I never know what to expect at home. My wife and I have had numerous screaming fights, which she admits to initiating. She has grown to dislike every place we have lived and every job she has had. She makes negative remarks about herself and then adds that she must be right because I don’t correct her (not true). Anti-depressants helped, but she quit taking them because she felt she should not need medication. Her relationship with her siblings is also combative (her abusive parents are deceased). I handle parenting because she gets easily enraged with our twin daughters and shames them. We have nearly separated, but she always convinces me to give us another chance. At the time, she seems willing to change anything to avoid separation. Once I insisted on marriage counseling. After two sessions, she said that she was the only one who needed it, so she would go alone. She didn’t. I do not like the effect of all this on my daughters, and I’m walking on eggshells. What can I do?
You can understand that the intense emotional chaos you are feeling is experienced far more intensely by your children. You can accept that your daughters are being equipped to perpetuate behavior that inspires suffering. And you can choose to change this legacy now. The most important act is to begin therapy yourself, even if your wife refuses to go. A qualified therapist can help you to end the attitudes, behaviors and unconscious beliefs that support your wife’s abuse. Your daughters also need counseling. American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson believed psychological development in children begins with the development of trust and security. It’s impossible to develop a consistent sense of trust and security while living with a parent who rages.
According to psychologist Christine Ann Lawson, you must not follow your wife’s behavior with reassurances such as “your mother loves you” or “she didn’t mean it” or “she can’t help it.” In her book Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship, Lawson writes that such messages tell children to ignore their own intuition that they have been hurt. “These messages not only encourage repression of legitimate anger and pain but also lead children to believe that their mother’s behavior is acceptable,” she writes.
A psychologist can diagnose borderline personality disorder; I cannot. Lawson offers a cursory guide to the condition: “Clinically, the term describes their behavior as bordering between sanity and insanity because separation and loss can trigger suicidal and psychotic reactions.” The disorder may exist if any five of the following criteria are present: “Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment; a pattern of unstable and intense relationships; an unstable self-image or sense of self; impulsiveness and self-destructive behavior; suicidal gestures, threats or self-mutilation; intense moodiness, rapid mood changes; feelings of emptiness; inappropriate intense anger; stress-induced paranoid thoughts or disassociative symptoms (loses touch with reality).” Lawson notes that many borderlines do not self-mutilate, threaten suicide or abuse drugs: “Some do not express anger at others, only at themselves.”
When we spoke by phone, you said it was important to you to keep your family together. Remember that an intact family requires more than the physical experience of remaining under one roof. You also must keep your family together mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Therapy can help.