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Hard to Live With

Living with a spouse with a personality disorder is difficult



hen your spouse has a personality disorder (PD), the word “challenging” doesn’t quite convey the experience. Words like crazy-making, confusing, painful, guilt-inducing, enraging, frustrating-to-the-breaking-point convey what it’s like to be married to someone with this disorder. Although only a professional diagnosis can say for sure whether a PD is at play, experiences such as the following certainly point to the need for assessment:

You come up against a rigid wall, time and time again when you try to communicate with your spouse. Your partner is impervious to your concerns or feelings and refuses to talk about important issues.

You feel lied to, gaslit, and otherwise manipulated.

There are patterns of him or her overreacting, neglecting to share information, and blaming you for failing to comprehend, perform adequately, or change your behavior.

You’re relieved when your spouse isn’t around and you can enjoy temporary order and sanity.

You walk on eggshells and remain hypervigilant, never knowing when your partner will irrationally erupt.

Marriage counseling doesn’t help.


Constantly Off-Balance

Personality disorders generally refer to a pervasive way of functioning that is inflexible. Everyone has a “personality,” but within the way we generally think, feel, and act, there is room for learning, growing, and changing. A person with a personality disorder, on the other hand, is characterized by rigidity; their personality is inflexible and not open to modification.

OCPD — obsessive-compulsive personality disorder — is the most common form of personality disorder. It’s characterized by an intense need for perfection, order, and control. Since perfection, order, and control are out of reach, the person with OCPD is constantly off-balance.

Sufferers vary in their reactions. Some, for example, are predominantly explosive and controlling. Some are primarily insecure, overwhelmed, and anxious. But all will have some mix of these feelings. An overattention to detail or obsession with lists and schedules can result in the failure to complete necessary tasks, as the person with OCPD loses sight of the big picture while delving into minutiae. The resulting chaos can then lead to feelings of overwhelm and procrastination. His terror and defensiveness make him resistant to all attempts to help, rescue, or confront him.

In addition, many people have comorbid disorders that occur in response to the primary personality disorder. Hoarding Disorder, for instance, is commonly found in those with OCPD. Inability to part with broken, duplicate, and unnecessary items addresses the anxious “What if I need it one day?” concerns of those who are trying to control all aspects of life.

OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is another commonly seen comorbid disorder in OCPD. Although similar in name, these two disorders are quite different in presentation. OCPD is a pattern of thinking that affects the entire personality: rules, order, fairness, correctness — these concepts form the preoccupation of the OCPD sufferer. However, OCD is a pattern of anxious feelings (obsessions) and specific behavioral compulsions (rituals) meant to resolve them. For instance, a person who fears that harm will come to his loved ones might wash his hands 45 times until he gets the feeling that “everyone will be all right for now.”

Generalized anxiety is another disorder that frequently coexists with OCPD, and it can result in workaholism, along with a reluctance to spend money on self or others, and an almost panicky rigidity concerning rules, morality, ethics, and values, as if entering a gray zone is a serious threat to the very integrity of the self.

Naturally, delegating tasks is almost impossible, as in the mind of one with OCPD, no one will be able to do things well enough.

Translated into marriage, we can imagine a wife who wants her OCPD husband to take the family on vacation or to clean his home office, while he wants her to stop spending money, but refuses to discuss their finances and adamantly forbids a discussion about “his” office space. It can take the wife years to realize that something is truly wrong with the marriage and specifically with her husband, as he manages to convince her that she’s the unreasonable, controlling, or irresponsible party.

However, if she can use her constant confusion, sadness, despair, anxiety, and stress as indicators that help is needed, she may be able to reach out to a professional for guidance. Doing so may provide clarity, direction and, most importantly, a game plan. With the right help, people with OCPD can be helped, and their marriages can be saved.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 880)

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