It Doesn’t Happen Very Often


Mentally healthy people don’t hit, push, punch, or throw things at loved ones who could be seriously hurt.
Mentally healthy people do not ever have sex with an unwilling partner through force or threat.
Mentally healthy people don’t load their kids or their spouse into the car and drive drunk.
Mentally healthy people don’t stay in the vicinity of those they love when they cannot control their angry words or actions.
Mentally healthy people don’t have unprotected sex with someone who might be infected with HIV, HPV, herpes, syphilis, or gonorrhea and then go have sex with their life partner.
Mentally healthy people don’t blow the mortgage money or food budget on betting or shopping for things they don’t need.
They don’t. They know how to stop themselves, and they stop themselves before they do something that could hurt those they love and cause them great shame.
Mentally unhealthy people do these things, feel ashamed, and promise it won’t happen again. When it happens again, they invent stories about why they did what they did. These stories usually involve blaming their victim. It reduces their shame.
What mentally unhealthy people need is not a second chance or a third or a fourth. They need help finding the courage to get mentally healthy, to admit they need to learn new approaches to old problems, to do without the alcohol or drugs they are sure they cannot live without, to get surgery to remove a brain tumor or bleed, to take the drugs that will stop cravings or thoughts they cannot otherwise control.
Even if the awful consequences don’t happen very often, these people are mentally unhealthy all the time. Living with this takes an awful toll on the mental health of everyone around them, because no one can predict when the fear and the shame will return. Children grow up anxious and with no basis for trusting others. Spouses grow overly cautious and self-protective. Those with the problem may start to see their spouses and children as the problem, because the consequences would be less without all the shame of hurting loved ones.
Not every mental health problem can be cured or managed, but many can. It takes courage, though, to choose to get treated. It may take even more than allowing an amputation or a mastectomy or a prostatectomy. To find this courage when death is not the alternative, it helps to know it is their only option to keep their loved ones in their lives. Second chances say otherwise.
It is definitely not easy to separate to protect you, your mentally unhealthy mate, and your children while your mate finds that courage. It is often very expensive. It requires protection from an out-of-control reaction. It calls for lots of support for you and the children. This, too, takes courage.
Many wait to find their courage in the anger that propels them toward divorce. This is understandable, but the message it sends comes out a lot like this: “I no longer see you as a man or woman with a treatable mental health problem that affects all of us but as a defective individual not deserving of love.” Not many of us would find the courage for an amputation if told we would die with or without one.
“It doesn’t happen very often” is the first step to writing someone off as a defective person who cannot be loved. If it happens even once, it’s a serious problem. If it happens again because neither of you took precautions to prevent it from happening, the second step is likely to be a very slippery one that hurts both of you and any children you share.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • I believe in your words as written because they make (logical) sense. I had a marriage that was in all aspects happy in it’s beginning but changed quickly, infidelity, mentally unhealthy, and then uncovering a double life. In my case, some of your advise falls short and seems irresponsible. I left this marriage for my child, unwillingly as I was given no option & as my spouse said he planned on & did marry his other love interest. So, I would like your advise when there is no option given and no means to repair. Staying for the kids would mean ceasing to exist, instead of being a roll model for honesty and integrity. Please do advise?

  • Ellen, I generally favor repairing a marriage for the kids, as opposed to simply staying for the kids. But repair is not always possible, and I don’t think we do children any good by forcing ourselves to stay and put on an act for the children when repair is not possible.
    My intent in this blog post was to discourage good, caring parents from staying when staying isn’t helping anyone. Yours sounds like one of those cases. There is, of course, no guarantee that separating will result in repairing the marriage or the mentally unhealthy spouse. There is only the near certainty that staying in such a situation (a violent, mentally ill, or addicted spouse who will not seek treatment) won’t get those results.

  • Patty, I hope you still read comments on posts that are a few years old like this one. I would really appreciate if you could address my question somehow. My husband of 3 years recently pushed me in the neck during an argument. It only hurt a little, and he was sorry, and said he was pushing me away from our toddler who I was buckling into her stroller. My husband thought I was planning to kidnap our daughter because when his parents were going through a divorce that happened to him, so he felt he was protecting our daughter from being taken away. I wasn’t going to take her away, nor was I threatening to do so (I was planning to take her for a walk like I often to). It’s the second time he’s physically pushed me in a period of a couple months. The first time was a similar situation, also during an argument. He hasn’t done anything like that before except for when he was drinking years ago, and he’s addressed his alcoholism, gone to meetings, and been sober for almost two years now. We have a counseling appointment planned now, our first, because I don’t know what to do. I am not afraid of him; I trust him that he wouldn’t injure me. But it did scare me in the moment. I don’t want it to happen again and don’t want our daughter to ever see our arguments getting physical because I don’t believe in that and would never do that. I’m not sure who to listen to — all the advice I read online seems to be of the “girl, get the heck out of there,” variety because once he crosses that line, it tends to escalate. What do you think I should do? I love him so much and our marriage is very good most of the time.

  • Aubrey, you should never brush off or excuse crossing that line. But leaving is not your first line of defense. You’re dealing with what sounds like a rational, loving man.
    Some people who grow up in angry households (like the sort where children are victims of kidnapping) never learn that there is a moment between something frightening happening and taking action, during which they can make a deliberate choice. And some never learn how to call upon their compassion when they feel threatened. Both can be learned. The first is taught in anger management classes, the second in Dr. Steven Stosny’s Compassion Power boot camps.
    Other people grow up believing they are somehow entitled to obedience because of their gender, their race, their family name, or their wealth. These are the people you must be very wary of. They will hit, push, throw things at, belittle, and manipulate a spouse because they feel entitled to do so when they don’t get what they expect is their due. These are the people who keep escalating. There is treatment for them, but it takes a year or longer, with no guarantee of success. Please read if you think this is who you are dealing with.
    In either case, I suggest you set very firm boundaries of your own to compensate for the one your husband is missing. Don’t judge each instance on its own as it occurs. Instead, set a consequence that will automatically follow any use of physical force to get his way, even to protect his child from you.
    Make arrangements right now to go stay for one or two weeks somewhere safe (and take your child) if this ever happens again.
    Get the phone number of a women’s shelter and keep it in your cell phone, in case your backup home is not available on the day you need it. Talk to your local police and any local domestic abuse hotline now to find out how helpful they will be if you call them to help you make this happen.
    Talk to a friend or relative (not one you’ll stay with) about being your go-between during such a separation.
    Figure out now how you will handle daycare and work and whatever else might put you at risk if he turns out to be one of those who feels entitled to call all the shots.
    Don’t tell your husband where you will go, only that you *will* go if it ever happens again, and the earliest you will return is x days later, and only if he does a, b, and c before then. Tell him, with love, you hope this will never, ever be necessary and you hope he will get whatever help he needs to prevent himself from crossing the line again.
    You’ve taken a great step in finding a counselor, Aubrey. Be sure you state clearly in your session that you have endured the very last instance of physical assault and that you very much want to stay married as long as it never happens again, straight or sober, angry or not, frightened or not.
    Let your husband find a class or choose to continue to see the counselor. This is not your problem to solve. It’s his. Your problem is how to handle things if he chooses not to.
    And you really don’t want to be figuring this out while you and your child are in danger.

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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