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My wife came from a broken home, was sexually traumatized as a child, and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia shortly before we got married. My addiction to pornography only made things worse, but I am in recovery. She, on the other hand, remains in denial and will not tolerate treatment. I want her to get better but cannot force her. What am I to do?
I’m glad you’re working a personal recovery program to address your addiction issues. This is obviously the first step in trying to build a healthy marriage with your wife. Even though she suffers from a mental illness, your own personal accountability for your mistakes will give you the clarity, strength, and credibility to ask her to join you in a journey of wholeness.
Naturally, you want her to get the treatment she needs so she can function better in her life. However, recognize that this strong focus on her healing can make it difficult for you to recognize your need for help and support. Getting her into treatment will likely take time and, quite possibly, may only happen after a crisis. Having the proper social and educational support in place for yourself will be a critical requirement as you work to get your wife the help she needs.
Since most people aren’t going to openly discuss the mental illness of a loved one, it’s best to seek out support from a structured group where it’s understood everyone is seeking help for these issues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has educational materials and support groups that can help you navigate the confusing maze of living with someone who suffers from a mental illness.[i]
This support will help you combat feelings of isolation and help you problem-solve decisions you need to make about how to care for her and your family. Living with someone who suffers from a mental illness is difficult because the illness shows up in behaviors, beliefs, and day-to-day interactions. It can be confusing when you receive mixed messages from your wife about how she feels, what she wants, and ways that she behaves. Proper education and support will help you see the illness from her perspective and give you increased empathy and capacity to reach her in a way that will make seeking treatment more likely.
With education and support in place, you are better prepared to approach her with a request to get treatment. Recognize that the more you understand about the illness, the less personal it will feel to you, and the better you’ll be able to accept her condition. Accepting the reality of her illness will help you respond to her in healthier ways so you can think more clearly about how to guide her toward treatment.
One suggestion for inviting her to start treatment is to spend enough time listening to her talk about what bothers her about her illness. With most mental illnesses, there are (sometimes brief) moments of clarity where the individual can recognize that something isn’t right. They may see the impact they’re having on their family members. They may complain about something not working in their life. They may struggle with consequences that have resulted from a behavior. These are important moments to appeal to the part of her that wants to get healthier.
You can do research on providers, set up the appointment, and offer to go with her. Reassure her that this illness isn’t her fault and that she doesn’t have to live like this. Work to depersonalize the illness and let her know that it’s something that’s happening to her. Most mental illnesses are treatable with counseling and medication. You will likely have to make this appeal multiple times, so please be patient.
I don’t want to imply in any way that there is a formula for getting your wife or a loved one into treatment. This is complicated and you have to maintain a larger vision for what you’re trying to accomplish. If she’s behaving inappropriately, violently, or in danger to herself or others due to the mental illness, then you need to immediately call the police or take her to the emergency room of your hospital for an evaluation for the psychiatric unit. Sometimes these crises are the only way a loved one will get treatment. The goal, of course, is to create enough stabilization in that setting so treatment will get some traction.
Finally, I want to share counsel from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland about the need to recognize that ultimate healing from mental health struggles will be met in the Savior Jesus Christ. He says:
In striving for some peace and understanding in these difficult matters, it is crucial to remember that we are living—and chose to live—in a fallen world where for divine purposes our pursuit of godliness will be tested and tried again and again. Of greatest assurance in God’s plan is that a Savior was promised, a Redeemer, who through our faith in Him would lift us triumphantly over those tests and trials, even though the cost to do so would be unfathomable for both the Father who sent Him and the Son who came. It is only an appreciation of this divine love that will make our own lesser suffering first bearable, then understandable, and finally redemptive.[ii]
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.