If I go there will be trouble, and if I stay it will be double
December 4, 2012 12:45 PM   Subscribe

My wife of many years, and mother of my two children, is having (perfectly understandable, given the context) mental health issues that are making my life miserable. I want to handle this as lovingly as possible, in a way that will best protect my kids – please help me weigh my unpleasant options!

I (middle aged guy) have been married to my wife for a long time, and we have two wonderful kids (middle school and elementary school age). My wife’s upbringing was suboptimal, to put it mildly. Lots of abuse and abandonment and substance abuse and emotional manipulation. As a result, she understandably has a few issues to work out. I've been in therapy for a little over a year to help deal with the fallout (depression and a not-so-fun panic disorder I've recently developed), and my therapist is pretty convinced that this is some sort of complex-PTSD type stuff on her part, or some "Cluster B" issue in any case.

The therapist said I'm dealing with a "live hand grenade with the pin pulled", which I think is an apt description. Countless family gatherings and otherwise peaceful evenings have been marred in excessively dramatic ways by my wife, and I have a couple of (non-immediate) family members who flat out refuse to deal with her. In the past there's been breaking of furniture/doors and I've had large objects thrown at me (that sort of physical violence hasn't happened for several years, so I'm not in imminent danger). The worst of this started a couple of years ago when she stopped taking antidepressants (cold turkey – ugh) that were prescribed by her GP. These outbursts are targeted at me, for the most part, and while I have no doubt that they affect the kids they don’t usually occur in their presence and I think I’ve been able to mitigate the effects to the extent that I can. The kids actually seem to be thriving socially and academically and I’m really proud of them, but it takes a lot of energy on my part to provide a counterbalance to the intermittent turbulence.

Things started looking better this summer, when she finally agreed to go see a therapist herself. The outbursts have been less frequent, and she has apologized afterwards acknowledging that she was out of line. I can live with that – with some progress being made, and some acknowledgement that the situation needs some work. As long as we're making progress towards improvement, I'm more or less OK with the situation. She initially had two appointments per week, which is when things were best, but recently backed down to once per week and I immediately noticed a change for the worse.

Now, it turns out, that she’s firing her therapist for some pretty flimsy reasons (she’s a “stupid c—nt”, for example, which seems like classic splitting). I’ve been really upset about this for a couple of weeks, and took the plunge and confronted her, as gently as possible, about it this evening. The result is all-out war in our house tonight.

So I don’t know what to do. If she refuses to work on stuff I feel like I have to DTMFA, but my primary (read: only) concern at this point is the kids.

If I leave the marriage, she’ll have more time alone with them and I’m afraid they might get more of the brunt of her outbursts without me there to smooth things over. On the other hand, I might be happier (depending on how she decides to handle separation) which would make me a better parent and role model. If I stay we maintain the status-quo, which involves me being constantly hyper vigilant to signs of impending outbursts and thus anxious and depressed, but at least I’d always be around as a buffer for the kids.

I really, really, love my wife. The good times are great, and in my ideal version of this story I’d wave a magic wand and take all her pain away, so that we could truly enjoy life together. But the “magic wand” in this case involves a lot of work on her part, which she apparently might not be up for.

So, in a nutshell, what the hell should I do here? I’d especially like to hear from people who have gone through similar situations – on either side of the equation. If you suffer from BPD, Bipolar, or Complex PTSD I’d love to hear your thoughts about how much I should (continue to) try to hang on to this relationship – keeping in mind that It’s not just about the one-on-one marriage relationship I’m talking about, but preserving the family unit. Throwaway e-mail is throwaway31417@hushmail.com for those who prefer to respond off-site. Thanks so much for reading all this…
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a reason you can't split and take custody of the kids?
posted by greta simone at 12:48 PM on December 4, 2012 [29 favorites]

I don't suffer from any of those things but I severed a sibling relationship because I didn't like how I was being treated.

Get out of there. She's not going to get better unless she's deeply ashamed of how she acts and commits to treatment that can teach her how to deal with her feelings. And you being okay with it so far is teaching and training her to think you're going to tolerate that behavior.

You don't deserve it and your kids don't deserve it. She has to face her pain on her own and deal with it.

Please leave.
posted by discopolo at 12:49 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seriously consider (as in, just do it) getting primary custody of the kids. She could be erratic with them, OR it could get really fun if she "splits" them (one all-good, one all-bad). I think this kind of situation is even more damaging than having parents with substance abuse issues.
posted by availablelight at 12:51 PM on December 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Get out. Get custody of the children. Make it a point in court to have her mental health a reason why she can't be with the children most of the time. It's not to punish her, but to ensure that the children are safe. Your wife has a history of domestic violence. It is no environment for children to be in...even if you think they've been well sheltered from it to this point.

In no way should you leave the children with her alone. Grenades are indiscriminate and ,when they explode, they don't just hurt their target.
posted by inturnaround at 12:56 PM on December 4, 2012 [12 favorites]

I have bipolar II and complex PTSD (tentative diagnosis.)

I'm going to email you with some thoughts, but right now:

Please talk to your therapist again ASAP - if they take calls/emails contact them today.

Please also begin documenting every single incident. Find your diaries/journal entries, or whatever. You're going to need this for any kind of custody thing.

Stop confronting her. It doesn't work effectively with someone with untreated or badly treated BPD or someone who's in a psychotic episode or in a severe (angry) mania/depressive episode. I have never seen a person with BPD respond with anything but fear/anger/pain to a pure confrontation, especially one from a family member or romantic partner. The few times I've seen someone try, it was a therapist, and it didn't work out well in the short run but over a long period of time seemed to kind of help, maybe. I can't say I'd recommend it to someone without training, in any case.

The good times are almost always great with any kind of relapsing/remitting psychiatric disorder. I'm awesome to be around, loads of fun, etc., when I'm hypomanic. Even just being kind of in the middle is darned OK for a lot of people. That doesn't change how incredibly problematic and devastating the rest of my symptoms are.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 12:57 PM on December 4, 2012 [21 favorites]

I'm afraid I don't think you can stay if she refuses to get help. I know you worry about the kids, but even if you don't get full custody (which you should try to do), at least you will be showing them that living the way she does has severe consequences, which may help them as they become adults and begin to sort out their own mental health.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:58 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

If your circumstances warrant it, perhaps you could discuss with a lawyer the possibility of you having full custody of the kids on the basis of your wife being unfit to parent or a danger to them. Unfortunately there are probably no laws that protect a child against a parent who merely has temper tantrums and is emotionally volatile/unpredictable and causes the kids a lot of stress, which is unfortunate because that's certainly harmful to them. But maybe you can find some basis for the kids needing to be protected with full custody by you. I urge you to consider looking into that for their well-being because this almost certainly cause them a lot of distress (it's hard to imagine that it doesn't). And of course it's hurting you a lot too trying to manage the situation. I've seen and experienced milder versions of the behavior and situation you have described, so I can imagine how bad it must be. You have my sympathy.
posted by Dansaman at 12:59 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

but it takes a lot of energy on my part to provide a counterbalance to the intermittent turbulence.

Whatever you do to counterbalance your wife's actions can't ever actually 'neutralize' her effect on your children. The most effective thing you can do for your children if your wife refuses help is to try to get custody and take them out of the situation.
posted by marimeko at 1:01 PM on December 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

If you really really love your wife and she's dealing with mental health issues that make life unsustainable for you if she isn't in treatment, you have another option: continue to be married but move out with the lids. You can have dinner together as a family every night, spend weekends together, split school runs if needed, etc. You can do it in a loving way: I love you and I want to be married to you but this is an intolerable living situation. I can't control your behaviour, but I can change the living situation. Give her a signal that you're serious and some space to decide whether she wants to be married in treatment or divorced.

You would need to consult a family law attorney in your state before doing something like this. It also isn't risk-free but it may be what's best for all of you right now.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:03 PM on December 4, 2012 [52 favorites]

The kids actually seem to be thriving socially and academically and I’m really proud of them.

That is great to hear, and I just want to underline the fact that it is possible for children to thrive even in the presence of psychotic parents. I speak from experience, having lived through several maternal psychotic breaks, suicide attempts, and severe paranoid behavior when I was between 4 and 13 years old.

I'm not saying it's ideal or without risk for the children. But it's not inevitably damaging.
posted by alms at 1:30 PM on December 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Your first priority should be the safety and well-being of your children. You cannot guarantee this while they are in the same house with your wife.

Everything else is secondary - important!, but secondary. Begin working to separate and obtain full custody. Immediately.

Remember, this isn't really about you and her. It's about their safety. You're not being a bad husband if you leave; you are doing your duty as a father.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:30 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

These outbursts are targeted at me, for the most part, and while I have no doubt that they affect the kids they don’t usually occur in their presence and I think I’ve been able to mitigate the effects to the extent that I can.

...I’m afraid they might get more of the brunt of her outbursts without me there to smooth things over.

If the majority of her outbursts are directed at you, the possibility exists that the kids may not be in as much danger once you leave the house. That may give you more time to try to get custody or whatever afterwards.
posted by eas98 at 1:31 PM on December 4, 2012

Perhaps family therapy would be helpful. It might be a thought to try and negotiate an agreement with your wife, with the help of a therapeutic mediator, where boundaries are spelled out, and rights and responsibilities are defined, with consequences attached.

(Shaming your wife into better behavior, as was suggested upthread, is not the approach to take in this (or really any) behavioral-modification scenario. Shame is a terrible tool.)
posted by nacho fries at 1:33 PM on December 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

You don't seem to understand the severity of your wife's condition, and I can see that in the following statements:
  • Your wife has a GP, not a psychiatrist who prescribed the medication, which means she hasn't been consulting a psychiatrist
  • She only recently got a therapist, which she dumped in short order
  • You talk about how you can "smooth things over"
  • You seem to discuss thrown furniture and broken things with a certain amount of detachment, taking it in stride, rather than the sort of freaked out, "OMG, my wife destroyed furniture during acts of violence directed at me!"
My point is that you don't seem to have a rational perspective on this: that is, you think that you're acting "rationally", because you're not doing anything drastic. But in fact, this is extremely serious, and you have to either make sure she gets treatment or make arrangements to get sole custody of the children. "Normal" people don't live like this.
posted by deanc at 1:34 PM on December 4, 2012 [24 favorites]

I am amazed at the advice to abandon your wife. She is ill! You married for better or for worse. This sounds like worse with just a few islands of better. Can you get the cooperation of her doctor or therapist to have her committed to psychiatric care? She might be functional if she could be studied and properly diagnosed, treated and given the right meds.
You are living with way too much stress. When she is better, your problems may disappear.
posted by Cranberry at 1:41 PM on December 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I seemed fine as a child, too. But I pretty much cried every day of fifth grade, after my parents got a divorce. My parents didn't know about this - it seemed obvious to me that they would know already that their fighting was bothering me, but they didn't. Your actions affect your kids more than you realize. Do you want them to grow up and recreate your marriage in their own relationships? Do you think it would be okay if they had partners who occasionally attacked them?

Even aside from all the psychotic behavior, do you even like your wife? "Staying together for the kids" is a really bad idea when it creates more tension and unpleasantness for them.
posted by chaiminda at 1:48 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Can you get out with the kids for respite? Perhaps repair to a hotel for a few days and just hang out while your wife gets her shit together.

Call a lawyer so that you can understand what your options are.

Call your therapist, its an emergency, get good advice from him or her.

Call her therapist and explain that you're frightened for yourself and the kids, because the volitility is creating an impossibly stressful environment. Get advice.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:53 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your wife is refusing to get treatment and you feel like you have done all that you can to get her help, then you need to move on and focus on your children.

At the end of the day, the only person that can help her is herself. If she doesn't want to see a therapist and sort out her issues, then you need to protect your children. My mother was depressed for most of my childhood and it was awful. I also seemed to be coping with it just right, but I wasn't.

Your kids deserve a safe, stable and good childhood and that is your first and foremost job before anything else. I suggest you get out and take your kids with you. If you love your wife, give her an opportunity to make things right by seeking help, but make it clear that the children are your first priority.
posted by cyml at 1:56 PM on December 4, 2012

She is ill but that doesn't mean you cannot gently present boundaries.

Get the kids out and go stay with relatives or a friend for awhile. Then tell her that you love her, you want to do right by her, but that she HAS to get treatment and stick with it in order for you all to stay together. That has to include a psychiatrist if she has an actual bipolar or other disorder requiring meds (which it sounds like she does.)

It may be much harder for her to have selfcontrol than the rest of us but it is not impossible. I have been there done that and got the tshirt. If she is properly motivated to do what she needs to do not just for herself but for the entire family, this is salvageable. If she refuses, then you have no choice but to take the children and legally separate for awhile.

To those who are saying dtmfa, look, just because someone is ill you don't dump them without at least trying to get them better. If she is faced with the reality that she needs help in order to be a proper parent, I am betting that she will do what she needs to do.

Meanwhile, anonymous, I know this is scary but you are minimizing what is going on. You need to tell yourself the truth, that it is that bad, and get lots of support for yourself. You are right to care about her but love has to be tough here, for the well being of you all.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:12 PM on December 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

The OP mentioned in his post that his children are his only concern.

So I don’t know what to do. If she refuses to work on stuff I feel like I have to DTMFA, but my primary (read: only) concern at this point is the kids.

Some answers may seem harsh, but consideration for the violent parent's position comes last, especially if they are refusing to get help.
posted by marimeko at 2:23 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think it is likely that two homes, where the kids can have a half-time vacation from craziness, will be better for them than one where they experience the craziness all the time. With the history of throwing heavy furniture, plus the spouse's not seeking treatment, I think you're going to have to be the one to improve things.

Separate or divorce, create a safe and loving home, and ask a lawyer how you can most diplomatically but uncompromisingly say to your spouse "you need to get treatment if we're going to share custody."
posted by zippy at 2:43 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have PTSD. I've had tremendous mood swings, and been violent to partners. I've taken meds and stopped. I've gotten help and stopped. I've apologized every time I've erupted and felt guilty and screwed up.

Leave your wife and protect your kids as much as possible. Try your hardest to get custody. It is possible for your wife to get better. I have but I could never do it for another person. In face it wasn't until the best relationship of life walked away because of my actions that I woke up and realized that I really truly needed help. If I had kids with that person I'd still be enmeshed and all of us would be in a hellish place.

Your wife needs a psychiatrist to administer her meds. Most GPs have no clue with PTSD. (Mine suspected and made sure he found someone else to help me as he admitted he wasn't the best). Your wife needs to dedicate herself to therapy. She needs to realize she can change and get better. It sounds cruel but maybe not having the children around will wake her up.

Please protect the children tho. Abuse PTSD is a cycle that can just go through the generations.
posted by kanata at 2:46 PM on December 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

1. Talk to a lawyer asap just to understand what your options and parameters are. People who say "divorce and get full custody" don't understand that it is not that easy. I've heard stories that turned out badly in both directions (custody lost too easy, custody given but not deserved). There are also options like supervised visitation that keeps the parent in the child's life in a safer way. I have no idea what a judge might htink was appropriate given the facts - and you don't either. Ask. (It costs money but it is worth it!)

2. Get counseling for your kids. They deserve to have a safe place to talk about what this is like for them. The kids' therapist can also assess how they are really doing and how much they are being impacted by what is happening. If the therapist is really concerned that the kids are danger, he/she will speak up (and report it to child protective services) which will give you support in making the necessary changes. (Believe it or not, I do know of some situations which the intervention of child protective services was viewed as helpful by the family.)
posted by metahawk at 2:48 PM on December 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

I have some of the issues you're curious about hearing from, and I developed some of them by living with parents (and, later, partners) who had them and didn't deal with them.

Here is what I wish had happened when I was a kid:
• I wish an adult who loved me had created a safe space away from the person(s) in crisis, even if it meant we'd need to do a bit more helping out around the place.
• I wish I had been given therapy, myself.
• I wish that the person(s) causing the crises in our household(s) out of their own damage had been given the room to handle (or not) those things without us around to distract/absorb/"smooth over"...even if that meant dividing the household and making everyone a bit more sad for a while.
• I wish the people who were trying to balance it all had given themselves a break from the drama for a while, because I loved them and hated seeing them being broken down.
• I still wish - to this very day - that someone had taken the long view like you're trying to do and had seen big actions needed to taken, rather than relatively small protective gestures that were like Band-Aids over chainsaw wounds.

This is so hard. I feel so badly for you being in this position. I know you must have very complex feelings about her refusal to engage productively with her own damage...and I see that you honour the knowledge that this, too, is part of her damage. But you can't keep taking that on. As you've stated so clearly, you are also breaking down, and now the virus of damage is beginning to spread. As it does. You're totally right that the kids are next (and I hate to say this, I do, but please know that they are probably quite a bit more impacted by all of this than you're aware), and your instincts to make the big steps necessary to save yourself and give them a safe place are beautiful and perfect.

Please do contact your own therapist ASAP. Please do document what's going on. Please visit a family lawyer. And please do start considering dividing the household, with you and the kids in a safe place while your wife is given the space to consider her own next steps.

I wish you clarity, strength, and as much help as you can get from your support network.
posted by batmonkey at 2:48 PM on December 4, 2012 [28 favorites]

It's not clear to me that you've expressed your boundaries to your wife in a clear way -- have you done any therapy together? Is it possible for her to see your therapist with you while you express your clear boundary?

And I think you should be looking for some legal advice, too, in order to ensure that the kids have the best scenario going forward if she can't pull it together.
posted by amanda at 3:50 PM on December 4, 2012

I'm not comfortable emailing from outside the site, but if you feel comfortable MeMailing me, even from a sock, I both have PTSD and have been in relationships with people with PTSD.

If you don't, short version: It's okay for her to not like her therapist anymore, but insist that she get a new one, and back to twice a week. Try to tackle it obliquely if possible.
posted by corb at 4:23 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have to agree that it isn't that easy to just "get full custody." Often, the other parent must be a serious drug user or have physically hurt the children in some provable way to lose custody.

I don't have more advice, but I wish I did. I can't say, "just leave!" but I do think you should if she does not immediately get another therapist, no excuses. I think the advice upthread about contacting a lawyer to see what your options will be and contacting your therapist to make an exit plan is good advice.
posted by woodvine at 5:49 PM on December 4, 2012

With the 'smooth things over' and 'be a buffer' and 'provide counterbalance' ideas I worry you may be labouring under the idea that...that you really can do those things, that a stable parent undoes the damage that an unstable one does. Eh. You could also end up being the dirtball who chose to keep them in a bad situation, kwim?

+1 'see an attorney' -- very sorry.
posted by kmennie at 5:56 PM on December 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Call an attorney. I don't know if divorce is your best option, but call an attorney to find out. Getting full custody is not like ticking a box; a good friend of mine had to share custody of her children with her ex-husband, who had tried to kill the baby, until he slung the kid across the room in front of the guardian ad litem. (She now has a restraining order in place until her youngest child turns 18.) So in order to protect your children as much as possible, it is imperative that you proceed from a position of knowledge, not guesswork.

Document everything. EVERYTHING. Call her (ex?) therapist and tell them that you have concern for your kids. One piece of advice from the friend in the previous paragraph is to document things in a perfect-bound notebook like a Moleskine or something rather than spiral-bound notebook, because it creates a record that is difficult to add something to and where it's obvious if pages have been removed. If she has rages, record them, surreptitiously if you have to; your phone probably has an audio-recording button. Even if one-party recording is illegal in your state, it might be wise to have these, but that's something to talk to the attorney about.

And if you possibly can? Leave with the kids. Not forever, but take them and go away for the weekend, and communicate to your wife that you don't feel like your children are safe around her and that she has to go to therapy or you'll take further steps. This is scary, you are doing the right thing, I wish the right thing was simpler. Good luck and keep us posted.
posted by KathrynT at 6:33 PM on December 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just from the perspective of "how much are the kids aware/how much is it affecting them" — before they separated, my parents did their very best to pretend that things were going well. There was no abuse and no mental illness, just two people coming to the realization that they were terribly ill-suited and shouldn't have gotten married. No fights, no yelling, absolutely nothing ever thrown and no violence.

And at age 5 I was having dreams that I was behind the wheel of my father's truck as it rocketed at high speed down a local expressway and regardless of how I tried to turn the steering wheel or stomp on the brakes (I remember, in the dream, getting down on my hands and knees in the footwell to frantically press the brake pedal with my hands, I was so scared) or pull the emergency brake handle, nothing I did would slow it down or change its direction.

Your kids know that things are very wrong. They probably know that Mommy is not well. Pretending that things are okay is just messing with their minds further — even though my world was being ripped apart, it was almost a relief when my parents told me they were getting divorced because at least things finally made sense! Yes, things are wrong, and they've been wrong for a while, and I wasn't imagining things. Everything else about it sucked, but at least I no longer had the feeling that I was going crazy because everybody kept telling me things were fine even though I knew they weren't.

This is based on no experience other than having been the child of divorced parents, and if somebody more knowledgeable contradicts this, you should probably listen to them. But based on my experience, kids can get through some very tough times if you're honest with them. You might want a counselor's help in how to talk to them about it, but I would personally encourage you to acknowledge to them that Mommy's not well, and sometimes it's scary to be around her when she gets mad, but it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them, it doesn't mean she doesn't love them, but she's sick (no, sweetie, not like when you have a cold) and we're all going to love each other and do what we need to do to take care of each other. (Or however seems to be appropriate for speaking with your kids.)

Very best wishes to you and them, and to your wife. I can't imagine she'd choose to be stuck where she is if she could make a clear choice.
posted by Lexica at 6:56 PM on December 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

You might want a counselor's help in how to talk to them about it, but I would personally encourage you to acknowledge to them that Mommy's not well, and sometimes it's scary to be around her when she gets mad, but it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them, it doesn't mean she doesn't love them, but she's sick (no, sweetie, not like when you have a cold) and we're all going to love each other and do what we need to do to take care of each other.

Yeah. I think this is right on. Family counseling is a thing. And I think that covering for your wife has the potential to keep this bad cycle going. Shining a light here may help with healing and taking action. Talk it over with your counselor. And then discuss it with your wife in a session. I went through a childhood with a "bad" parent and we did family counseling. I know probably 75% of the real story. While it did not make everything okay, it does help contextualize things. And I knew way sooner that the stuff was not square even while my mom did a pretty good job of smoothing over. I'm so sorry you're going through this.
posted by amanda at 7:33 PM on December 4, 2012

Moving out and trying to stay married and see her every day is, if she does have borderline personality disorder (and that sounds possible to me from what you're saying, if you're an accurate reporter), is very unlikely to effect the change you're looking for. It is more likely to trigger a lot of fucked up rage and manipulation. You'd get the same kind of anger and abandonment rage that you'd get from leaving her, but you'd be purposefully exposing yourself to her on a regular basis.

It would also just be hellish for her to have that kind of ambiguous relationship where you "leave her" every night. She would feel like she's being evaluated, and then decide that she's failing based on some random thing you've done, then flip out. It would be enormously stressful and stress exacerbates nearly every mental illness out there. Stress combined with borderline personality disorder can actually lead to a psychotic break. Meanwhile, the kids will have an extremely confusing situation to navigate that none of their friends or family will easily relate to. They will feel all alone with this.

That's not to say you should stay with her, don't get me wrong, but doing a half-measure is a seriously horrible idea if she has BPD.

Talk to a lawyer privately. Document, document, document. Lay the groundwork for a custody filing, but know that there are no guarantees. However, as a man, contrary to popular opinion you actually have a bit of an advantage if you actually ask for custody, so don't lose hope.

Also, frankly, don't rely on her behaving normally during a separation. After it's all said and done and you're 100% gone, she might be able to be passingly polite (but still manipulative and intrusive when she gets a chance), but like I said above, the middle area where you're around but not around is going to be bad.

Good luck with everything.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:43 PM on December 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh and the other big problem with separating physically but not legally (or divorcing) is that, as a legal parent, she will have complete rights to the children until you have some sort of custody arrangement with her. I strongly suspect that an assertion that she is mentally unfit to parent the children would be undermined by any demonstrated willingness on your part to allow her considerable and ongoing contact with them. There is also an assumption by a lot of courts that keeping custody the same as it has been is a good thing, so you'd be laying the foundation for her to have quite a bit of time with the kids. If you have no formal custody arrangement, she can literally go out of state and take them with her to visit her mother or move in with her new online boyfriend or whatever (I have seen this happen).

Really, a lot of this is about strategy, and it's strategy that an experienced family lawyer can help you with enormously. I am not a lawyer, but I have seen enough contentious divorces to know that you really want a lawyer, before you even think the word "divorce" in your wife's general direction.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:30 PM on December 4, 2012

My mother has borderline personality disorder. She exhibited a lot of the behaviors that your wife does and "split" us when we were young - I was the golden child, my sister was the awful epic disaster who ruined her life. My father divorced my mother when I was seven years old and fought for custody for years, but eventually my mother won full custody of us.

To this day, one thing that I struggle with is that my dad didn't "take us with him." Growing up in a house with a borderline mother has created significant mental issues for both myself and my sister. I know my dad was not the best parent, but I also know that I would not have a lot of the problems that I have today if I had grown up in a more stable home with a more stable parent.

Please consider divorcing your wife and fighting for custody of your children with all you've got. I'm sure your wife could be an excellent mother - but right now, she is neglecting her mental health and all it is going to do is harm your children.
posted by anotheraccount at 5:11 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nowadays the wishes of the children are taken more and more into account, if the older one chooses to be with you full time the courts often will have the younger child stay to keep the siblings together.

First though, book a family therapy appointment; either she doesn't come and that is documented by the therapist or she comes and the therapist may be able to tell her the things you have been saying but your wife has dismissed. (As you are her scapegoat, she cannot respect what you say even when she recognises the truth in it). In my jurisdiction, custody/visitation is often contingent on the parent struggling with mental illness to remain in treatment. This is a way to ensure compliance and help her build skills.

It sounds like you think you are holding it together, although you acknowledge the depression and panic disorder you have developed, I think though the ramifications are deeper then you realise. I recently went through something similar for years and it is only now that I am taking concrete steps to correct the abuse I was subject to that I realise how I had accepted some really fucked up shit as "the new normal".

It is wonderful that you have so much compassion for your wife but allowing her to abuse you without consequences (big consequences like divorce and losing custody) is teaching her it is okay for her to be an abusive person.

I absolutely agree with the young rope-rider that your relationship needs to be black and white defined; no yo-yoing in and out of the house/relationship. She, and you and the children, need firm boundaries and understand each other's roles/limits.

Good luck. I hope you have the support you need to get to a safe and content place.
posted by saucysault at 7:22 AM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

and took the plunge and confronted her, as gently as possible, about it this evening. The result is all-out war in our house tonight.

Wowsa, when gentle confrontation about something legitimate leads to "all-out war," you are in a really bad place. The throwing large objects at you is scary too. It sounds like you are walking on eggshells around her.

So, yes, it sounds like talking to a family lawyer to come up with a long term strategy to get custody, is the best thing.

I should say, though... some of what matters is how she treats your kids. My parents are fucked up and they fought a lot, and there was violence between them. But there were things my mom gave me that no other person could have given me as well. Her dedication as a mother (e.g. to my education) was very extreme. Same for my siblings. This is going to be an unpopular answer, but part of what matters here is her effect on your kids. My dad has a new partner who is calm and easygoing. Still, I'm really glad my mom raised me instead of my dad's new partner, no matter how easygoing the new partner is. A mother's love can (not always, but can) create a certain level of dedication, commitment, hard work and intensity that is not easily replaced, at least in some cases. If your kids are happy and well adjusted, I'd consider the positives she is giving them, vs. the negatives against you, and of course the negatives against them. Looking back on my own history, there might have been similar advice to my dad to DTMFA, but I'm glad that my mom and dad together raised me and my siblings. We all turned out pretty well.

My mom is a mess but she's MY mom, she sat in the kitchen with me doing homework for a gazillion hours, yelled at me to go to church, yelled at me for any other life choice she thought I was making wrong. When we were poor, she cooked us elaborate dinners out of tuna fish and canned beans. When my dad opened a business, she cleaned the decrepit buliding from top to bottom. Our house was immaculate. Her resources were scant but she put them all into her kids. Also I feel her devotion so intensely that I know I could call her any night at 3am or ask her for anything... $10000, for her to fly out to see me, whatever. (I don't ask for that stuff, but I know I could.) She's a batshit lunatic and gives bad advice. But, there is something valuable to me about her love and I wouldn't trade it away. So in your case, I would consider the positives -- if there are any -- versus the emotional challenges.

Just putting that out there!
posted by kellybird at 7:30 AM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you want to leave her and have full time custody of the kids.... Talk to a good divorce lawyer now about the steps you need to take to document these events and build a case for sole custody before you file for divorce.

If what you've written is true you should not have a great deal of trouble.
posted by French Fry at 7:31 AM on December 5, 2012

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) can work wonders for someone like your wife. Regular therapy may be frustrating and unhelpful for her until she does DBT. It may take some time and, obviously, she has to be willing and interested.
posted by gentian at 9:00 AM on December 5, 2012

I know this thread is ancient by now but OP, if you're still reading this, I'm too troubled not to respond.

The therapist likely told you you were "live hand grenade with the pin pulled" to get through to you the level of danger you were in. You speak of symbolic violence (where objects are broken) and large objects being thrown at you in acts of physical violence.

At the same time, you assure us that your children don't know about this and that you are making sure it doesn't affect you.

I was always told that I didn't know about my father's alcoholism and verbal abuse and that it didn't affect me. Oh, and that it was my mother who was getting the verbal abuse mostly, not me (much).

This is something parents tell themselves in order to justify keeping the children in an abusive situation. There's actually no truth to that at all, I'm afraid. What it amounts to is saying "the children and I are being abused, but it's all right because we just lie to them about it." Sorry to be so blunt, but that is the truth of the matter.

Sometimes, the reasons for keeping the children in an abusive situation is because you accurately anticipate worse outcomes if you stay. All I can suggest is that you seek legal advice, and document every incident in a Moleskine as well.

I am saying that you need to do everything you can to take custody of the children and get them away from the person who is abusing them. I am fairly appalled by any suggestion that you are "abandoning" your wife, since at the time of writing this, she was physically abusive, receiving minimal treatment, and refusing any treatment that had any chance of actually helping her, as well as giving no indication that there was any part of her being that thought she was wrong, and you have children. Once you have children, it may be necessary to "abandon" the other parent if that parent is abusing them.

I do know that it's really easy for Internet strangers to sit around yelling DTMFA and to call you a wuss if you don't just pick up a kid under each arm and walk out without a care in the world. I get that leaving is going to be dangerous and I don't know how to advise you about that one, which I acknowledge is pathetic on my part. But I do want to affirm that that is what you need to do.
posted by tel3path at 6:38 AM on July 19, 2013

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