Damaged goods

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, MAR 11, 2004

I got engaged, then found out she is bipolar. How can I break it off with the least amount of hurt for both of us?


Dear Cary,

I am in my 30s and from a religious background where one only dates (limited to conversations over dinner or telephone) with the intent of marriage.

A couple of months ago, I met an intelligent and pretty girl. We got together a few times and despite some differences, I felt that she was the one for me. We got engaged a couple of weeks ago.

Three days after our engagement she started crying about problems she had in her relationship with her mother. Then the next few sentences were a bombshell. She told me how she had battled depression and had been under psychiatric treatment for almost three years. I was in total shock, but kept it hidden from her. I reassured her that there was nothing wrong with her.

That night I could not sleep. Her erratic behavior was now appearing less benign than I believed earlier. The irritability, the sudden crying to the point of sobbing, the racing thoughts, complaints of insomnia, the mood swings.

I consulted a psychiatrist and within seconds of hearing the symptoms, he said that he strongly suspected bipolar disorder. Although it is a treatable mental illness, he said that there was no guarantee that it will not get passed on to the children; in fact there was a high likelihood of that.

Ours was not going to be a love marriage, but an arranged one, based on mutual interest and values. I am not in love with her, although I care deeply for her. I searched deeply within me to see if there was a future for us, but I found that I cannot raise a family where the burden of ensuring the emotional and mental stability had to be disproportionately borne by me. I am fully aware of adjusting myself to accommodate another person in my life and the compromises it entails, but this is more than what I had ever imagined. I stayed single so I could help my family. Since I am done on that front, I want to settle down in a peaceful and stable life with a partner, and not invite another challenge.

I don’t hold her responsible for not telling me about her problems before the engagement as she was very much interested in me and did not want to spoil it. We are all needy and a bit selfish and do things to buy ourselves happiness by sometimes jumping over the moral fence. But at the same time, I do not think that I am under any obligation, emotional or moral, to continue this relationship knowing what I know now. I know she will be very hurt, but I cannot be blamed for that.

How can I end this relationship with the least amount of hurt for both of us? It gives me no satisfaction to end this. I have been locked up in my apartment for the past few days and screening phone calls. I feel the darkness that descends with each night inside me. I just wish all this would end soon.

Hurting

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Dear Hurting,

What’s interesting here is that you didn’t have a change of heart. You had a deal that went sour. Whether you both understood the deal in the same way isn’t clear, but I’m inclined to agree that since she didn’t tell you about her history of psychiatric treatment, the deal is off.

Even if she hadn’t broken the deal, you’re free to break an engagement for any reason. The engagement is a kind of waiting period during which both parties assess their intentions and make sure they’re ready to go through with it. If serious doubts arise, the marriage is called off. It’s unpleasant, but it’s not a moral breach; it’s what the period of engagement is for.

What interests me also is the fact that this marriage you describe as “not … a love marriage” might yet be perceived as such by the woman, because of the enormous forces of culture and gender identity. Even if she is of your culture and knows the rhetoric, she still may see it not just as a business deal in which she bears children and shares in their raising but as the fulfillment of her emotional desires and perhaps, if she is an old-fashioned kind of woman, the realization of her purpose on earth.

It raises a whole host of questions: Is there a written contract for this arranged marriage, or are the terms assumed to be fully understood by the members of your culture or religion? Are you courting only women of this culture or religion? And, may I ask, how are women treated in your religion? Are they afforded equal rights, or are they expected to be subservient to the man? If they are, that could prove to be a grating source of conflict. And what about grounds for divorce? What if, for instance, the woman you marry turns out to be infertile, or to have a high chance of passing on some genetic disorder? Would that then be grounds for divorce? And what about abortion? If, for instance, her role is to provide a child to you, but bearing the child threatens her life, is she expected to risk her life to fulfill her contractual obligation? Is abortion permitted in your religion? I think you need to spell out these contingencies to any prospective bride. And the biological burden is not hers alone: She should be tested for reproductive health, but so should you. If you turned out to be infertile, any prospective wife would have the right to know that.

While I don’t fault you for what you’ve done, I hope you see that if the marriage is to serve certain specific purposes, you have to spell out all the contingencies, and make doubly sure that any future marriage prospect understands fully the nature of the contract. Because if it’s just a business deal for you, it’s also a business deal for her.

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