Q: I have been married to my husband for 30 years. We have raised a family and are very happy. His ex-wife — they had no kids together — lived on the other side of the country until her husband of 35 years became terminally ill and she decided to move “closer to family.” She moved a mile from our home and just showed up one day acting like she was our best friend. Sometimes I will come home from work to find her sitting in my backyard, alone relaxing, or she will stop by to take pictures of the house. Last week she openly reminisced about her wedding day to my husband like it was yesterday and offered to give open house tours when we are not home. Personally, I think this is very weird and I’m worried about her. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: You’re worried about her? Truthfully empathy is commendable — and Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 7 is “Use empathy when problem solving,” but after all is said and done, something is not right here. The behavior you describe is quite irrational and suggests a mental health component. If I am doing the math correctly, you are all in your 70s. Confusion, memory issues, delusions, difficulty distinguishing appropriate social boundaries — they all point to conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia or other conditions that require medical intervention. Plus, add the stress of caring for a terminally ill spouse and it sounds like your husband’s ex has lost it.
What do you do if you suspect an ex is mentally ill? It doesn’t appear you think she’s a danger to herself or others — the criteria for a mental health professional to intervene — but her behavior is still quite bizarre and good ex-etiquette suggests that appropriate boundaries to protect your family must be put in place. Since your husband was married to her and that’s the connection, good ex-etiquette dictates he’s the one to communicate what’s expected. He needs to get in there fast. Although she seems harmless now, that could change quickly.
It starts with a frank conversation — and in cases like this — behavior is often discussed in terms of what cannot be done. “Don’t go in the back yard!” “Don’t take pictures!” “Stay away from my place of work, home, etc.” Because of the mental health component (I’m taking that for granted) she may have difficulty understanding why all the fuss. If the boundaries aren’t clear and she can’t grasp what’s acceptable, she’ll continue to invade your privacy. It will look like defiance when in actuality, she’s ill. That’s when things get dangerous.
If things don’t improve, your options are to call the police, explain the situation, and after a not-so-clinical interview, a 5150 mental health hold, which authorizes a qualified officer or clinician to involuntarily confine a person suspected to have a mental disorder, might be put into place.
Although that sounds drastic, this would start a mental health intervention and that’s what really may be needed. You can also file for a restraining order to keep her away. Don’t put it off thinking this will just go away — it hasn’t so far and it probably won’t. Be proactive. This is about safety, and based on that, taking the steps described are always very good ex-etiquette.
Dr. Jann Blackstone the founder of Bonus Families. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website exetiquette.com at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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