Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dismaying Story #117: Escalating Verbal Abuse

Dear Andrew,

I am at a loss of what to do about my marriage. I am 23 years old and I have been married for about 2 years. Right after we were married, I had a couple of horrible moments where I realized that I shouldn’t have married this man. He would be kind and attentive one moment and cutting and impatient the next. I told him that I thought I had made a mistake in marrying him. Because of our religion, we believe marriage to be sacred and eternal. I knew that I had to do everything that I could for my marriage. My mantra became this, “Maybe we shouldn’t have married, but we did, and I love him, so I will make it work.” I begged him to come with me to counseling, but he refused.

Months went by, with small incidents turning into huge arguments. I began putting everything I did or said into a pretty package for him, hoping there wouldn’t be anything he could pick apart. It really seemed that nothing I did was enough for him. He began treating me like trash, verbally abusing and controlling me. If something didn’t quite go his way, he would stand close to me with his face in mine and say “Can you be nice, can you be nice” over and over without letting me get a word in edgewise. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t want to tell my family because I wanted them to like my husband and get along with him. Meanwhile he was telling me that if it came down to it and I had to choose between him and my family that I would have to choose him.

Finally it came to a head after Thanksgiving. We spent the weekend visiting his brother’s family and my husband got upset over some really minor details. Like what type of pickles I had bought for the appetizers. He held most of his anger in, but moped around all weekend. Finally when we were on the 5 hour drive home, he exploded. Screaming at me for hours about how I am an embarrassment to him in front of his family, calling me a “Nazi” and a snot and many other horrible things. I couldn’t even say anything, I just cried and cried. When we arrived home that evening, we both kept to ourselves. The next day I went to work and I decided that I would go home and if he didn’t realize that how he had acted was awful, that I would have to leave.

When I arrived home that evening, he told me that “we needed to talk” and began to tell me how I needed to change. I knew what I had to do and began to pack some of my things. When he saw that I was serious about leaving, he became scaring, his moods changing like the flip of a coin. One moment he was begging me to stay, the next moment he was yelling at me to leave. He even stood behind the car so that I wouldn’t be able to leave. I felt like I was in a Lifetime movie or something! My heart was beating so fast. I finally got away and ran to the car to leave. I have been living with my parents ever since.

This is where things get trickier for me. I really don’t feel like I should ever go back and be with my husband. I am ready to get a divorce from him today. We have been seeing a counselor together, and he has undergone some major adjustments. Making promises of never treating me badly and being the husband of my dreams. I feel nauseous when he says these things and when I think of being with him, much less having kids with him. Because of my religion, there is a lot of guilt associated with these desires for a life without him. I feel like I should want to be back with my husband, but I really don’t. I am happier without him than I have been in a very long time. I feel like I am myself again after so much time trying to be who he wanted me to be.

My husband is saying that he will wait for me forever, and that he will never break the promises that he made to me at our wedding. This really concerns me for my future, wondering if he will ever let me be. I feel like I have time to be happy in my life and I don't know if he can be a part of that happiness ever again.

I am at a loss for what I should do.

Signed, Scared for My Future

Dear Scared,

I’m so sorry to hear about the abuse you have had to endure. It sounds like you have so far done the only thing you can. The situation you described was escalating. It’s not a big stretch from in-your-face verbal abuse to physical abuse. If you had stayed with him, I believe the chances are very high that is what would have started happening.

You are right to be leery of getting back together with him. The behaviors you describe are dysfunctional and extreme. He is controlling, lacks all empathy for seeing things from your point of view, and cares only for his own happiness rather than yours. The “can you be nice” routine is particularly scary. This is an individual with serious issues.

And when did his behavior change? Only when he was threatened with not having something he wanted -- that is, when you left and he faced the prospect of losing you. So he came up with a strategy to get what he wants again, which is to make nice, say the right words, and profess undying love.

Now what is likely to happen if you give in and move back together with him? Well, that would put the two of you back in the situation you were in previously. He would again have what he wanted. I suspect (and obviously so do you) that he would be nice for a while, and then the situation would eventually disintegrate back into the abusive relationship you had before.

This isn’t just skepticism on my part. Instead, I base my doubt on the fact that he has not gone through a process to change who he is. Yes, the two of you are going through counseling, but that is to talk about the dynamic between the two of you. That discussion centers around his behavior toward you. In other words, the focus is on one symptom of his problem, not the cause of his anger and controlling ways.

His behavior doesn’t just spring up in isolation. He is a seething, unhappy person inside. I don’t know the reason but there has to be one (or several). Something in his past has taught him to be deeply afraid or distrustful inside (or something similar), and his outward behavior toward you is the strategy he has developed for dealing with it. His internal belief system makes him feel justified in acting that way. For example, “I know I can’t trust anyone to really like me and that includes my wife so I will get respect the only way I know how, which is to demand it.” That may not be his mantra, but that is one example of how a fractured spirit can show itself to the rest of the world.

I doubt very much your couples counseling has done anything to address his individual issues. That means his internal dysfunction is still there. He may indeed have the best of intentions in terms of how he wants to treat you in the future. Unless he gets help healing himself, though, eventually he will encounter enough stress to trigger the internal pain, at which point the abuse will begin again.

My advice is to refuse to get back together with him until he has individual counseling to ferret out his own demons. He needs to gain insight into what is truly behind his behavior, and most importantly he needs to gain closure on whatever fears from his past are lurking in the corners of his mind. He needs to say more than “I am motivated to treat you better now.” He needs to be able to explain what was behind his old ways and why he is no longer affected by those emotional forces. You need to see evidence that he is happier and more content with his self-image. It should be obvious to you that his entire outlook on the world has altered in a good way. That should be a prerequisite for getting back together with him.

All of that depends on him developing a desire to heal for his own sake. At some point this has to become about him, just him, rather than simply an exercise he is going through to get you back. Again, I doubt very much your couples counseling has even come close to meeting that criterion.

I have no idea how willing he would be to put in the effort required to find the right helping professional (they are not all created equal) and go through that healing process. Even if he were willing, there is no guarantee he would succeed. And even if he made tremendous progress, there is no guarantee his old demons wouldn’t reassert themselves at some point. I wouldn’t blame you if you decide the personal risk is too great, that your future is too important to allow it to hinge on his willingness and ability to heal. His behavior is longstanding and you may come to the conclusion that he will never truly change. If so, you should not re-enter an abusive relationship.

I wish both you and your husband good luck in finding a happier place.

All the best,

Have you seen the Question of the Week? It raises the issue of whether couples can find ways to be happy together if they differ in some significant way. Check it out -- I would love to hear your opinion!


  1. When I was younger (20 years old). I was in this type of relationship too. I was always scared that I would be verbally and physically abused. Even my own salary was monitored. After 3 years, I decided that that was not the life I wanted. I got out of the relationship and never looked back.
    It was not easy because I was always looking over my shoulders and even my family was threatened but I did it.

    Andrew, I think that your advice is really good. The guy should find out what is causing him to do all this before she goes back to him.

  2. Beautiful, thoughtful, carefully explained answer from Andrew.

    I know it sounds like I am kissing his but, but (no pun intended!) his advice and feedback is always awesome and constructive and insightful !

    Stay away from your I hope to be soon ex-husband. His cruelty will even get worse. He has SERIOUS issues.

    I would go to counseling by yourself now only to address your own feelings of guilt or shame about leaving the marriage...

    Please forgive yourself. You trusted someone who proved he can't be trusted. He can't.

    He has too much anger and unhappiness in him to be a stable or kind partner for anyone, maybe EVER... Some people are truly too broken to be able to fix, even if they say occasionally they will try to change.

    I think you did the right thing to leave, but you should know that deep in your heart as well so that you can be at peace with it...

    I wish you future happiness with a much nicer man.

  3. I'm pretty sure this is what anonymous was asking about in Dismaying Story #114 when [s]he wondered if couples who considered themselves traditional were more apt to stick out poor marriages for the sake of not getting a divorce. This is obviously a bad situation and yet the young lady is still conflicted because of her religious beliefs and upbringing. (I am not criticizing being opposed to divorce, I'm just pointing out that the influence is there and can carry a heavy emotional burden even in situations that seem clear "on paper".)

    This guy sounds like a scary character. I hope they both get help.

  4. Andrew: I think Scared should just cut her losses and stay away from him. I am not so sure that her husband is capable of change. I guess they could continue to go to counseling since he needs it anyway but if it were me, I would just get moving on the paperwork. She cites her religion quite a bit. Sometimes religion is a heaven and sometimes it can force you to remain in a living hell. I see her ending up the subject of a Lifetime movie and not in a good way if she goes back. You said it best, he was only motivated to change when threatened and this cycle could go on and on until she ends up with no self-esteem, badly hurt or worse. She says she is happier now than when she was with him. That should be her answer right there. There are no kids to consider (thank goodness) so she gets another chance at a happy life. And maybe he learns something.

  5. Scared,
    In my lifetime, I've seen plenty of men who thought somehow god endorsed their angry, controlling, and abusive behavior toward women. It's completely wrong and nearly impossible to change. I think you should stay away from this man, be thankful you didn't have children with him, and create your own life without him. You've got your whole life ahead of you, and it's ful of wonderful possibilities which don't include being belittled and controlled.

  6. Anonymous5:44 PM

    Scared should ask herself this:

    Would God (or whichever) want you to stay in a horrible marriage with mental and possible physical abuse just because you took sacred vows? Would you be expected to suffer the rest of your life just so you can keep those vows?

    Everyone has their own perception of religion and what is to be expected of them, I understand that. The best advice I ever got was from a preacher that said "God is the God of love, not hate. He wants you to be happy and not suffer with pain. Love is not supposed to hurt."

    Just because you took vows and WANT to live by them, doesn't mean you are expected to be treated horribly. I'm sure once people know what happened, they won't disagree with you on a decision to stay away.

    You really should stay away. He's not stable.

  7. Yelling today will only become slapping tomorrow, then before you know it she will become a prisoner.
    She sould run and don't look back while she is still young and could have a great life before this person robs her of that too.
    I know a few women that stayed to someone like this hoping that their husbands would change and found themselves 20-30 years down the road miserable and on anti depressants.

  8. This is going to sound a little like a rationalization, but I believe the argument stands. I am travelling under the assumption that you are a Christian--if not please forgive me, I'm working with my own belief's system here and it's all I've got.

    Your husband is supposed to love you as Christ loved the church--he is to treat you as the weaker vessel and while you are supposed to submit to him as the head of the household-- BOTH of you supposed to submit to one another in Christ. Relationships were never supposed to be one sided (Remember Song of Solomon? Ruth? Abraham and Sarah? Loving relationships are prized through out the Bible). I am fairly confident that He would not be impressed by a man who verbally abuses his wife and treats her as badly as it sounds like your husband has treated you. The directive (as Christ loved the church) is a fairly strong statement.

    While God hates divorce, he made provisions for it for a reason and I believe he extends his Grace to those in situations like yours. He doesn't just love your husband, he doesn't just love the institution of marriage (two shall become one), he loves YOU and wants what's best for you. Abuse is obviously not.

    Whether or not you go back to him is a tough call; only you and the counselor can determine what's best in this situation. The misgivings you're suffering tell me that you need to give it longer before you make the decision. Time spent in prayer--not so much asking for anyone to change--but seeking God's direction in your life would not be wasted. You need more time to heal.

    I wish you the very best.

  9. I think this sentence says it all, Scared

    "I am happier without him than I have been in a very long time. I feel like I am myself again after so much time trying to be who he wanted me to be."

    Vows work both ways. He has alredy broken his. You should have no compunction in abandoning this marriage. You have one life, and one life only, you owe it to yourself not to live it in misery.

    I hope that you take the good Doctor's advice. You have a lot of life ahead of you, plenty of time to find TRUE happiness. That should be your vow now - to yourself.

  10. Anonymous3:21 PM

    I want to address the guilt Scared is feeling about leaving her husband.

    I am a Christian that studies and believes in God's word. Your marriage vows were about loving and honoring one another. However, loving and honoring a person doesn't mean staying in an abusive relationship. This is a common misconception.

    You're not loving or honoring your husband when he is verbally abusing you and he's definitely not loving you with those actions. By remaining in the relationship and allowing the cycle of violence to continue and even worsen, you're not honoring your vows. Either one of you.

    The greatest love you can show your husband is to insist that he gets the counseling and help he needs. You are loving him when you remove yourself from him and prevent him from becoming even more of a monster. You honor the sanctity of marriage by having a healthy relationship. There isn't any honor left in an abusive relationship and the love becomes twisted into hate. It's more of an insult to God to remain in a situation as that instead of getting a divorce or separating.

    Of course, your husband won't recognize your actions as an act of love but that doesn't mean they aren't love.

    Love is about wanting the absolute best for that person and right now the best thing for your husband is to get help and to be removed from a situation in which his behavior becomes even more violent.

    Love your husband and love yourself as God loves you both. I wish the best outcome for you.

  11. doc - as always, great advice

    and i like that you took the time to tell her the process he must complete to become 'healthy' instead of just saying cut your losses and run

    geeze -- anyone reading this can pretty much come up with that ...he's abusive and she should leave

    but you -- brillant man that you are -- take to time to explain what he must look like IF she were to take him back -- which is what she seemed to be contemplating...


  12. Physical abuse is terrible - and verbal abuse is just as cruel. The only difference is that you can't see the scars from verbal abuse right they're on the inside and hidden from the naked eye. Eventually the marks show up, characterized by action and thought process. By then, so much damage, sometimes irreparable, has been done that recovery for all involved is a herculean task. When children are witness (or victim) to such behavior, the ramifications are devastating. yes, I feel rather passionate about this subject. ;)

    By the way doc...on a rather personal note. I was you use shoetrees? Stop in if you can...

    Ciao for now...and excellent subject and treatment as always.

  13. I found myself shaking my head as I read this woman's story. I don't know why, but for some reason the actions she described were chilling. I hope that she manages to reconcile her spirituality with her situation and maintains a safe distance from this guy. His behavior is frightening.

  14. Anonymous12:31 PM

    What about for men? I'm in the military and have been through both deployments and drill instructor duty, both are extremely demanding. I've just recently finished up D.I. (dumb idiot) duty. My wife for the first cycle was very supportive and I was always the one squeezing time in for us. It's pretty much working for 3 months at a time, but there are times to sneak away in which I always did. The second cycle she wanted me to quit. I was a Sergeant and we had 3 kids, she wasn't working and things were already tight. If I would have quit, I would have been a corporal on the first flight back to the sand box. In between a rock and a very hard case, she started turning her anger toward the situation toward me because of my refusing to quit. She would throw my things out of the house, tell me f--- you right in front of the kids at the dinner table, times I would come home early.. she wouldn't say a word to me but about midnight that's when we needed to talk. I wasn't sleeping or eating that much. I lost 40 pounds during the time period. For 2 years I've been told, I hate you.. want a divorce... I'm seeing someone else (just for the attention) whether true or not I don't know...etc. The list goes on. After 2 and 1/2 years where we stand now.. I've left only for about a week now and basically living at work. I miss the kids but I can't take always walking on eggshells. Not wanting to make her mad so we can have a good time. She is also being really nice and saying that we can work things out and such. I'm very leery and actually kind of scared. I feel guilty because I HATE (that word again) being away from the family. Those kids are everything and when she tells them that I'm a scumbag, she is not hurting me.. she is hurting them. As much as she hates me.. tell that to me.. don't include the kids because it's going to come back around when they are all rambuctious teenagers. I can't go back but I want to.. I want to believe that she'll watch what she says around the kids and the threats but I don't know. I've been gone a week and I already feel emotionally stronger. I'm learning what I want and what is correct in relationship and that I shouldn't settle and always grin and bear it. It's getting a lot harder to grin nowadays. Any thoughts???

  15. Anonymous1:34 AM

    verbal abuse between partners, (man to woman, woman to man, man to man, woman to woman), is always wrong.

    Anonymous, if your wife is threatening you and verbally abusing you, you need to protect yourself and your children from that negativity. It's not right. You both deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. If she's frustrated about your work situation, then she needs to address that with honesty and maturity. You are providing for your family at a great personal cost, she doesn't seem to see that.

    Take care of yourself, show your children that all people deserve to be treated with respect. Let her know where you're at, and if need be, take the kids and move out. None of you deserve the negativity she is dishing out.

  16. Anonymous6:51 PM

    I am going through the same thing except I havent yet filed for the divorce. My husband comes and goes as he pleases, would leave for days on end. Jump in my face and call me names, threatned to throww me out of the car with my two small babies in the back seat and was pushing me on the door. Push and shove me, throw me down on a bed after 6 weeks of a cesarean. It is very hard, very hard. He's even playing nice now, seeing if I will really get the divorce. Im going next week to speak with the lawyer. I'm scared but I'll know I'll be okay, we've been married 3 years. Hopefully next year will be great.