This week’s letter is being answered by Jennifer Mann, LMSW.
My question involves not knowing what position to take when it comes to my husband and son fighting.
My husband, “Sam,” has never been an easy man. But I learned early on that it doesn’t pay to try and get my way with him. It will never happen. It’s easier to just go along with whatever he wants. Sometimes it’s no big deal for me. When larger matters are involved, it takes a great deal of discipline to just say yes to him. I’m not happy about this arrangement and I feel as though I’m powerless in many ways. But I decided early on that this was the easiest path to take if I wanted any peace in my life. I was always much too insecure to divorce Sam, though honestly I’m not really crazy about him. But with children and all, I knew I was not going anywhere.
Just for the record, there are plenty of times that I just go along with whatever Sam wants, and he still gets upset and goes into a rage. So I don’t have the power to totally keep our home calm. But at least sometimes things are relatively okay. And for now, I feel like I’d rather settle for some calm than no calm at all.
But the reason I’m writing to you is about our son “Yitzy.” He’s a good kid, but lately he’s showing an angry side that I never even knew he had. He is now 15 years old. As a young boy, he was an angel. He was always very agreeable to everything I or Sam asked of him. But in the past year or so, he’s begun to challenge his father. Nothing major, and probably typical of any 14- or 15-year-old, who is growing up and coming into his own ideas.
In other families, a father can probably hear a different idea and sit down and have a normal discussion with his son. And I’m sure these discussions bring them closer together. But any time that Yitzy so much as questions his father, Sam goes crazy on him, yelling and screaming as if he had killed someone. When this happens, there is a big blowup and Sam stops talking to Yitzy. I know things won’t get back to normal unless Yitzy goes over to his father and apologizes, even though he usually doesn’t have anything to apologize for.
When Yitzy refuses to apologize, I feel as though in support of my husband, I have to back away from Yitzy, because if Sam sees me being nice to him, I become the enemy also. It’s a crazy situation, I know.
So far I’ve been supporting my husband, even though I know his behavior is wrong and I know Yitzy is being badly mistreated by his father. I feel like a traitor to my son and wonder whether I should say something to him in explanation, helping him understand that sometimes it’s easier to just give in. Or should I just be honest and nice to my darling son, who deserves all the love he can get and risk Sam lashing out at me?
Do I take sides? And if so, which side should I take to ultimately produce the best results? And by best results, I mean “shalom bayis.”
As I read your e-mail, a strong image enters my mind that I cannot shake. I see a rope with two people tugging on opposite sides. The two people are pulling so feverishly that the rope is beginning to fray. You are involved in a game of tug-of-war that so many parents find themselves in. Ideally, and generally speaking, loyalty should always be to one’s spouse. Studies show that it is in the best interests of the child for parents to present themselves as a united front. When parents are a team and present a unified message, the children understand there is little wiggle room to play games, like “divide and conquer.”
But what if you know your spouse is completely off the mark? What if your spouse is consistently degrading your child or flying off the handle? What if you see your spouse treating your child in the same abusive way he or she has treated you for years? How do you know when to hold your tongue and when to speak up? When you never speak up to your spouse about your own needs and wishes, how do you then stand up for a child’s integrity and dignity? And finally, what, if anything, do you say to the children to explain your spouse’s inappropriate behavior and outbursts?
From your e-mail it does not sound like your son is trying to divide his parents but is just being a child in the throes of adolescence—not quite a child and not quite an adult. He is forming his own opinions about life, and if stated respectfully children’s voices should be heard by their parents. Children deserve to be heard, even when their ideas or beliefs are different from yours.
I am not a halachic or hashkafic authority. Regarding your question about whose side to choose to promote shalom bayis most efficiently, I would suggest consulting a rav or rebbetzin, or the shalom bayis hotline. I will say that from my understanding of how shalom bayis can be achieved, it is when both partners are attempting to promote a healthy, loving environment filled with compromise, listening, and understanding and giving the other partner the occasional free pass to excuse out-of-character behavior.
Yet I couldn’t help but notice from your words that you carry the responsibility of shalom bayis on your shoulders alone.
You have been trying to control Sam’s rage by being a “good girl” all these years, when the truth is the only person who can control his moods and rages is him. Attempting to control the mood by altering your needs is unfair to you, and expecting your son to manage his father’s rages and moods is unfair to him. An unhealthy lesson is being learned: Be invisible, without needs or opinions, and avoid explosive behavior; have an opinion or a need and get punished. The final lesson: To get what you want, you must get it by intimidation and explosiveness.
Your question about promoting shalom bayis is impossible for me to answer because siding with either one of them in this unstable situation is unhealthy for you.
I have two pieces of clinical advice to offer you. The first is to see a therapist by yourself if you are uncomfortable or feel unsafe expressing yourself around Sam. I think some digging around is in order to understand why you have kowtowed to Sam all these years, and accepted his totalitarian regime. Ideally Sam would be in therapy as well to address his anger, moods, and rage.
The second point that children are very perceptive—some would argue more perceptive than adults. Yitzy may not have the language to express himself or may not feel comfortable telling you, but he has been quietly watching you and Sam for years, through his happiness and smiles. Imagine his fear, as I imagine yours. I would suggest that you offer counseling to Yitzy. After all, whether you are married or divorced, Sam is Yitzy’s father and Yitzy needs the tools to survive in his relationship with his father. Anger and rage (as with anxiety and depression) tend to be generational. Empower your son to learn a different way to cope with the unpleasant, the unexpected, the unfamiliar.
Avid readers of MindBiz will notice that this topic has come up in different shapes and forms over the last year or so. Abuse and unhealthy relationships are problems in our community just as in any other. I know I have received incredulous feedback from prior articles addressing abuse. Some readers could not believe the column was true. I hope the community will have an open mind and heart and at least consider the notion that we can address this issue from the ground up. Our schools could help prevent abusive or toxic relationships. As we teach math and Navi, we can teach about self-respect and unhealthy relationships. When young men and women are dating, a tremendous focus should be placed on how the other person makes you feel, and the warning signs of an abusive relationship could be taught. A little education can go a long way. As I get off my soapbox, I would like to send you, “Split,” my warmest thoughts and wishes.
Jennifer Mann is presently working as a psychotherapist at Ohel. She also works as a relationship coach and can be reached at 718-908-0512.