THE WASHINGTON POST – Q: We have two boys, a three-year-old and an eight-month-old, and it feels like since the baby was born, my husband has had a really hard time controlling his temper with our oldest when he won’t cooperate.
I get frustrated, too, when he’s screaming and not letting us brush his teeth, or crying and demanding Mommy does something that Dad is trying to do (give him a bath, pick out socks, really anything and everything), but even though it can be really annoying and time-consuming and feels ridiculous, I try to keep it in perspective that he’s just a little guy, and sometimes his feelings are bigger than his body. He’s super verbal, but even so, he still doesn’t have the capacity to truly communicate what he’s feeling.
All this to say: I see my husband getting really angry in these moments, and it worries me. More than worries; sometimes, it really upsets me. It’s not helpful, and it can be scary. He’s a big guy, and he’s huge compared to our son, and I know he thinks he’s not being rough, but boy it looks rough from the outside.
The problem is talking to him about this. When I bring it up, he gets extremely hurt and says I’ve crossed a line by implying he’s being violent. He is not intentionally hurting our son, and I don’t think he even accidentally hurts him, but it’s the manner of touch or the angry tone of voice or even just the contained rage that’s worrisome.
My husband’s dad is also a big man with an explosive temper – not violent with his body, but big and loud and scary. (I know this firsthand because I’ve been on the receiving end of one of his towering rages.) This isn’t the family dynamic that I want: angry dad, placating/nagging mom. I didn’t grow up in an ideal environment (widowed dad with bipolar disorder), but at least my dad was gentle and there were never angry voices or angry touches. I think my husband and I need to get some counselling. We normally have great communication, but this is obviously a very touchy subject, and I think I’m right to be worried. Please give me some strategies here!
A: If you think you are right to be worried, you are. Emotional abuse, which is what may be happening here, is very confusing because of the lack of obvious marks that occur with physical abuse. When there aren’t bruises or cuts or broken bones, it is easier to believe that your husband’s behaviour isn’t “as bad” or that it will somehow go away on its own.
But emotional abuse is every bit as bad as physical abuse. The shouting, the looming over a small child, the anger, the tone, the rage and the inability for your husband to see his raging as problematic is deeply hurtful to adults and children alike.
Here is the dynamic I see: Your husband gets (understandably) frustrated with your three-year-old. Because he cannot control an immature child, his frustration takes over, and he begins to rage. The rage terrifies you (and probably your child), and you try to reason with your husband. Because your husband has lost his ability to be mature and has raged at a child, he is not going to take any critique from you, no matter how kindly or rationally you present your case. He cannot feel guilt (right then or at all?), so he accuses you of hurting him. This is the abusive cycle made plain. He scares everyone, and then he blames everyone for feeling scared. This is insidious, and it can make you feel like you are losing your mind. You aren’t.
Adding to this problematic dynamic is that your husband was probably the victim of the same emotional abuse from his own father. When it comes to your husband having resources in his emotional toolbox, he may be lacking. I am guessing that his father didn’t begin to rage later in life, and so, if your husband’s example of emotional regulation was his father’s explosive temper, how is he going to find the maturity to hold it together in the face of an irrational three-year-old?
You are battling forces bigger than you can handle. The generational trauma, plus your husband’s immaturity, equals the need for professional help. Here’s the tough part: Although some people do realise that they are emotionally abusive and get the help they need, many do not, so there could be strong resistance to your husband receiving help. The work of undoing your mental habits and facing how you have hurt people is just too vulnerable for many abusive people.
So, you have to find your own therapist, stat. You have to see this therapist as often as you can to decide how you will proceed in this relationship. If your husband also wants to go, all the better, but you must go regardless.
A father terrorising his child, emotionally or physically, is untenable for you and damaging for your children. Feeling deeply scared of a parent leaves a child chronically anxious and unsteady. Emotionally abused children are more likely to have sleep and eating problems, depression, anxiety, lagging development, substance-abuse issues, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts.
Whatever direction your family takes, you owe it to yourself and to your children to find more peace. Although you cannot change your spouse, please run as much interference as you can for your two young children. Keep your spouse away from them when tensions are running high, and please take the children away if your spouse begins to rage.