Question

I know this is an impossible question to answer. I have been married for 25 years and there has been a lot of emotional and verbal abuse towards both our children and me. While my husband has done better in the last 5 years in regard to his treatment of the younger children, he still says things like, “Why are you so stupid”, or “You don’t deserve anything”, or calls them “lazy”. Also, things have been pretty awful in the way he interacts with me. A few weeks ago, when I was gone for a few minutes, he hit them with a belt – hard enough to leave bruises. And he told them not to talk to me about what happened because he knew that I was not okay with any kind of spanking with a belt. For me, it was the last straw, and I left with the kids.

He is, of course, trying to convince me to go back. He is saying all the right things – that he is sorry, that he will do whatever is needed. But I have heard it all before. We have gone through this cycle before, and I don’t think I can put myself through it again. The boys want to go back to be with their friends, and they still love him. In their minds, what happened was not enough to warrant breaking up the family, but it isn’t just about this one incident. It is years of pain and heartache and building up walls to protect my heart. 

We tried counseling twice, and he stopped going after three or four sessions each time. I know I have made my fair share of mistakes and have hurt him a lot, but I just get a pit in my stomach at the thought of going back. 

So how do I know when it is okay to walk away? Should I listen to his family who are convinced that it is different this time and to give him one more chance? I read quotes about not going back to abusive situations, but my missionary son has also sent me quotes about forgiveness and second chances. Although this would be way more than a second chance. How do I know when I have done enough and given enough chances?

Answer

I don’t believe this is an impossible question to answer. You’re entitled to receive direction for yourself and your children, especially when there’s been abuse. Even though professionals and loved ones can provide observations and share best practices for responding to abuse, you can receive personalized instructions from the Spirit on how to lead yourself and your family to safety. What you’re describing is serious and shouldn’t be minimized. His behavior isn’t a one-time mistake that can quickly be corrected with an apology. Abusive treatment of loved ones is driven by a deep belief system that, unless confronted and changed, will continue to destroy peace and safety at home.

Your safety and your children’s safety is top priority. Has this most recent incident with the bruising been reported to the authorities? It’s important for you to protect your children by holding him accountable for injuring your children physically and psychologically. Check with your local authorities to understand your responsibilities for reporting this behavior. The Church website states the following:

“Children are helped and strengthened by appropriate and loving discipline. However, criticism or ridicule can undermine their confidence and feelings of self-worth and well-being. Positive discipline will help the child to learn right from wrong. Harsh discipline that causes physical injury is abuse and should be reported to legal authorities.”[i]

You did the right thing by removing your children so he can’t physically hurt them anymore. Now, it’s time to do the essential work of creating accountability so your children know this behavior will no longer be tolerated. If you need help and support knowing how to move forward with this, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at https://www.thehotline.org or 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). There also educational resources at this website to help you understand the seriousness of what’s happened: https://www.loveisrespect.org/resources/types-of-abuse/.

Most people who are being abused minimize the seriousness of the abuse and hesitate to get help. They often hesitate because they believe they’ll make things worse. However, setting limits and reporting the abuse isn’t making things worse. It’s making things better for those who have been victimized. The abusive behaviors are what made things worse. Please don’t allow this to be flipped around so you’re blaming yourself for taking protective action. In fact, that’s one of the first tactics abusive individuals take when they’re held accountable — they blame the victim for taking measures to protect themselves. Recognize that you’re only responding to the lines that have already been crossed.

This isn’t an attack on your husband’s character. Of course he has lots of good and redeeming qualities. I’m sure there are plenty of moments he shows up for you and the children. No one is all good or all bad. Instead, this is only about his behavior. He has behaved in ways that can’t continue if you want to have a healthy and safe home environment. I’ve created a list of abusive and problematic behaviors based solely on what you wrote in your question:

  • He physically assaulted your children and left bruises
  • He called them names and verbally attacked their characters
  • He diminished them as individuals
  • He tried to isolate them from getting help
  • He told them to keep secrets from you
  • He gaslighted them by making them believe he didn’t do anything wrong to them and that you being upset was the greater problem
  • He’s recruiting family members to gang up on you with no accountability for his own behaviors
  • He focused on your behavior and his feelings instead of focusing on his behavior and your feelings
  • He dropped out of treatment
  • He wants you to ignore the threatening feelings you’re experiencing
  • He’s pushing for forgiveness before repairing trust
  • He’s failing at compassion for the impact he’s had on you and the children

I don’t list these to condemn him. I list these to help you realize that a simple apology won’t erase the serious patterns that need to be undone for you to return to a safe and loving home environment. The children also deserve accountability and safety, even though they don’t understand what’s happening to them. You have to show them what’s okay and not okay in a family. Your job is to protect them even when they don’t know they’re being hurt. Abuse can feel normal to everyone in the home until you get some distance from it. This is why is makes you sick to go back to those patterns.

While I can’t tell you when you should walk away from the marriage, I can tell you that walking away from these unsafe patterns and providing outside accountability for him are important for your safety and sanity. Nothing will change if these harmful patterns are minimized and ignored. True love is not allowing someone to continue hurting those they profess to love. He not only betrayed you and the children, but also betrayed himself and his deepest values of protecting and caring for his family.

Continue to seek professional support for yourself so you can know how to navigate the important protective work you need to do for yourself and your children. If he continues to blame you and deny his responsibility, you’ll need ongoing support to help you see clearly and clarify your responses. And, most importantly, recognize that as you’re working through this maze of decisions, you’ll have constant access to the love and support of our Savior. President James E. Faust taught:

“The injured should do what they can to work through their trials, and the Savior will ‘succor his people according to their infirmities’ [Alma 7:12]. He will help us carry our burdens. Some injuries are so hurtful and deep that they cannot be healed without help from a higher power and hope for perfect justice and restitution in the next life. Since the Savior has suffered anything and everything that we could ever feel or experience, He can help the weak to become stronger. He has personally experienced all of it. He understands our pain and will walk with us even in our darkest hours”.[ii]

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. 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.

Download Geoff’s FREE guide to help you quickly end arguments with your spouse: https://www.geoffsteurer.com/3-steps-to-end-your-marriage-argument

You can connect with him at:
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[i] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/get-help/abuse/recognizing-types-of-abuse-and-abusive-behavior?lang=eng

[ii]The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, 20