How can you tell if your husband has anger management issues, or if he’s actually abusive?
I’m starting a series on the blog this month on direct communication, and yesterday we looked at what hinders speaking directly. We’ll also cover what direct communication looks like, HOW to speak directly, and how direct communication isn’t the same thing as being mean (though it may seem so at first!).
But before we tackled that, I had a reader question that I really needs to be answered first.
When we’re talking about direct communication, I’m not talking about yelling or being angry–no matter how “direct” that appears.
A woman wrote in with this question about a husband who can’t control his anger:
How can I help my husband control his anger ? He yells at the kids several times a day. I dread when he comes home from work, and weekends are horrible.
I think I would understand more if we were dealing with out of control children who had serious sin issues such as rebellion, lying, stealing, cheating, etc. But hearing him yell at the kids regularly for minor offenses like how they sit at the table or wash their hands is difficult. It is quite a turn-off for me too. Very difficult to get in the mood with echoes of the yelling and anger throughout the evening ringing in my ears. He also has high blood pressure, which makes things difficult since he refuses to see a doctor.
A couple years in a row me and the 3 kids have gone to visit my parents for a month so that he can have a break from the kids. He also switched jobs because he said his job was too stressful, and that helped a little for awhile, but for the last few weeks our home has been miserable again. My husband tends to pick on the oldest son the most. I don’t understand why, but he withholds affection and now our oldest son has become super sensitive and gets weepy easily. My son also craves attention and physical affection from men, which concerns me as well. I’ve asked my husband to get counseling from church, but he says “they” will just gossip about him. He doesn’t want everyone to know. Sometimes I’m tempted to use that to force him deal with the issue. To threaten him with exposure in order make it end. Would that be wrong of me?
I’ve read things about angry, controlling men and how it’s emotional abuse, but I’m not really sure where to draw the line. I’m not sure what emotional abuse is really. All I know is that his anger is hurting our family and I’m at a loss knowing how to resolve the situation.
This is not merely anger. This is abusive, and it needs to stop.
Before I give specific thoughts, let’s note the red flags in her story:
- He is yelling at the children for minor offences
- The family dreads when the father is home, and weekends are horrible
- She is expected to have sex with him–and expects herself to have sex with him–even after he has been angry and has hurt the children
- Her son is exhibiting major symptoms of abuse, including craving attention from other men
- Her husband refuses to see the doctor or a counselor
These are all very concerning dynamics which, quite simply, need to stop.
But why has this situation continued? Simple:
Sometimes it’s hard to deal with anger problems because our focus gets misplaced.
Whose well-being is being prioritized in this story?
Over and over again, it’s the husband.
He is yelling at the children and she is mollifying everybody; when he is stressed, she takes the children away and gives him a break (does anyone give her a break? Or the kids a break?). He gets sex, even when he’s acted horribly. She doesn’t talk about what is really going on in the household because she doesn’t want to “gossip” or embarrass him.
So he is hurting the children and hurting her, but his well-being is what is prioritized.
This is so backwards from the heart of God. God cares about His precious children, and does not abide with people hurting others or acting unjustly. What this man is doing angers God.
And the reason that she doesn’t feel in the mood after he’s been yelling? Because our libido is tied in to our sense of emotional safety and security. That’s how God wired us. We’re not SUPPOSED to want to have sex with people who treat us badly! This is a defensive protective factor hard wired into us that helps us identify when something is wrong–and gives us impetus to change.
Nevertheless, so many women ignore that feeling because we’ve been taught, over and over, that our primary responsibility is to make our husbands happy, even at our own expense–or our kids’ expense.
That is not your job. You never have to enable abusive behavior.
As a mom, your first responsibility is to protect your children.
She sees her kids are hurting, and her heart is breaking for them–but again, she isn’t acting in a way to shield her kids from her husband. She is acting in a way to shield her husband from the repercussions of his actions. In the words of the authors of the book Boundaries, she is disrupting the Law of Sowing and Reaping. Her husband is sowing anger and discord, but instead of reaping the results, she and the kids are reaping anxiety and fear.
She needs to start putting the repercussions back where they belong: on her husband.
And, ladies, I can’t tell you how important this is. You are the best and only advocate your kids often have. Other people don’t see what really happens in your home. If you do not stand up for your kids, who will? And your children are helpless. Your husband is not. No matter what you believe about the marriage or a wife’s role or any of that stuff, your children need you to be strong. Your children need you to protect them.
Okay, but what if this isn’t actually abusive?
I think it is, but let’s say you’re not in this exact situation, and you don’t think what you’re enduring qualifies as abuse. Then what?
I think we focus too much on the word “abuse”: If it’s abusive, then we can do something. If it’s not, we have to put up with it.
No. If there is an unhealthy dynamic in your family that is hurting members of your family, you deal with it. Whether some people would call it abuse or some wouldn’t doesn’t matter; you deal with the unhealthy dynamics. And when your children are cowering and exhibiting fear behaviours, then it is time for you to act, whether or not you think this fits the definition of abuse.
Besides, the Bible is very clear that “fits of rage” are not okay:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
People exhibiting this type of behavior are not walking in the Spirit, and need to be dealt with as such.
Do You Have a Difficult Time Standing up to your Husband?
Some thoughts about next steps when dealing with abuse and and a spouse’s fits of rage
I can’t give a timeline for next steps, because so much depends on individual situations and the resources that you have. But I will say a few big things to think about:
1. Get everyone to safety.
Remember that physical safety is not the only safety we need to prioritize. Emotional wounds hurt, too. If you can leave now, do it. If not, start making a plan.
2. Recruit help.
Seek out a licensed counselor to help you through the process of drawing boundaries. Tell your close friends and family what is happening so they aren’t blindsided. Chances are many of them have seen it, too, and may be able to help you. If they won’t, then find support in online groups (Sarah McDugal, Leslie Vernick, or Flying Free Now are all great). You can’t do this alone. Dealing with this is likely destroying your self-esteem and sense of self, leaving you feeling helpless. It’s likely creating major trauma in your life. You need to help yourself, too. You can’t help your kids until you can get help.
And that means that you stop keeping his secret. It is not your job to protect his reputation; it is your job to protect your children–and yourself!
3. Get in a safe community yourself
And take care of yourself! Often the reason that women tolerate such horrible treatment of themselves and their kids is that they’re in a community which tells women they have to do this or else they’re in sin. So the community itself is often feeding the problem.
Most Christian women who leave their abusers also have to end up leaving their church. It’s so cruel, it’s not fair, and it’s a HUGE indictment of the state of the evangelical church in North America today. But the church, quite frankly, is not a safe place for most women.
That may not be true in your individual church.
I have known churches that have been amazing at helping abused women. But I have heard too many horror stories that my default now is to advise women NOT to go to their church unless they know their church helps abused women, and instead find a community that is safe. That may involve switching churches. It may involve joining some community groups.
But do not let a church, or a group of elders, tell you if you’re allowed to separate or if you’ve done enough counseling or if he really is abusive.
THESE ARE YOUR CHILDREN.
You are the final say. You are their last line of defence.
You do not need to listen to people who claim to be in authority over you but don’t lift a finger to actually protect you and your kids.
Unless the focus stops being on the husband’s happiness and well-being, and starts being on your own mental health and the children’s safety, then no counseling or church help is going to work because the emphasis is upside down and not of Christ.
4. Document the incidents.
Here’s a tricky one. If the marriage falls apart, your children may be at even more risk if your husband gets even partial custody. You won’t be there to defend them.
So it’s important that you start documenting when abuse towards the children happens so that you have a record to use in court.
The documentation could take several forms:
- Keep a journal of the incidents, and if others witness them, ask them to sign the journal entries
- Ask anyone who ever witnesses your husband yelling at the kids to write their own description of what happened--as close in time to the incident as possible
- If it’s legal where you live, secretly record any diatribes (some jurisdictions do not allow for single party recording where the other person doesn’t know they’re being recorded).
- Call the police or child protective services whenever your husband is abusive towards the kids. Get child protection involved early, so that there is a record of what he did (child protective services may require that he move out, or may temporarily remove the children if you can’t get them to a safe place yourself without access to your husband, so have a back up plan. But getting the authorities involved early does produce a record).
- Take pictures of any physical injuries.
5. Think about ways to support yourself.
Speaking up does not necessarily mean the marriage is over. Insisting on counseling and separating for a time does not mean that you necessarily are going to divorce. But we need to be able to support ourselves in case anything ever does happen to the marriage.
- Can you learn new skills so you can get a job or find part-time work?
- Can you renew old skills that may have lapsed?
- Can you take money and put it in a bank account that he can’t touch?
- Do you know where all the financial information is? If so, take pictures of everything so that he can’t hide money later.
Even if you’re not thinking of separating, if your marriage is rocky and your husband has abusive tendencies, it’s best to make sure that you know where all your financial information is now, and that you prepare yourself now to be able to support your family if anything ever happened a few years down the road.
Anger and fits of rage are different things.
I want to end with this: Sometimes we get angry for very good reasons. Maybe people have treated us badly; maybe we’re just really stressed and we have a short fuse. Maybe someone is treating other people badly and we want to protect them.
Anger itself is not bad.
Fits of rage, however, are a different thing. These are fits that often come out of nowhere and are used to intimidate and control. They aren’t related to what someone may have done, but instead burst out of the person having the fit.
The problem is not that this person is an angry person; the problem is that this person is a controlling and scary person, and that distinction is important.
Sometimes people have fits of rage because they never learned how to show any other kind of emotion. Maybe they grew up in a very abusive environment as well. It’s easy to look at him and know his story and feel like it’s not his fault.
And it may very well not be. But your children are still being hurt. His hurt is not an excuse to further hurt others. He needs to deal with his hurt while minimizing the harm to those around him. You can have empathy and compassion for him, but that does not mean that you have to subject yourself and your children to fits of rage.
UPDATE: I should have said–all of this applies if the roles are reversed and it’s the wife who has fits of rage and the husband who is wondering how to protect the kids. I should have said it above, and I’m sorry for the oversight.
Does anyone else have any advice for women in this type of situation? Any words of encouragement? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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