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Abusive Wife


Dr., I need help assessing my wife’s behavior and mental state. We have been married for 18 years and have three young daughters. We’re university educated, “respectable”, upper(?) middle class, but the way we fight contradicts all this. I take long to get angry and my phlegmatic temperament frustrates her. She is a definite Type A personality with a sensitive ego. She has a huge store of grievances, mostly against my mother and not unfounded, and against the way I have at times reacted to her attacks. She forgets or forgives nothing. What I would like to ask, is what sort of behavior should I tolerate as normal from an upset woman. She sometimes carries on venting her feelings for one or even two whole nights (with serious consequences for my work performance). She becomes extremely unfair and even unbelievably foul-mouthed in what she says about her enemies. She has often attacked me physically, breaking my glasses, leaving embarrassing byte and scratch marks and she once shattered my two front teeth with the telephone. I don’t know whether I should call a doctor, the police or an ambulance on such occasions. I don’t want to wreck everything by taking such steps; she does have another side which I love, so I want to protect her and the children. I have tried to record patterns of emotional upheaval: there’s no definite correlation with PMT – it’s as if she is always overly tense and sensitive and converts hurt and depression and stress to aggression. I must admit to failings and poor conduct of my own, but over the years I’ve been growing weary of being treated as the enemy while trying to hang on to my private slogan: “JBLCS – just be loving, calm and strong”. I can’t make life pleasant and easy enough (we have financial problems too) and I can’t give enough TLC for her, especially not in the face of such aggression. While fighting with me, she can be very sweet with the kids, as if she’s not really upset; when we are at peace, she easily loses her temper with them and hurts them – so if I leave / divorce her, I can’t leave the kids with her. She has been talking about a divorce for years. At present she is blaming me for the early onset of menopause (just discovered, at 47) and for having hypertension. I know hormonal disturbance and the news in itself are upsetting her, but her behavior seems to be disproportionate to the causes, abnormal and unacceptable. IS IT? Please advise me on handling the situation, Doctor. I am getting extremely worn out physically and emotionally and sometimes have to take care not to be seen crying at work (not very manly).

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Based on what you have written here, it would appear fairly safe to say that your wife becomes abusive to you at times, and that you have been at times victimized by your wife’s attacks. To be completely clear, I am verifying for you that her behavior is disordered, out of bounds and harmful (to you, to your marriage, etc.). Although thought to be less frequent than Male-to-Female domestic violence, Female-to-Male violence does occur. It is thought that men tend to not report on the extent to which they are victims of abuse because (as you have acknowledged), it isn’t manly-appearing to say that you have been harmed by a woman.

You do have a serious marital problem (whether you or your wife wish to recognize it as such). Assuming that you do not wish to end your marriage right now, my strong recommendation is that you approach your wife with a request that you enter into marital therapy if such services are available in your area. It will be important to have an impartial third party help to referee your fights (for your protection), and to help you both learn how to fight more safely and without aggression. It is possible for all sorts of positive change to occur if you both are willing to make changes (e.g., learning to fight fairly, use time-outs, etc.)

Your wife needs to agree to some rules to govern her fighting with you. These rules are best worked out with an impartial counselor, but if a counselor is not available, they still need to be worked out and respected. She must not physically harm you. You should not tolerate any physical abuse. You probably can safely tolerate some degree of yelling and name-calling, but even then you may need to develop a “time-out” strategy for dealing with arguments where you and your wife agree that you will leave her presence when you have had more than you can take and that you will return a set amount of time later when you have both had some time to cool down some (one hour?) to continue talking. She may need you to act in a particular way as well. Get your mutual expectations out on the table and hammer out a written agreement for how you will act towards each other.

If you find that the abuse does not stop even after sincere and prolonged efforts in that direction, then please consider that there are some situations that justify divorce (violence being one). While divorce or separation might not be the preferable outcome, your safety and ability to enjoy life is ultimately more important than remaining a victim for the rest of your married life in an attempt to preserve a fiction of marriage. Good Luck to you both.

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