Wednesday December 25, 2002
My children 13 and 15 are struggling with their dad, my X, who has abused them. The female is often targeted, so she has decided to not see him. Makes sense. I support her decision and their therapist advocates for them with their father. Good! I've tried to encourage the learning these children need so they can handle themselves with their dad and have not taken this to court. In therapy they have support and guidance. I'm not triggering further abuse by talking to their dad about the issues the kids are upset about. Good, because it won't work. Unless you need to go after him for a significant change in child support or the like, it's not worth it. They're doing well. Yippeee!!! I'm not. From witnessing this I have recurrent PTSD reactions, which I cope with away from the kids, with therapy.
My question: Is it worth it for the children to develop skills that help them to understand verbal abuse in that they're being aided and supported? Yes. Childhood abuse tends to perpetuate itself. Your children are likely to have "issues." They may be mad at him; wanting of his love and acceptance, angry at you for marrying him/ not protecting them more than you did, etc. Please take this with a grain of salt: do you know any kid who has no "issues"? It's excellent that you have removed them from the abusive marriage, given them a place to explore their feelings, and parent them with love! Good stuff can heal many wounds. Do you think I can learn to handle the PTSD with witnessing this situation? Yes you can, but that doesn't mean you have to be in therapy with them, hear every single thing that happened, be their mediator, or gripe board. Sounds like your family's therapy is difficult for you. I was looking for an opinion outside of my own. I'm in therapy, and so are my children. My worry is that the kids would grow to find friendships / partners who do what their father does, so I'm trying to educate them instead of shield them completely. Good thinking. You can't shield them from something they already know. At this point, they have to deal with it their own way, and that's probably exactly what they are doing. But, its really hard to watch. Yes, it is. It is very hard to watch your children hurt - especially when their struggle is a painful reminder of your own experiences/ shortcomings/ etc. But, your difficulty in watching them deal with their feelings is your difficulty! You CAN stand it, and you CAN give them the space they need to solve their own problems. You can do all of this even though you wish they didn't have these problems. You want to get to where they watch you cope with what used to drive you batty!
PTSD involves an overwhelming desire to avoid cues associated with the traumatic event. Trubble is, you can run, but you can't hide. The only fix I know of - and that is supported by the bulk of research - boils down to some form of exposure (to the various abuse cues) and mastery (of the thoughts and feelings associated with those cues).
I'm monitoring the interactions they have with their dad (emails visits, phone calls) talking to them about what happens, but not thinking he's going to change. What he does is not my concern, its how my kids handle what he does. I hope they can learn to not collapse inside on themselves. This triggers me watching them, even though I don't go to therapy with them. You can't avoid cues your kids provide. But you can master them! While you may be over involved with the issues that your children have, right now we're talking about getting triggered by the reactions your children have to their father. Either way, you will experience dread over their ability to handle him. But you have no control over how they handle him! Pain is an inevitable part of life, and it is a wonderful teacher that motivates trying new approaches. They have to work out their own stuff, now or in adulthood. Better now and with the therapist. So, relax and work our your stuff, which sounds like your inability to deal with their pain.
Your job is to care for yourSelf emotionally. That means not making yourself crazy worrying over them - because it won't do an ounce of good, and may in fact do some harm. When you see yourself beginning to go to your yukky space, tell yourself something like, "Here I go again. I am getting all upset again watching them try to cope with something I have absolutely no control over right now. I can't even coach them much cuz I don't have the skills yet! He will test them and I should be relieved they have this opportunity now - with a therapist - to learn these critical life skills! So, I don't have to like what's going on, nor do I have to go nuts over something I can't do anything about. All that will accomplish is make myself feel awful, and I will model more broken coping skills." Makes sense, don't you think? This is about mastery and will help your PTSD. Don't expect miracles overnight, but remember: practice makes purrrfect! You may want to take a look at Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You by Dr. Susan Forward and Donna Frazier.
I hope this helps. Warmest regards, Doc
Dear Doc: I left a 27 year marriage four years ago - my ex was very emotionally, verbally, sexually abusive. Ouchhh! Glad you're out! We have three kids, the eldest is my twenty year-old son. He's away at college - his very generous grandparents are paying pretty big bucks for his education in another state - and his recent grades came in at two B's, one D, one F, and one incomplete. He swears the incomplete is some kind of oversight that he'll straighten out when he gets back to school after the holidays. The D and F were in math classes, and he's always been weak in math. I was angry that his grades were so poor, but I couldn't really talk with him about it - he immediately started attacking me, saying that I never supported him, I'm always pessimistic about him (that's totally untrue), that I had no business questioning him about his grades, that he'd pay for his own education without my (or my parents help). I said, "Fine, go for it; pay your own way." He wanted to argue but I simply walked out of the room. Glad you avoided an argument; it would not have been productive! I feel he's way out of line, doesn't understand or appreciate the gift he's being given of a great (free!) education, and so I refused to listen to his b.s. I also feel that any excuse he gives for the bad grades is just that, an excuse. Doc, I refuse to waste my parents money on a kid who won't apply himself - but - But - am I wrong? Am I being too hard on him? Yes! His first two semesters he did better - ended up with about a 2.9 average. What do you think about this situation? Your son is admittedly poor in math. He did poorly in a subject area he is weak in. Certainly he has to pass certain math requirements in order to graduate, but he won't be the first or the last kid to fail a few classes along the way. The reinforcements are built in: if he doesn't figure out how to overcome his math difficulty, he won't graduate.
He's understandably upset that you are assuming he's goofing off and not working hard enough, and that's why he feels you are pessimistic about him. Try to look at it this way: He wants to be in school, otherwise he wouldn't be there. Plus, he's doing OK overall. Give him the benefit of the doubt on the incomplete and see what happens.
Meanwhile, why not talk to him and see if you can find out what is getting in the way of his work in these classes. Is he simply not getting math? (I can personally identify with that!) Could he be depressed or otherwise having a hard time in general? Bummed out over a girl this past semester? (If he is, that's no reason to chew him out. This is a normal part of social development and you would both be better off if you simply empathized with his plight while encouraging him to apply himself more at the same time.) You won't know until you ask! And he won't talk if you don't stop assuming what he has to say is b.s. Just listen!
Whatever his problem, it would be helpful to him if you took an interest in what the difficulty is and be more empathic as well as supportive in general. You may want to suggest he obtain tutoring. Maybe your parents would agree to pay for a private tutor, which may be more effective than the help one gets from a fellow student who often has poor teaching skills. Don't be surprised if he does poorly the second time around with math either. It's a difficult subject for him and he needs to keep at it. If he continues to persevere and makes attempts to apply himself, encourage him to carry on! If he does poorly, the school will put him on probation and/or ask him to leave. You can be the good guy!
I have a feeling that you may think that since his education is being paid for, that he should do little else than work work work at school. Of course he needs to do his work, but a large part of a college is the socialization process. Part of his work in becoming a well-rounded adult includes having a life - and learning to balance life with work. This is a trial and error process.
Now I'm going to say something that will probably make you feel angry, but I'm going to say it anyway. People who have been in abusive marriages for a long time as you have, often become very angry themselves. You suggest that he should appreciate the free ride he's been given. Sound a little angry? It does to me. Empathy will get you much further in your relationship with him. As your own feelings of resentment interfere, and they will, rather than react to them with him, take the time instead to become more mindful and introspective about the unfairness and injustice in your own life... You'll become more whole in the process. Good luck to both of you! Doc
Hi, Doc! I need some input regarding my boyfriend's sister-in-law. "Max" and I have been dating almost a year now, and everything is going great. :) I'm happy to report, at least for now, my relationship is the first one where I'm not being manipulative or playing the martyr. It's also the first where I'm not with someone who belittles me or is controlling. I'm very lucky. The only issue is his sister-in-law.
She actually was involved in setting us up, although I never met her until after we had been dating a while. She is full of smart-@%$ comments, directed to me and other relatives. Having read through your letter already, let's face the fact that this lady has some, uh, "issues." She's been that way a long time, way before she ever heard of you, and she's unlikely to change. So, no reason to take her words to heart. You will need to remind yourSelf of that constantly, until you are reminding yourSelf automatically. For example, she and I were talking about how great Max is and how I'm so happy it's working out. She says she agrees that Max is a great guy, and then says that her dream has been that Max and her best friend marry so she and the best friend can be related. But, "that's not going to happen now that you're in the picture." It sounds so high school-ish but she's over 30 years old. I asked if she was kidding and she said "No" emphatically. Do you need any more reason to stop taking this lady seriously? What would you say if a 10 year-old girl said this to you (her apparent emotional age)? How about, "Oh no! I'm soooo sorry you guys can't be related!" Or, with a smile and a good-natured giggle, how about something like, "Well, maybe after we divorce you can introduce them!" This isn't the first time she's made comments that are strange, to say the least. Exactly my point. And you are not the only person she does this with! It's not about you, it's about the way she relates with people! You are expecting her to be straightforward and she's anything but! She either has a very strange sense of humor and/or she is emotionally immature. Whatever. Accept her for who/what she is; don't take her comments personally, and regard her as you would a kid whose birthplace was Mars.
She also does not directly express her feelings. That's OK. No reason to allow her weakness to get in your way. We got the time wrong when we were invited to her house for dinner. It wasn't intentional, we just thought we were supposed to be there at 7 instead of 5:30. We apologized profusely when we got there, and I know I felt pretty badly about it. All night, she made comments such as this response to an invitation to brunch by Max's parents: "you want us there at 11:30? We'll be there at 2:00." Actually, if you think about it, her comment was pretty funny! Can you see that? She's very smug and I can't helping feeling that she's a brat. That's part of the problem: you are making assumptions about how she is, how you think she should be, and you are thus making yourself very upset over how you are treated. Stop expecting her to behave like a normal person when she's clearly not!
She and I have been emailing each other over the past few months, and she's shared some pretty personal information with me. She's asked me not to share it with Max, and I've kept her confidence. Good. That doesn't mean by the way that now you have to share personal information with her. An adult listens to the ten year-old, but doesn't share confidential info. She asks me my opinion of her in-laws, and puts me in a very uncomfortable spot, asking me to judge these people I barely know. Just tell her what you told me: you are not comfortable judging people you barely know. (Ahem... So why judge her?)
She wants her MotherInLaw to take care of her kids when they are ready to have a family, but her MIL will not quit her job to do so. Hmmm, looks like she'll have a problem down the road! She complained to me about it, since the MIL has been wanting grandchildren and makes it known (I don't think she's obnoxious about it). Just empathize; you don't need to side with anybody. She's had a tough couple years: both her parents died, she got married and moved into a new house, and was mugged on the street Christmas Eve 2001. She has seen a therapist but stopped going after a couple visits. I do my best to listen to her and be a friend and try to get past her comments. It's getting harder and harder as time progresses. You are trying too hard. Stop trying to be her friend. All you need to do is kindly and empathically hear what the little girl is saying... I know that if things continue with Max I will be spending more time with her, and I'm trying to keep my mouth shut with my opinion Good, because you really don't want to regard this woman very seriously... but it's getting more difficult. Help! Any ideas? Yes. I've tried turning her over to God, I've tried praying for her, and I vent to my friends. None of it is working.
Believe me, I am not perfect and I say or do stupid things too, but I'd like to think I'm not spiteful. You don't need to behave in a spiteful way; nor do you need fall back into the martyr role. Both are a choice. Change your expectations of her, and you lessen your tendency to experience negative emotional reactions to her antics! Also, should I tell Max what she says to me? No reason not to. Seems like you two can have a good-natured laugh over things she says! (That is, once you're no longer letting her push your buttons!) He knows about the comment about marrying her best friend, and said that he knew about it but can't believe she would be so hurtful to say something like that to me. He always thought she was a phony and a brat, but not mean spirited. I can't let his opinion color my own, although mine isn't that far off. Thank you so much! While you want her to be a nice, normal person, she's not. If you assume her comments are mean-spirited, you set yourself up to allow her to hurt you. She may or may not be mean-spirited, but it doesn't really matter. This is not an individual who lives with you (Whew!). You just need to get along socially. So it would make sense to develop a new set of expectations regarding her strange behavior. As I suggested earlier, perhaps you can "see" her as a young girl (from Mars). Or, you may want to focus on the humor in what she says (in a good natured way), etc. This young woman is certainly not an individual you trust, so keep your relationship light. Don't entrust her with "secrets."
For a much more comprehensive approach in dealing with difficult people, consider one or two of these excellent Albert Ellis titles:
Good luck! Doc
Thursday January 09, 2003
Hi Dr Irene, Hope you had a fun holiday. Thank you! Ours was wonderful with lots of time for family. :) I need your insight: I am still struggling with codependency in my intimate relationship. I wrote you for advice about 1 1/2 years ago after an episode of abuse in a fairly new relationship. Your advice at the time was to run, not walk, away because the problem would only get worse. We both went to counseling together and individually. (Unfortunately, I don’t think the therapist was very helpful.) I feel the situation was swept under the carpet and the focus became “he said – she said” garbage. Even when I requested we focus on underlying issues, it didn’t help. I found a new counselor for myself who I feel is much better, and I have continued working on myself in the relationship. Good! In the meantime, he has been controlling in different ways – men I talk to, what I wear to the gym, how I interact with my son’s dad…critical of how I talk when I’m at work, or when I feel strongly about something… Argh! After a blowout this past weekend, he said he “gets it” and will stop. To be honest, I don’t believe him! Don't believe him. I don't doubt that he understands more than he did before, and I don't doubt his good intentions. I do know that this stuff is sooooo BIG, there is no way in the world that he "got" the whole thing in a weekend. (That's why it's very helpful when the two of you can agree that he is to trust you and cease and desist when you give a signal.) At the same time he can be loving, helpful (he’s not a monster), sometimes willing to take responsibility for his behavior, but most of the time he still thinks his issues have to do with me. Over the past few months I have felt more depressed and distant from him and I knew there was some unfinished business in my mind. I did some meditation to try to uncover the root of these feelings and I went directly to the abusive situation 1 1/2 years ago. I felt so sad, hurt and angry. I don’t trust him intimately – and why should I! I made it clear that I wouldn't accept that behavior and it stopped for the most part. Good. You don't need his agreement when your "signal" is delivered with such clarity and certainty that there is no ambiguity!
We talked about it briefly in therapy, but never really got into the effects on trust, respect, love that would be felt. It was swept under the rug, and he wanted to move past it quickly. I'm glad you are in touch with yourSelf enough to bring it up. Dealing with it is necessary in your healing - as well as in his. Looking back, I never really dealt with how bad it made me feel. I'm not even sure why I didn't run for my life, except that I think my old codependent patterns kicked in. "He's really a nice guy...he didn't mean to hurt me...he had a rough childhood...I know he loves me..." But if I love myself, why would I stay with someone who was abusive - even once! Correct. Yes, we all make mistakes, but abuse isn't a "normal" thing that couples face...not just a disagreement about where to take vacation. Correct. It took me a long time to see where the damage was, and now I have to heal that. Yes.
But my question is still: "Why am I not running in the opposite direction now?" Is there a human obligation to stay and help him heal? Absolutely not! Do I go away until he has healed and dealt with his issues, so I don't keep getting hurt? That is a choice you must make. What is my codependent thinking that keeps me in the relationship, and where does compassion and loving come in? This guy is also a lot of fun, gets along great with my son, and is in many ways very supportive. Do I stay for the good stuff and keep working on the not so good? In a healthy relationship is abuse ever tolerated at all – even once? Can't answer that. Take into account the circumstances, nature and intensity of the particular incident as well as the fact that two different individuals may have two entirely different views. In general, while anybody can make a mistake; most of us don't make such mistakes over and over.
I’ve made some mistakes – what’s different between making mistakes and being abusive? Why is ok for me to say, "I don’t like it when you tell me who I can talk to at the gym", vs. him telling me he doesn’t like me talking to people at the gym. How is 1 controlling and the other boundary setting? Because deciding who you will and will not talk to at the gym is about you. You are the one who is doing the talking; the boundary is drawn around the self and what the self does. When he asks you not to talk to someone at the gym, he is asking you to change your behavior because your behavior is making him uncomfortable. Boundary breach! Instead of dealing with that which is not about him (i.e., your behavior), he basis his comfort level/ insecurity level/ etc. on you! A healthy person has control over the self: s/he can manage his/her own issues. An unhealthy person, will attempt to control you to get you to take care of them or to take care of you when you don't want them to.
Another individual cannot - repeat, cannot - control you, unless in your codependent over-empathic way decide that it's "just a little thing;" and it's worth it not to talk to the guy at the gym because you don't want to make your guy uncomfortable. You can't make your guy uncomfortable; only he can do that! This is BIG, and if you don't see it, look harder!
Your behavior, thoughts and feelings are about you. His behavior, thoughts and feelings are about him. It is dangerous when one individual bases his or her comfort level on the actions of another individual. When Jan bases his/her comfort level on Pat, Jan has intruded into Pat's space. When Pat rationalizes the breach (so "Jan will feel better", "it's a reasonable, small request", etc.), Pat allows him/herself to be controlled.
Your job is to look out for your own comfort level, not his. If you look out for his comfort level, you have allowed him to breach your boundaries and/or you have breached his boundaries if you went there without being asked! (Yes, there is a sometimes a fine line between walking into somebody's space and being considerate.) His job is to manage his own comfort level. When he bases his comfort level on you, he is in controlling territory.
I would really like to know what a healthy relationship looks like and I how do I get there! In a healthy relationship, your partner would not have to ask you not to talk to so and so. If they felt you were truly untrustworthy, they would not be with you! If they felt jealous, but trusted you, they would deal with their own internal insecurities.
By the way, this works in reverse too. If your guy's behavior with the gals is making you uncomfortable, it's your problem. You may need to deal with your insecurity issues. On the other hand, this may be a manipulation/etc. of sorts intended to increase your insecurity, or get back at you for something, etc. If the latter is going on, the question to ask yourself is: "What am I doing here?"