Question

My marriage with my wife has been full of conflict for over 20 years. She grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive home. I grew up with an angry mother. 

She gets upset easily. She says her whole being is anger. So, if I say something that triggers her, she will withdraw in her room until I do something to make her know I’m sorry and I will change. These episodes have lasted a few days in the past, but lately it’s been one major episode. She has said that the only reason things worked out before is that she let it go to be nice to me, but not this time. Now, whenever I go into her room, she is not just angry but verbally abusive (name calling, expletives, etc.). If I say something that triggers her further (such as explaining my thinking or actions, so she won’t be so angry), then there’s violence–hitting, kicking, throwing things, breaking things, threats, etc. She views my words as proof I’m not taking responsibility. After the episode is over, I’m blamed for making her “this crazy.”

I know I bring my own problems to this marriage (selfishness, bad investments, not listening to her, etc.). I have been working on my issues and am willing to take responsibility for them. I just have two things I can’t wrap my head around. 1) Should I take all of the blame for everything that happens? and 2) Is verbal abuse and violence understandable if the person was abused growing up? How much understanding should be extended in situations like this?

I’ve offered for us to go together or individually to counseling, but she is convinced it won’t help. Now I am accused of having a narcissistic personality disorder. I am told I am sick and hopeless. I worry about our kids. I’ve tried to spend more time with them recently, helping them find strength and happiness in this trying time, doing things with them that they enjoy. I guess I just don’t know what is acceptable behavior and what boundaries I should set. I’ve asked her to be civil and to talk politely, but that just gets mocked. When she starts being physically violent, I’ve tried to walk away, but she gets even more aggressive and says, “how dare you leave me when I’m this crazy?” Sometimes, she has even threatened suicide or self-harm. Any insights?

Answer

Living with an abusive family member is overwhelming and confusing. It’s hard to know the line between accountability and compassion, especially when you are intimately aware of the other person’s story. You care about them and hope they care about you. You believe that there must be something else you can do to make this situation better. You overanalyze your own behaviors and blame yourself for creating more tension. Let’s talk about how you can get out of the confusion and find a clear path forward.

First of all, you’re not responsible for her abusive behavior. I don’t even have to know you or her to make this statement. Each of us is responsible for our actions and cannot blame our behaviors on someone else. It’s important to begin by placing responsibility for the abusive behaviors back on her so you don’t stay stuck overanalyzing every conversation and accusation. Placing the responsibility on her is a huge step in reclaiming your own sanity and protecting your mental health. She might feel powerless and crazy, but she can do something about it.

You’ve made several attempts to intervene, but it’s not working. In fact, you’re reporting that it’s actually getting worse. It’s a tough reality to confront the seriousness of what your wife is doing to you and your family. You’re doing your best to protect the children from the impact of her abuse, but please recognize that if she’s abusing you, she’s harming them. Domestic violence is illegal and could result in serious consequences for her and your family. It’s a terribly painful reality, but you can’t wish this away by trying to be a better husband and father. You and your children deserve to live in a home free of abuse and violence.

I recommend you contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline to seek support and counsel about how to proceed forward (https://www.thehotline.org or 1-800-799-7233). I also recommend you begin working with a licensed counselor as quickly as possible so you can receive specific guidance about how to protect yourself and your children from further abuse. It’s also important that you call law enforcement when she’s suicidal and violent. It’s a terrible choice to have to make, but your efforts to help her find a better way aren’t working and your family needs immediate stabilization and safety.

Many people tolerate abuse for way too long for a variety of reasons. For example, they tell themselves that their partner isn’t always abusive. They know their backstory. They blame outside stressors. However, these are all excuses that keep you from facing the more urgent reality that these abusive behaviors are harming people, including your own wife. She feels out of control and crazy. She needs you to step in and stop the insanity by creating some accountability and structure. It will most likely create a different kind of crisis, but it will open up an opportunity to end the abuse.

It’s impossible to reason with someone who is being abusive. The healthiest thing you can do is recognize that you’re being abused and get out of the situation. If she escalates and becomes more abusive, then it’s even more critical that you get outside support and intervention. There is so much shame and fear around letting others help, but this is much bigger than what you should have to handle alone.

You asked another question about giving an abused person a pass on their abusive behavior. While it may not be your wife’s fault that she grew up in an abusive environment, abuse is abuse and has to be stopped. She can choose to be the cycle breaker in her family, or she can continue to perpetuate these same destructive patterns. In the scriptures we learn how “traditions of the fathers” can build or destroy future generations.[i] You have an opportunity to help your wife break the destructive tradition of abuse that was modeled in her home. You can establish a new tradition in your home that teaches your children that people are to be respected and protected. Your wife is not her abusive behavior. She can change, but she will need your help.

** Please note that I’m making general recommendations and it’s your responsibility to seek specific counsel from legal advisors, law enforcement, or a licensed therapist who has completed a much more detailed history of your situation.

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.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.geoffsteurer.com 
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT
Instagram: @geoffsteurer
Twitter: @geoffsteurer


[i] See Exodus 20:5 and Alma 17-26