My first husband died 20 years ago this year. I often feel that I should have let go of him years, or decades, ago … but the experience of loving and living with someone who has mental illness in some or many ways so affected my life that it has proven difficult to let go. Part of the reason is that my adult children suffer from some of the same issues now – and I wonder how much is genetic, and how much is environmental.
A few years after his passing, I had a philosophical conversation with a friend of mine about the concept of “the potential cost of the final solution”. While I don’t remember his perspective of this phrase, or even our original conversation, this essay came out of our conversation for an Honors English class I took in 1994, when as an adult I returned to college to continue my education at the age of 42:
The Potential Cost Of The Final Solution
How do you decide that you have tolerated enough in an unhealthy relationship that the time has come to force change or end it? When do you know that even though you love a person with your whole being, your love is not enough to fix the other’s pain or scare away their demons? When do you come to terms with the fact that you cannot take responsibility for another’s life or choices? The answers to these questions come when you are ready to accept “the potential cost of the final solution”.
When your life is entwined with an emotionally unhealthy person, the “final solution” is what you decide to do to change the situation you are in. The “potential cost” is what the possible outcome will be; whether the person you are with will cause harm to you, themselves or others. In my experience, my fear was that the “potential cost” would be my husband taking his own life. By answering the above questions for my own situation, I found, over time, I actually had the strength to make the necessary decisions. I also feel that I, and he, paid the ultimate price.
How did I decide I had tolerated enough within our relationship and that the time had come to force change or end it? My husband came from a family where physical and verbal abuse was common. There was also parental alcoholism and sexual abuse by an older, mentally challenged brother and other outside parties. While we were aware of some of these issues prior to our marriage in 1969 at the ages of eighteen and twenty, we were sadly prepared for the manifestations that later occurred within our marriage and surrounding our children.
Inappropriate anger responses, exaggerated feelings of rejection and a need to possess and dominate were among the personality traits that emerged through our adult lives. While there was no sexual abuse, there was some physical, psychological and verbal abuse toward me and our children as they were growing up. This was especially true during their teen years when they naturally began to assert their independence. His response was more from a fear of losing them, as he had lost everyone else in his family through death prior to his twenty-fifth birthday.
A ten-year affair with another woman during the early part of our marriage ended in a mental break-down for him. As a result of incredibly inappropriate behavior during that time, he lost his career as a police officer in the town we were living in. Some of the anger directed towards our children and me was as a result of his anger at himself for the mess he had created, and his deep sense of failure. He was never able to forgive himself.
Because I allowed him to control me during that time, I was never allowed to express my feelings about the traumas I was experiencing as a result of his issues and behaviors. What he and I failed to realize is that my need to resolve those feelings would come back years late to haunt us. When they did, I was told again not to discuss them because “throwing that old stuff back at him” was my trying to make him feel guilty. I finally realized it was time for our relationship to change.
I had spent our married life to that point supporting him, allowing him to feel, allowing him to express, and at the same time, not allowing myself the same privilege. What I accomplished was delaying dealing with the pain he created for us. I was tired of his anger, tired of his dominance, and afraid of continuing the rest of our life together the way things were going.
In June, 1991, I moved out of our house into my own apartment and explained to him that it was not necessarily a permanent arrangement. I would not consider moving back until I felt he had 1) finally listened to my needs, and 2) worked on resolving his issues sufficiently for me to feel comfortable with our relationship once again. We spent the next ten months in intensive marriage and individual counseling. I had made the decision to force change or end the relationship.
When do you know even though you love a person with all your being, and your love is not enough to end their pain or scare away their demons? When I realized that I was not the cause of his pain or his demons, I was able to accept that I could not make him better. I also finally realized that by allowing and justifying his behavior, I was enabling him, just as one enables an alcoholic to drink. Whether or not we loved each other was never a question. Whether I could trust him to not hurt me or his children … was a question.
In retrospect, I often wonder if many of the problems he created for himself I might have averted by not tolerating certain behaviors in the beginning. But I was young and naive, and wanted our marriage to work so much that I was willing to accept situations I would never consider accepting now in a relationship.
When do you come to terms with the fact that you cannot be responsible for other people’s lives? When I realized that for my own emotional survival I had to make changes, I knew I could no longer take responsibility for what choices he might make. I knew from past behavior that suicide was a possibility if I moved out, but no amount of talking, pleading, arguing or cajoling while I lived in our house would make him listen to my concerns about the health of our relationship and our family life.
Acknowledging the “potential cost of the final solution” and knowing there was nothing else I could do to effect a change enabled me to do what was necessary for me. I did ultimately move home. I felt we had made great progress individually and as a couple, but also knew we had a long way to go with continued counseling.
When my husband died six weeks after I moved home, he had not been feeling well a day or two prior to his heart attack. I know he was still depressed and uncertain about the progress we were making – he was not sure we would be successful in repairing our relationship. We were dealing with financial and IRS problems and he was feeling overwhelmed. If he wanted to, he could have chosen to go to the doctor and most likely would be alive today. I personally feel he made a conscious decision not to seek medical help, to give up the fight – to let go. It was a form of suicide to me.
I accepted his choice, however painful it was for me, because I knew I was not capable of changing the course of his life. I understood his demons but knew I didn’t have the power to make them go away. It took some time, but I have finally stopped being angry at him for his decision.
What is your interpretation of the phrase, “The Potential Cost Of The Final Solution”?
Namaste …. I honor you …