I just returned from Dallas where I had the opportunity to be a part of a wonderful series for women on Betrayal in Marriage. It is being filmed in an old cotton mill just outside of Dallas and I think it will be a huge help for churches ministering to women who have been wounded by selfish and abusive spouses. I’ll let you know when it becomes available.
We’ve had a lot of discussion around boundaries and consequences and I’ve appreciated reading all of your comments. The topic of mental health came up in one of your comments a few weeks back and so I wanted to address that issue more thoroughly.
Question: You’ve been talking about setting boundaries in marriage or implementing consequences for destructive behavior but what if your spouse is mentally ill? What if he is bipolar, is on the Autism spectrum, or has a personality disorder? Do you still recommend boundaries and consequences or does there need to be more compassion?
Answer: The answer is not either or, but both. Yes I still recommend appropriate and sometimes firm boundaries even with mental illness. And yes, there needs to be great compassion.
I’ve thought and thought about this question and how I wanted to answer. I’ve worked in the mental health field for over 30 years but I also grew up with a mother diagnosed with bipolar. She was an alcoholic. And she was abusive.
This is what I know. Having a mental illness certainly causes marital and familial stress, and requires a great deal of compassion and resolve to get through it. However, I want to make a distinction between mental illness and foolishness or wickedness of the heart.
I was recently at dinner with some friends and we got into a discussion about ISIS and Hitler and school shootings and everything else that is wrong with the world. Toward the end of our talk, the man in our party concluded, “These people are mentally ill, that’s all there is to it.”
I disagreed. Not everyone who is mentally ill is abusive and not everyone who is abusive is mentally ill. Yes, mentally ill people are sinful, just like you and me, but they are not necessarily wicked. Mental illness often leads to an inability to think clearly or see reality properly. Because of their distorted perceptions, they also have trouble controlling their emotions and behaviors appropriately. But most mentally ill people are not cruel towards others, intentionally malicious, nor do they feel good about themselves or what they’ve done.
Let me give you an example. Gina was diagnosed bipolar. When she wasn’t taking her medication she would become manic and spend large sums of money she could not afford as well as have multiple sexual encounters with total strangers. There were times she had outbursts of anger. Once she got back on her medication she would have great remorse over her behaviors and feel appropriate shame, guilt, and regret. She hated her disease and worked to get the help she needed so that she had a good chance of not repeating her manic episodes. She knew they caused her, her husband and family great pain.
Yet, Gina still had consequences to face because of her behaviors. Her credit card bill now totaled $8,000 that she didn’t have and as a result, her husband put a boundary in place that he would not give Gina any of the family credit cards to carry until she was more stable.
Gina chose to humble herself to receive her doctor’s and my help. Together we set up boundaries for Gina and accountability checks so that if the people closest to her noticed she was acting strange, they would give her that feedback and she would listen, even if she disagreed (because she wasn’t thinking clearly) and she would go immediately to her doctor for another opinion.
Her husband was exhausted and tempted to give up, but he had great compassion for his wife and her mental illness. It ran in her family history. This was not something she chose or wanted. He decided as long as she was willing to submit herself to her doctor for help, take her medication, respect his boundaries, he was willing to continue to keep their family together and bear this burden with her.
Gina is an example of a person who is mentally ill but demonstrates decent character qualities overall. She’s humble, teachable, repentant, and willing to acknowledge she has a problem and get the help she needs. She is not a perfect woman, she still sins, acts selfishly, has pride, can be judgmental or gossipy, but when she sees that she does these things, like a person without mental illness, she’s not happy about it nor does she excuse or justify it. She is sorry.
On the other hand Sally is a diabetic. She’s not mentally ill, but she is ill. Yet she refuses to take her medication faithfully or test her blood levels. She eats poorly and drinks at least three cokes a day, the one’s with sugar in them. Her blood sugar is all over the place and she recently crashed into a parked car because she became disoriented when her blood sugar levels dropped extremely low. Her kids were strapped in the back seat and thankfully no one got hurt. Sally is ill, but she demonstrates immature character (the Bible calls it foolishness) and sinful selfishness (which she also demonstrated prior to her diabetes diagnosis). Her illness is not making her refuse to comply with her need for regular insulin injections, or maintain vigilance over her health. Rather it’s her pride, her foolish approach to life as well as laziness and a lack of discipline. These are character qualities, not medical or mental health issues.
Sally’s husband has had to put boundaries around Sally’s care of their small children because he’s afraid that without proper supervision, they could get hurt. Until Sally is willing to take greater responsibility for herself and her medical condition, she is dangerous to herself as well as her young children.
There are many people who do not have a diagnosable mental illness, yet are irresponsible, foolish, cruel, deceitful, malicious, vicious, indifferent, irresponsible, hard hearted, and cold. There is no fear of God before their eyes and many of them seem void of shame, guilt, and empathy.
Here are some Bible passages that describe these people:
“Their mouths are full of lies, they swear to tell the truth but they lie instead” (Psalm 144:8).
“O Lord, rescue me from evil people. Protect me from those who are violent. Those who plot evil in their hearts and stir up trouble all day long. Their tongues sting like a snake; the venom of a viper drips from their lips” (Psalm 140:1-3).
“For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that” (2 Timothy 3:2-5).
Tom was a successful executive. He also was a chronic liar, verbally berated his wife and thought that he was better than other people. He refused accountability and when caught in a lie, he would lie some more. When that didn’t work, he shifted into blaming, accusing, or attacking the person who was confronting him. When that didn’t work, he played the victim. “Why are you doing this to me?” “I can’t believe how harsh and hard hearted you’ve become.” “Where is mercy and grace, I thought you were a Christian?”
Tom showed no remorse. No willingness to look at himself and ways he’s harmed others by his behaviors. It was always the other person’s fault. Yes, Tom is a sinner like everyone else, but what makes Tom act the way he does when his sin is exposed? Is he mentally ill or is there a problem with Tom’s character?
Adolf Hitler had these words placed over one of the gas ovens in Auschwitz, Germany.
“I want to raise a generation of young people devoid of conscience, imperious, relentless and cruel.”
Is this mental illness or pure evil?
When you live with someone diagnosed with a mental illness or even a physical illness that causes you and your children to be in danger it’s still important that you value your safety.
If your spouse had a brain tumor that made him violent and paranoid, I hope you would have great compassion. I hope you would love him as best you could. But you might not be able to live with him, especially if he refused to take medicine that would calm him down. The same might be true for a spouse diagnosed with a mental illness.
The Bible tells of a man who was possessed by a demon. He lived among the burial caves and the people tried to restrain him with chains and shackles because he cut himself and wandered around howling and screaming. He wasn’t in his right mind, he was scary and no one felt safe around him. Jesus healed him, but he never rebuked the town for their boundaries of not allowing him to live among them (See Luke 5 for the story).
Please don’t mishear me. We live in a disposable society where we are tempted to run away from suffering. Pregnancies are aborted because we don’t want to be burdened with a less than perfect child. Marriages are breaking up for trivial and unbiblical reasons because we don’t want to do the hard work to persevere through the tough times. Mental illness as well as a chronic physical illness can take a huge toll on the marriage relationship and often puts one spouse in a care giving and/or parental role. It’s not what you signed up for and it’s tempting to bolt. But God tells us that we have much to learn through difficult times. God uses them to soften our heart and make us more like him (tweet that).
However, when you are with someone who stubbornly refuses to comply with their medical or mental health treatment and is dangerous, chronically foolish, abusive and/or cruel towards you and your children, boundaries and consequences are extremely important for your safety and mental health.
Friend, what boundaries have you put in place with a spouse who is mentally ill?