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How do I show compassion to a spouse with emotional issues?

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  • How do I show compassion to a spouse with emotional issues?

    My husband has bipolar disorder. After lots and lots of research and talking with attachment experts on this, I'm convinced that the roots of this disorder are in his childhood. That he was raised in such a way that he developed bipolar as a way to cope. He won't tell me much about his childhood, b/c a lot of it has been blocked out of his memory, but the bits I know have ben mostly neglectful if not downright abusive.

    Thankfully, b/c of some very effective, though very expensive, drugs, his mood swings are not all the time -- but when he gets tired or otherwise stressed, he just doesn't deal well with anything relationship-wise. And by deal well -- I mean, I've seen behaviors most people would never put up with from another adult. Tantrums, self hitting, etc. It's like his development in handling stress stopped at the toddler years.

    My question is, what advice have you given others about dealing with spouses who are struggling with their own emotional issues? What I'm MOST concerned with is trying to control my frustration at the situation -- my anger and acting out -- b/c I want my children to grow up learning to better way to deal with this. I don't want them to enable someone who has issues, but I want them to be compassionate. And sometimes I lose my patience and am not very compassionate. But the way my husband reacts to my frustration or my compassion, when he's in these moods, is to provoke me even more. Eventually, all comes to a head -- after several hours of silent treatments and passive-aggressive behavior (before he had meds, it was violent behavior), I raise my voice to tell him to stop his behavior, I then force him to share his feelings (which takes several tries as he continues trying to either apologize or more likely pass blame), and then he crumbles in my arms, sobbing and hanging on for dear life. And then it's over, he apologizes, and is back to his normal, stable self. Again and again -- say, about every 10 to 14 days for a major episode with a couple minor episodes in between (before meds, he had a mood swing multiple times a day, so this is a huge improvement). I'm not sure if this process he seems to force me into (I'm certainly no fan of doing it over and over again) is healing to him, or simply an unconscious repeating of what happened when he was younger.

    Do you think this is healthy for him? Do you think it's healing? Is there any other way I can get to the end (where he comes back to his stable mood) without having to go through the whole thing? Or, if I do have to go through the whole process, will this eventually resolve itself? Any advice would be much appreciated.

    And how can I work through my own frustration? I didn't get married thinking I'd be my husband's mother figure. How do I come to terms with the way life has worked out for me? (We've been married 7 years, and the most severe bipolar symptoms came on shortly after we began having children).

  • #2
    Wow, Rita!

    You are exibiting an impressive level of containment and maturity as you strive to modulate your own reactivity with so much provocation. You seem to be doing a good job of remembering that what your husband is acting out, isn't about you, but about his wounding, and the part of his non-concious impulses that are "in business for themselves". You paint a vivid picture of how he, essentially, drops into trance and his past pain is real and current for him until he travels his path back to the actual present, and when he crumbles in your arms, he "remembers" who you are, who he is and that now is now!

    It is hard to evaluate the healing potential, given that, I believe part of what continues to happen to your husband is cellular, and has to do with established brain patterns that are difficult to re-route. Theoretically, over time, as he experiences you as a safe 'other', (attachment object) able to hold him even when he's acting out, some healing should occur.
    When the wounding is so profound I tend to encourage augmenting meds and therapy with some off-the-beaten-path approaches. Some of those include work like Brandon Bays' The Journey weekend intensive; EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing); NET (Neuro Emotional Technique); EFT (Emotional FreedomTechnique); and others.

    In the Imago world, we teach Imago Dialogue which is a way of deeply listening that can, at times, penetrate the reactivity of one partner. When one of a couple is so troubled it asks the other to hold him/herself and hold the space for the partner by sending the message, "I want to hear all of your pain" by providing a mirror, with words and energy.

    You're right in the characterization of yourself as "parenting" your husband. It makes sense that you are struggling with that role, and that it isn't what you anticipated! In some measure even healthy loving couples take turns parenting one another. It this situation, the balance is off, because your husband is ill. You may want to look into couples' work with an Imago Therapist, and/or I believe you need and deserve some additional support such as individual therapy or a support group of people facing similar challenges. Some of what you need at this time is what Alanon offers in terms of differentiating. You also need comfort and validation for that hardships and challenges you're facing.

    I commend your courage and devotion! let me know if there's more you'd like to talk about!