Question: My wife screams and curses at me. For years I have been asking her to stop, but she hasn’t. Now she’s begun doing the same thing to our children, ages 10 and 7 – and they cower in fear. Actually, we are all afraid of her. She never hits, but I think the verbal abuse and screaming is worse.
Often this happens when she is nervous about getting somewhere important on time. For example, last week we were getting ready to go to her nephew’s wedding. Our son (age 10) was not ready and actually did everything he could to slow us up. I suggested we just leave him behind with a sitter but my wife refused.
We have gone for counseling, but as soon as the counselor begins to address what she does, she stops going. I saw no reason for me to continue on my own.
I don’t know what to do. I hate making her seem like a monster when she does so many wonderful things, but I’m writing this letter because I can’t handle thinking about what it’s doing to my kids. Friends tell me to divorce her, but believe me that will only frustrate her and as she will still be spending time with the children – without me as a buffer. To me, this is not a solution. Is my situation hopeless?
Answer: First – and most important – get yourself and your children to a counselor immediately (possibly even before you finish reading my answer). You were on the right track, but when you stopped after your wife refused to return, you lost a crucial step in helping your family. You need to understand how you can help your children, yourself and your wife. It’s also possible your wife will return to counseling if she knows that you and the children are continuing to go. She may return if only to be sure she’s not being talked about in a negative way – that will still give the counselor an opportunity to talk with her about making changes.
It’s probably best if you find a different counselor for your children than the one you choose for yourself and, hopefully, your wife. This will allow their counselor to focus on their needs and not be drawn into emotional territorial battles with your wife. You don’t want her to be able to say that you marred the counselor’s opinions. If the counselor only sees your children (after an initial session where you have explained the situation) then the counselor’s opinions will be formed from her impression of the children and no one else.
It sounds like your 10 year old has found a way to go to battle with his mother. His inaction (not being ready on time regularly) causes his mother to get angry at him. This is commonly known as passive aggressive behavior – your child is being aggressive (doing something that pushes his mother’s buttons) through a passive action (not being ready, moving in slow motion as she’s trying to get out of the house to an event). While he may be doing this as a backlash against his mother’s angry outburst, he doesn’t realize that this emotional struggle may be behind the tardiness. This is where a skilled child counselor comes in and can identify behavior and find methods to help the whole family make changes. Allowing your 10 year old to have a “voice” and talk to the counselor may diminish his need to “get back” at his mother. The counselor will hopefully be able to help your children dialogue with Mom in the safety of the counselor’s office.
Keep in mind that your wife may have reason to get angry, but there is no reason to demonstrate that anger in the way you describe. This means that if the two of you are in joint counseling, your attitude should be one that looks at yourself and what you can do to minimize the pressure in your home. Taking some responsibility for your actions may help your wife take responsibility for hers, instead of feeling that you and the counselor are ganging up on her.
It’s important that you find an experienced marital counselor, as you won’t get many chances to get your wife into the office. It’s the counselor’s job to confront your wife while making her feel safe and not ganged up on. It’s a skill that many counselors have and the last thing you want is for a counselor to be so afraid of your wife’s attitude that he or she won’t confront her or to have someone who is so heavy handed that there’ll be “straight talk” that will chase your wife away. This counselor has to be sensitive to your children, as well as your wife and help her see why she needs to change for all of your sakes.