My husband has never physically harmed me or the kids, but he constantly subjects our children to mean-spirited put-downs. For example, he tells them that they're stupid and lazy. He demeans my son's athletic abilities. He tells my daughter that she's ugly and needs to lose weight. The children try to ignore him and put a brave face on the situation. But I can tell that the constant criticism and mind games are wearing on their self-esteem and making their lives miserable. I want to help them, but I also want to be a good submissive wife. I also worry about how he may react if I challenge him. What can I do?
The state of affairs you've described isn't good for anyone in the family. It's harmful and destructive to everyone concerned. That includes you, your spouse, and the kids. This means that something must be done to change it as quickly as possible. We can almost guarantee that the change won't come about as a result of adopting a "submissive" attitude toward abuse. Somebody is going to have to find the courage to stand in the gap, and it looks like you're elected.
We understand your fears and hesitations, of course. You know better than we do exactly how your husband is likely to respond if you cross him. It's possible that you would be endangering yourself by standing up to him on the kids' behalf. That's a matter of serious concern. Nevertheless, you still need to listen to your mother's heart and do what it tells you. If you think about it, you'll see that this is a case where love and concern for your children's well-being trumps every other consideration. There really is no other choice.
Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to say a few words about the underlying causes of abuse and list some of the identifying marks of genuinely "abusive" speech and behavior. Domestic abuse is almost always a technique for gaining and maintaining control, and likely is born out of the abusers own pain. An emotional abuser keeps others under his thumb by blaming and shaming. He uses name-calling, swearing, and other forms of contemptuous speech to convince his victims that they are unworthy of better treatment. In most cases he is highly manipulative, displays narcissistic tendencies, and flatly refuses to acknowledge any personal responsibility for family dysfunction. If any of this sounds typical of your husband's interactions with your children, you are more than justified in taking whatever steps are necessary to reverse the situation.
How should you go about this? We suggest you begin by setting up an appointment for yourself and the children with a family counselor. Tell your husband that you and the kids have reached the point where you need professional help to deal with the fallout of his verbal assaults and hurtful insinuations. Urge him to seek counseling too, but ask him to do it separately during the beginning phases of the process (it's far too easy for an abusive spouse to manipulate a joint counseling session and subsequently turn it to his own advantage or use it as an excuse for further abusive behavior). Make it clear that, from your perspective, this is absolutely necessary in order to protect the children's emotional health and preserve the integrity of the family. Let him know that, in any case, there can be no question of maintaining the status quo.
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.
If your spouse refuses to cooperate, you may need to create a crisis by giving him an ultimatum. Say something like, "Either you get counseling, or the children and I will need to look for other living accommodations until you're ready to help us resolve this problem." A temporary, therapeutic 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 and that you actually have a safe place to go – the home of a friend, family member, or neighbor – before you put the matter to him in these terms. Lay your plans, line up your resources, and make your arrangements prior to packing your bags and walking out the door.
In the meantime, you can bolster your children's confidence and counter the ill effects of your husband's put-downs by constantly reassuring them of your love and affection. Tell them in detail what you like about them. Highlight their special talents and abilities. Let them know that, in your eyes, they are precious and beautiful beyond description. Don't forget to supplement these comments with solid reminders of their eternal value in the sight of God. Help them understand what it means to be human beings created in His image.
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. Contact our Counseling department for a free consultation.
Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse
Understanding Emotional Abuse