My own response to spouse's yelling/anger
April 20, 2017 9:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm having a lot of trouble dealing with yelling at home. My wife's daily yelling matches with our young son are exhausting and stressing me (and I must reduce stress for medical reasons).

My wife has lifelong issues with explosive anger and depression. She was "a terror" as a child, but sadly, she didn't get any compassionate care then (her mother's responses were mostly yelling or withdrawing affection) or any professional help. She's absolutely opposed to any medication for herself, but she has had some talk therapy in the past, particularly a few years ago after I reached a crisis point in terms of not being able to tolerate her explosions but also not being willing to leave her and our child (who at that time was a preschooler).

That did help some: she did have a clear, permanent reduction in the explosive bouts of anger that were the hardest for me, and she yelled less at home for several years. But she is still depressed/anxious and angry, often quietly simmering, frequently snapping at those who love her. She considers this a stable state because her current behavior is so much improved vs. her past behavior. I've been working to accept this and to accept what she refers to as our difference of opinion re. how much real yelling from adults is okay in a home. (None is my goal, but she considers that extremely abnormal.)

Her yelling has restarted over the last year because our child will scream when he's angry; they yell at each other and this escalates into him kicking or hitting her. She often yells first in a conflict; he responds by screaming. When we talk about this later, she responds defensively and won't acknowledge how often she is the first to raise her voice or how much that's increased recently. Sometimes she will apologize but is only willing to refer to it as "snapping" at him. (These are full-throated yells – physically louder than his screams because of her adult lung power.)

She also consistently yells, "Screaming is BABY BEHAVIOR! It's what BABIES do!" – I perceive this as 1) a very mixed message from an adult who yells at him multiple times a day at the top of her voice, and 2) a very negative message from an adult to a usually sweet and loving boy who she very clearly knows is sensitive to, and specifically escalated by, being called a baby.

I'm lucky enough to have had a childhood where I was never yelled at or rejected by my mother, so I don't ever yell or call names. But I also don't have my wife's same need to deal with escalations with our son, because he never hits or kicks me and almost never screams directly at me. She and I agree re. what behaviors should mean a time out or a loss of privileges, and we're both the bad cop with those. I just don't think real yelling from adults should be part of discipline or part of family life.

I'm also starting a period of traveling away from home unusually much (my travel for my career is very erratic; for example, I only traveled a few days during the six months of fall-winter). She has solid continuous support with his care at home when I travel, and she's very supportive and proud of my career (she's also very successful in her career, though she doesn't experience her work as directly meaningful/fulfilling to her in the same way I experience mine).


This is one of I think three anon questions I've posted over the years asking for help with my wife's anger (one from after the crisis point I mentioned – I'd forgotten the incredible degree of effort and desperation it took to force any action on her part). I can't force family therapy to happen despite the many recommendations I've gotten for it here and the many, many discussions with my wife about it over the years. I'm very willing to go to therapy on my own if it would help, and I made a list of what seem to be the best local therapists for that.

I feel like her perspectives and mine here are irreconcilably different and I'm exhausted by that, but also motivated to look to myself for help/solutions if that's the case. I feel helpless and I feel so bad to leave home for my next trip (next week) given how yell-filled this week has been. I feel protective of my son and it's incredibly stressful to imagine the yelling that might happen at certain times when she has no adult observer / no checks on her behavior. But I may have a heightened perception that she's in deep denial about her level of anger, because I had such sustained experience with that level of denial in the early years of our marriage. I don't think there's any chance she would be physically abusive, and it's 100% clear how much she loves and cares for him. This is part of why I feel it's an issue of my perspective as well as her actions. I need help with ideas for self-care that don't depend on her cooperation.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (65 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm pretty worried about the way you're approaching this situation, which seems to be from a perspective of "difference of opinion" rather than "yelling at a small child is wrong." Your wife is wrong. She's doing damage to your son. She's creating an environment just like the one she grew up in, which will likely turn him into exactly the same kind of adult she is, and that is not good.

Your wife needs to get help to control her anger, or you need to take steps to protect your kid. It doesn't matter if she doesn't hit him; this is abuse. He's going to grow up being afraid of her, or at the very least not respecting her and not feeling loved. I'm sorry to be blunt, but honestly: Nothing about her behavior is something you need to tolerate or accept in a partner, especially when children are involved.

There isn't anything you can do to make her stop yelling at your son, and there isn't anything you SHOULD do to make yourself learn to be okay with it somehow. This is something she needs to fix.
posted by something something at 9:45 AM on April 20 [83 favorites]


You are focussing on the wrong thing. 100% of your attention should be on the damage this is doing to your child and how you will protect him from this abuse. It's time to do the hard work to admit to yourself that you are protecting your wife at the expense of your child.

I'm sorry to be so harsh and direct. But think of this: as an adult, it's likely your son will be in therapy asking his therapist "why didn't my parent care enough about me to protect me from my screaming mother? why didn't they love me enough?"

Get your child away from his mother. I also highly recommend that both you and your son start therapy. There is a lot of damage that needs to be addressed.
posted by mcduff at 9:49 AM on April 20 [71 favorites]


Can you take your kid with you on business trips? Engage your mom as a helper if necessary. Sounds like everyone needs a break.

Yes individual therapy for you. Read "why does he do that" by Lundy Bancroft, it is a great resource for people that are being abused. It sounds like both you and your kid are being verbally abused.

It's ok to enlist your family and friends for help. Start talking about it. You need all the help you can get. I am so sorry you are going through this.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:51 AM on April 20 [5 favorites]


I'm lucky enough to have had a childhood where I was never yelled at or rejected by my mother, so I don't ever yell or call names. But I also don't have my wife's same need to deal with escalations with our son, because he never hits or kicks me and almost never screams directly at me.

Anger breeds anger, shouting is returned with more shouting.

I know this from raising two young boys who are still learning how to deal with their emotions, but they're 2 and 5 years old. My wife and I sometimes get frustrated and shout back, usually at the end of our days when everyone is tired and possibly hungry, but we do what we can to step in for each-other if the other parent is heated up. And then we make sure everyone who shouted says they're sorry for what they did to the other person and they mean it (as much as a 2 or 5 year old can mean it). We hug and talk about our emotions, discussing how we should react next time something upsets us, both parent and child. I think that our older son has made good progress with this, because he used to get angry quickly when he didn't get his way, and we were worried it'd get worse with his little brother. For the most part, they're great, but it's tough when they're tired.

Unfortunately for you, it sounds like you will always be the parent to step in and cool things down, until your wife can find ways to cope with her own emotions in different ways. And does she ever apologize to your son and talk about her emotions with him? If that doesn't happen, at least you can talk with him about this, and help him find other ways to express his emotions and feelings.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:52 AM on April 20 [8 favorites]


This is child abuse, and your attempt to adjust your very reasonable expectations to tolerate her abuse suggests she's gaslighting you.

She abusive, not willing to admit she's at fault, and not willing to take any actions to change her behaviour. There is no compromise here.

She is replicating the abuse she grew up with, which is what your son will do if you allow him to grow up in this toxic environment. He will most probably wonder why you didn't protect him from his mother's behaviour when he grows up and realises just how dysfunctional it is.
posted by Dwardles at 9:54 AM on April 20 [80 favorites]


I also want to add: It's really easy when you've been in a bad situation for a long time to lose sight of how abnormal your life has become. I've been there, man. Twelve years ago my sister took me by the shoulders and said to me, "THIS IS NOT NORMAL." And I am so, so grateful that she did - it brought much-needed perspective that allowed me to realize things needed to change, and then to start working on making those changes. Change is scary, no doubt about it - but how you're living right now is not normal, and you don't have to keep doing it. You're suffering, your child is suffering, and your wife is suffering too, whether she acknowledges it or not. This is a case when it's okay to set a boundary: Get help, or I will remove my child from this abusive situation.
posted by something something at 9:59 AM on April 20 [29 favorites]


motivated to look to myself for help/solutions if that's the case. I feel helpless and I feel so bad to leave home for my next trip (next week)...I need help with ideas for self-care
I'm glad you are motivated to look for solutions and that you feel protective towards your son. You are not helpless, though you do have some tough decisions ahead. Step one of self care is to get yourself some therapy, just for yourself to help you have someone in your corner. Step two is coming up with a plan to minimize the exposure of your son to your wife. Can he go to a relatives house every time you travel out of town? Even if its embarrassing to explain why? Does he need you to take over all the child rearing and she to agree not to have anything to do with him? If you separate what documentation do you have of her behavior that will enable you to get custody of the child? Talk with a lawyer about this.
posted by SyraCarol at 10:02 AM on April 20 [7 favorites]


I read the other anon question you linked and it baffles me that she is not in serious, long-term treatment for her depression and anxiety and own childhood abuse. Why did she stop therapy? Is there any way to get her back in to it- and not as a temporary fix, but as an established part of her life? You say she is opposed to medication but she sounds like someone who could benefit from it a lot- my depression exhibited itself lots and lots as anger and irritation, and being on a low dose of an SSRI has improved that dramatically- and I'm not a zombie or a completely different person from being on them!

Your perspective is not out of line with reality. I feel for you- and I find it hard to think of how you can help yourself when this is happening every day in your home, to your beloved child. It could be time for an ultimatum, because something has to change and it has to be her.
posted by mymbleth at 10:30 AM on April 20 [4 favorites]


Your wife must be in incredible pain. I say that not as an excuse for her behavior - she is abusing your son - but merely as an observation. She doesn't have to hurt like this. Urging her to revisit therapy (why did she stop??) and to see a psychiatrist for medical intervention will help all three of you, not just you and your son.

Your expectations are perfectly reasonable. While individual therapy for yourself certainly wouldn't hurt anything, you don't need to adjust your expectations here at all. In your shoes, I would try to find a caring way to say that unless she is under the care of a therapist and psychiatrist by Date and is putting in the work that entails (to include trying medications her psychiatrist suggests), you will have to leave her. Document everything to the best of your ability to help build your custody case, should it come to that.

I'm so sorry for all of you.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:46 AM on April 20 [8 favorites]


As the child of a mother who was not all that different from this, of a father who acted not all that different from you in addition to other issues he had, and is actually feeling a little triggered by this thread, and who is still dealing with the fallout of this at age 28:

Your son WILL need therapy, and probably lots of it. Your wife needs therapy and probably meds and is hugely irresponsible and probably not at all insightful about her behavior or her feelings. You need therapy and are being hugely irresponsible and doing the wrong thing by protecting your wife and not your son.

I'm going to be blunt and harsh because this is a disaster of a situation for your kid: you need to divorce this lady yesterday, and you need to put your kid in therapy, and you need counseling. If you are going to be so pliant and boundary-less as to even try to fix anything with her, because it seems like boundaries and assertiveness are not a thing in your household, you need INTENSIVE individual and marriage counseling.
posted by actionpotential at 10:47 AM on April 20 [66 favorites]


What you have described is abuse. Your number-one priority should be to remove your child from this situation until your wife can deal with her issues on her own and demonstrate complete emotional control over an extended period of time. She should not be around your son except with professional supervision.

That might sound extreme, but your son is experiencing trauma at a very tender age. It is unacceptable and he needs to be in a safe place with weekly therapy now. Please consult a lawyer about gaining full custody, and in the meantime, take him on your business trip or leave him with a sympathetic family member. The fact that you are scared of leaving him along with you wife is chilling and says a lot.
posted by delight at 10:56 AM on April 20 [12 favorites]


> But she is still depressed/anxious and angry, often quietly simmering, frequently snapping at those who love her. She considers this a stable state because her current behavior is so much improved vs. her past behavior. I've been working to accept this and to accept what she refers to as our difference of opinion re. how much real yelling from adults is okay in a home. (None is my goal, but she considers that extremely abnormal.)

This is not normal, this is abuse, and outside of the realm of "difference of opinion". Your stress response is valid, and is a sign that what your family is going through isn't normal.

It's absolutely possible to have "no yelling at each other" as a family rule. There are some things in a marriage or a parent/child relationship that aren't up for negotiation, and one of those things is mutual respect. If your wife can't respect your son, and insists that it's normal to regularly disrespect others by yelling at them, she's reinforcing that as a family value and you're opting into it by not doing anything about it. You should trust your gut on this one: this isn't normal, and it needs to stop.

My childhood home sounds a lot like the one you described in your post. It started from day one with my father's rage issues stemming from his own childhood, and an inability to deescalate his own anger. Your wife is clearly suffering still from her past and hasn't learned that she doesn't need to constantly be fighting for her own survival against anyone that comes up against her. Your son kicking and hitting your wife when she yells at him is his desperate attempt to defend himself however he can against an adult who has more power and strength in the relationship than he does. I learned the same behaviors.

As I got older, all of the defenses I built up to defend myself against my father were turned outward at others, including my mother. I had learned that behaving the way he did was an easy, effective way to control everyone around me, and not have to ever deal with the way I felt (scared, angry, helpless). My brother did the same in his own way. To us, yelling and mistreating others was normal.

Because of the precedent that was set by our father, we both had very dysfunctional relationships throughout our teenage/early adulthood years. It took us both at least a decade (and counting) to come to terms with the fact that we were raised in an abusive environment that no one was able to protect us from. Both of us have been enrolled in ongoing therapy for childhood trauma from what our father put our family through.

Please, for the sake of your son, yourself, and your wife's path to recovery, find a safe place to remove your son to and seek counseling for everyone involved. You need to stop this cycle now while you still have time to heal your family.
posted by Snacks at 10:57 AM on April 20 [18 favorites]


My dad was verbally abusive and my mom still acts like it wasn't that bad. I should be more mad at him - he was the one in the wrong, but I'm now in my thirties and it's affected my relationship with my mom far worse. I can dismiss him, he has serious issues. My mom should have shielded me from it. Instead she acts like she doesn't remember really serious life defining arguments that have changed how I relate to others. I've also been in therapy for years. Your son will remember you standing by and letting it happen. For your relationship with him I suggest you demand family therapy. If your wife doesn't want to go, take your son and go without her. It may cause more outbursts, but eventually she won't want to be left out. You're in the right here.
posted by Bistyfrass at 11:01 AM on April 20 [22 favorites]


I also think I would be careful how you handle this with your wife. Don't get mad. Don't blame her. Just state your wants. I want there to be no yelling in the house. I want to take my son to therapy. I hope you'll go. I think this will make everyone happier. She knows she has a problem, but if you explicitly make her your family's problem, she'll feel defensive and it will make her own job to change harder. Help her change.
posted by Bistyfrass at 11:06 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]


She and I agree re. what behaviors should mean a time out or a loss of privileges, and we're both the bad cop with those. I just don't think real yelling from adults should be part of discipline or part of family life.

You are correct. This is abuse. People who grew up in abusive households where they were actually hit sometimes view their own "only yelling" as an improvement and may not understand that it, too, is abusive behavior. I grew up in a household where people yelled, at each other and at me, and it was Not Okay.

So, at some level, you don't seem to think that your wife abusing your son is a dealbreaker which concerns me because it should be. You talk about your wife's defenses of her behavior which sort of shouldn't matter. She's an adult. Your son is a child. You even admit that a lot of the time, she starts it. You son should get therapy now. Your wife should be told her behavior is unacceptable and given a chance to stop yelling at your son. No yelling as a goal is not abnormal. It may be hard to attain but it can be a completely reasonable goal state. Every time she yells there should be some sort of "That was wrong. I am trying to do better" acknowledgement from her. If you're not getting that, then this isn't a difference of opinion situation, this is you standing by watching your child get abused.

Sorry for the strong words, I know you are hurting, but I think you may be letting your own pain get in the way of being able to properly prioritize what needs to be done here.
posted by jessamyn at 11:11 AM on April 20 [34 favorites]


Look, it doesn't matter if you call it abuse or don't call it abuse - you don't feel comfortable leaving your child alone with his mother because she's mean to him. She yells at him and belittles him (this is the part that convinces me, frankly) and his behavior is reflecting that back at her.

I know you think you can't force the therapy but I think you do have to be assertive in this situation. Make the therapy appointment now. Tell her she's going with you or you're not going to leave her alone with the child.

But you can be assertive and loving at the same time, which I think is important. The shame she might feel at being accused of being abusive to a person, a child, she loves can be very deep and unproductive. I think it's important to get on the same page with her - you both love your son and you want him to be happy and healthy.
posted by vunder at 11:16 AM on April 20 [11 favorites]


my parents were you two, with the gender roles reversed. it has done staggering harm even into my adult life. why didn't my mom get me the hell out of there? why was she ok to be a witness? why did she consent to my ongoing exposure to this effed up abuse? why couldn't she be braver for me? why did she prioritize her own comfort and laziness over doing what was best for me? WHO KNOWS. BUT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SPARE YOUR KID THIS FUTURE ANGUISH!!

her level of anger is wildly abusive. this is not a difference of opinion. harm has already been done, and it's up to you now to set things right. i'm so sorry for how hard change will be, but it sure does sound like staying the same will be a hell of a lot harder for you both.
posted by crawfo at 11:18 AM on April 20 [16 favorites]


Oh my goodness. I found your question chilling. Decades ago i was the child in this scenario. My mother screamed at me day in and day out for years. I withdrew fron the family and also socially, and was afraid of everything and everyone. My father withdrew when he went on the road. He saved his own skin I suppose, but his failure to protect me damaged me at least as much as her abuse. My parents blamed and scapegoated me for their marital problems, and this combined with the fact that I was persecuted relentlessly by my peers at school (where not a single teacher ever lifted a finger to help me out) threw me into a tailspin.

The lack of support and love from my family has distorted my life. I'm what most people would call high functioning these days I suppose, but Ive been suicidal a number of times and the pain persists. Parental betrayal is horrendously damaging. Good for you for realizing this is an untenable situation. Please get your kid out of there.

Quick side note - for years i never knew why the sound of women's voices went through me like a knife, until I recently connected it with what I went through as a child. Decades later I love music, but l can't listen to female soloists. The sound of a high pitched woman's singing voice makes me feel sick. My mother destroyed so many things for me. Dont let it happen to your son.
posted by cartoonella at 11:20 AM on April 20 [47 favorites]


Oh wow. If I ever had doubts about what it feels like to be triggered...I don't now. I'm yet another adult whose mother yelled this way, and I will probably never stop going to therapy because of the wide variety of ripple effects in my life. The only good thing is that it's made me an extraordinarily good citizen, because getting "in trouble" or even being mildly reprimanded is a nightmare of shame. Shame will likely be a permanent feature of your child's inner life unless you intervene, or unless he has a long relationship with a fantastic therapist in the future.

I concur with the other responses about seeking therapy for yourself, and protecting your child as much as you can. Especially if there are grandparents or other relatives nearby who can take him for a few days here and there. The less time he spends in that home environment, the better. And do set firm, achievable goals with your wife about how you both want to proceed with recovery. But if she's defensive and balky, you should probably think about exiting the marriage (and taking extra protective measures).

I'm sorry this is happening. Good luck.
posted by witchen at 11:42 AM on April 20 [16 favorites]


I am your kid. It took until around 30 for me to start figuring out in therapy how much damage is still lurking in my relationship to my mother. We are currently at very low to no contact. I've spent most of my life feeling responsible for managing her feelings, at the expense of my own. I have never, ever expressed outright anger at my mother. I don't allow myself to be angry at her. Anger is terrifying because it implies loss of control. I spent years thinking since she never hit me, it wasn't that bad. I have recently realized that I think I'm more comfortable with male therapists because showing any emotional vulnerability to a woman my mother's age is terrifying.

Please give your wife an ultimatum. Family therapy or divorce. If it has to be divorce, your son deserves at least one "home" with a parent who doesn't do this. I wish someone, anyone had helped me as a kid or at least told me that the yelling and snapping was not okay.

I don't think there's any chance she would be physically abusive, and it's 100% clear how much she loves and cares for him.

I could say this about my mother. It's not enough. When someone who "you know loves you" will turn on a dime and scream and call you selfish and lazy, it's WORSE than someone who doesn't love you.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:43 AM on April 20 [36 favorites]


You have my condolences about this difficult situation.

Yelling is a sign of loss of control. Has Mrs. Anonymous considered the following two things: anger management instruction/classes and parenting instruction/classes? Those are difficult to re-learn because Mrs. Anonymous' behaviors are deeply ingrained.

The anger management instruction might be effective as an in-person class. She'd google anger management classes in [her city].

I've found the Supernanny's techniques to be ridiculously effective! She has a book too.
posted by dlwr300 at 11:59 AM on April 20 [1 favorite]


What I'm hoping to get across by my story is, it's VERY possible at the current rate that once out of your house, your child will want very little to do with your wife. How do you see that playing out in your future? How do you see it affecting your marriage? Is your wife going to turn on you if your son wants more or any contact with you but not her? Are you going to be willing to abide by that?
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:10 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]


I once recorded my kid being verbally abusive. I took it into my therapist who said, "I don't need to listen to this. I believe you." But I insisted that she listen to the recording and afterward she had a new appreciation for just how awful it was. Therapists who treat hoarders frequently get them to take pictures of their homes because when they are at home they are habituated to the mess. But when they look at the images of their homes in their therapist's office they can see their mess for what it is. Consider recording--documenting, actually--your wife's outbursts. You don't have to be sneaky, you can say memories are tricky and you want to understand if you are overreacting. Then find a therapist for yourself and share the recording.

Nthing what others have said. Your wife is wrong--this is not a simple disagreement. She is damaging your son because she doesn't know what to do instead of acting like her own parents. She needs good parent coaching in addition to her own therapy to deal with her stuff. I say this as someone who has taken many a parenting class, gone to therapy, etc.

I was lucky because I understood that I was fucked up, understood that I needed to improve my parenting, and understood that my kid was especially challenging and thus our family needed a truckload of help. Even so, despite my best efforts, I didn't get what I needed for many years and my kid suffered as a result.

It must be really hard to advocate for your kid in the face of your wife's intransigence. I understand that she has made progress. But if she had stopped stabbing your son and was now kicking him instead, you'd still have to stop her. Because kicking isn't okay even if it's not the worst thing you can do to someone. I'm sorry that you are in this situation. This is really hard and really painful.

In my experience parents (like me) often do shitty things because they literally do not know how to do anything else while under stress. I hope your wife can develop other tools for keeping her cool or suffer the consequences. I wish you and your family all the best. I know you love your son. Hang in there!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:11 PM on April 20 [12 favorites]


Chiming in with those who grew up in a house where this kind of yelling was common and say that it is abuse, and abuse that can damage your child's ability to form good relationships, both at home and at work, well into adulthood.

Neither I nor any of my siblings currently have any contact with the yelling relative. This is the best outcome of this kind of upbringing. That's the best you have to look forward to, if your wife doesn't get help now. And, yes, your kid is going to wonder why you stood by and let this all happen, and it will damage your relationship with him, too.

Depression and anxiety absolutely can give rise to anger and irritability. Your wife probably experienced trauma of her own as a child; she may not even understand how to engage in family conflict in better ways. That can help explain her behavior--you didn't just give your heart to a monster--but it doesn't make it acceptable in the present day. She has to commit to serious therapy or you have to get your child out of there.
posted by praemunire at 12:41 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]


Her yelling has restarted over the last year because our child will scream when he's angry; they yell at each other and this escalates into him kicking or hitting her.

Hey OP, can you ask a mod to post a clarification on what happens after your son starts kicking or hitting your wife? Screaming and yelling is not okay; kicking and hitting are even worse. Of course, your son is a child and doesn't have a lot of tools available for coping with his emotions. How does your wife deal with being kicked or hit? Does she hit back? Yell louder? Give him a time out? Hold him down?
posted by Bella Donna at 12:45 PM on April 20


Your son needs you to stand up to your wife and tell her in front of him that she can't treat him like that, and that he can't treat her like that (when he starts screaming, yelling, hitting he needs to be removed from the situation as quickly as possible). Then your wife needs to apologize for yelling at him once he's calmed down and model with you how to resolve conflicts.

This is going to start affecting his relationships at school if it's not addressed now nevermind his relationship with his mother and other women.

Your wife is in a lot of pain and has a past that explains why she acts the way she does but it doesn't excuse it. If she's refusing family therapy my vote is separate, my family therapy non-negotiable. Addressing this will be hard for your wife and if there's no real pressure on her she's shown her motivation to change is low. It's also really hard to change in the midst of the usual triggers, like an angry child, and without professional help.

As the mom of a similarly aged child this was hard to read. My son would be so hurt if I yelled at him or called him a baby even once, your son feels similarly hurt but is already learning to express the hurt as anger. I grew up with an angry, depressed mom and I had the least conflict with her out of any of her children and it still really sucked (and I can still remember all of our fights and feel bad about them even though I didn't know any better). My son's father would yell at me in front of our child, I did therapy alone, I read books, I asked him nicely over and over to stop it, I occasionally yelled back, but finally decided to leave so that my son could have a yell-free home, it was hard but no regrets.

Home should feel safe for children or it interferes with their development, this is not a safe environment for your son.
posted by lafemma at 1:02 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]


She considers this a stable state because her current behavior is so much improved vs. her past behavior. I've been working to accept this...

I hope you see from the responses that this is not a situation you should be accepting. Instead, I ask you to stop questioning how you can de-stress from this and instead look to your child and recognize how deeply unfair this is to him. You need to look past how this affects you and take steps to ensure this stops happening to your son.

The whole situation is worrisome, especially that your wife considers this screaming and name calling and mocking your child to be indicative of a stable state because she used to be so much worse. That's only relevant as an indicator that she has been able to stop this previously. She needs to stop again and until she can do that, she shouldn't be near your child.

So, what should you do? First, explain to your wife that the situation has become untenable, that she has been able to stop this previously, and that for the sake of your child's health as well as your family, she needs to commit to stopping this immediately, or you will be forced to remove your child and yourself from this abuse.

I mean, you don't have a whole lot of options here. You need to step up to protect your child and commit to making that your number one priority, and stop minimizing and rationalizing what is clearly abusive behavior.

I feel protective of my son and it's incredibly stressful to imagine the yelling that might happen at certain times when she has no adult observer / no checks on her behavior.

It's safe to assume that unchecked, she will escalate. For that reason, you should cancel this trip and not leave your son alone with your wife. I know this is hard and it sucks, but your son needs you to protect him. Please step up and do that.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 1:12 PM on April 20 [8 favorites]


Can you take over parenting? Is there a reason she is doing it when you're home, even though your son is less frustrating to you than he is to her? That may help reduce the tension and would likely be less difficult than single parenting, unless you are sure you want to end your marriage.
posted by metasarah at 1:28 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]


I feel like her perspectives and mine here are irreconcilably different and I'm exhausted by that, but also motivated to look to myself for help/solutions if that's the case.

You're beyond looking to yourself. It's time to get motivated to pursue help from qualified parties.

In the next few days:
Speak with a local domestic violence shelter.
Speak with a lawyer.
Arrange therapists for you and your child.
Begin documenting her abuse, discreetly and where she cannot destroy your evidence. Your first priority has to be your and your child's safety, but your second priority needs to be establishing your escape route and collecting the data you will need in the future for protection.

Shortly after that:
If your lawyer agrees with this plan of action, obtain a protective order for you and your child, either removing the two of you from the home or removing her from the home.

Then:
Divorce her.
Pursue full custody.

It will take a long time to undo the damage, both to you and to your child, but it is inexcusable for you to allow it to continue to occur beyond the time it takes for the two of you to secure your safety and get away.

This is not okay.
This is not normal.
This isn't "stressful." She has made you complicit in the abuse of your child in order to force you to normalize it and keep it secret. It is devastating.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:37 PM on April 20 [39 favorites]


I have a terrible temper and had a similar upbringing to your wife in that I had a mother who would constantly, loudly and shoutily chastise and criticize me. My tendency is to be very critical and impatient with my boyfriend - and yes, even my toddler son - but when that's the case I remove myself from the situation if I'm particularly tired and/or irritated and know that things can escalate.

I would never, ever, EVER scream at my son in this fashion.

As the mother of a baby son, I can just picture the hurt and confusion in his eyes if anyone - least of all me - were to yell at him. Your son isn't misbehaving - he is responding in kind to someone who is abusing him verbally. There's a reason he doesn't do the same with you.

Please don't leave this abusive woman alone with your son.
posted by Everydayville at 1:49 PM on April 20 [8 favorites]


Because it seems you won't be leaving your wife, I'll ask some more questions:

- These are the bad times, what are the good times like with your wife and son? How do they get along at other points?
- Does your wife recognize that yelling at her son isn't accomplishing anything after the fact? During the moment, emotions can take over, but is she able to look back and see that things just escalated? If so,
- Can you tell your son to walk away from his mother when she gets like this? Again, it's hard to be the one to back down from a fight, especially when you're young and facing an adult who you think is wronging you. I recognize this is a coping mechanism in a terrible situation, but if the situation won't change, change anything else you can.
- How long does her anger last? Can you leave the house with your son and go somewhere else? This probably won't help her (except she won't keep fighting, so she can de-escalate on her own), but it can help your son avoid more trauma.
- You wrote " She's absolutely opposed to any medication for herself, but she has had some talk therapy in the past, particularly a few years ago after I reached a crisis point in terms of not being able to tolerate her explosions but also not being willing to leave her and our child (who at that time was a preschooler).

That did help some: she did have a clear, permanent reduction in the explosive bouts of anger that were the hardest for me, and she yelled less at home for several years. But she is still depressed/anxious and angry, often quietly simmering, frequently snapping at those who love her. She considers this a stable state because her current behavior is so much improved vs. her past behavior.
" - Does she think she can improve more with more therapy? Because, please push more therapy with her. She improved, and she can (and SHOULD) improve much more.

- Also, do you know anyone who is on medication for depression or anxiety? If you're sure, you can ask around and frame it that you're looking for people who your wife knows and respects to talk about the benefits of medication. I say this because after my wife started on anti-anxiety mediation, we were at a party with her friends, and we found out that almost everyone there was on something similar. And then she found out that her family has a significant history of depression and anxiety, though it's all untreated. In short: similar issues can be more prevalent than she thinks, and more people than she realizes could be "normal" with the help of medication. (My wife hasn't been on anti-anxiety medication in years now, but because she was able to control her anxiety, thanks to having the medication help her find a new normal.)

- Similarly, do you spend time with other families much? Have you talked to her about how she sees other families? You wrote about your efforts to discuss "how much real yelling from adults is okay in a home. (None is my goal, but she considers that extremely abnormal.)" You know from first-hand experiences that none is very feasible and normal, she doesn't (yet). (On this - my family is one to let grievances simmer, take the martyr's route until it's too much, sometimes decades down the line. My wife's family, on the other hand, has explosions that blow over. When I first saw this, I freaked out - until my wife's dad, the furious one at that moment, cracked a joke at his own expense, and everyone laughed. In short: all families are different, and some cope with strong emotions in generally healthy ways that look abnormal or even worrisome to an outsider at first.) If you can help her see there are other examples to family life than her family and yours, it could help her realize that real yelling isn't normal.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:10 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]


Jesus dude, you could well be fucking up your kid for life by enabling this abuse. From a results perspective, this makes you no better than your wife. Do something to help your child - screw what you or your wife want or need - before it's too late. Be a proper parent, kid comes first.
posted by smoke at 2:19 PM on April 20 [15 favorites]


I grew up with a mother like this, and it was so much worse When my father was not around, which is another thing to consider. The snapping and on edge was particularly awful to live with.

I grew up capable of raging and I did therapy for it. I have rarely raised my voice at my kids, which I am working on not to do at all, but not screamed or belittled and...I actually have been a bit surprised at how easy it can be to just draw that line in the sand that goes like "I will never yell at my child" and frankly...if she has been capable of making the changes you asked for, she should be capable of this. She is choosing not to keep going. It is not really right of you to say well, she got far enough for me, see the pain in your child, and let her off the hook because she's already changed some.

My son would be so hurt if I yelled at him or called him a baby even once, your son feels similarly hurt but is already learning to express the hurt as anger.

Quoted for truth.
I think you need help and support for yourself, quickly, in learning to protect your child.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:21 PM on April 20 [11 favorites]


I grew up in a home with an explosive mother. Her explosions were mostly verbal, and the intensity of being screamed at by an adult in that way left emotional scars on me that I'm still recovering from at 35. Being bathed in an atmosphere of stress like that has long-standing effects on a child's future mental health, and also bodily health as it impacts on the levels of stress hormones in our bodies. It doesn't matter what you call it, if you call it abuse or you don't (although I think it is) because the real-talk issue is that this is certainly having a significant effect on your child and your child's future.

I am also a therapist working with young children, and I see the effects of this kind of environment frequently. Children should not grow up in an atmosphere of fear. Screaming at a child only teaches them that the adults who are supposed to keep them safe are frightening, and that screaming is a normal response from adults. While it is true that adults sometimes yell at children, it is not a healthy way to parent and if there isn't a real repair afterward (talking quietly with a child, apologizing and admitting you were wrong to yell, repairing the rift in the relationship that yelling causes) it certainly has a negative effect on a child.

Please consider the short and long-term effects on your child of being marinated in this kind of environment - it is unhealthy and terrifying.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 2:24 PM on April 20 [12 favorites]


Can you tell your son to walk away from his mother when she gets like this?

Sorry, no. Making it the child's responsibility to get away from his abusive and terrifying parent is a terrible idea.

OP, it would be great if you contacted a mod about what you're going to do. A lot of people here are very scared for your son.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:24 PM on April 20 [23 favorites]


I've been working to accept this and to accept what she refers to as our difference of opinion re. how much real yelling from adults is okay in a home. (None is my goal, but she considers that extremely abnormal.)

1) "None" is entirely normal; many, many families manage to live together for decades with zero yelling among people who are over the age of about three.

2) If she thinks "none" is an unrealistic goal, come up with a number: Five minutes a month. Forty words per week. Whatever. Come up with something objectively measurable, not "whatever I think is reasonable at the moment," as a target - and anytime the target is missed, have a discussion on how to improve that. (I suspect you'll discover that she refuses to deal with objective standards. She doesn't want to do less yelling; she wants less feeling-bad-about-yelling when she's done.)

3) This anger-system is setting your son up to be a bully and abuser. Make it stop, quickly, whether that's by therapy or leaving or getting your wife to recognize that the world really, really does not need more young men who think that differences of opinion should be solved by screaming louder and maybe hitting the other person, and that it's okay to terrorize someone if you "really love them."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:34 PM on April 20 [6 favorites]


My mother screamed and criticized me every single day that I spent with her, growing up as well as during two recent visits earlier this year (I am in my 30s). I have finally gone NO CONTACT after years of fantasizing about this. It is not normal, not everyone does it, and it's not cancelled out by the occasional friendly moment.

I suggest secretly videotaping her. Maybe it will persuade her to get help -- some kind of parenthood coaching or anger management group. But probably not, because toxic people don't improve all THAT much.
posted by Guinevere at 2:34 PM on April 20 [4 favorites]


In your linked previous question, you wrote: I would have to leave her if it weren't for our toddler, whom I love like crazy and want to give the best possible environment.

If you still love your child like crazy and want to give thim the best possible environment, get him away from her.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:36 PM on April 20 [21 favorites]


Side thought on taping/recording sound: Check laws in your state, first. In California, and other "two-party consent" states, recording someone's voice without permission is a crime.

If you want recordings and need to be sneaky about it, get permission to record for other reasons. "I'm testing a new microphone setup for business phone calls, and I want to know how much background noise it picks up, so I'm going to record from random spots around the house sometimes, okay?" or something else. The permission-to-record doesn't need to be immediate nor does it need to say "I want permission to record you doing/saying X," but it does need to be granted in advance.

(IANAL; TINLA. Check local laws as needed.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:41 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]


My parents had exactly the dynamic you describe. Down to my mother telling my dad "you just don't know how much yelling is normal."

I have spent thousands of dollars this year on therapy because I am for real very fucked up from their example in ways that continue to surprise me. I'm 32 years old. My sister and I both grew up swearing we wouldn't ever behave like our mother, and we both realize now in our adulthood that we've inherited her short fuse and it has caused both of us problems in our relationships. My sister and I are both exclusively only attracted to partners who recreate the dysfunctional dynamic that we grew up with. Neither of us can figure out how to fix it, it is just a character flaw that we have to acknowledge and try to minimize the harm caused. Both of us are scared to have children.

My parents sat us down in the middle of a several year rough patch of their marriage and explained that they "did not believe in divorce."

I wish their had been consequences from my dad, even if they were hard to live with, for my mother. It is so much time wasted letting her live that way because the DAY she got medicated (celexa) is the day I saw the person she was meant to be. Complete 180. No more yelling. No more simmering. No more days long fights over nothing. No more impulsive meanness from her "in the moment". I've gotten to know this version of my mother for the past ten years and all I can think sometimes is that it is too fucking late, the damage is done to me and my sister.

But I'm very grateful for it happening at all. Please find a way to keep your son away from this behavior. The model he sees in his childhood is the model he will recreate for himself.
posted by skrozidile at 2:42 PM on April 20 [18 favorites]


Your household needs to change, or else you risk irrevocable damage to your son, who will join the ranks of us who are in therapy for years trying to deal with similar issues to what you describe. I say this as 1) someone who grew up in a very yell-filled angry household and 2) someone who yells a lot, especially at the people I love most, probably as a result of my childhood and having learned no coping mechanisms other than, you guessed it, yelling. (I am currently working on this but it is SO hard). So, I feel like I simultaneously relate to your wife, but also understand just how toxic this can be.

One of the most difficult things of growing up in an abusive household is that you continue the cycle of abuse yourself and pass it along, often without even being aware you are doing that. Because it's all you know, and you develop these terrible coping mechanisms for the abnormal behavior of your family. I'm in my 30s, and I go to therapy to deal with the fallout from my parents abusive behavior. I've been in and out of therapy since I was 18, dealing with issues related to my family. It took me a long time to even consider that how I was raised was abusive. I remember my therapist stating it bluntly one time, and it made me feel shocked. But then also, something clicked, because it helped explain why I felt so broken, out of control, angry all the time, and unable to deal and process it other than by losing control and yelling. And you don't need to be an adult to pass on the cycle of abuse. I was a bully when I was a kid. A real mean bully and to this day I feel goddamn terrible for what I did to some of my classmates. I mean, I didn't really think about it much then...it's only now that things are starting to make sense to me about how much pain I was in and how that has affected my behavior for many years. It has also affected my choices in romantic partners, and I also struggle with how to deal with authority, such as in work environments.

I say all this because, your wife is probably hurting more than you know due to her shitty childhood. She's not a bad evil person, she's hurting. But, if she refuses to go to therapy or take other concrete steps to improve her behavior, then you are now in a very serious situation, and in my opinion, it's your job to do something to protect your son. You really don't want the cycle of abuse to continue. You don't want your son to turn out like me, and be living with all the pain and anger than can come from growing up like this. If you've told her flat out that she's hurting you and your son, and that her behavior is unacceptable, and she's still unwilling to get help, I think you need to consider leaving. I'm so sorry you are going through this.
posted by FireFountain at 2:46 PM on April 20 [9 favorites]


For the record - my mom also grew up swearing she would not behave like her parents who yelled. Swore she would not end up like her yelling mother.

For my mother stress lead to fights. Always.

When she was 50 and stressed because of a move I pointed out to her that she was miserable in that moment. Told her I was sorry that she had to feel overwhelmingly mad while she was already overwhelmed. Pointed out that she didn't deserve to feel that way, maybe medication would make her feel better.

So less "I want your personality/behavior to change" and more "I love you and care about you and you don't deserve to feel unhappy."

That phrasing worked that one time and she got medicated. All our "please quit yelling at us" requests did not work. Not when we asked nicely when things were calm, not when we begged in the moment, not when we begged after the moment had passed. Not when we said "we love you but please stop."

YMMV.
posted by skrozidile at 2:51 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]


I reached a crisis point in terms of not being able to tolerate her explosions but also not being willing to leave her and our child (who at that time was a preschooler).

you wouldn't seriously consider abandoning your child of any age just because you got a divorce, though? You would be going for primary custody with heavily supervised visitation for her.

it will be a lot easier to be successful in this when you have a clear record of being the primary caregiver, because a court is going to look at a parent who was happy to leave his child in the sole care of its mother while traveling and say: you expect me to believe she's abusive and shouldn't have custody, when you weren't concerned enough about his safety to stay with him? and you'll need some answer to give.

I have more sympathy than most people, I guess, for what it feels like to be punched and kicked by a school-age-sized boy against whom you are absolutely barred from ever retaliating in kind. She probably thinks of it as a great victory and moral triumph that she never hits him back. She is wrong, but for anyone who cannot imagine how she justifies the yelling to herself, that's how. Yelling is what lets her not hit him. Even if it were a good coping mechanism, which it is not, it is not one that is guaranteed to work forever as he grows older and stronger.

and that whole state of things is why you don't drop a child on a woman who can't handle her own emotions and walk away hoping for the best. She needs to learn that yelling at a child when angry is wrong so that you can both jointly teach him that hitting and kicking when he's angry is wrong, and if that sounds unrealistic to you then you have your answer: get him out of there. Feeling protective of your son is not worth much if you don't actually protect him.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:36 PM on April 20 [7 favorites]


The phrase I have used with an abusive family member is an emphatic "This is not okay".

It is not okay that your son is being subjected to this verbal abuse. You say that you cannot force family therapy, by which I assume you mean that you cannot get your wife to participate, but you CAN pick up your son and put him in the car and take him to therapy.

You CAN tell your wife that yelling at a defenseless child is NOT OKAY, full stop.

You CAN tell your wife that she either goes to therapy or she gets medicated, it's her choice, but that she's going to HAVE TO participate in a plan to eliminate this abusive behavior in your home.

You CAN have some boundaries with the goal of removing your son from an abusive situation. There's no reason, none, why you can't step into the middle of their screaming match and remove your son to his room or another part of the house until he has a chance to calm down, and so that you can give him an opportunity to work out his feelings.

You MUST demonstrate to your child that he will have a safe environment to live in. It is completely unfair for him as a child to be in this INCREDIBLY UNSAFE environment (and yes, emotionally unsafe qualifies as UNSAFE) with no recourse to help himself, and with you not helping him or defending him.

Please re-frame your priorities here. Your child needs you to defend him. This is an unhealthy environment for him.

As for your own exhaustion and self-care, in my experience that exhaustion comes from feeling powerless. Again, in my experience, once you stand up and say "I will no longer tolerate this behavior, so sort yourself out", with the feeling of having some power over your situation, the exhaustion begins to subside. Of course, in your situation it's been going on for a while and your wife will not change overnight; you must be diligent in expressing your *new* boundaries around this behavior. If you feel like you can't express your boundaries for yourself, you must find a way to be angry enough on your child's behalf to express them.

Sometimes when I find myself being treated badly by men, I think to myself, "how would my father feel if he saw me being treated this way?" So I pose the same question to you, how would your mother, who you say never yelled at or rejected you, feel if she witnessed her grandchild being treated this way? I'll bet she would rise up in defense. You need to honor her and everything she did for you and everything she taught you, and be the parent that she taught you to be.
posted by vignettist at 3:52 PM on April 20 [16 favorites]


When someone who "you know loves you" will turn on a dime and scream and call you selfish and lazy, it's WORSE than someone who doesn't love you.

Echoed for emphasis, because OP, you clearly have no idea how true this is.

When your MOTHER treats you this way, it teaches you that you don't deserve to be treated well by anyone in the world. When your other parent stands by and witnesses that brutality, and lets that abuse happen, and excuses that cruelty, and emphasizes empathizing with your abuser over protecting you? That teaches you that you must deserve to be treated that way, that everyone in your life agrees that you are worthless, that the people who know you best really truly know that you are not worth fighting for.

That's what YOU are teaching your son every single day you don't intervene, every moment you decide to smooth things over, every time you let your wife continue. Your wife is abusing your child. And through lack of intervention, through laziness and cowardice and fear, YOU are ALSO abusing your child. You are teaching your child that this is the BEST behavior they can expect. You are teaching your child that "love" means being treated horribly. They will look for mistreatment in every intimate relationship, because to them, that's a marker of love. They won't trust being treated well, they'll assume that anyone who treats them well doesn't know them well enough. They will believe that they deserve to be treated horribly, and they will look for that. It will take your child decades to undo these lessons, and only if they put in an enormous amount of work.

Oh, but it's only sometimes, you say? THAT'S WORSE. Volatility is terrifying. Volatility means you can never trust the good, either.

Stand up for your child. Protect your child. Teach them that the people who know them best believe they're worthy of love and respect from everyone. Your wife is an adult, and can hoe her own row if she wants to. Protect the kid.
posted by amelioration at 6:12 PM on April 20 [47 favorites]


This was what my mother was like, around my father. My father worked long hours and sometimes traveled for work.

It was SO MUCH WORSE when he was not around. She was fully capable of concealing from him how bad it was, and, even though her behavior was never what I now consider acceptable even in front of him, I am pretty sure he thought of it as 'just yelling'. He knew she had problems, but he stepped in the two or three times it ever crossed the line and became physical while he was there, so it was under control, right? In fact it was relentless abuse and severe neglect. It has damaged every aspect of my life, literally every single aspect, and I am no longer in contact with either of them, because she may be the one who's damaged, but he's the one who should have been able to be the grown-up and protect me. Some days I am more angry at him than at her.

You do not know what she is like when you're not there.

You do not know what she is like when you're not there.

YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT SHE IS LIKE WHEN YOU'RE NOT THERE, and she may well be ACTIVELY KEEPING YOU FROM FINDING OUT.

Also, about your kid? People asked me later, why didn't you tell your teacher/your aunt/your dad about the worst of it, so someone could have stepped in?

IF YOU ARE RAISED LIKE THIS, YOU DO NOT KNOW IT IS WRONG. You do not know what crosses the line. You do not know what you should tell somebody else. YOU DO NOT EVEN KNOW THAT OTHER PEOPLE DON'T KNOW-- at a certain cognitive level, which small children go through, you assume that everyone else knows everything you know and everything you do, because you don't have a real distinction in your head between self and other yet.

So your kid may well think you know about whatever she says or does when you're not there. He may also believe you approve. It took me about fifteen years to realize that my father would have actually protested some of the things my mother did, if he had ever heard about them; before that, I assumed they were a united front.

Get out before you no longer have a relationship with your son to try to fix. Get him out now. Be the grown-up. Protect your child.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 6:40 PM on April 20 [31 favorites]


1) Of course your son is escalating to kicking and hitting; he's living in a home where conflict escalates every single day and that's completely normal to him. His parents have taught him to do this.

2) I am very sorry about your wife's trauma but She is an adult parenting a child and the reasons and excuses are just not valid anymore. It isn't that they don't exist; it's that they don't matter. At all. Regardless of what her childhood was like, it is absolutely 100% not OK to scream at a child.

The standard is not "is this parent less abusive to this child than her parents were to her?" but "is this parent abusive?" End of.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:22 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]


So i thought I was going to be in here to defend your wife, so you know my starting point. I still think that often, whether yelling is appropriate or not has a lot to do with class and cultural backgrounds. I sometimes yell at my teenager. She sometimes yells at me. We cry it out and hug and apologize afterwards. It's a thing that happens! I was ready, willing, and able to come in arguing for this being one of those things.

Then I got to where she knows your son is sensitive to being called a baby, and she shouts at him about how he's being a baby. That is /straight up emotional abuse/. She is defensively attacking him where she knows it hurts so that he will stop doing what he is doing. That is different than cultural expectations about how much yelling is normal. That is emphatically not okay.

If I were you, I would start there, and I would set hard lines. "I know we disagree about how much yelling is normal, but this is not that. I want to talk about how it is not okay for you to insult and belittle our son."
posted by corb at 8:40 PM on April 20 [12 favorites]


As someone who was emotionally abused, and who has lots of friends with parents like your wife, my heart breaks for your son. Kids exposed to this generally turn out one of two ways:

1. they yell and scream at others because that's the only way they know how to express anger
2. they're fearful and anxious and try never to upset anyone

And they're at much higher risk for addiction. Just wait til your kid is a teenager and starts drinking/using drugs to numb the pain from the abuse.

Please, please, get him out now while he's still young enough to heal from some of this. The longer this goes on, the more irreversible damage you will do.
posted by AFABulous at 9:15 PM on April 20 [17 favorites]


Another child of abusive, yelling parents here -- mine would mock me and berate me until I sobbed and then they'd taunt me with "Where's your sense of humor?" I never felt safe at home, and I still have nightmares in which I have to live with them as an adult.

I am full no-contact and intend to keep it that way. Years of therapy have helped me deal with the fear and rage and abandonment, but it's been a long, hard road. Please don't do that to your kid.
posted by vickyverky at 12:00 AM on April 21 [5 favorites]


Hi, chiming in as someone in my mid-40s still trying to repair the damage I sustained growing up in a household where one parent unleashed their anger on me regularly and the other parent would wait until it was over to quietly, privately comfort me and tell me to try not to make the other parent angry again even though they freely admitted that it was dependent on that volatile parent's mood/day/hunger/whatever thing I as a very small child (first incidents I recall I was a preschooler) had no control over and very little ability to gauge. I spent my childhood both terrified and angry at myself for not being able to do what my non-angry parent told me to do: stop my parent (the adult) from mistreating me. I have spent my adulthood in a series of relationships with partners who have shown me that they don't value me despite the fact that they said that they loved me - this showed itself physically, verbally, and emotionally. I am still recovering from being taught from a very young age that my feelings are not important, that people who love me deserve to treat me however they like, and that no one will do anything to protect me.

Also, my angry parent loved me and my angry parent still screamed at and hit me. You saying that your wife won't become physical and linking that somehow to her love does not compute to me. My angry parent is seen by the community at large as a kind, loving, big-hearted person. These things are all true. They also terrorized me when I was too young to defend myself. My other parent rationalized this as "they grew up this way, their parent treated them the same way" as if understanding why made it better. It didn't. The why doesn't excuse the abuse. It doesn't make it hurt less. It doesn't make it stop. It just showed me that having empathy for the person who is mistreating me is more important than keeping me safe.

Please be an adult who will protect your son. Your wife may be a good person, but she is a good person who is causing serious harm to your child.
posted by pammeke at 6:39 AM on April 21 [22 favorites]


I was just reading your last question, and one thing you wrote about your wife stood out to me: "She's not directly angry at me or at our son; she's angry at other people very close to her, angry at the world, angry about a childhood where her mother was depressed and emotionally abusive."

This is exactly the same kind of childhood that you and she are giving your son right now. You both know first-hand what the results of such a childhood will have. Please use that knowledge to light a fire under yourself to get him out of this right away.
posted by DingoMutt at 6:53 AM on April 21 [19 favorites]


This is hands-down one of the most disturbing questions I've read on AskMe.

You seem so inured and gaslit and thoughtful and well-intentioned around what is clearly destructive abuse. I hope the answers here have made some inroads into shaking you out of it. I cannot say it better than Lyn: you need to leave, now, with a protection order. This situation isn't going to change by way of any kinds of hints or nudges or even therapy, and even with therapy I'd still say you need to keep your child away until it's really, very different.

I hope that once you've gotten yourself and your child out of the fire, you'll be able to help him heal so that he doesn't spend the rest of his life recapitulating the abuse and trauma. I think you can.
posted by Dashy at 12:00 PM on April 21 [12 favorites]


I was in a marriage (no kids) where my spouse screamed at me and insulted me, but never hit me, so I didn't leave. I told my therapist it wasn't really abuse since he hadn't touched me. She said, "so you're waiting until he attacks you so you can justify leaving?" I wanted that clearcut line so I knew I wasn't being gaslit, so I had physical evidence that it really was that bad. I wonder if this is what you're doing.

In your mind, what is the line she cannot cross? What would justify packing your bag right now and taking your son somewhere else? When she slaps him? Hits him with bare hands? With an object? Causes bruising? Broken skin? Broken bones? You don't have to stick around and wait for any of this to happen. She's already crossed the bright line in the sand. The damage is already being done.
posted by AFABulous at 12:18 PM on April 21 [7 favorites]


how much real yelling from adults is okay in a home. (None is my goal, but she considers that extremely abnormal.)

She thinks this because she's broken.

I've been married 10 years, have two kids, have a hell of a temper (multiple runs in with the law as a young man) ... There has never been any yelling in my house. Ever.
posted by French Fry at 1:21 PM on April 21 [6 favorites]


To continue, Your wife is, and has long been, abusive. You keep searching, as many other have done, for the way you can fix her. You need to stop searching and start leaving.

You are ruining your son's childhood by being complicit in this abuse. If you can't leave for yourself then Leave for him. Leave to break the cycle of generational abuse, leave to show him this is not a way a person you love should treat you. Give him that gift.
posted by French Fry at 1:29 PM on April 21 [7 favorites]


I can tell you from personal experience that the repercussions of emotional/verbal abuse can echo through multiple generations (on preview: just as French Fry notes!). One of the reasons I don't have children can be traced pretty clearly back to the trauma inflicted on one of my grandparents through their intense emotional/verbal abuse at the hands of one of my great-grandparents. This was a trauma that got passed on to my parent, who in turn passed it on to my sibling and me. My way of ending the cycle of abuse was, in part, to decide to never to have children; my sibling's way of ending the cycle of abuse was to put all of their kids into therapy.

None of us were ever hit (well, my parent and my sib and their kids haven't been hit; my grandparent probably was). It has still marked us in profound and painful ways for life. It is a moral imperative that you find a way to put a stop to this for your child NOW -- not just merely for his immediate sake, but also for his sake (and the sake of his own relationships and potential children) in the future.
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 1:35 PM on April 21 [2 favorites]


I just want to emphasize that I think your son needs to be physically separated from your wife. Don't put him through months of Will She/Won't She as your wife works through her issues and becomes even more unpredictable than she already is ("Will this be the day that she backslides and loses her temper?"). You've all walked on eggshells enough and your son doesn't have to physically assist her recovery or be the guinea pig as she slowly learns healthier parenting techniques.

She can live with your son when she hasn't yelled at anyone for months and has convinced people, through her behavior and effort, that it won't happen again -- if then.
posted by delight at 4:03 PM on April 21 [3 favorites]


If you are not prepared to leave your wife and pursue sole custody, perhaps a solution would be to hire a full-time nanny to do the stressful work of raising your kid, while also being another set of adult eyes to ensure your wife doesn't go after him when you're not around. Nannies are expensive, but probably cheaper than a lifetime of therapy.
posted by Scram at 5:50 PM on April 21 [1 favorite]


Show your wife this thread. And if you find yourself hesitating to do so for fear of the angry reaction it would provoke, well, then maybe consider taking to heart what all the people here are saying.
posted by obliterati at 8:50 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


Depression is a sneaky beast. I know a lot of people are saying your wife is being abusive, and it's true that her behavior is unacceptable. At the same time, I think she is suffering a lot right now.

I grew up in a complicated home, and I still struggle with the attitudes and feelings that were developed after years of dysfunction. I feel for your child. I also feel for your wife.

I think your wife, and in turn your family, would benefit greatly by her going back to personal therapy. The yelling is likely happening because she doesn't feel in control and it's escalated when your kid yells back. From your last question it sounds like your wife is not satisfied with her job, and the depression is probably giving her consistent feelings of inadequacy. It's also preventing her from seeking help on her own because nobody with depression ever wants to admit that they are struggling with it again.

What has helped for me when my depression gets the worst of me is when my husband points out the issue directly. "Donut_Princess, I know you don't want me to be the judge of this but I feel like you need to make some time to see a therapist again. It's worth the time and money. It seems like things have been really stressful for you recently and I want to make sure that you can get assistance in getting to a better place where you're not hurting as much."

In coordination with this, (particularly if she says that she doesn't have time or always has stuff to do), also offer to step up around the house and subsequently follow through as she begins therapy. This means doing the childcare when you get home from work, cooking some of the dinners, doing dishes, and making sure that she is able to get to bed on time. If she were down and out with the flu, I'm sure that none of these tasks would be given to her as she was recuperating. She will be working hard on getting better in therapy so try to make it as easy as possible for her to heal some of the wounds of her depression.

If she absolutely refuses to see a therapist, then you and your son should see one. It will help him build resiliency and will help you figure out what steps you are comfortable taking next for the health of you and your son.
posted by donut_princess at 2:52 PM on April 22


Not sure why for a thread that is advocating for not yelling, a lot of people are yelling at OP about this...

Hey OP. I'm sorry you're in this situation. It sounds stressing and awful, and I think you're trying to do your best, but don't know how, which is why you're asking us. That's a good first step.

Of course, I am nthing the numerous comments above, but I hope you know I don't blame you for being hesitant to leave. I think the thought of 'it's better to endure a bad relationship for the children than leave' is so pervasive, it feels like the 'right' thing to do. But shift your thoughts a little. Think of that horrible feeling you get walking on eggshells around your wife-- that feeling of dread that you have when you return from a business trip or come home from work to her. That's also how your son is forced to feel every day interacting with his mother. Except he has no solace, no real escape. He'll grow up thinking that's what a relationship is supposed to be; that your entire life is supposed to feel that way. And he'll act this way to others too. You can see already on the people on this thread that have endured a parent like this, that it has lasting effects. It's imperative you improve the situation immediately f, because the more he's exposed to this, the worse it is. And it's slow torture. You know it is. It's torture for your son, for you-- and here's the kicker, it's also self-torture for your wife. Nobody should have to live this way. It is abuse; and the fact you seem to have convinced yourself it isn't is because your wife is abusing you too.

Because that's what abusers do; they justify their behavior so they can continue it. And she's convinced you some yelling is ok, that it's a difference of opinion. It's not. Part of this is society's fault-- we're a society full of complainers and judgment. So It's easy to forget, but yelling and shaming someone doesn't actually work. It never truly has the intended result; even if it does, the result has numerous lasting and usually negative consequences.

I'm sorry it's come to this; I know leaving is scary and a huge massive thing. I know you're scared of her reaction when you say enough is enough. But you can't 'fix' her or make her better. You know this already. You can't hope she improves; for one thing, she doesn't truly want to on some level. It's not going to magically get better; if anything it's just going to get worse. Something's gotta give. So you can only focus on what you can do for you and your child. Which is to advocate for him; for yourself, and to take him out of this situation, as soon as possible. Children deserve a 'safe' space, a loving space, and can you honestly say this is the environment he's currently in? You know it isn't. And you also do your wife a disservice, by acting as if her behavior shouldn't be challenged. She will never get the help she needs if she continues to think she is beyond reproach. She may not ever improve in future if you leave, and that shouldn't be your goal-- but it's certain she 100% she won't if you stay.

My mother has toxic tendencies although she tried her best; my parents relationship had a lot of love also. But shame and anger ruined my life; it choked and stifled me, and made me a lesser person. It had the opposite intended effect. It destroyed part of my self esteem. Walking into a room wondering if you've done something wrong again, wondering if its your fault-- living with that is a gigantic burden I don't wish on anybody. As others have said, I also still deal with it today.

I think you're a good person that has been trying your best, and I commend you on asking for help. But your situation is worse than you thought it was. I hope you understand the urgency of the situation now. My heart goes out to you, I wish you the best.
posted by Dimes at 3:29 AM on April 23 [7 favorites]


I was once talking with a friend, and I mentioned that hearing people yell makes me shut down completely— I can’t really talk, my hands go cold, it is almost like a state of shock.

“Oh, did your parents never yell?” she asked.

“No, they yelled a lot,” I told her. It kind of blew her mind— she thought growing up around yelling would make it normal.

Yelling is trauma. Parents who cannot discipline children without inflicting trauma are doing terrible harm. Discipline that comes from love can be incredibly helpful in forming healthy patterns for a healthy life, but discipline that comes from anger and lashing out is poison. Your wife is not only yelling, she is yelling hurtful words, intentionally aimed at your child’s most vulnerable areas. I cannot express to you how much this is likely hurting him. I wish that I could, but I can’t.

I also want to let you know that we have a lot of people in our cultures who insist that yelling is normal, that it is “just” letting off steam, that people who object to it are being overly sensitive. I guess that for some people, yelling is just an emphatic way to communicate. All I know is that for a lot of us, it is a form of violence, and being told that it “isn’t a big deal” and “everybody does it” and “grow up, get over it” actually compounds the trauma.

Also, I want to say that my parents never yelled anywhere NEAR the amount it sounds like your wife is yelling, nor was most of it even in my direction. Looking back, I think they both thought of it as letting off steam/normal/no big deal, and they had no idea that I was so sensitive to it (even when it wasn’t about me, even when I was in another room, even if it only happened once a week). But it still messed me up, and it still sometimes puts me in awkward work situations, and a lot of my personality is still trying to keep people happy so they won’t attack me. It sounds like I only ever experienced a tiny fraction of what your child is currently going through.

Please help him. Please.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:46 AM on April 24 [7 favorites]


You've heard this over and over above, but I wanted to add one more voice. I was verbally abused by my dad throughout my childhood and adolescence. He was depressed, stressed, probably anxious and someone who doesn't believe in therapy or psychiatry. It's colored every single thing about my life.

I left home and lived away for decades and during that time was able to rationalize it, but the wrong word from him still sends me spiraling. I'm a successful adult. I have a family. I am liked and respected by many people and I have an amazing support network. I still struggle with the impact of that abuse. My first thought is always to search for what I am doing to fuck something up. I sailed through a number of terrible relationships because I didn't believe I deserved better. I didn't ask for help when I was facing crises because I didn't feel I deserved it. I've held most people at arms length throughout my life because I assume they don't want to be around me.

I resent both my mom and my dad for what was inexcusable. Please, please, please speak up for your son and do everything in your power to get him out of that situation. You may be right that you cannot force your wife to therapy. You can remove yourself and your child from a situation that is toxic and is damaging him in a real way.
posted by goggie at 10:01 AM on April 24 [4 favorites]


At the very least you need to look for a job with no travel.

She didn't start yelling because your child screams. She started yelling because she chose to start yelling. She is the adult.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 3:23 PM on April 24 [6 favorites]


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