Care and Feeding

My Husband Is Controlling and Emotionally Violent

Should I leave my marriage?

A white woman frowns and look up and to her right.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband has been psychologically violent toward me and harsh toward my older (3-year-old) daughter, but until recently I thought that if he doesn’t hit us, it’s not violence. However, I have learned that intimidation, constant dissatisfaction with me, actively making me fearful and going from calm to suddenly smashing objects in anger are all domestic violence. After a separation, my husband admitted for the first time that he had a problem with anger management and promised to get professional help, so I agreed to try again.

In the two weeks since we have been back together, he read half of the anger management book that I read in three hours. He went to a “stress therapist” instead of an anger management or abuse therapist as he’d promised. He does seem calmer and less negative, but is still very controlling. Like when I told him I was going to call the domestic violence hotline to get help with my PTSD symptoms, which keep me awake at night, he told me not to (“If you do that, I will get upset,” he said in a way that seemed threatening). Later we did talk about it, and I got his approval to make the call. I am on the brink of asking for a divorce, but I do not know if I should. We have two young children. The younger one is only 10 months old. People say that in the first year after having a kid, partners should forgive each other and wait until the kid is older to figure out if there really was a problem, or it’s just the lack of sleep.

My husband always was controlling and demanding and had ugly episodes, but his behavior got so much worse after we had kids. Do violent people ever heal and become nonviolent? He keeps saying that he wants to change, and one time he did use one anger management technique from the book I read (and that he’s read half of). Do we have a good chance that things will get better? Or am I just postponing an inevitable divorce? Do I dare raise my kids in this relationship?

—Will Things Ever Get Better?

Dear WTEGB,

I don’t know who the “people” are who say that all should be forgiven in the first year after a child is born (nor do I agree with them!), but I’m pretty sure that what they’re talking about is irritability, maybe an occasional uncharacteristically nasty retort during a quarrel, or the failure to take care of one’s previously reliably accomplished household chores—things along those lines—and not domestic abuse. But I think you already know that.

Yes, some abusers do heal. But it takes a serious commitment to get better and a great deal of professional help. From what you’ve said, it’s clear that your husband is not committed to his healing; he is committed only to convincing you that he wants to, and will, change. This is another form of controlling you.

Getting better also takes time—a lot of time. Even if you could take him at his word, even if he had begun putting in the hard work necessary, this “healing” doesn’t happen overnight. You and your young children are at risk now. I am fearful for all three of you.

I’ve talked before about staying married for the sake of one’s children, expressing the unpopular view that it is often worth staying in a less than great marriage, but I wasn’t talking about a toxic one. You are postponing the inevitable divorce. Either that, or you’re setting yourself up for a future that has the potential to irreversibly damage you and your children. So, to be very clear: No, there is not a good chance that things will get better (things don’t just get better; they have to be made better). And no, you should not raise your kids in this abusive relationship.

Please heed this advice, too: You are going to need help, going forward. You’ll need treatment for your PTSD, yes. But you’re also going to need excellent mental health support and a good lawyer. You’ll need professional help learning (or relearning) how to be in a healthy relationship, one in which you will not feel you have to ask permission to take care of yourself and will not be susceptible to others’ manipulation or control. You are also going to need considerable therapeutic support when it comes to your children, particularly if the custody arrangement includes their spending time with their father. I’m rooting for you. Let me know how you’re doing.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m currently expecting my first child. I’m an only child myself so this is my parents’ first grandchild. They are beyond supportive and over the moon excited. And they do a LOT to help us, more than we could ever expect. We are so incredibly grateful. I try to make sure they know how much we appreciate them as much as I can. The problem is that my mom and I have very different opinions on things. She says she will go along with whatever I want to do, but then she challenges me on my decisions. When we talk, there are a lot of hurt feelings. I hate that I get defensive around her so easily, but I’m going to do what I want and I need her to understand that. Some examples: I told her that I want to try to have an unmedicated birth, and she instantly brushed me off with “No way! You need to have an epidural!” Or: I told her that I want a simple nursery, one without a specific theme, and she got upset and said, “Well, what if I bought you a woodland creatures crib set? You wouldn’t refuse it, would you?”

Recently I invited her to attend a sonogram appointment with me, and on the way there she asked me why I wasn’t wearing makeup. I said, “I’m not ever wearing makeup again as long as I wear a mask!” And then I said that, if I have a girl, I will not be encouraging her to wear makeup if she doesn’t want to. My mom was offended by this. Most of our disagreements, in fact, arise over some of my more “progressive” thoughts about how I want to raise my child. I love my mom, but she doesn’t approve of the way I want to do things, and she doesn’t see how her disapproval is affecting me. I don’t like being challenged every time I tell her how I feel or what I want. But I also don’t like having to get defensive and hurt her feelings. How do I navigate this?

—Wanting to Be Heard by Mom

Dear Wanting,

You navigate this by not announcing to your mother everything—or anything—you plan to do.

I understand that you want your mom’s approval. We all want our parents’ approval (news flash: this doesn’t ever go away, not even when we are old and our parents are long dead—not even when we aren’t aware that we still want it!), but we all must learn as we grow up that we won’t always get it. And that that’s OK.

You know your mother is not going to agree with any of these choices you’re making, right? And you also know that she is taking some (maybe all) of them “personally”—as challenges/criticism to the way she did or does things (the makeup-wearing dust-up is certainly an example of this). I’m guessing that some of what’s going on here is your having found a backdoor way to tell her that you’re not entirely happy with the way she raised you, because you haven’t been able to find a way to directly talk about any of this with her. And if speaking directly to these issues feels too hard, well, that’s fine, don’t do it. But right now you’re locked in a feedback loop that’s a little bit adolescent.

You’re an adult, on your way to being a mother yourself. The fact that your mother is excited about this, and is generous in her support, doesn’t mean she gets a vote on how you are going to raise your child, or has to be told about every plan you have for your future child. If she withholds her support and generosity because you decline to involve her in these decisions, then it’s not really support or generosity. I’m going to take the high road and assume that she will continue to love you and her grandchild, and offer support in every way she can, even if you step away from this codependent relationship and work toward a healthier one. Step One is definitely starting to keep some of your thoughts, feelings, and ideas to yourself. Your mother is not the boss of you.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are expecting our first child. The news has gone over well with all our immediate families but has triggered an … interesting reaction from my father. Every time we get on the phone, he tries to convince me to quit my job and become a stay-at-home mom. Please don’t misunderstand me—l admire the amount of work that goes into being a SAHM, and as someone who works in child care and education, I know it’s a difficult job. But it’s not something I’m interested in doing! I have two master’s degrees (and two master’s degrees’ worth of debt)! I love being at work! I’ve spent a long time trying to break into my chosen career!

I’ve tried asking my father to stop bugging me about this. I’ve tried telling him my spouse is far more likely to be a stay-at-home dad (which is true). I’ve tried avoiding the topic, too, but a combination of memory issues and anxiety means he brings it up during every phone conversation. When I was going to school and getting all these degrees, the message was always “education will open all doors, get a good career,” but now that his first grandchild is on the way, it’s shifted to “children need to be raised in the home by their mom until they start school at the very least.” How do I make this stop?

—What Gives?

Dear WG,

I don’t think you can make this stop. You were on the right track when you decided to start avoiding the topic. (What took you so long? Oh, never mind—I know: You thought you could debate your way to getting him to change his opinion of your plans.) You’re going to have to go further. Let’s review my oft-repeated advice that we can’t change other people; we can only change our response to them.

You can choose not to engage when he talks about this. Change the subject. I’ll say this one more time, because it bears repeating, it is so pervasive and runs so deep in us: I know you want his approval for what you’re going to do, and I know you’re disappointed and hurt that he isn’t giving it to you. But he isn’t going to give it to you. Oh, how badly we want our parents to understand us, honor us, trust us, take us seriously! And when they don’t, it feels devastating in a way it doesn’t when anyone else fails to. So be aware of all of this … and then ignore him. Politely. Switch topics to one you know will interest him (or ask him for advice about something else—something you either don’t care about or something you actually do want/need his advice about). Stay away from the one hot topic about which you are destined to remain at odds.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Shortly before quarantine, my husband and I got a (very messy) divorce after I learned about his multiple affairs. We have an 11-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son together, and he gets them every weekend. But he often picks them up several hours late, and a few times he has not shown up at all. My kids are always crushed when their dad doesn’t show. They have also told me that when they are at his place, he sometimes leaves them alone to watch TV while he goes out, and that once he came back drunk. This is very upsetting, of course, and I’ve decided I want to see if the custody arrangement can be altered so that the children are with me every other weekend. I tried to talk about this with my mother and she said I shouldn’t do it because my ex has “a right to see his children more often” and that the only reason he had left them alone and gone out was that “he was upset that I forced the divorce on him.” He was a loving and attentive father before the divorce, it’s true. I’m starting to wonder if she has a point. Does she? Am I wrong to be so upset about his behavior?

—Confused About Custody

Dear Confused,

I don’t think you are wrong. And here’s another thing I want to say one more time today: We are not obliged to talk to our parents about any subject about which they cannot engage with us meaningfully and helpfully. Your mother’s perspective about the divorce, about her former son-in-law’s feelings, and about his “rights” (which a court will—eventually—rule on) is simply not relevant. And while I am sympathetic to the desire (or need) to talk things over with one’s parents, especially during hard times, the fact is that there are plenty of things one’s parents are not in a position to offer good advice about, for whatever reason.

I am here to assure you that many people—and many U.S. state laws—consider leaving children alone with the TV as babysitter objectionable. The law varies by state, though, and some states (and, for the record, I) grant that leaving a very responsible, mature 11-year-old at home briefly may be acceptable. (California offers a helpful checklist for parents making this decision.) Beyond this questionable judgment, though, is the fact that he once returned to them recognizably drunk, which I can imagine must have upset and frightened them. And then there is the business of his showing up hours late or not showing up at all. Assuming you have no reason to believe that your children are lying to you about his leaving them alone and the drunkenness, I don’t think it’s draconian to request a change to the custody arrangement. I also don’t think it’s likely you will be able to get this request heard right now, when the courts are in chaos.

But at the very least you need to let him know (or have his lawyer let him know) that he cannot leave the kids alone, and that if he cannot assure you that this will never happen again, you won’t be letting him pick them up (he can try to fight you on this, but—again—courts in chaos). You should also let him know, if you haven’t already, that he must pick the kids up on time and show up when he’s scheduled to—that it is awful for them when he doesn’t. He might have been a loving and attentive father pre-divorce, but he isn’t one now.

Finally, if your mother feels the need to blame you for this divorce, she can do that all she wants … when she complains about you to her friends. What you need from her now is her support. And because I have now three times in one column recommended that a daughter take a step back from a tell-all relationship with a parent, I want to add a word here: I am all in favor of grown children and their parents maintaining close relationships throughout their lives. I talk to my own 87-year-old mother every day; my father and I enjoyed a close and lively friendship until the day he died; and my adult daughter and I share most things about our lives. So I know from my own experience that a variety of healthy relationships between adult children and their parents can be had. What I am suggesting is that conversations between parents and their grown-up kids must be mutually supportive, kind, and respectful. You know, like all relationships.

—Michelle

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