Over thirty years ago, my wife was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and the therapist recommended I file for divorce immediately and seek full custody of our children. At the time, they were all under ten years of age. I attended the temple, fasted, prayed, and received the answer that I wasn’t justified to divorce her at that time. I accepted the Lord’s advice over the therapist’s counsel. The past 32 years have been very difficult and my wife has frequently raged, said very hurtful things to me, and left our home for a few hours to a few days. As she’d leave, she’d say that she was “never coming back” but she’d return and act as if nothing unusual had happened. She didn’t apologize or even recognize that she said very damaging things to our marriage. I lost track of the number of times this happened.
Last year, she announced she was leasing her own apartment. I wasn’t expecting this decision, but she has said many times that she doesn’t want to be sealed to me in the next life. I’ve learned that she thought our children and I would beg her to come home immediately. We didn’t because of the things she’d said through the years and, again, just before she left. I’ve heard this past year has been terrible for her and she has been severely depressed because we didn’t respond as she thought we would. She expected us to call her, but she didn’t call us either.
I’m getting information now that sounds like she wants to return home. I’m sure she thinks everything would be as it was. We have some of our adult children and grandchildren living at home with me. She hasn’t communicated with me or with our grandchildren. They don’t understand what’s going on, but I’m not sure I do either. I feel pain for her pain, but I’m not sure I want her to come back. It’s nice not to have to walk on eggshells all the time. She blames me for every problem she has had in life, including those that took place before we met. I know she’ll never be healed from Borderline Personality Disorder. Still, I’m not sure what to do. Any suggestions?
I can only imagine the amount of turmoil and instability your family has experienced over the past thirty years. Naturally, you’re going to feel torn between maintaining the peace and predictability of the past year and reuniting with your wife and mother of your children. Let’s talk about how you can carefully create the best possible outcome for everyone involved.
You have obviously sought spiritual direction about this difficult relationship over the past three decades, and this situation will certainly be no different. I am grateful for Elder David A. Bednar’s recent witness that Jesus Christ will counsel with us about our lives. He said:
“With all the energy of my soul, I bear witness that the Lord Jesus Christ lives. These are not words on a page in a book. These are literal, actual spiritual truths. And as his servant, and in His name, I promise you will receive the counseling you need from The Counselor, The Mighty God, The Prince of Peace.”[i]
Even though I will make some recommendations for your situation, please know that you may once again receive spiritual answers that surprise you and those around you.
Since your wife hasn’t actually communicated with you about her plans, it’s wise to continue living the life you’ve built in her absence and not get caught up trying to predict the future. It’s understandable that you would want to be prepared for potential scenarios so you aren’t caught off-guard. Living with someone who has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder means frequent surprises and ongoing emotional volatility. While your hypervigilance makes sense, please remember that you don’t need to make any immediate decisions about her re-entry into the home. Even though mapping out different scenarios and responses is a good idea, you don’t need to let it consume your precious resources.
Her exit and subsequent abandonment of her family means that a re-entry would need to be done carefully and mindfully. The days of impulsivity and reactivity need to be over if you’re going to reclaim your sanity and emotional stability. If it’s true that she desires to return home, then plan to leverage that moment of openness and vulnerability toward getting her professional help and support. You will also benefit from working with a skilled couple’s therapist. Situations like this offer you an opportunity to slow things down and set some firm expectations of what she will do to take responsibility for her mental, emotional, and relational health so the family doesn’t get traumatized one more time.
I have no doubt that she’s suffering tremendously after she disappeared from her family. Individuals diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder are caught in a punishing world of desperately wanting connection and aggressively destroying connection with those close to them. They are not at peace and so they make trouble around them. If she moves home without addressing the emotional storm raging inside of her, your home will become a battleground after the brief honeymoon is over.
As Brené Brown often says, “Clear is kind”, so make sure your expectations of her returning conditions are outlined and enforced with immediate follow-through.[ii] For example, you may require her to seek weekly individual or group therapy to treat her personality disorder and have regular coordination with her therapist to make sure she’s appropriate to be back in the home. You may decide that you have a third-party present every time you visit with her so there is accountability and respect in your interactions. Whatever your requirements, make sure you make them as specific as possible.
You will likely have moments where you worry if you’re being unkind to your mentally ill wife. When dealing with the complexities of mental illness, remember the Savior’s directive to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”[iii] Your wife isn’t the enemy, but her illness will undermine everything both of you need for stability and security. If she’s motivated to come home, then she needs to do the work necessary to help her be stable so this doesn’t happen again every few years. She can’t come home this time and carry on as if the past year hasn’t happened.
When you see her taking her mental health seriously and taking some basic accountability for how she’s affected her family, it will be much safer to consider reunification. Obviously, she’s not even contacting you right now, so she may never circle back around and desire to be home again. However, if she does, this might be an important opening to get her the help she’s refused up to this point.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at email@example.com
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[ii] See “Dare to Lead” by Brene Brown
[iii] Matthew 10:16