I have a very good friend whose wife is living with manic depression. He explained to me that there are many times when she threatens to leave and talks about committing suicide. She even discusses how she will kill herself. My friend feels that, in these instances, he must do everything he can to keep his wife from leaving. If he doesn’t, he is terrified that it will be the last time he sees her alive. My question, therefore, is how much responsibility is one supposed to take for the decisions made by another with a mental illness? I understand that being bipolar is a very serious condition, but I feel that my friend’s wife has trapped her husband in a codependent position with her threats. Maybe I’m wrong, and he is doing the right thing. I just can’t imagine living day to day with the burden of being accountable for another adult’s every action. Please give me some advice as to how I can be of help to my friend. Thank you!
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Your concern for your friend is wonderful to hear. The question you ask doesn’t have a ‘right’ answer, however, only a culturally normal one and one arrived at by an individual in that situation. In lieu of an answer I’ll share some facts and some impressions. First – Your friend is not crazy to be afraid of his wife’s capacity for suicide. Bipolar Disorder (and Depression in general) are lethal disorders with a small but substantial minority of persons suffering with these disorders eventually committing suicide. It isn’t clear, however, that his staying with her will provide her with adequate protection from suicidal impulses when she is in a crisis – they both might be best off bringing her to an emergency room when she is suicidal – to provide 24 hour supervision and stabilization of her condition. True full-on Bipolar disorder cannot be effectively treated (to the best of my knowledge) without pharmacological intervention. There is another angle to this – and that is your friends’ psychological investment in being present for his wife. Such a role might be an important part of how your friend views himself and his contribution to the marriage. Your attempts to tamper with this role (even it if it is destructive for him to carry out) might only earn you his animosity. If you must say something to your friend here then gently tell him – once – of your concern that he is harming himself. You can also indicate your availability for support should he need it. If he indicates that you need to back off – then do so. Ultimately – your friend has to decide this one on his own.