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Heavy Meddle: Should I Leave My Depressed Husband?

Dear Steve,

My husband of 30 years has always had issues with alcohol, but in the past five years they’ve gotten much worse.

He’s unemployed, sits around watching TV all day, and has no interest in looking for a job. In fact, he wants to start tapping our retirement savings (we are our mid-50s), citing some obscure rule that will let you dip into your savings early in “hardship” situations. I work at a job I love that pays okay but not great (under $100,000 per year). I can support us if we do a big downsize (which we are in the process of), but it would really help if he got a job.

I know he really needs treatment for his alcoholism and depression, but he refuses to get it. He got counseling after his DUI, but he quit as soon as he’d completed the mandatory requirement. We went for couples counseling with our minister. It helped a bit temporarily, but even the minister has advised me that I do not need to feel morally bound to stay with my husband.

I’m not sure how to make the decision one way or the other: Based on his irritability and refusal to address his problems, I can’t see living with him much longer, but it is hard to walk away from the marriage. We have two grown children: though one is still in college and the other struggles with depression.

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Do you have any advice for me?

Signed,
A Wife in Crisis

Dear WC,

My central advice is for you to look deep within yourself and answer two questions. (I’m not going to call them “simple” questions, because they’re not). First, do you still love your husband? Second, do you think he’s capable of addressing his problems?

If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” I’d suggest to you that you’re staying in the marriage mostly out of fear of leaving. I’m not blaming you. You’ve invested three decades making a life with this man. The prospect of starting over on your own, and of leaving your husband when he’s down, is not only terribly sad but frightening. Still, a marriage can only function if both members are willing to do the hard work of communicating, nurturing one another, and seeking help when their problems start to drag the marriage down.

It sounds to me like your husband has, in a sense, given up.

It sounds to me like your husband has, in a sense, given up. He’s no longer willing to take the steps necessary to address his drinking or depression. Nor is he willing to work, and thus he’s putting your financial future at risk. It must be wrenching to see him in such a state of weakness and dependence. He needs professional help. Based on what you’ve told me, if he’s not willing to seek that help you’re going to wind up with a patient not with a partner.

If, on the other hand, you still love your husband, then you need to take every measure you can to help him face up to his problems. That starts with sharing your feelings. He needs to know the depth of your unhappiness and anxieties. My sense is that he needs to hear from your children and others, as well. Whether you want to stage a full-blown “intervention” is up to you, but given the depth of his resistance, it’s worth considering. His road to recovery is only going to start when he acknowledges his alcoholism, and his mental health issues and seeks help.

You may have to be willing to initiate a trial separation to make him realize that the status quo is no longer acceptable. And you also have to face the possibility that you can no longer rescue him, and that you have to rescue yourself.

That’s a crushing burden. And it’s one you shouldn’t bear alone. So before you do anything else, I’d seek out professional help from someone who can help you sort out what’s really keeping you in this marriage: inertia, guilt, and fear, or a genuine love for your husband, and a stubborn faith in his capacity to restore his pride and compassion.

Leaving the marriage isn’t a personal failing or a cop-out, but an act of self-preservation.

I realize that you’re busy with work, and worried about money. But it’s absolutely essential that you confront your own feelings. Otherwise, I fear you’re going to drift along for another five years.

Here’s the bottom line, WC: You have the right to a happy life. Or at least as happy a life as you can make for yourself.

I hope your husband will recognize that he needs to reckon with his demons to be a part of that life. If he can’t, I hope you’ll recognize that leaving the marriage isn’t a personal failing or a cop-out, but an act of self-preservation.

I will be thinking of you. ♥

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

This program aired on July 31, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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