Advice: Unconventional Wisdom

Questions and answers on how to deal with spouses who are emotionally and verbally abusive.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on November 5, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

After the Storm

I was making plans to leave my husband before hurricane Ivan hit. I had been counseled (by a person in law enforcement who works with the local battered wives shelter and has a masters degree in psychology) that I was a victim of domestic violence. It was the non-violent type, so I was shocked by that revelation. But now I have extensive damage to deal with at my mother's house. She is 77 and in a state of shock, so applications for assistance, the repeated phone follow-up, and appointments with insurance adjusters or FEMA representatives have fallen on my shoulders. I have returned to work after being on administrative leave for nine working days, but I'm still feeling more than overwhelmed. My husband is putting pressure on me because he is feeling neglected. He has also asked that we give it one more month to see if we can make the marriage work. After nine years of trying, I don't have the desire to try anymore. I'm afraid that I'm going to collapse-mentally and physically-anytime, except that I don't have time. What can I do in the short-term and long-range?

The thing that makes disasters disastrous is that they interrupt goals and expectations, change everyone's plans and require everyone involved to make accommodations while working to restore things to normal. It is reasonable to go out of your way to help an elderly mother, and especially to help secure a roof over her head. That is an absolute basic need. So it sounds churlish and childish of your husband to demand attention at a time when everyone is struggling to cope, especially those like yourself who have the added burden of acting on behalf of an elderly parent.

One characteristic of abusive spouses is that they are typically very psychically needy; they demand attention to their own needs because they have a fragile sense of self beneath the bluster and rage.

It's hard to imagine that anyone could be the victim of domestic violence without his or her awareness that some sort of abuse is taking place. So I hope the desire for separation was motivated by your experience, not by the judgment of someone else.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed if there is no endpoint in sight. You and your husband need a clear, kind discussion where you lay out some specific goals for saving your marriage. Of course, marriages don't work if only one partner is fighting for it. Both partners must be willing to make some effort. However, you must both be specific about what needs to change.

Have you told your husband in a respectful way what you appreciate about him and what you feel needs to be changed? That is how you request change; you start with something positive. "I like that you recognize it is important for me to help my mother. But you need to know that it's stressful, that there's still more for me to do, and I feel hurt and angry that you are making demands on me during this trying time for all of us."

You must not only be specific about what you don't like and why-that's the easy part-you must also specify what you would like him to do different. "I would like it if you looked after my needs more during this time. I would love it if you cooked dinner on some nights or gave me a massage when I got home, or did the laundry. That would really take some of the burden off me and it would create more time for us to be together."

Marriages work only when they are two-way streets. You must also allow your husband the opportunity to address what he feels needs to be changed on your part, and you must both listen attentively to each other without reacting or getting defensive. To give the marriage another month or another year makes no sense unless you are both willing to do some things differently and have a blueprint for change. Only that way can you find hope for improvement.

Forty-Five Going on Two

My husband is 45 years old and throws temper-tantrums. We have been together for 16 years and have two children. At 16 and 11, they are also displaying temper-tantrums. I am the calm, optimistic supporter of this family and am tired of always being the one to keep the peace. He cannot handle anything that may go wrong in any given day. For example, he "loses it" over simple things like getting lost while driving or if my daughter wears her hair in braids (he hates her hair in braids). He speaks with such hatred in his voice, I try to keep the children away from this verbal abuse and I try to make him see how he is acting but nothing works. After he calms down then he acts like nothing happened. Is there something I haven't tried other than kicking him out? We have split before, but his verbal abuse always makes me feel like I have to take him back (sounds weird, but true). I feel as though our relationship is over, but something always keeps me from completely ending it.

Parents are always models to their children, whether they are aware of it or not. Temper tantrums are pretty good at seizing the attention in a household, so it's not surprising that your kids would take up that behavior, especially since it's modeled by and apparently approved by their father.

It doesn't sound, however, as if you are keeping much peace. You are discovering the hard way that reprimanding someone (whether 45 or two) and rubbing his nose in his own bad behavior (trying to make him see how he's acting) is humiliating. Humiliation breeds only resistance and revenge (neither of which makes for a good marriage). It is not a recipe for change, and I can guarantee you that unless your husband has brain damage, he well knows how he's acting-and he isn't likely too proud of it himself. You really need to help him exercise his better self.

Besides, your reprimands are always after the fact. And they always will be unless you lay out the rules in advance, set limits (just as you would with a two-year-old) and jointly agree to sanctions and penalties for violations of the rules.

This is no longer just between you and your husband. It's a question of how the whole family functions. You need a family discussion-it will take more than one, since behavior doesn't change on one try-where in the spirit of cooperation you jointly agree on some household rules. And you must allow your children and husband to set the sanctions for violating the rules they come up with.

You can convene a meeting and be prepared to let each family member speak while the others listen. You can help set the tone for this meeting by saying something like this: "I don't like the way we've all been reacting lately. Everyone seems to think that throwing a temper tantrum is the way to make his case. It's taking too big a toll on my nerves and it makes living here feel unpleasant to me and probably to you, too. I love my family and I want us to live in an environment we all enjoy. Who has ideas about how we can do this better?"

Try to get as many ideas on the table as possible, and jointly settle on some rules you all must abide by, parents as well as children. Then you can ask for suggestions about what the appropriate response tactic should be for someone who violates the rules.

When everyone has a role in setting rules and everyone feels they are fair rules, then everyone has a stake in keeping the peace. Your family life should dramatically improve. Even two year olds learn that they can't get their way all the time and it isn't in their best interests to do so.