By Esther Mann
I believe that my husband is basically a good man. He has always provided well for his family. He is responsible, loyal, someone we can all depend on. The problem is that he has a terrible temper. When things aren’t to his liking—for example, he comes home and the house is messy or one of the kids behaves in a way he believes is not totally respectful—he can fly off the handle. He yells and screams. He calls names and can seem pretty scary at times.
He has never been physically abusive to any of us; nevertheless, we’re all afraid of getting him angry. I guess you could say we’re kind of afraid of him. And even if outsiders are visiting, if he gets into one of his “moods,” it doesn’t matter who’s around. He won’t hesitate to let the sparks fly!
When our children were young, I always defended him to them. When they cried and were upset, I would tell them they needed to respect their father and that he is a good man. Frankly, I was raised that way. My own father wasn’t the most sensitive man in the world and he would actually hit his children. But our mother always told us that we had to respect him and that he was the boss. So I naturally carry the same message to our children.
As they’ve gotten older (they are now all teenagers or preteens), they’ve started questioning my defense of him, getting angry at me for always telling them that he’s their father and that they have to be respectful toward him. Though as children they were able to just accept my word, now they are challenging it.
Not only are they challenging me when I tell them to deal with his anger, but they are getting angry at me, telling me that I’m not doing right by them as a mother, because I don’t try to stop him or even acknowledge what it’s like for them to have a father who can go on a rant against them. They tell me that if I truly loved them, I would care more about their feelings and be “on their side.” I’m not even sure what it means to be on their side; it’s certainly not my place to stop him.
I feel like I’m trapped between a rock and a hard place. I love my children and want them to believe in my love for them and that I am in fact sensitive to their feelings. On the other hand, how can I side with them over my husband? I’ve read numerous times in your column that as wives, we have to always put our husbands first, before our children. There is an order to our loyalty, and our loyalty should be first and foremost to our spouses.
Despite what I say to our children, they tell me that my words mean nothing if I’m not prepared to tell their father that it’s not OK for him to “verbally abuse” them. That’s the lingo they’ve recently begun using. It hurts me to hear that accusation from them. On the other hand, in this regard, I know that I wield very little power over my husband. In fact, not only do I believe that he wouldn’t listen to me, but I’m afraid of how angry he might get at me if I tried telling him what to do.
I worry now that as our children get older and more independent, and eventually grow up and marry, they will pull away from me because of this perceived betrayal that they have been accusing me of. I really don’t know how to properly explain to them that they just need to deal with it the way that I dealt with my own father and I deal with my husband. Life isn’t easy, and that’s the way it sometimes goes.
Do you have any suggestions for me as to how to keep our children feeling supported in such an environment?
Sometimes patterns perpetuate from generation to generation—and not in a good way. What you are describing is exactly that. You were verbally and physically abused by your father, and your mother never defended you or even validated to you that such behavior was not acceptable, so you carry that same message to your own children. Unless and until someone challenges the status quo, this pattern will continue and the abusers will continue to abuse.
When people defend those who treat them badly, they naturally begin to believe that they have no value. For if they did in fact have value, they would not tolerate being treated badly. The inaccurate lesson in all of this is that the abuser probably has good reason to abuse them, and therefore it is justified. This sad message was passed down from your mother to you, and you are keeping this faulty messaging alive and well—or at least you’re trying to.
Thank goodness, your children see the world a lot differently than you did as a child (and even as an adult), and they are aware enough to recognize that something about this pattern is not acceptable. Years ago, there was a popular song called “Stand By Your Man,” which many women believed defined a universal truth. Yes, loyalty to one’s spouse is of utmost importance. However, loyalty, respect, and even love must be earned. Defending bad behavior, even if it is coming from one’s spouse or father, sends a very damaging message that does not inspire a feeling of safety or healthy love.
You mention that I’ve often delineated the pecking order of loyalty one should have within a family system. First comes one’s loyalty to his or her spouse, second is loyalty to one’s children, and then there’s loyalty to one’s parents. You seem to be a bit confused about what that looks like. I’ll give you an example. Say you promised your husband that for his 40th birthday, you would book a weekend getaway just for the two of you, something you’ve never done before. The arrangements have been made, the calendars are cleared, the children have where to go, and the excitement of a quiet weekend together is mounting.
Then your parents call you up and tell you that they’d like to come for that Shabbos; they are prone to putting you on a major guilt trip if you don’t drop everything and cancel your special plans in order to accommodate them. Canceling your plans would be an example of not prioritizing your husband over your parents.
Or, to bring it closer to home, say the very same plans were made, and at the last minute your teenage daughter tells you that she decided she doesn’t want to go to her friend for Shabbos and isn’t happy about the two of you going away together without the whole family in the first place—and you decide to drop everything and stay home.
These are normal examples of when a wife should most certainly put her husband’s feelings first and accommodate him rather than cave in to parents or children over one’s spouse.
However, abuse of any sort—and many people would qualify name-calling and terrorizing children as abuse—has no place within this pecking order. Unacceptable behavior is just that, and shouldn’t be tolerated from anyone, even if he does pay the bills. Though you’ve convinced yourself that because your husband is loyal and dependable, it’s all good, it’s really not good!
Sadly, I think you’ve been brainwashed, to a certain extent, and no longer recognize what should not be tolerated. Your children have every right to expect you to defend them so that they don’t have to be the recipient of your husband’s raging rants and name-calling. No one deserves to live with that or to live in a home that does not feel safe.
You have a lot of work to do—for your own well-being and for the sake of your children and your relationship with them. I wouldn’t expect you to suddenly have the fortitude to stand up to your husband. He does sound like a scary guy. However, you should get yourself into therapy and work toward understanding how and why you have allowed this pattern to continue in the first place and how to unveil your inner strength in order to challenge your husband’s unacceptable behavior.
Additionally, the two of you will very possibly have to attend couples’ therapy together, so that you will have the necessary support to speak your truth in a safe environment.
Kudos to your children for calling you out on a pattern that needs to end and on inspiring you to reach out for help by writing to me and hopefully getting the professional help that is no doubt necessary. The journey you have before you will take time but should ultimately take you and your entire family to a better and happier place.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.