Q. My wife and I come from similar dysfunctional family backgrounds. My father was abusive and regularly beat my mother and us and bullied us at every opportunity. I was also bullied in school and at work. My wife’s father is an alcoholic and beat his family when drunk and her mother is a cold, loveless, dictatorial, control freak. Our marriage is a mess. My wife takes out her anger, resentments, and bitterness on me and our child. She used to beat our child but has stopped that, but continues to criticize, berate, and constantly puts me down, especially in front of her family. I did not have much dating experience and have been somewhat passive in our relationship. I am not perfect and have much to learn but I don’t know how to change this pattern. I have contemplated divorce but am afraid that my wife will then destroy my child’s life. Where do I start to make a change?
A. One significant change you state that has already been accomplished is that your wife has stopped beating your child. I’d like you to think back to what prompted that change? Was she confronted? Was she horrified at her own behavior? Were the authorities called in? Something caused your wife to stop, to look at herself and change the way she handles her anger toward your child. You say she is still quite verbally abusive and I know hurtful words can be just as injurious to a child’s psyche as physical wounds can be to a body. For now, however, let’s just concentrate on how she made that change, because that may help you figure out how to create more change in a positive direction.
My guess is that your wife realized that her abusive behavior was going to have serious negative consequences. These consequences might be legal, and/or emotional, (guilt and shame) or seeing her child be afraid of her and hurt by her behavior. Whatever the reasons were, she got it and realized that she needed to stop physically abusing your child. You say that she still bullies people but it’s now verbal rather than physical. Your wife may have learned this style from her mother and/or her father but she can also learn (as you have already stated), that she needs to stop.
The bottom line is that bully’s bully others because they can. When they don’t get away with it, or that there is a price to pay for their behavior, they often stop. I’m not saying that a bully then turns into loving and compassionate person but they can stop certain destructive behaviors.
The next step is for you to look at your own behaviors and to determine what you need to change in response to her verbal abuse. Can you say to her, “Stop it. I will not allow myself to be bullied any longer?” If not, then it’s time to get help for yourself in order to allow yourself to be bullied any more.
Here are some additional steps you can take if she treats you disrespectfully or verbally abuses you in front of her extended family. For example, you could say, “I’m not going to your mother’s house today because of the way you treat me.” And then give some specific examples of the ways she demeans you in front of her family. Or you could say, “I’m going to drive separately so if I have to leave, I can.” Your continued passivity has been a green light for her to continue her behavior without really looking at it. When you implement negative consequences, it gives her an opportunity to stop, pause and do something different.
Your child is an important factor here and you are right not to abandon her in this environment with a mother who is abusive, even if the physical abuse has stopped. You must protect your daughter and that means that you cannot be passive in the face of cruelty and/or verbal abuse. At the very least you need to talk with your wife privately when she is behaving poorly toward your daughter. If she refuses to listen then you will also need to talk with your daughter. You may have to say things like, “You’re mom has every reason to be upset with you right now but it’s not your fault that your mom doesn’t know how to handle her anger the way God wants her to yet. We need to pray that God will help her learn to handle her temper better. It’s not your fault that she is like this.” If things escalate, you may need to remove your daughter from the situation, even if it’s only temporary until your wife calms down.
God is giving you an opportunity to grow, change, and deal with your own issues of passivity. The Godly response isn’t to bully back, but to prayerfully stand up to injustice, cruelty, and evil by speaking the truth in love and removing yourself and your child from clearly dangerous situations. Proverbs 27:12 warns, “The prudent see danger and takes refuge”. Because of the family of origin issues I’d strongly encourage you to get professional help to take these steps and continue to teach your child a new way of handling emotions and interpersonal difficulties.