My husband is entranced with a woman who is manic-depressive

We're great friends with this couple, but my husband seems a little too taken with the unstable wife.

By Cary Tennis

Published February 22, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My husband and I have a couple with whom we have become great friends over the past year. I guess they started out as his friends and have become mine, too. But clearly, the shared interests are more between the three of them, which is fine by me. I'm not a jealous type of woman, but lately I've been feeling a bit slighted and worried about my husband and these friends.

"Dick" and "Jane," like my husband and I, have their ups and downs as a couple. We are all just turning 40, but we have three kids and they have none. They are the fun-loving, no-kid-having, 25K a year odd-job, rent-paying, drink-and-smoke too much kind of couple that are a blast to be around. We have a lot more going on with having children -- responsibilities, high-stress jobs, a mortgage, my husband is in law school, etc.

"Jane" is intelligent -- highly intelligent -- but miserable in her marriage, though she loves her husband. She is also manic-depressive and has a serious history of bipolar disorder in her family. She has been in therapy for years and on and off antidepressants most of her adult life. When we are alone together, she is constantly telling me how wonderful my husband is, how smart he is, how talented, how lucky I am. She loves to recap intellectual conversations she has with him that she feels she could never have with her own husband. She also e-mails him all day long and calls him anywhere from one to five times a day. To him, this attention from her is all fun and humor and stroking his ego -- he doesn't hear about how unhappy she is or have to hear about her wanting to kill herself. He thinks that she is the greatest. With me, she confides that she hates having sex with Dick, will never have children with him, feels trapped, wants to escape, can't hold a conversation with him.

My husband wants to hang out alone with her whenever he gets the chance -- sometimes at the expense of me and our three children. He is always telling me how concerned "Jane" is about our marriage and how she is always asking how we're doing. He is always defending her intentions and their friendship. He thinks nothing of going off and playing tennis with her all day long. And now, she's even visiting him at his office for lunch. I cannot tell you how much family time, and how many dinners, conversations and car rides have been interrupted by Jane -- all in the name of "good fun."

My question to you is, IS IT ME??? Am I being jealous? Should I be concerned? Am I wrong in thinking that there is a sort of line you don't cross with someone else's husband? I mean, why is she constantly asking him about our marriage? When another woman is constantly offering her support and asking about your marriage -- isn't it kind of pointing out to my husband, Hey, dude, you have a problem? I feel like Jane is hugely attracted to my husband -- whether it is sexual or asexual -- and their shared interests and her neediness are pulling her away from time with me and our children. Every weekend Dick and Jane are proposing an outing. It's like we are the glue that is holding their relationship together. I don't want to spend every second with them, and I'm not feeling comfortable with Jane's overzealousness with my husband. I guess I just miss him myself, and I feel like he is blind about this situation. When I tried to explain my feelings to him about this, he became very angry with me.

I'd love to hear your take on this.

Left Out

Dear Left Out,

I wonder what your husband is getting out of this relationship. I wonder why he became so angry when you tried to explain your feelings about it. My guess is that it's something about which he feels passionately protective but which he can't explain.

What could be that important to him? I doubt that he's having an affair with her. It's all too public for that. I think she is a symbol.

Often it's symbols we can't explain that we most fear losing. We fear losing them because we can't make a good argument for why we need them, because we can't even explain what they mean to us. Sometimes what they mean to us is secret -- we fear even saying it out loud.

The symbol itself often appears frivolous, inessential. People will sometimes try to take symbols away from us because they don't understand what we're really getting out of them. For instance, why should I get so upset when a waiter tries to take the plate away? I'm through eating, am I not? But I'm not through with the meal!

When we are children, people are always taking things away from us -- things that we need but can't explain why. I saw it on the streetcar the other day. A child in a stroller wanted to explore the contents of the bag that hung from the stroller. She was reaching her hand into the bag, rooting around, exploring, and her mother stopped her: Do you want juice? Do you want food? -- as if all a child could possibly want was juice or food. The child began to cry. You could feel the mother's shame and exasperation: Now she's got a screaming, crying child on a crowded streetcar. I wanted to start screaming there too: She just wants to explore the contents of the bag! I felt for the child. That mother symbolized the whole world that doesn't understand babies like us: We don't want the food or the juice; we want the experience!

If we focus on the immediate symbols, we can miss the larger picture.

I don't know what your cultural milieu is, but maybe you used to be sort of bohemian. You listened to indie rock and shopped at thrift stores; you drank microbrews and identified with multicultural movements and in college you read the great French intellectuals of postmodernism and deconstruction. And then because you loved children you had a few of your own. And then because you liked to live indoors -- and especially children like to have a roof over their heads! -- you got yourself a house. And then it dawned on you! Yikes! Jesus! Oh my God! You looked at the numbers and it stopped you cold. Holy sh*t! You sort of panicked.

It was a good panic, in a way. You were responding to reality and survival. But in that righteous panic maybe you started throwing things overboard. There go my Hüsker Dü EPs! There goes my swirly-color vinyl!

Among the changes your husband made is, apparently, his decision to go to law school. The law is no joke; it's no part-time job; it's a kind of priesthood. To become a lawyer requires a cleansing transformation in which the murky intuitive habits of common-sense thinking are scrubbed away and replaced with the gleaming logic of the law. As one professor and friend who left the academic world to attend Harvard Law School told me long ago, "They really do try to take apart your old way of thinking."

Your husband very well could be mentally overworked with law school -- not only mentally overworked, but fighting its destruction of his native way of thinking and being. And he may be using your friends, Jane in particular, as a way of symbolically fighting that destruction, and preserving something of his essential, authentic self.

There can appear to be a certain wild energy in a person with a mental illness, a kind of protean irrationality that can be attractive when one's reason is exhausted and one craves contact with the magical, the expressive and transcendental. Fools, crazies and maniacs can be strangely nourishing when one's life is consumed with family and work. Manic depressives in their up cycle are awesome to behold. There's all this raw, psychic power let off the leash; it's terrifying, of course, and destructive, but oh so awesome and powerful. Folks with that disease sometimes say they don't like to let it go -- they hate the lows but the highs are so great it's almost worth it. Of course, on balance, it's not -- and it's too destructive to those around you. But there is always that struggle -- as there is between the high-stress corporate job that pays the bills, and the high life that nourishes the soul.

The point is that I don't think the woman in herself is a threat; she's a symbol of a larger thematic struggle. I think it's that struggle that you and your husband need to confront together. Culturally it's about youth and wildness. In a deep psychological sense it's about the unconscious, the passions, the id, the artistic, creative, irrational self.

As always, there are other interesting questions: Not just what your husband is getting out of Jane, but what is her disease getting out of your husband? She's found an audience, someone to awe, someone, in a psychic sense, at least, to seduce.

But why are we talking so much about what your husband needs and what Jane needs? What about you? What do you need? You're the one who wrote the letter. Here I am neglecting you, just like your husband and your friends! People with interesting and exotic problems get all the attention, don't they? So what about you? I know you feel you need your husband, but what do you need in a more general way -- symbolically, in line with what we've been talking about? What would you do, yourself, if you weren't so obligated? Would you garden, or read, or play music, or join a theater group? Would you travel? With the kids or without the kids? Are there some dear people from your life that you would visit? Do you miss your family? Do you miss smoking pot and hanging out at rock clubs? Imagine actions you can take that don't involve your husband or your kids, unfulfilled dreams of your own. Look for ways to fulfill those dreams.

As is typical of me, I've favored the murky, surreal depths of unconscious passions. So now let's be as practical and clear as we can: Do I think they're having an affair? No. If he were having an affair, he'd have it in secret. Is she acting inappropriately? Yes. She's mentally ill. They tend to act inappropriately. Are you overreacting? No, not really. You're human, you're being left out, you're overworked and you miss your husband.

So I don't think you're overreacting; you're just reacting. But I do think you will benefit from thinking deeply about what this woman symbolizes. In fact, she may represent a neglected part of yourself as well.

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