How to Overcome an Abusive Marriage
Introduction: The subject of physical and emotional abuse in marriage
is difficult to address because spouses cannot usually agree as to what
it is. Physical abuse is easier to define than emotional abuse because
there are bruises to prove it. But even a spouse who seriously injures
or even kills the other spouse during a fight can justify his or her behavior
as self-defense, not abuse. And the courts often see it that way,
too, particularly if women are the ones doing the killing and maiming.
On the other hand, a spouse who walks away from an argument can be accused
of being emotionally abusive by the spouse who wants to continue arguing.
And those who are not home often enough to even discuss an issue are often
considered abusive by a neglected spouse. But is neglect really abuse?
The reason abuse is difficult to define is that it usually means one
thing to the abuser and another to the one being abused. In our society
where there are so many rewards for being a victim, it's common for BOTH
spouses to claim that it's the other who is being abusive, and in most
cases, they're right. But what they usually can't understand is that
they are both perpetrators of abuse, as well.
However, there's an issue that's far more important than how abuse is defined.
Whatever we decide to call it, abuse or something else, spouses who feel
abused are being hurt. So the advice I give on the subject of abuse
tends to sidestep the issue of definition, and it goes right to the core
of the problem -- that spouses must learn to protect each other from any
of their behavior that's harmful. There are literally thousands of
ways that one spouse can hurt another, and I am opposed to all of them.
Whatever it's named, if you are hurting your spouse, you should stop doing
Abusive behavior usually begins when a couple tries to resolve a conflict
the wrong way. Instead of finding a solution that meets the conditions
of the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without
agreement between you and your spouse), an effort is made by one spouse
to force a solution on the other. Resistance to the proposal is matched
by increasing force until the spouse browbeats the other into submission.
Every fight is an example of abuse because it uses the tactic of emotional
or physical force to resolve a conflict instead of respect and thoughtfulness.
The Love Busters -- selfish demands, disrespectful
judgments, and angry outbursts -- are all examples of the way one spouse tries to force his or
her will onto the other. They can all be regarded as abusive ways
to resolve conflicts because they all cause pain and suffering. In
fact, whenever a decision is made that fails to take the feelings of the
other spouse into account, a case can be made for abuse.
In this column I post six letters and my answers to them which makes it my
longest column. The reason I feel obligated to include so many letters is
that each one addresses an important aspect of abuse that I want to
The first letter is from an abused wife who has not yet decided to separate
from her husband to protect herself from his abuse.
The second letter is from a husband whose wife has escaped to a shelter to
avoid his abuse. He wants to know how to win her back.
The third letter is from a wife who has run her husband out of the house
with her abusive behavior. She wants to know how to get him to return to
The fourth letter is is from a man who thinks my definition of abuse is too
broad. It gives me an opportunity to explain the difference between abuse
as an act of violence and abuse as a process.
The fifth letter is about abuse and alcohol -- a dangerous and sometimes
Finally, the last letter asks the question, "Why do people who love each
other fight so much." It's a good question, and I have a good answer.
If you are interested in reading even
more on the subject of abuse, read two of my earlier Q&A columns, "Angry
Outbursts" and "Domestic Violence."
And if you have not already done so, take a short tour of the
Builders web site so you can see how I've organized the information that
will help you resolve your marital conflicts.
What to Do with an Abusive Husband
Dear Dr. Harley,
My husband and I have been married for 12 years. We have two daughters,
7 and 9. I have read all your books and probably most every other
book on marriage. But our marriage has been bad from the beginning.
I have done everything I know to try to improve it, but nothing helps.
My husband is very critical and abusive. We rarely talk unless
we are forced to make a decision. And that's scary because we disagree
on everything and it ends up as a fight. If I do attempt to have
a conversation about some general subject, he wants to know, "What's your
point?" So I avoid conversation if at all possible. Every little
thing is an ordeal. I have tried negotiation, but without cooperation
I am unable to succeed. He has very little respect for me and when
he gets angry he mocks me, yells or gives me ultimatums. It's just
not worth it.
Our sex life is terrible. During our first year of marriage he
told me that I wasn't worth sleeping with and over the years has been very
insulting to me about sex. I have read books to try to improve my
physical attraction but he won't talk to me about it. He just says
to use my imagination. I believe that is his way of keeping me guessing
and feeling inadequate. When we make love I feel angry or depressed,
but I do it as a way of grasping for any kind of intimacy I can get.
I work very hard to look nice for him, and others tell me I am very attractive.
But he uses very insulting words to describe my appearance.
He hit me several times earlier in our marriage, but now he goes only
as far as he thinks he can to intimidate me without "crossing the line".
I told him I would report him to the police if he ever hit me again.
I have been trying to protect our daughters from his anger and criticism
as much as possible. But I have failed miserably. When my oldest
daughter was old enough to vocalize her emotions she said she never wanted
to be at home because of my husband's abusive behavior. I knew no
matter how much I could take, my children didn't need to be living in that
When my husband first started being abusive with me, I convinced him
to go to counseling. He said he would go because he thought that
the counselor would tell me that I needed to change. But when he
didn't hear what he wanted, he quit and forbid me to ever go again.
A few years later, when I was suffering from depression, he relented
and "allowed" me to go because our insurance paid for it. Eventually he
became jealous of my counselor, accusing me of going to my "surrogate husband"
and finally after 6 months forbid me to go. But I did not quit this
time. I told him he was welcome to come anytime, and that I would
not quit until I felt strong enough (by this time I was diagnosed with
acute clinical depression).
After a year of counseling I was prepared to leave my husband.
But my threat to leave him motivated him to see a marriage counselor, and
that did help our marriage. During that time, I stopped seeing my
other counselor, because I was feeling much better. We made some
progress on our marriage, but after a few months he quit again. Once
again, he did the minimum it took to get what he wanted -- for me to stop
seeing my counselor.
I think he has a lot of insecurities and tries to make himself feel
superior by making me feel worthless. I learned to deal with some
of this in counseling, but how long can someone be expected to hold up
in a marriage with someone like that?
Dr. Harley, I've told him I am willing to do anything if we could only
try to make our marriage pleasant. At times he will agree, but he
never follows through. I have given up my dreams of a good marriage one by one until I have very
little hope left. I am starting to get depressed again, and the depression
only makes things worse. I feel so trapped. I do not believe
in divorce, and even if I did, I would still have to deal with him about
the children. It would be trading one set of problems for another.
I am reluctant to return to my counselor. I feel he was getting
frustrated anyway. He thinks I should divorce my husband, and I keep
wanting to figure out a way to save my marriage. I have tried some
of the suggestion in your books by myself, but I don't have what it takes
to keep it up alone anymore. It seems to be a dead end situation.
I grew up believing that marriage was a very special relationship between
a man and a woman and I looked forward to it, but I don't think I will
ever be able to have that experience. Do you have any suggestions?
I don't have your husband's side of the story, so my advice is admittedly
dependent on the truth of your perspective. But if what you say is
true, I would recommend that you go back to see the counselor you were
seeing for depression, and then reinstate your plan for a separation.
I think you were on the right track when you were planning to separate
before, but now you know that it will take quite a bit of time for your
husband to learn to treat you with respect . He has developed some
very bad habits, and it will take him maybe a year or longer to overcome
He has agreed to make changes in the past, but just agreeing to change
is only the first step. Many of the changes he will need to make
will take a great deal of effort and persistence. His goal should
be providing you a home free of angry outbursts, disrespectful judgments
and selfish demands. Until he can guarantee that safe environment
for you, you should remain separated. That's because while he is
learning new habits, he will make many mistakes. And you cannot afford
to be confronted by the predictable mistakes he will make. Wait until
he has mastered the lessons of treating you with thoughtfulness and respect
before you let him back into the life of you and your girls.
Your husband's behavior is probably the most important cause of your
depression, and I feel that with him out of the house, you will feel better
almost immediately. You may feel guilty at first for making him move
away from his girls, but until he learns to be respectful, he's not a good
example to them.
At first, your husband will be very angry with you, and may even file
for divorce. While separated, there is even the risk that he may
have an affair. But if your marriage has any hope of
surviving, he won't divorce you and he won't have an
affair. Instead, he will recognize the role he has played in
your depression, and he will begin to take the steps that will make him
the husband he should have been all along.
If he begs you not to leave him, and you give him another chance, remember
that it will take months, if not years, for him to change his habits.
He will need careful and persistent monitoring of his conduct, and you
must anticipate his resistance to that, especially after you decide to
stay. That's why I think a separation that may last a year or more
is inevitable. Your husband has a lot to learn, and it will take
time to learn it.