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Personality Disorder Or Just A Horrible Person

Question:

Dear Dr. Schwartz,

I have been married for 15 years and for 13 of those my mother-in-law had keys to our house. I loved & trusted her as she helped me a lot when my children were young. However, I realised she was stealing my things. Over the years she has taken kitchen knives, expensive linen, my grandmothers crochet tablecloth, bath towels, coasters, alcohol, platters and other household goods.I used to see things at her home and think she just used to go out and buy the same items, e.g. a white platter, for example, until I noticed that my white linen tablecloth was on her dining table. She has also given my grandmothers crochet tablecloth to her daughter as a wedding gift.

I have confronted her with this and there is always some explanation e.g. that her employer brought back the white linen tablecloth from Hong Kong for her as a gift. Also, after I confronted her about it, she started putting all my things that she had taken over the years, on show, e.g. my knives on her kitchen bench, my drink coasters on her coffee table.

She is also a compulsive liar. She does have money and can afford to buy these things for herself, but does not like to spend money. She lives like a miser. She attends Church every Sunday and appears to be an upstanding citizen. She does not have any long term friendships. I thought I was the luckiest person on earth to have such a great & helpful motherinlaw until I discovered she was stealing from our house. Now I don’t want to even be in the same room as her. Is there some sort of explanation for her behaviour? I thought if I can work out why she has done this it will help me deal with it.

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Answer:

I don’t know if your mother-in-law has a personality disorder or not. Either way, she, in your terms, could be a “horrible person.” Not everyone with a personality disorder is horrible and not everyone who is free from this disorder is nice.

Many years ago, working in the hospitals, we used to say that “mental illness is no excuse for bad behavior. Except for those who are so mentally ill or delusional that they cannot decipher right from wrong, people know what is ethical and not. After all, she goes to Church, which by itself, indicates a sense of moral thinking.

Having said all of this, she might have some type of mental illness. There are those who have a compulsion to hoard. In that case, people pick up and save garbage, shop compulsively and save what they buy, steal and save the stolen items and etc. There are those who compulsively steal things, know it’s wrong and cannot stop.

I assume that you have discussed this with your husband and have decided how you want to deal with the problem. If not, the two of you need to discuss this problem and decide upon a reasonable approach. I assume you want your grandmother’s table cloth back. However, its important that the two of you are united on this thing and in agreement, even if that agreement means doing nothing.

Best of Luck

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