Should I Help or Leave My Husband?

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 194 · Duration: 00:21:11

Should I Help or Leave My Husband?

What do you do when you’ve built a family with someone who has serious behavioral problems and you’ve tried your best to help them, but it’s still terrible?Click To Tweet We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more in this week’s podcast:  Should I help or Leave My Husband?

Today we’re hearing from Sharon of Effingham, England and Sharon writes:

Hi Neil,

I love your show and listen to it often, sometimes by myself and sometimes with my kids. Thank you for all the skills and knowledge you teach us! 
I'm a teacher, married, with four children between the ages of 6-11. In general, I'm happy! I am a member of many communities (book club, hiking club, daily exercise group, PTA, religious community) and make an effort to travel and go on all sorts of outings with my kids.

My question is regarding my husband, the father of my children. In short, I have chosen to remain with him until my children are older, or at least more independent. We have been married for almost 13 years, and during this time I have experienced some serious abuse. No physical bodily harm, but certainly verbal and emotional abuse. This is a result of his mental health problems, mostly his difficulty in controlling his anger. He has broken things, punched holes in walls, driven dangerously with us in the car, left the children alone in the house when they were very young, taken my phone and keys away from me and the list goes on. These are some of the worst instances that happened, and they occurred once every few months. More commonly, when he is going through a down period (about once a month) he yells in public and at home. It's very scary, especially for the kids. They used to try to protect me, but after a few talks I told them that they don't need to do this, Dad has mental health issues and I need to help him fix them (I have various techniques that I learned to help calm him). Now they usually walk away to their rooms when his tantrums occur. They do cry afterwards or come to see if I'm ok. He also gets very jealous of me, which adds to my inability to trust him. During his anger episodes he often uses my happiness and achievements as examples of why I don't pay attention to him or love him, which has caused me to hide much of my extracurricular activities from him. Furthermore, two years ago I discovered that he had been cheating on me with many different women for years (pretty much since we got married). He swears that the messages and emails that I found were just him playing but I find it hard to believe. 

We went to couples therapy throughout the years, but the
three therapists we saw were scared off by his anger. I went to therapy for four years trying to understand how best to deal with him (it helped in teaching me to fight back, but sometimes it's easier to comply than fight back so I stopped) and finally we ended up in mediation after being separated for about two months. After mediation his behavior improved a bit, but he still has a lot to work on. His tantrums still take place. The truth is I don't honestly believe that his mental health will ever improve enough to say that he is better. 

I have chosen to stay with him because it is the better of two difficult situations. Being a single mom with four young kids, with virtually no support will not be easy. He also made clear how difficult he would make my life if I left him. Also, financially, as a teacher, I don't know that I would be able to adequately provide for my kids. As a result, I have chosen to remain in this marriage for the sake of my children, and myself until I can leave knowing that the kids will be able to stand on their own. 

Is this the right decision? Will something backfire here? How will my children be affected by this? Any guidance that you can provide would be greatly appreciated!

Sharon of Effingham, England

Now to Sharon’s question:

Sharon; my goodness gracious.  The situation with your husband is quite extreme and yet, you are a “happy” person.  The way you stay happy is to get your needs met with your community involvement and friendships and with your children.  

Let’s look at a few things here and then let’s talk about what you might do.

First of all, what you’re experiencing is more than verbal and emotional abuse.  Driving recklessly in anger is physical abuse by putting his entire family in harm’s way; the whole family would have died that way.  Punching holes in walls, taking your keys and phone to hold you captive, having sex with other woman puts you at risk for STD’s, threatening to make your life miserable if you divorce him, leaving young children unsupervised. These are profound risks to you and your children’s welfare. When an adult rages, it is frightening to anyone, and they will experience it as trauma and will respond with fight, flight or freeze.  Your children now go to their rooms and afterwards cry. Why do they cry? Because they were traumatized and felt his rage all the way through their nervous systems. Your children are young and defenseless, and their father would rather indulge his anger than protect his children and make them feel safe.  Is being a bully a mental health problem? 

Three therapists didn’t want to work with him because they were afraid of his anger. WOW!  That’s saying something isn’t it! Sharon, in the US, many of those behaviors are felonies and could land him in jail; and at the very least, on probation with anger management classes and counseling.

I recently did a podcast on a question from the mother of a 16 year old boy who was bullying his mother and unless we get that young man the help he needs, he could easily exhibit behaviors like your husband’s.  So, we’re getting quite a lesson in abusive behavior and how to deal with it effectively.  

Right now, you are choosing to stay with your husband for essentially three reasons, you need the income, and you are afraid of what he might do if you left, and when he isn’t being actively abusive, he offers some support. If he’s there, you can go to your book club or workout.

Sharon, I can’t tell you to stay or go.  That’s a very personal decision; but I’ll offer you a way of thinking about things and a way to take action that could be the best way to set limits, protect your children, and maybe even help your husband grow up.   Yes, grow up, not get well.  You see his behavior as a mental health issue.  I see his behavior as a mental health issue for his family but as a developmental issue for him.  Here’s a question for you; what age a person rages when they don’t get what they want, accuses others of doing things that they themselves do, and are jealous that others get more than they get?  Answer: very young children more or less between the ages of 2 and 7. 

Your husband’s behavior is socially, emotionally and morally underdeveloped. So, the idea that “Dad has mental health issues and I need to help him fix them” is the wrong message.  While it’s good to have the skills you have, to help calm down an out-of-control person, it should not be your responsibility to calm him down.  The message you’re giving your kids is, “we accept abusive behavior and try to help the person who is abusing us. Helping the abuser is more important than being safe. Their needs are more important than your needs.”

When kids get this message, they grow up without a full awareness of their physical and emotional needs or a belief in their importance as people; they’ll believe that other people are more important than they are. This in addition to the trauma that can impact them for their entire lives. It can affect them in many ways; being easily triggered by someone’s mild anger, chronic anxiety or depression, always being on the alert for danger and never being able to relax.  These emotional issues can also affect their physical health and show up as chronic pain or an immune system disorder. 

As I said, I can’t tell anyone to get divorced or stay married.

What I can say Sharon is SET LIMITS. HAVE BOUNDARIES!!Click To Tweet

Here’s a boundary for instance; no one is allowed to abuse me or my children.  No one is allowed to lose their temper with me or lose their temper around my children.  

Sharon, you might think, “Oh Neil, that’s impossible for him.”  I have 2 responses to that:

  1. No, it’s not.  It’s completely possible for him.  Would he lose his temper with someone who was holding a gun on him?  No, he would know better.  It’s a choice; and he can choose to not blow up around his family members as well.
  2. My other response is that it’s none of your business if he can or can’t, that’s his business.  Your business is your limits, your boundaries. And your boundary absolutely needs to be that your children are protected from chronic trauma.
    We can’t protect our children from every bad thing in the world, but we must protect them from chronic predictable abuse, and Sharon, that is your job. Click To Tweet

Sharon, instead of you needing to use your skills to calm him down, your husband needs to grow the skills to calm himself down and have the desire and commitment to use those skills.  Instead of scaring off therapists, he could listen to them. 

So, here’s a recommendation for how to move forward.  Instead of deciding to stay married or get divorced, put the burden of the decision on your husband. Here is what you can say, and it may work best if it’s in written form and given to him.  I’ll call your husband Charlie:

Dear Charlie,

    • We’ve been married for almost 13 years now, and we are blessed with four beautiful children. Things have not been easy to make it this far, but somehow, we’ve managed. We were separated for a bit, but here we are together.  
    • Our oldest will soon be a teenager and the others soon will follow. Our family time will go quickly.  I’ve always hoped that you would learn to control your temper, so I’ve been patient and tried to help you calm down when you get upset. 
    • I’ve done a fair amount of counseling, reading and introspection and I’m trying to do my own growing.
    • I’ve come to the realization that it’s arrogant of me to think that I can or should manage you. I’ve come to the realization that it’s disrespectful of me to think that you aren’t capable of managing you. 
    • I’ve always been concerned that your temper and rage are traumatic for the kids, and I’ve tried to get you to change your behavior and not traumatize them.  I realize now that by my not setting clear limits and protecting our kids from trauma, that I’ve been part of the problem as much as you.  I’m responsible for exposing them to trauma as much as you are.  
    • And since I can’t control you, and even thinking that I should is disrespectful of you, the only person on this planet I can control is me, and I will take full responsibility and be resolute that I will protect my children from trauma and abuse. 
    • So going forward I would like you to make a decision about whether or not to stay in our home. If you choose to stay here, then you are choosing to manage your feelings, manage your temper and not expose me or especially our children to angry outbursts of any kind. 
    • Staying in the home means you are committed to treating me and especially our four beautiful kids, with kindness and respect. Kindness and respect regardless of what I or they do. You of course can set limits with our children, but it must be done so that they feel safe, supported and loved. The same with me. If I do something you don’t like or I don’t do something you wanted me to do, you can talk with me about it. But anger, temper tantrums, rage, criticism all have to go, period.  
    • I know this is a big change, but a change I must make, and one I hope you are willing to and committed to making.  There can be no compromise here.
    • If you stay and can’t manage your temper, I will ask you to leave.  If you choose to divorce, I’ll accept that. If you choose to stay away and work on your anger, build anger management skills, do therapy and then come back, that’s fine too.  You get to choose what you want and what you are willing to do. 
    • What I am 100% committed to is a safe, supportive, loving home for our children and anyone who lives here. 



Sharon, I hope this is helpful and that you find your own voice for setting healthy boundaries for yourself and your children.  

So, parents, therapists and family helpers of every kind.  Of course, we want to help our partners and we need to be willing to let our partners help us.

We aren’t helping anyone when we accept verbal or physical violence. Help starts with limits and boundaries. Without those, we’re part of the problem and not the solution.Click To Tweet

Thanks for tuning in today listeners and our thanks to you Sharon for being a fan and sharing your question with us. It’s truly gratifying to have listeners all across the globe.  But wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, please make time for you. This parenting business ain’t easy.  And besides, You need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now. 

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