I have a young adult son, still at home, that we adopted as a young child. He had a lot of past trauma, and though we did our best to help him, he still developed borderline personality disorder and lies a lot. He went through an extremely difficult phase about a year ago where he was angry, violent, and lying to an unbelievable degree. With better medication, he seems to have moved out of the angry and violent phase, but I still tense up around him. Fortunately, we have worked with him enough that he is on a path toward having a career and being independent, but I struggle to enjoy being around him. I don’t want my discomfort to impede his progress and try to be as loving as possible.
He lies a lot about things that happen, changing stories to make himself look heroic, talks about himself all the time, and is very easy to offend. I never really know what he is doing, or what side of him I will get.
I have been trying to do things to help all of our younger children be friends and close as a family. But when he is around, I simply have a hard time feeling happy.
Do you have any suggestions on how or what I should be doing in this situation?
I commend you for your deep commitment to helping your son become a healthy man who can function in both societal and family settings. I can hear your love and commitment to him, but I can also hear the exhaustion, worry, and guilt that not only permeates interactions with him, but also your private moments. Let’s talk about how to manage your own feelings and reactions toward him.
As you already know, living with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder leaves you with constant uncertainty about your standing in the relationship. Since they’re constantly scanning for signs of rejection, they’re either on the defensive or on the offensive to protect themselves from abandonment. And, tragically, because their condition leaves them so reactive, it’s natural to pull away, thus confirming their suspicions all along. It’s a maddening cycle that leaves everyone depleted.
Because your depletion is real, it’s okay if you don’t feel happy around him right now. It doesn’t mean you don’t like feeling happy or that you aren’t working toward feeling happy some day in the future. It simply means that you’re still recovering from the trauma he’s put you and your family through these past few years.
We live in a culture that doesn’t tolerate complex and hard emotions like sadness, loss, and fear. There’s often pressure to “smile that frown away”[i] to make everyone around you feel comfortable. Before you can experience an authentic smile, it’s important to catch your breath, rest from the years of battle you’ve endured with his illness, and seek personal healing. You’ve barely entered into a cease-fire with your son now that he’s properly medicated.
Dr. Julie Hanks recently shared that “women are socialized to feel responsible for the quality of their relationships.”[ii] You’re worried that if you don’t maintain a pleasant demeanor around your son that he will launch into more harmful behaviors that will continue to wreak havoc on your family relationships. Please recognize that because your son is part of your relationship with him, he is equally responsible for the quality of this relationship with you. He’s also responsible for doing his part to protect the quality of his relationships with his siblings, his dad, and anyone else in his relationship circle. I recognize that he has serious relational limitations with his mental illness, but it’s still appropriate for you to have basic expectations for how he shows up in your home.
I’m sure you’ve figured out which patterns of behavior you’ll let slide and which ones you need to address. It’s important not to give him a pass on harmful behaviors that threaten the safety, dignity, and peace of your family members. Even though he may exaggerate his stories and live a self-centered life, he can be expected to be a safe person in your family setting.
It’s understandable that you’re cautious and less than enthusiastic in spending much time around him right now. You’ve spent most of your parental resources just trying to stabilize him, so it’s understandable that you’ll need some breaks from him right now. Ask your husband or other family members to spend time with him. Enlist others in the family to help you create family unity by pulling everyone together. It’s not your sole responsibility to manage the emotional climate of the family by delivering an Oscar-worthy performance every time you’re around your son. If you need a break, allow yourself to have a break.
You might also consider seeking out some individual trauma healing for yourself through a mental health counselor trained in treating trauma. Unresolved trauma is often the cause of chronic depression.[iii] Trying to feel happiness when you’re living with unresolved trauma is a punishing way to live your life. Make sure you’ve worked through and thoroughly healed the impact his violence, aggression, and manipulation on your emotional and physical health. A skilled therapist can also help you learn how to respond effectively to those times when your son surprises you with his reactivity.
As you already know, true peace will come through Jesus Christ.[iv] You can still feel His peace even when you’re taking a break from your son’s drama, protecting your limited resources, and holding him accountable for his harmful behaviors. True peace doesn’t only exist in the absence of conflict with others. True peace comes when your efforts are sanctified and justified by the Spirit no matter how difficult it may be for your son (or other family members).[v]
Since your son’s illness will require a lifetime of education, boundaries, creativity, and support, it’s understandable that some days will feel more hopeful than others. If you’re worried that he’ll detect every one of your low moments and react negatively, then you’ll never be allowed to feel what you’re really feeling. Even under ideal conditions, you can’t be expected to singlehandedly hold your family’s relationships together. If you’re having a rough day or need some space from his theatrics, then excuse yourself with explanation to him (or anyone, for that matter) and get back your emotional balance.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
If you’ve broken trust with your spouse and want a structured approach to repairing the damage you’ve created, I’ve created the Trust Building Bootcamp, a 12-week online program designed to help you restore trust and become a trustworthy person. Visit www.trustbuildingacademy.com to learn more and enroll in the course.
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.trustbuildingacademy.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
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