Mental Illness can wreak havoc in a marriage. I would like to share the story of two friends of ours, “Josh and Emily”:
Josh has committed to loving Emily in spite of the fact that she has pervasive personality disorders that inflict a lot of pain on those around her. Perhaps Josh and Emily’s story might encourage others who are in the bewildering and difficult situation of being married to a spouse with a personality disorder. Hopefully, it will be an encouragement to anyone who is married to a spouse that is hard to love.
Josh is highly respected in his profession and is admired and loved by both colleagues and friends. Josh’s wisdom, empathy and Christ-like love ministers to many people. Josh’s life shines the light of Christ so brightly that people who meet him just automatically assume that he has the ideal Christian family at home.
From the loving way he talks about his wife, no one would ever suspect the deep pain he endures in his marriage. No one would guess that his wife routinely disparages him and only says positive or encouraging things about him when it serves her interests or when it makes her look like the kind of person she would like to be. Emily struggles with feelings of despair, resentment and anger. She cares about her children but the kind of unselfish love that parenting requires drains and taxes her. Emily often laments that raising children isn’t what she wanted out of life.
Emily wants to be a loving wife, mother and friend but she doesn’t know how to love other people. Like others with personality disorders, Emily is chronically self-centered, manipulative, demanding, and histrionic. Her lack of empathy makes it hard to love others in a meaningful way. She often has a distorted view of reality and rages at her family.
It is evident that their marriage hasn’t provided the love, companionship and encouragement Josh and Emily hoped and dreamed for when they got married. In stark contrast to marriages where wives walk alongside their husbands providing loving support and help, Emily’s disorders have caused Josh to lose career opportunities and many friendships. He is frequently emotionally wounded by her verbal attacks and he has to step in to pick up the pieces from the damage to their children and others that are left in the wake of Emily’s destructive behavior.
Yet Emily isn’t aware of how destructive she is. In fact, she instead usually views herself as the victim when she creates chaos. Imagine a man who doesn’t know how to fly piloting an airliner. He could look at the controls and attempt to figure out what to do. He might try to act like he sees pilots act in movies. He might bluff and temporarily fool the passengers by putting on a uniform, exuding great confidence and using the jargon he’s heard pilots use. But none of that will keep that plane from crashing because he doesn’t have any idea about how to really fly.
That’s a lot like Emily’s approach to relationships —she sees what others do and tries to emulate them but she crashes in spite of her best intentions because she doesn’t really understand how to love unselfishly.
There are times that Josh feels discouraged and his hope wavers. There are many times when he has to repent for responding with unrighteous anger. There are times when it seems like too much to bear. It is during those times that it is tempting for him to listen to the myriad of voices saying that this isn’t what a Christian marriage is supposed to be like —you and your kids would be better off without Emily wreaking havoc in your lives.
Yet, light shines in the darkness. God has given Josh a profound treasure that carries him through the times when bitterness could so easily invade his heart. The awesome power of God holds him up and gives him strength to lay down his questions and pain and shattered expectations at the feet of the cross ( see II Corinthians 4:6-10).
Because he believes that God means what he says, Josh is able to forge ahead, confident in God’s ultimate provision for his marriage, in spite of how discouraging the circumstances may seem. People with personality disorders are very difficult for counselors to effectively work with because they block effective communication, refuse accountability and cannot be relied on to provide an accurate history of problems. Yet 15 years of ineffective counseling didn’t daunt Josh’s faith that God would still bless their marriage or his commitment to his vows.
Josh isn’t just “sticking it out”; he has actually come to embrace the opportunity to show Emily love in every way he can. Instead of focusing on his own unmet needs, he has chosen to focus the fact that Emily is a precious child of God who desperately needs unconditional love. And instead of being bitter for the hardship they endure, he views his marriage to Emily as an opportunity for his own growth. He has chosen to make his marriage an opportunity to be forged in the Refiner’s fire. And it has made a difference for both of them. Their marriage has experienced the love that endures all things and doesn’t fail.
Psychologists say that personality disorders are very difficult if not impossible to treat. But with God, all things are possible. As Josh has learned to lay down his own desires and expectations in order to honor his wife, God has been faithful in bringing some growth and healing for Emily.
After nearly two decades of marriage, Emily is really beginning to grow in grace and truth. Entrenched patterns of dysfunction are beginning to erode and she catches glimpses of the truth about how she behaves. It still isn’t easy, but Josh doesn’t waiver in his conviction that God will be victorious in their marriage.
Loving a spouse with personality disorders is an extremely difficult road to travel. It requires submitting the will, emotions, expectations and desires to the will of God no matter how much it hurts. And it hurts a lot. But, Josh decided a long time ago that his vow to love Emily was a sacred oath that is not contingent on whether she is easy to love or whether she loves him in return.
I often wonder, what would have happened to Emily if Josh would have caved into the voices telling him that their marriage was hopeless. It makes me shudder to think of the wreck Emily’s life would have become if she didn’t have a husband willing to obey God’s command to love her no matter what the cost.
Thankfully, by God’s infinite grace, Josh has grown into a mature man of God and Emily is slowly beginning to grow. Josh and Emily’s affliction in an extremely difficult marriage is producing an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.
The above true testimony was written by a friend of “Emily and Josh” in hopes that it will inspire others to see what Christ-like unconditional, committed, marital love truly looks like when it is lived out in real life.