Learning boundaries tough task after long abuse

Our family is trying to help my sister break away from an emotionally abusive marriage. After being together for 12 years, married for 10, she has finally seen the light. They have been separated for three months and have filed for divorce. They have one child, 7 years old.

During their marriage, he has isolated her from friends and family. At times he has cut off her access to money, phones and car keys. He has taught their son that she does not deserve his respect. He was the ultimate control freak with her, but with everyone else he knows he’s just so perfectly charming.

She finally left after her husband threatened to kill her. She got a restraining order against him the next day and he left the house. There was great relief in their home after that. He had absolutely no contact with them for 10 days. She was so relaxed and even their son, who has always had great difficulty with his behavior at school, seemed to have a great turnaround.

After the 10 days, she let the restraining order lapse and began the divorce proceedings. Things are 10 times worse than ever! He stalks her and confronts her at any opportunity — sports activities or therapy for their son — whether that be shouting vulgar things to her or making obscene gestures. He is playing head games with his son that are despicable. Even his son’s therapist has asked him to stop saying things that a 7-year-old does not need to be involved in. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. One day he’s absolutely insane, the next he’s so wonderful! She always falls for it and lets her guard down and he slams her with something else.

What can we do to make her realize that he isn’t going to change and that she always needs to be prepared? But more importantly, what can she do to make him stop this behavior toward her? Unfortunately, he will always be a part of her life because of their son, but there has got to be a better way! How does she make him back off and become a civil person around her? How does she gain the control in this situation?

— P.V., Henderson

You are, of course, describing the quintessential domestic violence relationship. I use the term "domestic violence" to include certain pathological relationships absent actual physical violence. Even without physical assault, the core of these relationships is the same: The victim is socially isolated, made anxious and afraid, controlled, degraded and humiliated. The victim loses her "voice." She becomes paralyzed to inaction. She surrenders the integrity of her selfhood.

And, while your sister has taken the first crucial step — divorce! — she still has before her a rigorous journey, also very common for women who desire to change and heal their participation in these relationships. To wit: Divorce does not, in itself, change years of habits in our relationship to an abuser. She has a ton of unlearning and relearning to do.

That’s where competent family, friends, and, if she’s willing, a four- to six-session intervention with a therapist would really help. Competence here means a delicate balance of compassion and encouraging-yet-firm expectations. On the one hand, compassion for the normal "one step forward, two steps backward" beginnings of the journey. A woman so practiced at not observing, claiming and defending good boundaries is not going to manifest those boundaries overnight. On the other hand, we continue to push her to observe and take responsibility for the consequences of not having consistent boundaries.

Earlier this year, I published a column about Mean People. I encouraged readers to adopt a manifesto of sorts — three holy promises made to self in a commitment to self-respect:

1. I will never again forget that (name) is mean and malicious — poisonous to my well-being.

2. I will never again be surprised when (name) is mean and malicious

3. I will become especially alert, careful and wary when (name) behaves normally or even honorably to me.

Your sister’s goal is not to stop her ex’s behavior or to teach him civility; rather, her goal is to relentlessly practice boundaries that do not allow his behavior to work. To render him, as far as possible, irrelevant.

That she needs to do this with the father of her son is dire, tragic and comes with regrettable costs for her son. But not doing it would cost her son, and herself, even more.

I wish your sister Godspeed.

Originally published in View News, July 27, 2010

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