenness and asked them to walk with me. It was the best thing I could have done for myself in that moment. Find your cocoon of safe people and let them wrap you up in their love and care.
You mention that your husband is in counseling, and you should be, too. Loving someone who suffers from mental illness can make you feel unsure and confused on the inside. Their pain can cause you to question reality and make it troublesome for you to know which way is up. You need an objective advocate who can help you see your marriage and your life through a clearer lens, so I encourage you to have your own therapist. This relationship will empower you and give you a safe place to fall when things feel unbearable.
You ask me how you will know when it’s time to get out, and I wish I had an answer. I knew it was time for me to get out when I saw the damage that my then-husband’s emotional affliction was causing in the lives of our children. It took years, but I finally had the courage to face the truth of my life: with this man, I could never build the thriving family of which I had dreamed. He was unwilling to do the work, and I was unwilling to stay in a threatening, unhealthy marriage.
Your son, though just two years old, is being molded and shaped by the relationships around him. By watching his mama and daddy, he is learning how to love others and live in this world. Parents cannot be perfect, but there is a big difference between making mistakes and allowing our children to witness and experience abuse.
I decided I would have to break my own heart so I could build a loving, thriving family with just my children and me. I loved their father, but I knew that I could not maintain a marriage relationship with him. It was a gut-wrenchingly painful loss. And I doubted myself a lot along the way. But you know what? I did it. Years later, I still say it is the bravest, most beautiful thing I have ever done.
That breaking of my own heart, that undoing.. it was the place where my healing began.
Ready or Not, I know it feels like you are staring down a burdensome path. And you are. But the love and care shining through your letter tell me that you have a heart strong enough to face the truth of your life and wrestle it to the ground. And you don’t have to do it alone.
You can’t know where all of this will take you, but if you allow your tribe to walk with you; if you lean into the sorrow and fear, allowing it it to soften and strengthen you; if you embrace this pain and questioning, trusting that all of it swirling together is working for your good and your healing, I know you will find your way.
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I have had the same best friend for over fifteen years. We met during senior year of high school but didn’t become close until we lived on the same hall as sophomores in one of the most run-down dorms on campus. As most college-aged kids do, we both had our fair share of drama and struggle. We were trying to figure out who we were, who we wanted to become. But we were there for each other through all of it. I look back on those years with such fondness.
Now that we’re in our thirties, things have settled down a lot. We both have careers that we enjoy, and she is married and trying to have kids. Even though our lives seem a lot less complicated than when we were in school, I find myself having a really difficult time with our friendship.
When I hear her talk about her husband and their life together, I feel disconnected. Don’t get me wrong – I adore him. He loves her and they both make each other very happy. I just… I am nowhere near a serious relationship right now, and I guess it makes me feel bad. I am afraid of losing my friend because our lives don’t really look the same anymore. What can I do? Are we bound to drift apart? Am I a terrible friend for feeling this way?
Missing My Friend
Dear Missing My Friend,
About three and a half years ago, my best friend of more than ten years (I’ll call her Bess) wrote me a three-page email that was essentially a break-up letter. I still go back and read that letter from time to time. I can’t read it without crying, but it is a reminder to me of many things that I needed to learn during that season in my life.
Here’s the deal. I was in love with someone who was separating from his wife, and I did not know how to cope with the relationship. He was my best friend, and I was all twisted up inside over the whole thing. I had allowed this struggle to overtake me, and it nearly swallowed me whole. I developed a pattern of only going to Bess for advice or reassurance about this one huge struggle in my life and not really investing in our relationship in a meaningful way.
Selfishly, I brought all of this to Bess’s proverbial doorstep over and over again, asking her – really, expecting her – to help me make sense of it all. She cared a lot for both of us and truly wanted us both to be happy. She would listen, empathize, and give me thoughtful advice. Bess did this countless times for over a year. And every time, I was not ready to do the hard work of ending my relationship with this man until he was in a healthier place. It became a destructive cycle that I still mourn. Eventually, it led to the ruin of our friendship.
In all of this, my biggest mistake was not considering my friend. I was so consumed with my life and my mess that I couldn’t see Bess at all. I can’t imagine how exhausting and painful all of that was for her, riding the rollercoaster of ups-and-downs I was on. Once I realized what I’d done, it was too late. If I could go back, I would do it all so differently. And I would start by looking at my friend and her needs as much as I looked at myself and my own.
Don’t be a one-way friend like I was. Think about life from your friend’s perspective. Sure, bring your own needs and wants and fears and hopes to the table, but leave room for hers, too.
I think one of the biggest difficulties that plagues relationships between friends in different phases of life is misunderstanding the daily grind and the needs of the other. Just like you don’t know what it’s like to be married and trying to have kids, your friend probably has no idea what it’s like to be single, thirtysomething, and figuring out your career.
I would encourage you to be honest. Tell your friend how you feel… that you feel bad when you look at your life and her life and how seemingly different they are, that you wonder if you will drift apart because your lives seem to be taking different paths. Let her hear you, and then hear her.
When I read back over the break-up email, one obvious truth shining through is that Bess had been hurting for a long time, and I had no idea. I truly did not realize what I was doing in dragging her through my destructive relationship woes. I wish that things hadn’t been so bad for so long, and I feel foolish for not being able to see it.
If you are hurting or worried about your friendship, find the courage that I know lives deep within you and talk with your friend about it. Shine a light on the shadows you’re living in. Give your friend a chance to walk with you and figure it out together.
Around the same time I got this break-up email, another friend of mine reached out to me. She said she felt like I had been distant and selfish and wanted me to know that she was hurting.
That same day, we were able to talk through and resolve the conflict between us. It wasn’t easy, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like a complete failure in the friend department, but I was so thankful that we had a chance to make things right. Her friendship is still a special part of my life today.
The truth is, Missing My Friend, most friendships don’t end because people are too different; they end because people don’t know how to communicate. This starts with laying your heart bare, sharing your fears and worries and letting your friend speak to those things. It means being willing to not only say difficult things but to hear them as well.
Bess was so hurt that she didn’t have the emotional space to resolve the conflict that had been brewing between us for a long time. And I couldn’t make her talk to me. It has been over three years since I got that email, and we haven’t spoken since. The reason we aren’t friends anymore isn’t because we hurt each other; that’s a natural part of being in a relationship. We aren’t friends anymore because we didn’t know how to talk with each other in a loving way about our hurt and fears. The loss of my friendship with Bess brings a grief that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
I can tell that you cherish your friend. Fifteen years is a really long time, and it seems like you have carried each other through a lot in your life. You might not have this person in your life forever. I do believe that friendships have a shelf-life, and just because a friendship ends doesn’t mean it was a failure. But it sounds to me that you and your friend have a truly beautiful thing that has brought you both a lot of joy. Lean into that, Missing My Friend. Rest on the strong foundation that you’ve both been building over the past fifteen years and decide together how you want the rest of the house to look.
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My friend’s husband abuses her. I have known them both for about five years (we are neighbors), and our daughters play together often. My friend and her daughter have left the home multiple times but always return. This last time, my friend got a restraining order against her husband, and he was forced to leave.
Last night, he violated the restraining order. She called me in a panic when she noticed he was standing on the front porch. My friend hasn’t called the police because she’s afraid that her husband will get arrested.
I want to help my friend, but I don’t know what to do. I was in an abusive relationship for over ten years, and seeing my friend hurt like this feels unbearable. Is there anything I can do to help her get away from this terrible man while also protecting myself?
Neighbor in Knots
Dear Neighbor in Knots,
Having counseled and walked with over a dozen women as they navigated abusive relationships, I know the deep, raging river of sorrow you feel when you think about the anguish your friend is experiencing.
Your letter sits heavily with me, Neighbor in Knots, because I am also a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault. I tried to leave an abusive relationship countless times, and I still bear the emotional scars of that terrifying season of my life, as I’m sure you do as well.
You are doing a powerful thing, my sister, by entering into the pain of another and trying to help. I’m not a professional counselor, but I am a truth-teller. And I think women who are having a difficult time seeing the truth of their own lives are drawn to people like you and me who own our stories and share our truth boldly. You have an opportunity here to love your friend well, but you must do a few things first.
- You must prioritize your own emotional health. It is easy to get drawn into the pain of someone you love. Your empathy is a beautiful quality, but it can also be your demise. There have been times, as I have helped women find safety from abusive relationships, that I’ve had to step back and allow myself to breathe. It can feel selfish, but it is important. It is okay to tap out when things get too much. It is okay to say, “I don’t feel equipped to help you with this part.” You cannot help someone in a meaningful way if your emotional health is compromised. This kind of boundary looks different for everyone, but I encourage you to figure out what it looks like for you to maintain emotional health while also supporting someone you care about.
- You must ask your friend what she wants in her relationship. You and I both know that this situation is bad news, but unless your friend is willing to take the steps necessary to leave, what you think and what you want doesn’t matter a hill of beans. There are a million reasons why victims of domestic abuse choose to stay, and it sounds to me like she is not yet ready to leave. That is her right, and as her friend, you have been given a gift. You have a special opportunity to model what a healthy relationship looks like by hearing her, respecting her perspective, and honoring her boundaries.
- Remember that it is not your job to rescue your neighbor from her relationship or fix this problem in her life. When you were being abused, no one could save you but you. When I was being abused, it didn’t matter how many people approached me about my relationship and how unhealthy it was; I had to make that decision and do the things necessary to be free. Once you wrap your head and heart around this truth, you will be able to support your friend as she walks her path to freedom.
A few years ago, I experienced the failure of a relationship.. the kind of failure that jerks the rug from beneath your feet and renders you flat on your back. Knowing the depth of pain I was experiencing, a friend of mine recommended the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and survivor of the Holocaust.
Within minutes of his recommendation, I downloaded a digital version of the book and settled in. I’m pretty sure I read the book in two evenings. (And that’s saying a lot for a single mama!)
One of the lessons I learned from that book and that excruciatingly painful loss was this: it is up to me to make meaning out of the suffering I experience in this world. I remember the fierce resolve I felt to not waste the pain; I wanted to let it soak into my bones and change me in a way that nothing else could.
What’s so inspiring to me about your letter, Neighbor, is that you are living that out right now. You are making meaning out of the suffering you experienced to help someone else change their life. It’s hard for me to imagine anything else more beautiful.
Your letter is timely, sweet Neighbor, considering October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. My heart breaks for your friend and her daughter and for you too as you watch this abuse unfold. I know it is maddening and heartbreaking and terrifying all at once. I will be linking some other resources at the end of this post that will hopefully help you – and our Dear Birdie readers – as you go about the business of supporting someone who is being abused.
Thank you for your truth, thank you for your courage. Through your pain, you are making the world a more beautiful and safe place.
Check out the following resources if you or someone you know is being abused:
- Help for Friends and Family, The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Offering Support, The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Abuse Defined, The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Healthy Relationships, The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Have a question for me? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you prefer to remain 100% anonymous, fill out the form here.
Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I love well. Here is my proof that I paid the price.
After fighting my way out of an emotionally abusive marriage and making a better home and life for myself and my children, I’m struggling with how to co-parent with this man. When we divorced, my ex-husband and I agreed to keep our children out of our conflicts. As my son and daughter have gotten older, they mention the passive-aggressive comments he makes about me when they are with him. He has said things indicating that I’m the one to blame for breaking up our family. According to him, I’m selfish and trying to ruin his life.
I try so hard to take the high road, to say nothing derogatory about him in front of the kids, but it’s so frustrating! Sometimes I just want to tell them the truth about what a jerk their dad is (and I think they are starting to sense this for themselves), but I don’t know how much is appropriate to tell them, and at what age. Can you help?
Frustrated and Fed Up
Dear Frustrated and Fed Up,
On a blustery February day a few years ago, I picked my sons up – they were probably 5 and 6 at the time – from their grandparents’ house. They had spent a weekend with their dad and his family, and I was chomping at the bit to get them back in my arms.
Once we were all in the car, my younger son said quietly, “Mama, Daddy says you don’t want us to be part of your family anymore.” My eyes shot up to the rear-view mirror, and what I saw made a lump swell up in my throat: my sweet boy with his big mess of brown hair looking down into his lap at his fingers nervously twirling around each other.
It took everything in me not to slam on the brakes, turn my beat-up car around, march my son right back into his grandparents’ home to face his father and demand an explanation for why in the world he would say such a terrible thing to our preciously innocent boy. I was completely enraged.
And there, in a split second, I had to make a choice.
I could demand justice for myself or I could be a parent.
Before I give you any advice, I want to give you a big high five and a hug. It sounds like you are navigating a difficult situation with grace and poise. Dealing with a co-parent who puts a lot of effort into hurting you is really difficult work. It is draining and maddening and heart-breaking all at once.
The fact that your children are telling you these things is a signal that you are a safe place for them. Communication between parent and child in the midst of divorce is so important, so I would encourage you to keep listening and keep being a haven for your son and daughter. Inevitably, there are going to be difficult life experiences ahead for them as they navigate high school and adulthood. You are laying the groundwork now for them to feel comfortable bringing life’s mess to your doorstep and saying, “Mama, I need you to help me with this.”
When my son told me what he understood his to father say that day, what he was really communicating to me was, “Mama, I need you to help me with this.” His five-year-old soul knew that I loved him and cherished being a part of his family. He just did not know how to reconcile what he heard from his daddy with what he knew to be true. And so in that moment, that was my calling – to walk with my son down a path that had already brought him questions and hurt and help him make meaning of it.
What rings so true in your letter, Frustrated and Fed Up, is the immense love that you have for your children. If you let it, that love and devotion to their wholeness will keep your lips pursed so that you don’t draw your kids into the chaos that is your relationship with their father. That love will give you eyes to see their pain instead of blind rage when they tell you ways that he disparages you.
Once I took my offended heart out of the picture, the steps I needed to take were very clear. I pulled our car over into the nearest parking lot, climbed into the back seat, and drew my sons into my chest. I let them bawl heaving sobs as I reassured them that they were the best thing I had ever done and I wasn’t going anywhere. I asked them how they felt about what their dad said, and I listened.
I know it’s difficult, Frustrated, to quell the uprising you justifiably feel when the father of your children disparages you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bawled my head off into my pillow at night once my boys were asleep because I was utterly incensed at things their father said or did to me during our separation and divorce. That season tends to bring out the worst in us and in our soon-to-be-ex-spouses, and sifting through it all can be utterly exhausting.
I want to encourage you to find an outlet for this anger and hurt. Grab a handful of your best girlfriends and let them be the safe place you fall to talk about the awfulness of your ex-husband. Give yourself space to grieve and mourn the pain he tries to lob your way. This sort of self-care will be healing for you.
I once read that the best way to get revenge is to ignore the person who is trying to break you down and build a happy life instead. This is one of my mama bird mantras. It reminds me to ignore other people’s mess and focus on what I can control. Because there is, in fact, a lot that I can control. I can build a life of beauty. I can fill the relationships I have with my children full of love and care and safety. I can create peace for myself, which is something that toxic people can never give me.
You end your letter asking a brave question: When do I get to tell my kids what a jerk their father is? The truth is this: you won’t have to. They will see it for themselves eventually. It will probably break their hearts. And you will be there to grieve with them, to remind them of how beautifully brave they are, to encourage them to pursue a healthy relationship with their father (which might mean no relationship at all).
Your children have a tremendous gift in you, Frustrated and Fed Up. I know the work of co-parenting with someone who is unreasonable and unkind is really hard work. You have proven that you can do hard things, and I know you will face this with the same courage and strength. I am rooting for you.
I am a young mother of three small children. I love my husband, and I know that he loves me. I am writing you because I feel trapped. It feels terrible to even type that, let alone say it out loud. I am grateful that I am able to stay home with my children, but each day I feel like I am losing part of myself.
Before my husband and I had children, I earned my Master’s degree and had really big hopes for my life. Shortly after graduation, I worked at a decent firm in our hometown for a couple of years, focusing on working up the ladder and building my professional reputation. Then, we learned that I was pregnant. It was a shock, but we had hoped to start a family one day. We decided to shift our plans a little bit and embrace this new gift we had been given.
The plan was for me to work as long as I could into the pregnancy, take maternity leave, and return to my career once our child was a year old. But that never happened. Here we are, five years (and two more children) later and we have no plans of me returning to work anytime soon.
Ellie, I am worn out. I am tired of the daily in-and-out of my life. I don’t know how to do this anymore. My days are crammed full with preparing meals, changing diapers, wiping noses, doing laundry, and trying to keep the house in decent condition.
I feel guilty for not wanting to be home with my children, but I feel like I’m coming undone. How do I learn to accept the life I have – I know it’s just a short season in the grand scheme of things – and not resent my family?
Dear Tired Mama,
You are an amazingly strong, brilliant woman. You worked your ass off to achieve academic and professional success. You decided to sacrifice those accomplishments – even temporarily – in order to prioritize the dreams you and your husband had for a family. That is a sacrifice that most people aren’t willing to make.
And here you are, five years later, three children under foot, and you are tired. Who the hell wouldn’t be? I have lived that kind of life (my two sons were born just over fifteen months apart), and I know that it feels like a glorious shipwreck most of the time.
Society tells us that we should enjoy this season, that we should soak up every second because it all passes so soon, that we will look back on the early years of our children’s lives and wish we could go back and savor them a little bit more. And those are all true things. But they are not the truest thing.
The truest thing is that you cannot care for others until you care for yourself first. Self-care is hard for mamas. It goes against our nature because it requires us to put others second. Because of this, it is something you will have to work at.
It took a little while (and a lot of therapy) for me to figure out what self-care looked like. When I was going through my divorce, I made a list of things that made me happy, brought me peace, and helped me rest. I committed to doing at least one of these things every day. Some nights, the very best thing I could do was light a candle and take a ten-minute bath before I crawled into bed and bawled my head off out of sadness and exhaustion. And these simple things made all the difference.
What are you doing, TM, to care for yourself? Are you connected to like-minded people that you can share life with? Do you carve out time to be alone? These are important habits to build into your life because you can’t pour yourself out to your children if you’re starting with a cup that’s bone dry.
From what you write about your husband, he seems to love you and care about your family. I know that it might be a scary thing to talk with him about your feelings, but it is clear to me that you are courageous and brave and not afraid of walking down a dark-right-now path. You have done hard things before, like get your Master’s and start an entry-level job that was probably demanding as all get-out. And so now, you get the chance to be courageous and brave again by owning your present story in the face of this trapping you’re caught in.
I would encourage you to tell your husband how you feel, give him an opportunity to see your life from the perspective of being eyeballs-deep in dirty diapers. And then tell him what you need and ask him to help you get it.
It is a hard thing to say you feel trapped by your family. It is a hard thing to admit that your life does not look the way you want it to look. Your bravery has taken you far already. And now, sweetheart, it’s time to take that bravery a little bit further down the path to your husband so that the two of you together can navigate the trenches that you’re in.
Let these experiences break you wide open. I know that it feels like death at times. And it is. It’s the death of who you were as your newer, wiser, braver self emerges. That is how we survive these hellish parts of life – by owning our story and caring for ourselves through the process of our becoming. It’s not easy, but it is what we all must do if we want to grow and change and bloom. You have everything within you to do this very difficult thing. Now, let’s get to work.
Looking back on 2016, it seems like I feel heartache and unspeakable joy all in the same moments. The year holds many beautiful experiences… Charlie proposing to me under the fireworks on the 4th of July, our wedding, surprising the boys with a waterfall tour through Tennessee, a new job with supportive and encouraging faculty and administrators, and many everyday moments that were so special they literally took my breath away.
But 2016 also holds a lot of pain… Charlie’s Crohn’s diagnosis, surgeries, and treatments turned our lives upside down this spring. We are still wading through the grief and uncertainty that comes with the diagnosis of any disease that has no cure. I have watched people I love suffer unimaginable loss this year – infertility, unemployment, failed relationships, deaths of loved ones, fear of those in authority in our country, and on and on. On a personal level, the hate and bigotry and misogyny and prejudice that I have seen more publicly declared and displayed in our nation this year has left me feeling broken-hearted and completely incensed.
When I think about the upcoming year, I’m not looking through the same rose-tinted lenses that I usually do around the end of December. I am honestly afraid of what sort of unrest and disunity President-elect Trump will cultivate in our country. I am fearful of the pain and suffering that Charlie could experience with his illness. My sons are entering the pre-teen years, and that brings with it myriad challenges that I feel ill-equipped to face. So instead of walking into a new year with lots of hope and promise, I feel like I am already stumbling into January with a burdensome, trembling load.
As I considered what word I need to guide my heart this year, I ran through lots of possibilities. But as always, when I stumbled upon one, it seemed to fall right into place: assured.
Adjective. 1. Guaranteed; sure; certain. 2. Bold; confident.
The truth is that there is a lot in our lives that is uncertain, that is not guaranteed. For a planner like me, that stirs up a lot of anxiety and frustration. This year, I want to learn how to rest in the things that are sure and certain – the faithfulness of my family, the gifts that I have been graciously given, and the love and trustworthiness of God himself. When I start to wring my hands in fear of the unknown, I want to learn even more how to lean into that fear and wrestle with it instead of shutting it out or trying to sweep it under the rug. And I want to be able to pour into others who are feeling fearful or anxious about the future, too. This life is a gift. I don’t want to miss out on the beauty because I’m so focused on the what-ifs and the trials I know are sure to come. If I can rest assured in the things I know to be true about God and His love for me, then I can face whatever comes with a thankful heart. That is my prayer, not only for 2017 but for all the years that God sees fit to give me.