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Who Is My Wife?

Question:

My wife and I have been married for 17 years and have 5 healthy children. First marriage for both. Typical ups and downs though finding we are drifitng apart as we get older. She seems intent on being an adolescent again. Last year she started playing an online role-playing game with lots of mostly adolescent males and after scary changes were noted in her a confrontation finally revealed a 3 month intense emotional affair with one of these kids (17 years old). She has broken it off but it took another 3 months to get her to quit playing this stupid game and chatting online and it took the threat of divorce to do it. She is unusually euphoric much of the time, acting ‘goofy’ and exuberant to a point that embarrasses us. She loves to ‘hang out’ with our teenagers but at times makes me uncomfortable when their friends are over. She will pinch pennies on kids clothes but thinks nothing of buying herself a $160 ipod to keep hip with music, etc. The extent of her deception during her affair was really frightening and of course has severely damaged our marriage. My distrust is a constant source of concern for me and earns only anger from her as she feels I should just ‘be over it’ like she is. She puts on different faces to please whomever she is with: our counselor, our religious leader, me, other men, etc. I really don’t know if she is capable of being completely honest, even with herself anymore. I have wondered if mood or personality disorders can manifest this way and how can people best be approached about diagnostic analysis? Please help, I don’t know who I’m married to. There is a strong family history of depression, anxiety d/o and schizophrenia in her family. Thank you.

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Answer:

I can certainly see why you are alarmed. I’ll describe a few possibilities for what manner of condition might be afflicting your wife, but please understand that I don’t have enough information to say anything for sure, and neither could I do so even if I did; only a local mental health professional who becomes intimately familiar with your case can provide a solid diagnosis, and even then (given the subtleties that may be present in your case) the diagnosis may change over time as more information comes to the surface.

The last few sentences of your letter (where you mention the family history of depression and anxeity and schiophrenia) suggest you desire an actual “diagnosis”; that you believe there may be an illness happening here worthy of a diagnosis. I can understand why you might desire that certainty, because if you can put a label on it, perhaps you can get a handle on it too, and maybe even understand how to fix it. My first impression is that this is perhaps not a diagnosable disorder that is occuring for your wife, but rather some sort of “mid-life crisis”. This is not to say that she may not be feeling depressed or anxious, etc. but only that such feelings may not be the center of the action.

The prototypical mid-life crisis is something a man has. He goes out and gets a sports car and maybe has an affair or two, all in a vain attempt to hold on to his rapidly fading youth, right? The hallmarks of the “mid-life crisis” then are impulsive behavior (e.g., with regard to spending and sexuality), attention to how one looks and presents one’s self, and (part and parcel with the attention to looks) an obsession with youthfullness. Does this not sound like, at least in part, what your wife is going through? Your wife has bought into a computer game and ipod culture rather than a sports car, but the rest of the scenario sounds about right to me, at least from my removed standpoint.

If we think about what is happening to your wife (and marriage) as the result of a “mid-life crisis”, she would not really be diagnosible per se (except in as much as symptoms such as depression are driving her into that crisis). Rather, I’d suggest that she was acting out in a rather immature manner, escaping her responsible social role as adult and wife for the seeming freedom of a teenager. This sort of role-regression would be a statement, on an emotional level, that she was not happy with the status quo, and/or not able to cope with the status quo. It is certainly not pretty, but people do this sort of thing from time to time. There is no fast cure for immaturity, but people do get over it with time if they are motivated. Marriage counseling would be the place to seek best resolution.

There are other possibilities to explore here as well as you have suggested. What appears to be immaturity may actually be disinhibition. The over-exuberance you note in your wife might possibly be associated with the onset of a bipolar mood condition of some sort. Alternatively, there may be some organic condition occuring that has subtly altered your wife’s judgement, emotionality and sense of proprity, such as a new growing brain tumor or tiny stroke leading to selective dementia. Alternatively, your wife may be drinking or using some manner of disinhibiting or euphoria-producing drugs. More remotely, but not out of the realm of possibility is the chance that your wife has a dissociative identity disorder (DID: e.g., what used to be called multiple personality disorder). The scenario I am imaginging here is one where more immature aspects of your wife personality are surfacing and acting in accordance with their own youthful subjective age.

The diagnostic process is a process of elimination. Organic, medical causes need to be tested for first and ruled out before it is reasonable to assume psychological causes. Organic brain damage can generally be spotted with diagnostic imaging. Drug intoxication can be tested for as well. Neuropsychiatric testing may be required to detect organic damage that is too subtle to be seen with current brain imaging techniques. Other conditions such as bipolar disorder or DID are trickier to diagnose. All of these possibilities require the intervention of a mental health professional; A Psychiatrist would be the best choice, as only a psychiatrist has both the medical and psychological knowledge necessary to tease these possiblities apart. As to whether or not your wife is willing to go for an appointment with a psychiatrist I don’t know, but it would be the way to approach this troubling situation to the extent the change in your wife’s behavior is medically mediated, and the only way to know whether there are organic contributions to this change in her behavior.

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