How should I respond to a wife who has a tendency to resort to violence? Once or twice a year my spouse and I have a disagreement that escalates out of control. At such times she says the meanest, most irrational things about me, including "I hate you." I have always remained calm and have never responded in kind, but this only enrages her to the point of violence. She throws things at me, even tries to hit and kick me or knee me in the crotch. So far I have not suffered serious injury, but I worry about what might happen if there were a knife or some other weapon handy. She's a pleasant and loving Christian woman most of the time, which makes it difficult for others to believe me or take my situation seriously. Am I overly concerned? What should I do?
The short answer to your question is no. You are not unduly concerned. In fact, you need to take action, and you should do so as soon as possible. From our perspective, the urgency of the situation is underscored by your worries about what could happen if your wife had access to a weapon. This is a red flag that should not be ignored.
Don't be lulled into complacency or a false sense of security by the infrequency of these episodes. It's true that in most cases of this nature the abusive behavior tends to surface far more regularly than "once or twice a year." At least that's been our experience. But this doesn't mean that you should put your anxieties on the back burner. On the contrary, the potential for danger is very real. Domestic violence needs to be taken seriously wherever and whenever it raises its head.
When a marriage turns abusive, most of us tend to assume that the man is the perpetrator and the woman is the victim. In your case, the stereotypical roles have been reversed. From one point of view, this may not seem to make a huge difference. But from your perspective it can mean that the trial becomes doubly painful to bear. For one thing it makes it harder for some people to believe your story. Apparently you've already discovered this. It also tends to place you under the burden of a certain social stigma. In practice, it presents you with all kinds of thorny questions about how you should react when your wife begins to lose control. You've demonstrated an admirable degree of self-restraint under pressure.
That being said, you still need to confront her with a choice. You should not wait for another episode to occur to say, "This kind of behavior is unacceptable and I'm not going to put up with it anymore." Insist that she seek professional help. Let her know that there will be consequences if she refuses. A spouse who is acting out in this fashion can sometimes be persuaded to make a change if her partner has the courage to create a crisis. Tell her, "Either we both get counseling (separately), or I'm moving out until you're ready to help me resolve this problem." In many cases a therapeutic separation can provide the necessary motivation to get things moving in a positive direction. 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 her 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 connection with this last piece of advice, it's important to add that we don't recommend that the two of you seek counseling as a couple, at least not in the beginning. It's far too easy for an abusive spouse to manipulate a joint counseling situation and subsequently turn it to her own advantage or use it as an excuse for further abusive behavior. You should also 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 at any time during this process your wife becomes violent, we'd urge you to respond directly and decisively. Your attitude should be one of zero tolerance. In other words, the next time she actually kicks you or strikes you, call 911. Let the police intervene and allow the process to unfold from there.
By way of background, you should understand that your wife's behavior is almost certainly a symptom of a much deeper problem. In many ways, her volatility and impulsivity are reminiscent of borderline personality disorder. This is a serious psychological condition most often rooted in childhood attachment issues. It manifests itself through alternating extremes, intense and inappropriate anger, suicidal thoughts, and instability of mind and mood. Her actions could also be caused by depression or bipolar disorder. It's impossible to say for certain, of course, without a thorough psychological assessment. This is yet another reason for engaging the assistance of a trained professional.
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