My wife, Amanda, is a wonderful woman and loves me and our three children more than anything in the world. We’ve been married 12 years and I’ve seen her periodically go into deep, low moods. Nothing seems to help her shake it until it has run its course. During these times, she becomes bitter and angry and tells me she feels trapped by the children. Recently my children, Lola (11), Noah (9) and Sam (6) confronted me and said they wanted to go live with their grandma or their Aunt Kay, and that they didn’t want to live with their mom anymore. Lola and Noah explained what it was like for them at times while Sam just sat on my lap and cried. They said their mom would often lock them out of the house and that they had to stay in our backyard for hours with no access to a bathroom, food or water. It seems she would rage at them or lock herself in our bedroom and refuse to come out, leaving all parental responsibilities to Lola. They also said they could hear her cry in her bedroom for hours, often walk around the house naked, leave porn on the TV and repeatedly tell them they’re the cause of her problems and she wished she had never had them. I had no idea these things were happening, but these moods only occur a few times a month. Most of the time, Amanda is a good, loving mother.
I talked to my sister Kay and she’s angry. She thinks I bury my head in the sand. Further, that if I don’t dramatically change the situation, she’s going to call Children Protective Services. I can’t believe Kay is being so threatening and vindictive. I try to reason with Amanda but she refuses to get help. I’m thinking of temporarily leaving my kids with their grandma until everything straightens out. Amanda is furious and feels deeply betrayed that I’m actually thinking of sending our kids away. I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid if they leave, Amanda might get really depressed. My mother will keep our children, but I know they’d be very upset without me and their mom. I want to be with them but I also don’t want to leave my wife, I feel like I’m being torn in two.
You don’t have to abandon your wife, but I believe you need to start setting clear unbreakable boundaries that will protect your whole family, including Amanda. While it will probably be intensely difficult, you need to insist she gets a complete psychiatric evaluation and either inpatient or comprehensive outpatient treatment. While Amanda may not recognize it, she needs help and it’s not in her best interest for both of you to continue to minimize her problems. Don’t allow her to refuse to get help any longer.
It’s your duty to keep your children safe. If they do temporarily stay with their grandma, visit them daily and spend as much time with them as possible. Make sure they know you’re not choosing their mother over them and that you’ll never abandon them. It might also be a good idea for you and the children to get counseling.
Children coming from abusive situations often develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and somatic complaints. Take care not to minimize the psychological impact of neglect and emotional abuse on your children as they could come to believe this behavior is acceptable. Your children could also develop characteristics of learned helplessness as they are powerless to stop the abuse. They’re further at risk for various acting-out behaviors such as alcohol or drug use, running away, sexual acting-out, stealing, and other dangerous pursuits. One of your children could identify with their mother and also become verbally abusive and neglectful, while another one might identify with you and internalize avoidant and denial characteristics.
I understand Amanda can be positive and loving and you don’t want to break up your family, but I’m concerned you’re confusing enabling with loving. If you really love them, insist Amanda no longer abuse herself and your family by not getting the professional support she needs.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.