My husband has had a tendency to resort to violent behavior throughout our marriage. I feel trapped. At times I have even feared for my safety, but I don't know what to do. Can you help me?
We'd advise you to take decisive action as soon as possible. Your attitude toward physical violence must always be one of zero tolerance. The urgency of your situation is underscored by the worries you've expressed concerning your personal safety. This is a red flag that should not be ignored. The potential for danger is very real in cases like this. Your basic rule of thumb should be "safety first." This consideration becomes all the more pressing when there are children in the household.
Exactly what do we mean by "decisive action"? That depends on your immediate circumstances. Are you facing imminent danger? Have you just experienced physical harm? If so, you must call 911 without delay. Let the police intervene and allow the process to unfold from there.
What if several days have passed since the latest violent episode and you are not in immediate danger? In volatile situations like this, it's important to bear in mind that each case varies. Even if there's been a "cooling off" period, you may still be only a few ill-received words away from a repeat and possibly more severe eruption. If you have any reason to believe this may be a possibility, you first need to find a safe, perhaps undisclosed location before addressing the need for change with your husband. In conjunction with this step, it might also be wise to check with an attorney about the implications of leaving your home for an extended time, since in some states you could experience unexpected difficulties if the reason for this action is undocumented.
Once your safety and that of your children is secured, we'd advise you to take immediate action. Don't wait for the next flare-up to take place. Explain to your husband in clear and certain terms that this kind of behavior is unacceptable and that you won't be putting up with it anymore. Insist that he seek professional help. Let him know that there will be consequences if he refuses.
To put it another way, we think you need to create a crisis. Give your husband an ultimatum. A spouse who is acting out in this fashion can sometimes be persuaded to make a change if his partner has the courage to stand up for herself. Tell him, "Either we get counseling, or I'm moving out until you're ready to help me resolve this problem." Separation may be what it takes to open his eyes to his behavior and to stimulate some badly needed self-examination on his part. Naturally, you'll want to make sure that your support system is in place before you take any such step. If you're going to leave, you need someplace to go – the home of a friend, family member, or neighbor. Lay your plans, line up your resources, and make your arrangements prior to packing your bags and walking out the door.
We'd also strongly suggest that you seek help from a professional counselor. Make sure that the therapist you choose understands the dynamics of abuse, power, and control, and that he or she is well trained in the highly specialized field of marital conflict. Among other things, a therapist can help you gain insight into any deeper issues that may be underlying your willingness to put up with this kind of treatment for so many years. Many abusers use violence as a way of maintaining control over their spouse. In most cases they are also extremely manipulative and highly adept at convincing a partner that she is unworthy of better treatment. A good counselor can help you recognize to what extent you may have become brainwashed by your spouse's behavior and thus lulled into a state of resigned acceptance of your lot.
It would be ideal, of course, if your spouse were to seek counseling as well, but we don't recommend that the two of you do this jointly, at least not in the beginning. It's far too easy for an abusive spouse to manipulate a couples counseling situation and subsequently turn it to his own advantage or use it as an excuse for further abusive behavior. If the thought of professional counseling is too overwhelming, consider talking to a pastor or a good friend, or see if you can get a neighbor to take you to a community center where there are people trained to deal with domestic abuse issues. The idea is to find out what you can do, not what you can't do, and to act accordingly.
In connection with this last piece of advice, you should bear in mind that this probably isn't going to be a quick and easy process. Abuse is usually rooted in deeply entrenched patterns of thought and behavior, and you can't expect to reverse those patterns in a couple of counseling sessions.
Focus on the Family's Counseling staff can provide you with referrals to qualified marriage and family therapists practicing in your area. They would also consider it a privilege to discuss your situation with you over the phone if you think this might be helpful. You can contact our Counseling department for a free consultation. They'll be happy to assist you in any way they can.