Sent: Saturday, June 05, 1999 12:44 AM
Dear Dr. Irene:
My sister says she is the victim of a verbally abusive marriage. She has been married for
17 years to a prominent and successful man. Their children are 8 and 10 years old and are
in terrible shape. One has a violent temper, we are told, but only towards her mom. The
family lives far away and we don't know what really goes on. My sister is so depressed she
has stopped reading my mail (or any mail), answering the phone, and everything else too.
I have been in touch lately with my brother-in-law, and he sounds perfectly rational. I
questioned him on his temper, and he said it's nothing extraordinary. He said he knows she
is afraid of him, but that she is afraid of contact with anyone. (Lately this seems to be
true.) I don't know him well. He seems well-intentioned. He says he is also worried
about her mental health. He doesn't fit the profile that I have read of the abuser, in
that he says he encourages my sister to make choices about working, going to school, or
staying home with the kids. (She used to be very successful.) He says he wants her to do
something, but that she does nothing. According to him, he has to hold down his job
(extremely demanding career) and take care or everyone at home, too. He takes on a lot of
responsibility. She would say it's part of his plan to make himself look good and her look
She has never defended him. She is full of anger and resentment and feels he has ruined
her life and destroyed anything she has ever cared about. She says everything she has
tried to do he has sabotaged. I do not understand that, and she has never been able to be
specific. When I asked him, he says she has quit everything because it's been too
demanding for her and she feels she can't handle it. Her mind is in very bad shape. He
says he wants to help.
The whole family has been to numerous therapists. Nothing helps. She has consulted a
divorce attorney, but her spirit is so weak, one attorney refused to represent her because
she was irrational. He is planning to move out again, he says, in an attempt to quit being
blamed for so much. She frequently calls him home from work to handle the children. She'll
take one child and tell him to get the other one to school in the morning (even though he
works). You can imagine this child ends up in all kinds of "caregiver"
Could he really be the monster she says? Is this all due to her poor spirit (which she
says is his fault)? We keep asking ourselves, "Why can't she just tell him to stick
it in his ear?" We wonder, "So he does jerky things? So? Find me someone that
doesn't!" Is there more to it than standing up for yourself? Could she be in a
normal marriage and suffering a nervous breakdown for some other unrelated reason? In the
past she has feared for her life, although he has never struck her. She was fearful he
would arrange an accident. Could he be a decent guy who wasn't aware of how critical he
was? We often think, "Maybe he is a jerk, but women marry worse than that and
don't lose their mind." Any thoughts?
Thank you so much, Janet Anne
Your sister's problem could be
any one of or combination of possibilities you mentioned, which is why it is
important to have a professional assessment, especially by someone familiar with abuse
since there are some troublesome points you mention.
Here are two
Scene 1: Your sister has some
sort of personality disorder and she is unable to take responsibility for her life. She
blames everybody for everything. Her dutiful husband is a co-dependent nice guy doing
everything in his power to salvage his marriage. I would expect him to suffer from
episodic depression or anxiety in this case. Perhaps he is angry, but determined to stay
put for the children.
Scene 2: Your brother in law is
in fact an angry guy. He is wonderful to the world but silently subverts her. He tells her
to go to school, get on with her life, but finds ways to sabotage her as soon as
she shows signs of success (and she lets him). Nothing you said in your letter is
inconsistent with an angry man, so I don't understand what you read about what this type
of guy is like. I would expect him to be perfectly rational and reasonable. If he is a
"good" abuser, you wouldn't know it. It goes on behind firmly closed doors and
does not necessarily involve overt anger such as yelling. Furthermore, many powerful men
are abusive controllers. They have the sociopathic tendencies this society reinforces
with success - though they do not necessarily see themselves this way. Your sister could
be the depressed, angry and disheartened victim of his years of abuse, with no spirit left
to get on with her life. If indeed he is a controller, this would explain why he hasn't
left her yet and gotten on with his life; he wants her right where she is. I am concerned
that she fears him.
So Janet Anne, you see, you
cannot discount the possibility that your brother in law is an emotional or verbal
abuser. Nor can you discount the possibility that your sister has some underlying
disorder, or that both are true. Keep in mind however that nothing you have said about her
is inconsistent with an abused wife, including appearing irrational, being unable to cope,
and being unable to specify incidents. Can you can begin to see why assessment by someone
familiar with abuse phenomena is important?
Whatever your sister and her
husband are doing, both are choosing to stay in it. Doesn't that make you wonder about
both of them?
Bottom line: You may never know
who is who and what is what. My take is that they both need help.
Regards, Dr. Irene
From: Janet Anne
To: Dr. Irene <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sent: Saturday, June 05, 1999 11:25 PM
Subject: Re: E-Mail Advice
Dear Dr. Irene:
Thank you so much for responding so quickly!
I got in touch with my sister today for the first time in a month. Our last communication
was a terribly hopeless letter she wrote me.
After I read it, I began researching depression, and that led me to research abuse (it's
what she's been claiming for years... its just never made sense to us that she would put
up with it). Meanwhile my brother-in-law printed out an e-mail I sent him and showed it to
her. Corresponding with the "enemy" was risky business, but I wanted to find out
what he had to say, and I wanted to see if he would tell her (in her state of mind, I knew
she would see our corresponding as him "contaminating" me.)
I heard from my mother that he had showed her my e-mail, so I called my sister to assure
her I had not deserted her. Guess what? She sounded stronger than I have ever heard her.
No blaming no complaining. She said of the e-mail, "It made him so happy and proud
that you would take the time to be his friend... let him have that... he has no friends of
his own." She credits Al-Anon and karate class for her new-found strength. She is
going back to school (she has a PhD but hasn't practiced in years. She was a
Can I trust such a quick turn-around on her behalf? It's miraculous...just a month ago she
couldn't eat or take a shower. Now she says he's not evil (that's not what she used to
say), he doesn't mean to hurt her, poor guy really believes the stuff he says. She sounds
so strong so suddenly. Is this something you see a lot?
What about him? If he really is an abuser, how will he take being served with divorce
papers? Probably not well if he is abusive. The more she stands up
to him, the more he will back down. Should I stop worrying about her? Support her; that's all you can do. She was my best friend for so
Thanks a million for being out there...I love your website! It's really well done... one
of the best looking I've seen, and so easy to navigate, too. I also appreciate your
straightforward style, and sense of humor, too. Please let me know if you have any more
thoughts for me.
Dear Janet Anne,
Flattery will get you everywhere! Seriously...
I see this type of
turnaround frequently - especially when I twist a depressed person's arm to get themselves
an antidepressant or at least try St. John's Wort! The support of therapy or a support
group can also kick someone out of a clinical depression, but I am less inclined to see
this since I am such a supporter of meds, at least initially.
By the way, paranoia in
depression is not uncommon. What it usually suggests is that the person is really, really
angry and they are not asserting their position. Assertion training usually gets rid of
I'm really glad for your sister
& wish her continued success. I hope she did get on an antidepressant - they
help about 80% of people and often the results are dramatic. They also help buffer the
inevitable disappointments in the initial stages of recovery, when the person's
self-esteem is still too low to do same. Ask her about it. She of all people should know.
Then, give her my url & show
her these emails. If she is in an abusive relationship, which she very well may be
in, the site material will support her.
Best wishes, Dr. Irene
Sent: Wednesday, June 09, 1999 12:49 PM
Subject: It's Janet Anne again!
Hi Dr. Irene:
My sister has tried every antidepressant on Earth and none have worked. I guess I
misunderstood the source of her new-found strength. I thought she was crediting Al-Anon,
but she told me yesterday it's working with the attorney towards a divorce that has done
the trick. My personal feeling is that God decided it was time... regardless of the
God bless her!
I have been reading your pages, and I feel pretty comfortable with the idea that my
brother-in-law is an angry abusive person. When I read the part about how they are truly
well-meaning and care about their spouse, it addressed my biggest confusion. We (my mother
and husband and I) have always felt that he cares... in his way.
Yes, in his own, convoluted
way. Unfortunately, his kind of caring hurts too much.
But you replied you would not expect him to react well to divorce papers. Any chance a guy
like this could go really wacko? She has feared for her life before, thinking he might
arrange an accident, make it look like a suicide. Are we within the realm of real
possibilities here, or does this sound more like some paranoia creeping in?
Don't discount her
paranoia. This is why there are shelters! If she thinks he may arrange an accident,
wouldn't you rather err on the side of caution? Perhaps you and she and her attorney can
come up with some sort of escape plan in case he does crack. It wouldn't be the first
And what about his end? He has asked me for suggestions. Says he's willing to do anything.
Do I have an opportunity here? Is there a way to bring up your website that he would
actually listen to? I have not corresponded with him since he showed her my e-mail. After
mutually agreeing that we were truly trying to find ways to help, but that she would feel
betrayed if she knew, I feel he did the wrong thing. She told me he acted like it was a
personal victory to have me as his ally.
Exactly. His plan was to
take you away from her. Listen to his actions, not his words. Clearly there is NO
opportunity yet. As long as he has her, he doesn't mean it. Don't help him now.
Don't let him dupe you. The probability is that he is manipulating you is very, very high.
Just play the game until she's out.
Is there any hope for these two or their marriage? I told my sister of your website, and I
want to make sure she reads Patricia Evans book if she hasn't already. What about him?
What suggestion can I offer? He has done just as you have described, with all the
therapists they have seen. He's an excellent explainer! He explained to me why he and his
daughter had to spend the night at another woman's house... it was all he could do, given
the situation my sister put him in! Of course!
Any hope for her marriage
depends on what happens after she leaves and whether she loves him enough to put up with
his stuff while he attempts recovery. First, she must get out. Do not do anything to give
him any power now, even if you think it is "therapeutic." Anything you do to
help him will become ammunition he will use against her. You've already seen that.
Let her decide about her marriage later.
Seriously, if the guy stands a chance at all (I understand it's an "elite
minority"), what can I suggest? Are you taking new clients? They're in your area.
Why don't you just wait
until she leaves. At that point, he may be willing to do "anything." But,
once she leaves, it becomes her choice. It is time for you to leave & stop
trying to fix them.
Thanks again for being out there. You are the helping angel I have been searching for.
(The guy at the mental health hotline told me to tell my sister to quit disrupting my life
with her problems, that I was enabling her. My husband thought that was good advice. All
other avenues were similar... accept it, you can't do anything, move on. But as frustrated
as I have been with her, my gut is very strong on this.) -Janet Anne
It is true. The counselor
is right. You care way too much. I responded to you at the risk of reinforcing your
own codependency because if your sister was indeed being abused, she would need all
the help she could get. Be her support; help her get out and get on her feet. After that,
you need to let them do what they must. And you must turn your focus to yourself.
Warm regards, Dr. Irene