Tell Me About It

My wife is bipolar and I long for female company

I have thought about leaving her, but I know she would be unable to cope

PROBLEM: My wife and I are in our early 60s and are both recently retired. Twenty-five years ago, after the birth of our second child, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

In the intervening years she has suffered a number of setbacks, which resulted in her requiring treatment in hospital for spells of three to six weeks. These periods of illness can last for 12-18 months between onset and full recovery. Initially the changes in her character and actions would be so subtle as to be unnoticeable, but more extreme variations and hospitalisation followed.

Due to her illness she is unable to cope with any anxiety or stress. As a result, over the years I have had to deal with any issues or family matters without involving her. Any conversations between us at this stage are of a trivial nature.

We have used separate bedrooms since she began to sleepwalk three years ago. This is a side effect of her medication and is almost under control now.

She has one hobby. Apart from this, she is content to sit around the house each day, and her medication has dampened her initiative and zest for life (I do the housework, shopping and so on). Apart from her family she has no friends and does not drive the car any more.

The relationship has really developed into one of patient and carer, as I ensure that there are no issues in her life to give her cause for concern or worry.

I have a number of hobbies that give me companionship and friendship on a superficial level. While some of my friends would be aware of her illness, I have never discussed it with anyone.

Most of the time I can cope with the situation. However, there are times when I find my situation very solitary and I long for female company – for the companionship, mental stimulation and intimacy that it might bring.

There have been times during her periods of severe illness that I thought about leaving the relationship, but I know that she would have been unable to cope with this, so it was not an option for me.

ADVICE: Your situation is very sad, and your quest for intimacy and companionship very understandable. The difficulty, of course, is that with any new relationship there is no guarantee your wife’s life will not be affected. You say you have thought about leaving the relationship but understand that she would not cope; this is very loyal and noble of you.

Retirement offers more time to reflect on and experience loneliness, and it can become harder to deflect the reality of our lives and relationships. Many couples go for counselling after retirement as they recognise the importance of living in harmony 24 hours a day. I wonder would you benefit from an independent place in which to discuss your situation either as an individual or as a couple?

You sound like a man who has high moral standards, and so creating a new relationship that does not offer openness, genuine commitment and a path to a future might be difficult for you. And yet, there is no doubt your life needs joy, connection and sharing, and you have an obligation to seek fulfilment in your life.

One choice is that you might involve your family and your wife’s family in some discussion about meeting the needs of both your lives where you get to have free time and where those close to her discover what the reality is for you. This might increase their compassion for you and make them more inclined to give you greater support.

The other choice is to seek a relationship, but this choice might well lead to a break-up of your marriage and the condemnation of your community.

Perhaps if you are considering this road, it would be better to take responsibility for your choices beforehand and have a mediated discussion with your wife now.

Although she has a mental illness that sometimes incapacitates her, she is still cognisant and capable, and you might be surprised by her understanding of your situation. There is no easy solution, but both of you might find a way through that will take into account your care for each other and your own separate needs. If the families can support your joint decisions, then you might well have a retirement that is worth living.