Dear Dr. Meg,
Thank you for your wonderful words of wisdom via your site and your books. Strong Mothers, Strong Sons changed the way I parent my own boy. In reading that book, I grew to understand even more the importance of building up the relationship between my children and their father, and of building him up in their eyes. I try to do that by not badmouthing him, giving him chances to shine with them, and by pointing out his good qualities.
But what do you advise me to do when they see behavior in him that is not good? They’re now old enough to recognize it and point it out to me.
My husband is a good man at heart, but his go-to communication style with our children, who are 12 and 14, is to shut them down when he is correcting them.
As I was telling my daughter goodnight after one of these incidents, she was very upset. She said, “Mom, I am so angry. Dad is mean all the time and then he has these bursts of niceness that confuse me. And then I feel bad for being mad at him.”
She went on to say that she couldn’t be herself around my husband, that he expects everyone to be perfect, and that he is mostly mean and thinks he’s always right.
When he gets angry with me, out of earshot of the children, he shuts me down immediately and then will sometimes escalate to cursing at me, telling me he hates being married to me, and that he will leave me as soon as the children are gone.
The next morning, he will pout, but he’ll go back to being his nicer self and won’t apologize for his outbursts. Even with that said, he is a good man deep down, but he is immature. He is a professional who cannot handle the stress of his job, but he feels threatened when I offer help.
What should I do?
What you can do about verbal and emotional abuse
You are in a difficult situation and one that I am sad to say many women find themselves in. Your husband has serious anger and rage issues, which probably stems from his childhood. But I don’t want to make excuses for him and neither should you.
I noticed in your letter, you defend him and his good nature. I understand why you would defend him, but I want to shift the focus here from protecting him to protecting you and your children. In order to do that, you will have to face some hard truths and realities, and you may have to make some difficult decisions.
These decisions, though, are for the best for you and your kids.
First, get help and get away from the abuse
Yelling, telling you that he is not going to stay married once the children are gone and saying other cruel things without apology aren’t acceptable. He’s being verbally abusive.
The word abuse is triggering. You may not want to admit your husband has been abusive to you. You want to downplay his behavior. But according to the definition of verbal abuse, this is exactly what he is doing.
What is verbal abuse?
According to this definition, “Verbal abuse, also known as emotional abuse, is a range of words or behaviors used to manipulate, intimidate, and maintain power and control over someone.”
Types of verbal abuse include:
· the silent treatment
· attempts to scare, isolate, and control
It sounds like your husband has used many of these tactics.
I understand your desire to defend him. It’s hard to admit to ourselves that we’re in an abusive situation, but you must accept this before you will be able to help your children. Because you can’t help them until you help yourself. And you can’t help yourself, until you are honest about what’s going on and see your husband’s behavior for what it is.
The effects of verbal abuse on victims
You may not see it now because you’re trying to be strong for your kids, but verbal and emotional abuse is very hard on the victim, physically and emotionally.
Verbal abuse can lead to chronic pain in the body, depression and anxiety. It can cause you to doubt yourself, feel unsure of yourself and struggle with self-esteem issues. These effects can be long-term even if the abuse is short-term.
It’s important to get help now.
Verbal abuse is also incredibly damaging to children since their brains are still forming. Even though you are loving and supportive, this does not offset what your husband is doing to your kids.
As this article explains:
"…the positive doesn't offset the negative. Words are still damaging when you have one loving parent who uses his or her words with care and one who is verbally aggressive and abusive. Researcher Ann Polcari and her team proved this in a study of whether affectionate behavior by one parent could somehow mitigate or buffer a child from the damage inflicted by a verbally aggressive parent. Even more salient is the finding that if the parent who is verbally abusive later demonstrates affectionate behavior, the effect of the abuse isn’t ameliorated. Bad is stronger than good."
Children who were yelled at, criticized and experienced other forms of verbal and emotional abuse are affected well into adulthood. Many of them must do a lot of hard work to work through that trauma. This is why it’s crucial you are honest about your husband’s behavior and address it before it’s too late.
How you can respond to verbal abuse
You can’t control your husband’s emotions, but you can insist that he speak to you differently. Men bully until they are told to stop.
I recommend that you firmly tell your husband that you aren’t going to tolerate his cruel speech to you anymore. If he does this again, you will walk out of the house. You simply won’t stay in the room while he is abusive.
If there is any chance that he will rage or hit or hurt you or your children if you confront him, don’t do this. Instead, seek help.
Call the National Domestic Violence Helpline at 800-799-7233 or visit thehotline.org. You can also find a women’s shelter in your area. These shelters are free, and their locations are kept hidden from the public.
To find a shelter near you, visit domesticshelters.org.
If you know your husband would not become violent, leaving the room whenever he begins to verbally abuse you can teach him that you won’t tolerate abusive behavior, and it also teaches your children that abusive behavior isn’t ok.
What happens when children witness abuse
If your husband verbally abuses you in front of your children, then your daughter sees it as acceptable behavior toward a woman and your son learns to treat women this way. This is not ok.
Of course, you’re not in control of what your husband does or says. It’s not your fault if he is verbally abusive to you or to them, but when you leave the room or distance from your husband when he’s abusive to you, it teaches your son and daughter that abusive behavior isn’t ok.
I also tell you this to further encourage you to seek help at a shelter or other domestic violence resource center. You don’t want to normalize abuse for your children. They need to know it is never, ever ok.
How to talk to your children about their father’s abusive behavior
As far as what to tell your children, you need to be honest. Tell them that what they think and feel is accurate when it comes to their father.
They see his abusive behavior and if you downplay it, they feel that something is wrong with their assessment of it. Don’t let this happen. You can teach them that they can love their father very much but not respect his abusive behavior.
They have the right to be angry and hurt and must be taught that it’s ok to love someone and be angry at the same time.
How to talk to your husband about his verbal abuse
Again, if confronting your husband about his behavior would put you or your kids in danger, don’t. Reach out to the resources above.
If you know without doubt that you will not be physically harmed by your husband, then approach him in the following way:
When he is in a good mood (on vacation, over the weekend, etc.), tell him that you want some time alone with him. Then, when you are both in good moods, tell him in a compassionate way that you love him very much but that you are worried about him.
His anger and irritability are eating him alive. Tell him that if he doesn’t get some kind of help, you’re worried he will get very sick. Tell him in a firm but loving tone that he needs to at least see his doctor because his stress and anger will take a toll on his heart and his health.
Then, I recommend that you find a doctor who will address his anger and emotional issues. Your husband may be depressed. Often depression comes out in men as rage and there is a treatment for this. See if you can talk to his doctor before he goes in for a visit and if he will let you go to the visit too. Tell the doctor your concerns.
The doctor will likely recommend therapy for your husband (and probably for you). Tell your husband this is non-negotiable. He must go to a doctor and a therapist or your marriage cannot continue as it is.
You aren’t threatening him. You are protecting yourself and your kids, which must be your priority. If he can’t see this, you and your children aren’t safe with him.
Verbal abuse is emotional abuse, and no abuse is ok. Ever. It doesn’t matter why he’s doing it as much as it matters that you and your children are safe from the emotional harm he is causing. Get the help you all need, starting with yourself.