Editor's Note: This is a follow-up article to Dr. David Hawkin's piece, Life with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Verbally Abusive Marriage.
“I’m so tired,” Katherine said wearily, sinking further into the chair in my counseling office.
Brushing her hair out of her eyes, she continued, “You know the story. When it’s good, it’s really good. And when it’s bad, it’s really bad.”
“Yes,” I said sympathetically. “I have heard the story many times. ‘The Jekyl and Hyde relationship’, where he is nice one day, and mean-spirited the next. All the while, you’re never sure which man you’ll see at the dinner table tomorrow night.”
Katherine appeared painfully ordinary, the life sapped out of her. No longer wearing makeup, I pondered whether she was clinically depressed. She complained of withdrawing, not enjoying her friends as she had in the past. The rollercoaster ride of bickering with her husband, interspersed with more pleasant times, was taking a toll on her.
Katherine is one of thousands of women, and sometimes men, who struggle in emotionally abusive marriages. She has been coming to counseling for several months, learning about how truth-twisting, rewriting history and sarcasm are aspects of emotional abuse. She has discovered the abusive aspect of him playing the victim instead of taking responsibility for his behavior.
Others like Katherine suffer quietly, though many responded to my recent article on emotionally abusive relationships. We must continue our efforts to end the silence about emotional abuse and encourage action.
Thousands, like Katherine, are criticized for staying in obviously abusive relationships. Well-meaning people, when they learn of or recognize the abuse, tell their friends to simply leave or “stand up and don’t tolerate it.” But, this advice is simplistic. Often there are strong conflicting feelings in the abusive relationship: one of fear of the abuser, and one of positive feelings toward the abuser.
“I still love Gary,” Katherine told me. “He’s my husband, the father of our three children. And besides, he doesn’t always call me names. He isn’t always sarcastic with me. There is a good side to him, though I don’t see it as often as I’d like.”
“I’m sure there is,” I replied. “Most relationships are made up of good and bad. It’s actually that combination of good and bad that can create a very strong, painfully destructive bond the experts call trauma bonding.”
“What is that?” Katherine asked.
“When a relationship has a pattern of fear, abuse and exploitation, where a person has control and power over us, we begin to tiptoe around them. We are slowly being abused and traumatized, and may stay in a relationship for a long time without really fighting back. We’re often afraid to fight back because of the repercussions.”
“Sounds like how I am with Gary. His temper is so harsh, and he becomes so critical, I go along with what he says so I won’t have to deal with his nasty moods and temper.”
“At what cost?” I asked Katherine.
“Well,” she sighed. “That’s why I’m here. I need to end this ‘Jekyll and Hyde rollercoaster.’ I need to find myself again and start sticking up for myself.”
Together, Katherine and I methodically outlined a plan for her to regain her sense of integrity (wholeness).
Here are some steps everyone in a controlling/ abusive relationship can take:
1. Tell yourself the truth. Katherine spent numerous sessions detailing the behaviors her husband exhibited that were abusive. She learned what behaviors constitute abuse, explored ways she rationalized them, and decided she would determine what behaviors were intolerable.
2. Become clear about abusive behaviors. We discussed the impact of such abusive behaviors as name-calling, sarcasm, isolation from friends, control of thoughts and behavior, and rage reactions, to name a few.
3. Talk about the impact of those abusive behaviors. Rather than live in denial, pretending her husband’s behavior wasn’t impacting her, she decided to turn on her “chaos detector,” which I talk about in my book, Dealing with the CrazyMakers in Your Life. She began admitting the full impact of the abuse on her life.
4. Stop enabling the abuse. Katherine decided she would no longer make excuses for her husband. She would no longer rationalize away his anger, or forget about the times he turned words back on her manipulatively. She would no longer anesthetize her pain by telling herself, “ It could be worse.”
5. Take action. Katherine took drastic action—often necessary to end abusive cycles. She insisted her husband participate in a "Marriage Intensive" at the Marriage Recovery Center. She made it clear to him that if he wanted to remain married — and she did — they would need definite intervention into their old patterns and would need strategic help learning new ones.
6. Be accountable for change. Change never happens easily or without ongoing accountability. Not only did Katherine courageously insist on couples counseling, but insisted her husband also participate in individual counseling to address his abusive patterns of behavior. She made it clear they would need ongoing work to ensure the necessary changes became new patterns of interacting.
7. Expect resistance to change. Katherine wisely informed her husband that change would not occur without a cost — time, effort and financial. She expected resistance — and then was not surprised when it occurred. However, when Gary was faced with only two choices — their marriage and change, or losing her -- Gary chose her.
Bolstered by Scriptures already cited, such as Proverbs 22:24 ,“Do not associate with a man given to anger; or go with a hot-tempered man,” and Ephesians 4:21 which instructs, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice,” Katherine is certain about her direction. She and her husband are on a healing path.
Arriving at this place was not easy for Katherine, and probably won’t be for you. If you are married to a man or woman who has a hidden problem with emotional abuse, name it for what it is: abuse. Become informed about the symptoms of verbal abuse, and agree to end it. After being clear about the destructive element in your marriage, agree on action that will lead to change — treatment. Insist that your husband or wife receive specific treatment that ensures change. Set a clear boundary that says violence won’t be tolerated. Not one ounce. Never.
If you are the victim of verbal abuse, find someone you can trust to share your story with and take steps to put an end to the violence. Feel free to email me at TheRelationshipDoctor@Gmail.com.
Published April 13, 2009.
Dr. Hawkins is the director of The Marriage Recovery Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.