Randy sat in front of his counselor, clearly humiliated, as he described the circumstance that prompted him to seek help. “Last Friday evening my wife and I got into a huge fight over a small matter. My teenaged daughter was in a separate room and was scared to death because we had become so loud. She called 911 and when I learned of this I pushed my wife who then fell and hit her head on the furniture. My adrenalin was elevated and I guess I pushed her harder than I thought. She started crying and my daughter began crying, so the yelling continued. It was awful. I was swearing at both of them. I knew I was out of control, but I couldn’t stop. I felt like a crazed maniac.
“Once the police arrived, they separated us and when the story came out, they told me they had no option but to arrest me.” Heaving a great sigh, he continued. “They took me to the police station and processed me, then I had to stay in their jail cell for the rest of the night. The next morning my wife bailed me out, and I can’t tell you how low I felt. I didn’t sleep a wink all night and I’m sure I looked the part of a nasty thug.”
Head in his hands, he said, “I can’t imagine being in a deeper hole…being labeled an abusive husband and father, having criminal charges filed against me, looking at the possibility of divorce, losing my good name in the community. It’s just too much.”
Looking squarely at the counselor, he said, “Tell me I’m not the only one this has happened to.”
Sadly, Randy’s story is not isolated. Contrary to the notion that family abuse occurs only in underprivileged homes, many professional families could step forward and state that it has happened to them too. Some, like Randy, have had to face the legal system. Many face the potential of marriages splitting. All have great emotional conflict.
Once I encounter such a case, my concern as a therapist is to determine how this fits into a deeper pattern of anger abuse and mismanagement. Inevitably, we will embark on discussions about the abuser’s misguided illusions of control, hidden insecurity and fear, and psychological dependency. Often we will establish accountability procedures like where to stay, whom to disclose the event to, and how to make restitution.
Initially I will have the abuser’s undivided attention because the repercussions are so severe. Such a case is never resolved quickly and it is important to examine the full spectrum of issues that will lead to potential healing. I explain that his goal is not to do what it takes to get his wife back on board. Rather, his goal is to learn how to be a consistently good man.
With the passing of time it becomes tempting for the abuser to rebuild his bruised ego by: (1) blaming the wife, (2) citing excessive life stressors, or (3) appealing to a troubled past. While external and historical factors can indeed be pertinent, prompting productive discussions about a broad range of subjects, they still do not take away the truth that choice was central to the misdeed. An abuser needs to be willing to consistently “man up” to his misguided attitudes before the case can be considered salvageable.
Likewise, it is necessary to have the abused wife examine her role in the home atmosphere. Often I learn that she has played the role of an appeaser, too fearful to take a firm stand lest she sparks another reaction of rage. Sometimes I learn that she may at times get caught in the abuser’s crossfire by engaging in a war of accusations and belittlement.
She will need to develop an understanding of true assertiveness. She can learn the value of relationship boundaries. She can establish realistic expectations with predetermined consequences for future outbursts. It will be important for her to recognize that her willingness to stand in self respect is part of the solution. By staying true to her voice, she can illustrate that only dignity and respect will be part of conflict management.
Ultimately, for a marriage to survive domestic violence, the abuser will need to develop a lifelong commitment to contrition and humility, recognizing that ego driven anger has no place in a healthy home. Without such an attitude adjustment, the likelihood of repetition is too high. At that point the wife will likely be in the position of determining an exit strategy.