Dear Chump Lady,
Is there a third way — between fully reconciling and divorce? I am a chump, more than two years past Dday, and am still married to my husband. Shortly after Dday, I threw him out of the house and he was out for several months. During that time, he worked to assure me and our three children that he was truly committed to our family. We began marriage counseling about a month before he moved back in, and it continues to this day. As a result of his affair, my husband has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, along with the anxiety/OCD that we already knew about. He admits to being narcissistic as well. He is now on meds and under the care of a psychiatrist and a therapist specializing in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). He has made great strides in improving his mental health.
So why is he back home? I’m not madly in love with him and don’t pretend to be. I haven’t forgiven him and don’t wear my wedding ring any more as it has lost its meaning for me. I’m not throwing kibbles — in fact I told him I was not his mother, therapist, or groupie and I work hard to enforce those boundaries. We are polite and friendly, and even go on dates or walks together, etc. (meaning not just a show for the kids).
We are together for two reasons: 1. I wanted to try one more time to give my children an intact family. 2. Because we have three kids together, we will have some kind of relationship for the rest of our lives, and I wanted to see what the best possible relationship that could be. If there were no kids, there would be no marriage, and I have made that clear to him.
When I agreed to let him back in the house, I articulated 3 non-negotiables that are requirements for me to remain in the marriage: 1. No more affairs. Duh. 2. Be a complete partner in the home and family — be reliable, consistent, dependable, and take initiative for the work it takes to raise a family. (Prior to the affair he was really checked out in terms of responsibilities at home and because Things Needed to Get Done, I did them.) 3. Take total responsibility for his mental health. Violation of any one of these three is grounds for my leaving the marriage immediately. Basically he is on probation for the remainder of our marriage (however long that it) and he knows it.
One thing I am not doing is monitoring his every move. I told him that it was not because I trust him — I don’t trust him — but that it was because I refuse to live my life as the marriage police. That’s not what I want for me and my precious free time. He was spending a lot of time trying to reassure me that he wasn’t cheating and I think he was stunned when I told him and our marriage counselor that I didn’t spend any time worrying about whether he would have another affair. My reasoning is that we only worry about the things we are afraid of and I am not afraid of what would happen. I already know what it is like, and I know that I would leave and that my kids and I would be OK in the end.
One thing I do struggle with is this: if mental disorders such as bipolar are truly illnesses (as I believe), would I have left my husband if he had cancer or some other chronic and challenging disease? He is working to get his mental health issues under control, he has apologized to me, to the children (who all know that he had an affair), and to my family. I appreciate that not all narcissistic bipolar people are willing to do this work. It is not glamorous and it is expensive, meds come with side effects, etc.
Our family is doing well. We have had honest and painful conversations with ourselves and with our children (therapy for everyone! Merry Christmas!). We are close and loving as a family, even as we have two children moving into high school and displaying the normal teenaged crankinesses.
Early on, I started in on the books and reconciliation websites, and was truly offended by the implication that I bear some responsibility for his affair. Yes, it is true our marriage was not perfect, but my errors were not equivalent and mainly stemmed from intense resentment that my concerns were never addressed or that he made half-assed, short-term attempts to change. He had many options before him, and the affair was the one he chose. The RIC websites/books that proclaim “My husband’s affair was the best thing that ever happened to me!” enrage me and even now, there are times when I see him voluntarily doing the dishes or making a grocery list I think, “Why did I have to go through all that pain just to get the dishes done?”
What I read on your site resonates much more with me, but you’ve made it clear that you believe there is only one sane way out of this mess. Is it possible there is another path or am I just overdosing on hopium?
Still a Chump
Dear Still a Chump,
Why don’t you consider yourself in reconciliation? Because you haven’t arrived at a recovered marriage? Personally, I don’t know what that looks like. You say he’s on “permanent probation” and maybe, sadly, that is reconciliation. You don’t trust him. You don’t wear a ring. People stay married that way, of course. I don’t recommend it.
How do you expect this to work — if you don’t monitor him, how do you know if he’s adhering to any of your non-negotiables? Why are you not afraid he’ll have another affair? (As you said in MC.) Because he’s got a diagnosis for mental illness? You say you know what you’ll do if he screws up, but then you don’t seem very invested in wondering about or monitoring if he screws up.
Look, I get that no one wants to be the marriage police. But IMO early days of reconciliation demands it. Otherwise, you’re making yourself terribly vulnerable to his fuckupedness. Why not get a postnup? Some tangible insurance that you can get out of this cleanly if he does screw up?
I realize the monitoring is a no win. If you’re all hypervigilant that he not cheat on you, I love you so much! Where the hell are you?! it feels like giving him kibbles. On the other hand, if you don’t monitor, or take an interest in him proving to you that he’s not cheating, you risk sending the message to your cheater of WTFever. I’m not on guard. Which he could take as a green light to keep cheating without much interference from you.
You’re kidding yourself if you think you’ll just know. Ask the chumps here who wasted years being duped how that worked out for them. You are there in the marriage. Your presence signals that you WANT to be there trying to make this work, as does your showing up for MC each week for two years. Don’t delude yourself that you’re all WTFever, you’ll be okay whatever happens. Your actions say you are invested in this working and him getting better.
You didn’t mention how long his affair was, or if it was his first. Or how it ended. My guess is that if he’s truly a bipolar narcissist this isn’t his first instance of acting out.
Instead of framing the question as how much damage he’s done to you and your family, you’ve framed the situation as one of mental illness and perseverance in the face of that. And you’ve omitted details of his sins. Which puts a rather sympathetic focus on your husband (poor fuck up trying hard to be better) and a unkind focus on yourself (how long will she be untrusting?)
I’m sure that’s probably how it feels in your head, and that’s why you put it to me that way. But what about you? You matter. Is this sort of marriage acceptable to YOU? You won’t always have kids at home. You’ve said yourself if it weren’t for them, you’d be gone. You’ve also said you know everyone would be okay if you left. So what keeps you there? Do you want to invest years in a guy who’s just a tolerable movie date? Are you going to have a rethink on this when you aren’t raising kids? Then what? The grandchildren need us?
I think what keeps you stuck is that he appears to be trying. You don’t OWE him anything for that. You are allowed your deal breakers. Infidelity is a deal breaker for many people, and many religious faiths as well. He broke the contract of the marriage. NOT you. Saying you can’t continue this doesn’t make you a bad person or a quitter. Asking him to get better on his own time, while you get on with your life is a perfectly valid option. Recovery from his major issues (assuming recovery is even possible or manageable) is a big IF.
Do you feel responsible for him? That without the carrot of his wife and family he wouldn’t try? Then how meaningful is his change, really, if he won’t do it for himself? Without the quid pro quo — what do you think he would do?
The issue of mental illness is a red herring. He isn’t schizophrenic. He still has moral reasoning and knows right from wrong. He had enough awareness to hide his activities. I don’t think his diagnosis gives him a pass.
I left my first husband over an untreated mental illness. I dragged him to get help and he tried CBT and meds sporadically for a few months and then quit. The call to leave was easier — he was very clear he didn’t think he had a problem. And wasn’t going to seek treatment for a problem he Did Not Have. My son was an infant then, it took me several more years before I actually left.
I too wrestled with sickness and health, and what if this was cancer?
It’s very hard not to take mental illness personally, because it is expressed personally. My then-husband raged at me if I so much as threw out a moldy sponge. He got a PO box so I wouldn’t touch the mail. I had to constantly pick up after his clutter and he was furious with me about it. (Hoarding being a kind of OCD. Bad Things Would Happen If I Touched His Magic Objects.)
I could tell myself it was the illness — he was a man having an emotional hallucination. But it was still a person shrieking at me for throwing out a moldy sponge.
My compassion gave out and my self preservation kicked in.
I think it’s time for you to act with more self preservation and less compassion. Get a postnup. See how that goes over. (Sorry is as sorry does.) Direct your compassion at yourself. Marriage requires commitment — and some people either through lack of character, or issues like mental illness or addiction are not capable of it. You cannot hold up a marriage by yourself. This isn’t a finite situation — an illness that has to be toughed out, and he would do the same care-taking for you. These problems — his narcissism and his cheating — are who he IS. He can manage an illness like bipolar, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a good husband — someone who can be present for you.
Yes, there is a third way between reconciliation and divorce — it’s called limbo. You’re in it. People on probation don’t stay on probation forever. They either go to jail or are freed. I vote for freedom. I think you’ve done enough community service. How about a rehabilitated life without this guy?