Pete and Kylie met in their thirties, set up by mutual friends. Both had been married before and Pete had children from a previous relationship. They fell in love fast and hard.
Within the first few months, Kylie noticed behaviours that gave her caution, but in her own words, she was already in love. Pete was irrationally jealous about her previous relationships, making comments that gave her pause. When many women would have taken this as a sign to move on, Kylie never considered it, instead committing to learning as much as possible about how to navigate the pitfalls of their relationship with compassion.
Kylie learned in her first year with Pete that he’d suffered a brain injury after a severe sporting accident in his early 20’s. It affected the part of his brain that deals with emotions and coping with them. When Kylie offered to chat with me about her marriage to Pete with his ensuing mental health issues, I was greatly intrigued.
“Pete doesn’t always admit to having a mental health issue. He only knows his way of thinking and can’t relate to anything different” Kylie explains to me. “And mental health is so voluminous in terms of what people have. It’s so individual. But I never considered not seeing it through. I loved him. I was very much in love” she says with a sense of simple logic.
So how does Kylie maintain their marriage? She chooses to be tolerant, empathetic and kind – most of the time. She explained that sometimes she forgets the triggers to Pete’s temper.
“I know at times that If I just shut the fuck up the fight wouldn’t have happened.” I instantly stiffen as the feminist in me wants to shout, “NO! NO! NO! You should never have to shut the fuck up!” I bite my tongue, eager to hear Kylie’s reasoning for this.
“I’ll give you an example. Pete has very heightened sensory issues – a bit like someone on the Autism spectrum. The kids were yelling this morning and he was a bit stressed about the end of term at Uni with all the reports he has to do. He was pouring milk into my coffee and I said, ‘What are you doing – I don’t drink milk’. Pete exploded, yelling ‘You’re making me so stressed!’ And I just snapped.” Kylie hits the table between us for effect. “I slammed my hand down on the bench and shouted, ‘I am NOT making you stressed!’ He just called me a name and stormed off.”
“Now that behaviour isn’t normal. I’ve never experienced that in other relationships. But with Pete – it’s normal. It’s kind of normal to me. Is it acceptable? Not really.” Kylie shrugs nonchalantly, “But it is part of the person I’m married to. We’ve gotten a lot better. Six years ago, that would have been an all-out argument that just went on and on and he wouldn’t speak to me for days. It’s like he just has this inability to process what is the right thing to do. But I know that he will go away and punish himself for it. He will go over and over in his own head trying to give himself his own therapy. He rarely apologises. But he does seem to improve and try to be better. And that’s what I notice.”
“I feel sometimes like I’m walking on egg shells,” Kylie continues. “Which is why at times I choose to not tell Pete the whole truth. I just think he’s going to get upset about it. Sometimes friends say to me ‘You shouldn’t have to hide things from your husband.’ But I just think – yeah, but I know him better than anybody else. And you know, I’m a pretty smart woman. I’m making these choices because I think it’s the best path for me to tread.”
I offer up the comment, “You’re doing what you have to do to get by, right?”
“Yeah, and I have these two children who love him. But they’re starting to observe little things about Dad that aren’t quite right. And 99% of the time it’s all fine. Every now and then they see Pete not handle his stress. And that’s what it is. Stress. I find that if he gets stressed, it’s the emotion of dealing with that stress that isn’t handled well.”
“It has impacted my life.” Kylie declares with resignation. “Since I met Pete it has impacted my friendships, my family, every part of my life really. My family is pretty used to dealing with Pete now. We’ve had a few major blow-ups, but we’ve come through it on the other side. Funnily enough, Pete gets disappointed at times about how my Dad or brother don’t want to do anything with him. He languishes in it. It all comes back to his emotions. He’s actually really needful. He has quite a high social circle and enjoys the connections. He wants to do things with my brother or Dad. He has an estranged relationship with his older children. The only reason Pete and I have lasted, is because of me. The other relationships he had didn’t last because they didn’t know what to do, how to make it work.”
I ask Kylie, “Do you think it’s also because you two came together at a more mature age? The others were young and more idealistic maybe? By the time you two met, you knew yourself better and knew what you could handle. You could have left really early if you’d wanted to, but you didn’t because you knew what you could cope with.”
“Yeah. I do have moments in life where I go ‘what have I done? Why me?’ They are just flashes though. Because honestly, I’m so invested in Pete. In our life. In our relationship” Kylie’s voice trembles with emotion. “I always just think – 95% of the time it’s wonderful and 5% it’s bad”
I interject with, “Yeah, but that 5% sounds pretty bad.”
“True,” Kylie replies “but the 5% is getting less in terms of badness or intensity. Less regular. I can’t remember the last time I had a big bitch about it to my friend Mel. She’s someone I’ve lumped a lot of this on over time, but I don’t do it often anymore. So, it is getting a bit better. I think ‘what’s it going to be like when I’m seventy. Am I still going to be putting up with his rubbish? And I think I possibly am. But at the same time, it’s kind of okay. Some of it now is almost laughable. I can just laugh it off. And I think he almost does himself too.”
“Also, I have to admit, it’s not always Pete. Being with someone like this has changed me. I’m not always 100% great either.”
Intrigued, I query, “How does it compare to previous relationships? How are you different?”
“Because I get pissed off about him, I now do little things too” Kylie explains. “I get angry and yell which I didn’t do in previous relationships. And I know that’s something I need to get better at too. When we have completely rational conversations, Pete will say ‘You weren’t like this when we first met. You never used to yell at me. You’ve become less tolerant’. And I agree. Although there are other things I’ve become more tolerant of too. I think I’m just someone who always tries to fix things, tries to get us back on to an even keel. But I sometimes I think if only I could give myself more time to getting better at dealing with the mental health issue in the moment. Especially in front of the children.”
“So, you wouldn’t see a counsellor regularly?” I ask. “Because it seems to me that you’re taking on a lot of the brunt of his mental health issues.”
“I don’t know,” Kylie responds. “Years ago I did because I felt I needed it. But I don’t feel I need it now. I’ve got friends I talk to. I’ve never shied away from it with friends. If I felt it was really bad, I’d go to therapy again. But I hope it never gets that bad again. It does seem to get less frequent and better. We have weeks where not one thing happens. In fact, it is perfect at those times. I remind Pete when we have little squabbles that every relationship has that. It’s not just couples dealing with mental health problems that have disagreements. It’s every family, so to that end, we are no different.”
“And we don’t have that ‘village’ society anymore so we aren’t involved in each other’s lives as much as past generations” I suggest to Kylie. “We don’t always talk about these things enough to remind us that we’ve all got issues to deal with. I want to hear people’s problems. It normalises my problems! It helps you put things in perspective. I think we forget that it’s hard to live together. Merging two different life experiences and values in one house is hard.”
“True” Kylie agrees. “What brought Pete and I together was very similar values and upbringings. Our experiences and sense of humour, interests. Our commonalities are great, which is our foundation. But there has always been this thing over my head of ‘why did I choose this person? Why did he choose me?’ I don’t regret it. I’m very happy with the life Pete and I have. Our children. Our home. Our holidays. I wouldn’t swap it.”
I ask Kylie, “I always wonder when issues arise in relationships after you’ve had kids – does it makes you look at it differently. Things you may have walked away from before kids, you now stay for the kids. Do you see this with you and Pete?”
Kylie thinks it over for a moment and says, “I actually think things got better for us once we had kids. Things settled and normalised a bit. I also think the fact that Pete had previous relationships and kids impacted it. Pete was divorced in his early 20’s with children already. Then he had another relationship and a child, which was also troubled. I think the more stable Pete’s life has become, the better he’s become mentally.”
I want Kylie to acknowledge her role in this and say, “Maybe he just needed someone who was willing to put the work into helping him understand it and reflect a positive response back to him.”
“I do think that is what people with mental health problems need,” Kylie replies. “If they don’t have a supportive partner who’s prepared to put in the work and leaves, then it just kind of fulfils what the person thought of themselves.”
I ask, “So Kylie, what have you sacrificed for this marriage?”
“Well I know friendships have been affected. I know I haven’t pursued things or social events at times for fear of rejection for Pete. In reality, he’s a lot better now and would probably be open to anything. But early on it was harder and that’s when a lot of the damage was done. Friends that were exposed to his issues and things have been impacted. He’s had terrible arguments with both my Dad and sister and her husband, but they’ve all gotten past it. I had to explain it a bit for my family to help it heal.
I ask “I wonder if for your family, it’s a case of getting a snapshot of what you live with all the time and they feel bad for their loved one dealing with it. You’re a Mum – you understand that protectiveness.”
Kylie agrees, “Absolutely. They see that. It’s hard for them to see that side of Pete. But I think they have empathy because they see the good side too. He really makes an effort with them. He visits them when I don’t and drops off pumpkins etc. 95% of the time they see a great son-in-law. They’ve tried. Dad subtly left a story on Pete’s chair about mental health.”
I respond with “I get it though because you just want the best for those you love. Earlier when you said you walk on eggshells, I reacted with panic and thought ‘WHY? Why should you have to live like that in your marriage.’ But I think it’s important to talk about this stuff so others can see why you put up with it and how you view it differently.”
Kylie nods, “Yeah – and do I think about it at times and wish he was better. I wish I didn’t have to deal with these things. But it’s my life. And I’ve watched several friends, over the past year or so, break up their marriages and in some cases, it has been mental health issues that played a part. And I just think, it shouldn’t be the reason to let a marriage break down. I mean if Pete maintained his worst behaviour year in, year out, then yes, I’d be sitting here saying that I had to leave. But I consider myself lucky that it isn’t that way. I’m happy.”
“I’ve had some experience with mental health issues in my life.” I tell Kylie. “And I’m very empathetic to it. For me though I feel that if you’re not going to take some responsibility for it, then it’s a deal breaker. We are all responsible for our mental health and I’m only willing to invest my time into you if you’re willing to invest it in yourself too.”
Kylie agrees. “Exactly. If I didn’t see that Pete is trying to improve, trying to manage things, trying to cognitively process things, I’d feel different. He sits down with our children and explains how he deals with things. He’s also a lot better when he’s exercising. He takes fish oil, he reads a lot. Alcohol doesn’t work well though. It doesn’t take a lot to flip him. We sometimes have to have a conversation before he goes out to determine how much he’ll have. There have been times when he comes home drunk that I’ve been fearful that he’ll be shitty and get angry. But he doesn’t do that anymore. Now if he comes like that he’ll say ‘I’ve had too much to drink. I know what we talked about and I’m okay.’ and he’ll be very cognisant of it. Other times though he can have two drinks and get really narky about something. And I wonder if it’s the alcohol or is it something else. I just shut up. If I shut up and don’t say anything, Pete just can’t keep going. He withers away fast. So, I just have to have enormous strength of will power to keep quiet.”
I question, “So what does that do to you? For me, if I had to keep biting my tongue – it would come out somewhere else.”
“And that is exactly what has happened.” Kylie says ruefully. “At times I turn into a volcano. I just blow! Which I never used to be like. Especially at that time of the month. I can just scream ‘Shut up. You’ve pushed and pushed and pushed. I’ve had enough!’ If we were having a rational conversation he’d go ‘Yeah I know I’ve pushed you too far’ but it’s not like that. He’s the only person in the world I treat that way. I wouldn’t dare treat my family or friends like that. But we tend to hurt the people we love the most. And I’m the only one he treats like that too.”
I ask, “So what do you do to compensate for it. It all needs to balance out somewhere.”
Kylie reflects, “Well my life probably isn’t exactly where I’d have liked it to be. In terms of all the ducks lined up properly. But who’s life is? I’d love to be having more ‘me’ time, more time for exercise. It’s a bit hard with two young kids and working full time. But I can’t complain. Things are pretty okay. I notice that by the end of each Uni semester, it’s worse. The stress makes it worse. I reflect on things sometimes and think I could have done stuff better. But on the whole, I tend to focus on the future. What we both really love is our family time, our holidays. It isn’t as extreme when we holiday. Honestly, when I look back over our years, he is so much better.”
I quietly interject with “Maybe that’s you Kylie. Maybe he needed someone to reflect a true sense of empathy back at him. Maybe with his other relationships, whether he did it consciously or unconsciously, he’s pushed them as far as he can to see if they’d leave. And now you’ve made it obvious that you won’t leave, so he can finally find the self-worth to work on himself.”
“Oh yeah,” Kylie agrees. “We’ve had those conversations where he’s said, ‘I’ve pushed you and pushed you to leave, but you just won’t’ and I say ‘Nope, we are not breaking up.’”
‘And that’s a really powerful thing,” I state. “I’ve struggled with some mental health issues and suffered with depression on and off all my life. I had terribly low self-esteem and sense of worth. And I know that it impacted my marriage. For years I punished my husband for a million different things. I pushed him in horrible ways to see if he’d leave. Now I know it was part of my struggle to feel worthy. I just didn’t think I deserved anyone to be so kind to me, so I thought I’m just going to be the biggest, wildest bitch I can to you and I almost got sadistic pleasure out of seeing him hurt. Because it made us more equal. It brought him to my level of self-loathing. When I finally reached the realisation that he would never leave, I could let it go. As my self-worth improved, I didn’t need to hurt him anymore. So, I wonder if that happened for Pete. He finally got someone who he trusted to stay, and he is able to work on himself now? It’s given him permission to fix himself.”
Kylie sighs, “Yeah – I think he knows we’re in for the long haul. The truth comes out from him when he says that he loves me and couldn’t imagine a life without me.” Kylie goes quiet with contemplation.
“What about the kids?” I ask, a little nervous to touch on a potentially tender point. “Do they imitate the behaviour at times? Do you worry that you’re teaching them to behave that way?”
Kylie pauses and takes a deep breath. “Yes absolutely. They imitate both of us. When it gets volatile and it’s both of us, they see that. At times I know I take it out on the kids and I punish myself badly for that. I talk with Pete about how he needs to talk with our kids when he’s rational, so they can understand how he behaves. We remind them often that Mummy and Daddy love each other. I am worried about our role-modelling. I have this manifest that being a good wife or husband is the most important thing you must do. It’s not all about being a good parent. Because the relationship is the top of the pyramid and everything else comes under it. If we can model a loving, stable relationship then our kids will feel content. I love my kids to the cows come home. But I know I have to love and treat Pete better. That’s the bedrock for everything we want for our family. So, when Pete and I have our moments of discussing this, we both admit that we need to get better. We need to fix this. We often talk about that. We are very good at talking through our problems. Even after raging arguments, we always find a way to just talk. Talk it through. In the end it’s purely about love. Love leads you to be kind, to show tolerance and acceptance but also to be firm and to not lose yourself.”
Some of Kylie’s revelations about her marriage surprised me during our conversation, others I was already aware of. I was profoundly impacted by her assertation that the 95% of times that were perfect made up for the 5% that were terrible. Every marriage has troubles and yet we stay for the good times. How bad does the 5% have to be to over-ride the good? How wonderful does the 95% have to be to ignore the 5%?
I have an estranged relationship with a brother who changed dramatically after an acquired brain injury. I know first hand how hard it is to argue with someone who’s brain is functioning in a frustratingly inconsistent way. For me it was 95% terrible and 5% good, so the decision to cut ties was easy. When marriage, children and a deep, romantic love is involved, the stakes are much higher. I deeply respect Kylie’s determination to make it work and admire the influence she has had on Pete. There is little that I value more in people than kindness. Hearing how Kylie’s kindness within her marriage has changed their lives was inspiring.