Supporting yourself & spouse who was abused by parents
January 1, 2019 6:32 AM   Subscribe

My spouse and I have been together for more than 8 years, but it’s only in the last two years that he has shared with me that he was physically abused by his parents as a child. They interpreted his childhood ADHD as being "disobedience", hurting him for years with cords, paddles and fists to punish him for not being able to sit still, concentrate, or hold a pencil properly. If your loved one grew up in an abusive home, and visits these abusive homes/has a relationship with their parents as an adult, how do you support them, while also dealing with your own anger and disgust with your in-laws?

My in-laws are part of a small cultural group with an authoritarian, patriarchal structure that allows child abuse to fester. The kids were homeschooled and the family moved a lot, so they were very isolated socially. My in-laws' physical abuse lessened as they had more children, and the youngest children were not to my knowledge physically abused. This creates strange divisions within the siblings where some siblings had physically abusive childhoods and some didn’t.

My spouse and his siblings have all left this religious sect, but my spouse still has a relationship with his parents and so do his siblings to various degrees. We visit his parents’ home 1-2 times a year, to spend time with the whole family. My spouse is frequently depressed and emotional during these visits, but also enjoys parts of them because his siblings are the only ones who really understand what it was like to grow up in this sect. (My spouse is professionally and socially successful and never breathes a word to anyone except to me and his therapist about his childhood.)

Although my spouse says his parents have apologized to him for their behavior, his parents - especially his mom - take an aggressively fake, cheery approach to talking about childhood memories. His mom is the type to decorate all of the walls of the home with big posters that say "FAMILY" in whimsical block letters, and to reminisce about childhood "fun." She’ll text cute photos she just found of my spouse as a kid with heart emojis and ask why we don’t live closer to them.

When she does this I feel intense anger and disgust, and want to tell her to stop pretending that his childhood was anything but nightmarish. To me, this constant insistence on saccharine childhood memories are a form of gaslighting. His parents also still want everything to "look perfect": Last summer, my husband spoke up to another relative who was harassing him repeatedly at a social gathering (a relative known for sexual misconduct) and his parents chided him for "making a scene." I believe there are still abusive elements to my husband's relationships with his parents.

But it’s not my parent, it’s my spouse's, and I am just there to support him. Me confronting his parents doesn’t help anything. I also know that despite the physical (and mental/emotional) abuse, he loves some aspects of his parents. His parents' cultural group's emphasis on family relationships being important has stayed with him and he tends to see family connections as "real" and friend connections as "temporary" (which honestly has a lot of truth since we live in a big city and many of our friends move away).

My spouse and I do not have children of our own (at this point).

I’ve talked to my own therapist about this, and my spouse has done lots of therapy. But what I would like to know from others who are in relationships with people who suffered childhood abuse is:

— What type of relationship do YOU have with your partner’s abusive in-laws?
— What do you do when YOU start feeling angry at them, but the anger is on behalf of your spouse and not about any interactions that you and they have had?
— Who do you confide in about your anger/disgust at your partner’s abusers since your partner has enough to deal with already?
— How do you support your partner AND yourself?
— How do you avoid being drawn into larger family drama?

If there are any books/talks/podcasts I would be interested in hearing about those too.

Ultimately my goal is to have a close relationship with my spouse and with the specific siblings whose company I enjoy most. Right now when I spend time at his parents' home I get sucked into feeling intense anger and protectiveness of my husband and dislike of his parents, overshadowing any relationship-building I'm doing with my spouse's siblings. Then both my spouse and I feel miserable for many days after we come back home.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sitting in my abusive inlaws house right now ... And well, my spouse deals with my family which is super unfun as well.

My goal is to support and reflect my spouses feelings , validate wierd behavior , and keep my mouth shut otherwise.

I process my anger and frustration with others... There's already far too much for her to handle within the family dynamics for her to process what I feel about her family to her.

For dynamics we discuss boundaries before every visit and what we expect so there's a unified front. We do some calming because PTSD does the conflate the past with the present thing, and that even if it feels like really bad things will happen, they don't , it really is in the past even if the feelings aren't .

We do lots of self care and activities to break from family, be it tourist activities, long baths whatever to process.

Take gentle care.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:01 AM on January 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

From a Mefite who wishes to remain anonymous:
My spouse's abuse was not as awful as that, but there were beatings and punishments tied to an undiagnosed disorder that really turn my stomach. Their father is dead now, and their mother has engaged in a similar form of "it's all about family!" revisionist history which their (not-abused) sibling is 100% on board with. My spouse continues to be hurt and confused by the erasure.

What works for us is that first and foremost I believe my spouse's version of every story 100%, full stop.

"I don't know why they are denying this happened."
"I don't know either, and it sucks. But I believe you."

Secondly, they know that I will follow their lead on every interaction. That way they know that when a sanitized family story is told, if they retort with the actual truth, I'll agree and say, "yeah SPOUSE told me about that and that was a pretty fucked up way to treat a kid." If they don't challenge the story, I'll keep quiet and let them vent to me later.

My relationship with the inlaws is coolly cordial. We live halfway across the country, so visits are infrequent. When MIL asks why we don't live closer, I say, "oh, you should ask SPOUSE about that, not me." When my mother asks why Spouse isn't closer to their mother, I say they had a rough childhood and my mother is okay with that. When I get angry and protective I write all of it down and then tear it up, because it's not my story to tell. Spouse doesn't want any of the stories of abuse to live on outside of them and their family, and I respect that. But it's very difficult, even years on.

Good luck to you both.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:13 AM on January 1, 2019 [18 favorites]

I agree with the validating, especially the idea that no two children have the same parents. It sound like family relationships are really important to your spouse, can you facilitate deepening the sibling bonds away from the parents and the parent’s home-base? If you have the money, I would look at something like
buying a vacation property they can gather at together. When you go to his parents town for visits, can you host the family somewhere? Not being in their house may help you regain your power. It sounds like you are being a very supportive spouse!
posted by saucysault at 8:34 AM on January 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

nthing spouse and siblings geting together without parents.

It was bully abusive relative who was out of line and I would have left.

if spouse wishes to continue to socialize with their parents would they be ok with you're not being present?
posted by brujita at 8:36 AM on January 1, 2019

I have known my spouse for about 20 years. We have always lived far away from my in-laws. About 10 years ago we began to sever our relationship with his family. It was a gradual process but we now have zero contact with any of his relatives. I am definitely not recommending that you do the same. That is just what we chose to do.

While we still had a relationship with my abusive in-laws:

1. I was very agreeable, polite and respectful. However I very quickly learned - within the first year - not to do any of the emotional labor of maintaining a relationship with my in-laws. I let my spouse do all of it.
2. I kept my anger at my in-laws (which was on behalf of my spouse) completely bottled up. My anger at how they treated me just made me withdraw from them, and probably my spouse as well, since he was unable to recognize the problem.
3. I tried talking to my mother and several friends about my abusive in-laws. What I found is that practically no one understands unless they were also from an abusive home. The overwhelming response I got from others was shock and confusion, with a side of victim blaming.
4. I supported my partner by always believing him. I supported myself by doing no emotional labor to maintain his relationship with his family. I did not take our kids to go visit them like I did with my own family. I never called them, or sent cards or presents.
5. To avoid being drawn into the larger family drama, I simply did not play their games. This mostly entailed not taking responsibility for their feelings. It was pretty easy since we lived far away and rarely saw them.

I suspect that for some families, setting up boundaries can improve the relationship. The in-laws will gradually come to accept that your spouse is an adult and their relationship changes from parent-child to adult-adult. In other families, maintaining boundaries is seen as an affront to the in-laws’ authority over your spouse and their resentment builds until it boils over.

In my situation, maintaining boundaries did not improve the my spouse’s relationship with his family. This was less of a problem when we didn’t have children and when the children were very young. It was easy to uphold the fiction of a happy and loving extended family when my kids were tiny and adorable. But once the kids starting becoming their own people rather than just blobs of cuteness, they became the new targets of my in-laws’ toxic dysfunction.

I agree with other commenters that if you and your partner are both miserable staying at his parents’ home, stop staying there. Stay with his siblings or at a hotel if you can afford to.
posted by GliblyKronor at 9:21 AM on January 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

This is really hard. My spouse and I both come from abusive households. So much of this is on your spouse to do the work, and to that end, being quietly supportive and validating is really all you can do. I would work on building a found family even if your spouse doesn't think it's necessary. If you can just quietly introduce healthy, supportive and safe friendships into his life, then you are offering an out without going so far as to say so. And saying so can be dangerous in a situation with abuse--suggesting that someone step down or cut out abusive contact can often feel threatening for someone who is being abused, especially when that abuse is lifelong.

Some things you might want to keep in mind:
  • Your spouse has been trained to see physical violence and emotional abuse as fundamentally validating, as a type of love in the absence of actual love. Children who are abused physically might act out with people who might hurt them or engage in interactions that are likely to get them hurt because the alternative was likely total withdrawal of affection or attention. Many children of abuse are trained to fear this abandonment above all else.
  • Children of abuse are also socialized to police one another and this can easily extend to spouses and children in adult relationships. If someone acts outside of the family norms, they all Get It, physically or emotionally. Everyone is invested in not doing things like drawing strong boundaries, because it can mean huge repercussions for all involved. Of course, this also keeps the machinery of abuse going. However, as an adult, you still need to draw strong and safe boundaries for yourself, even if your spouse hates it, is upset by it, or doesn't understand. The more you participate in the dysfunctional behavior, the more you feed it, even if the price is momentary peace.
  • Families also choose scapegoats to save the rest of the family from worse physical or emotional abuse. If we all agree Kid1 is terrible, then we can all be safe from that kind of treatment. Of course, scapegoats usually recognize abuse and separate from it sooner--leaving someone new to take on the burden as a scapegoat.
  • Children in abusive relationships are socialized to hide the abuse, to see it as shameful and unusual, and, most importantly, as their fault. If I tell my teachers how mom hits me with a belt, then the teacher will know what a disorganized slob I am. Our victim-blaming culture makes this worse. The best thing you can do is to remind your spouse that they are not at fault and do not--did not--deserve poor treatment. If they can find outsiders to share their story with, it is part of breaking the cycle of abuse. But of course, it is very, very hard to do so, especially when still in contact with an abusive family.
  • Remember that boundaries are seen as inherently threatening in dysfunctional families, where often abusers will seed the belief that "If you love me, you will have no boundaries with me." However, again, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't have boundaries. It is very, very easy to get sucked into a spouse's abusive family patterns. The more you can rise above that and exist outside that, the more you are offering your spouse a road out--the existence of another way.
Best of luck to you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:07 AM on January 1, 2019 [22 favorites]

This was less of a problem when we didn’t have children and when the children were very young. It was easy to uphold the fiction of a happy and loving extended family when my kids were tiny and adorable. But once the kids starting becoming their own people rather than just blobs of cuteness, they became the new targets of my in-laws’ toxic dysfunction.

Seconding this, too. When you have children, you need to be aware of this. Your spouse will go in believing in your child's inherent worth and will be hopeful that the abuse they faced was because of their own lack of inherent value as a child. This puts your children at a very high likelihood for being abused by their parents.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:09 AM on January 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

My partner's mother has undiagnosed mental illness that resembles the symptoms of borderline personality disorder. My partner's mother refuses to admit she has a problem and refuses to get help. Her behaviour severely affected my partner as a child and left him with PTSD and other issues.

— What type of relationship do YOU have with your partner’s abusive in-laws?
I don't. The last outburst, directed primarily at my partner, involving screaming, attempts at physical attack, and insults about me and everyone within range. That was enough for me. I will not communicate with her until she agrees she has a problem and needs help. This is unlikely to ever happen.

— What do you do when YOU start feeling angry at them, but the anger is on behalf of your spouse and not about any interactions that you and they have had?
I try to concentrate on how things can be improved in the future rather than dwell on things in the past that cannot be changed.

— Who do you confide in about your anger/disgust at your partner’s abusers since your partner has enough to deal with already?
I don't. Not the most helpful answer, I know. I do journal.

— How do you support your partner AND yourself?
I try to remind him that he does not have to talk to her if he doesn't want too. That he does not have to keep trying to get her to "see the light". That it is okay to keep contact to a minimum until if and when she decides to admit she has a problem and accept help. To work on himself to not have an inner need for her approval.

— How do you avoid being drawn into larger family drama?
I don't get involved, go to his family gatherings, etc. I have only so much energy for people who seem to crave drama and will do nothing whatsoever to try and heal the dysfunctionality.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 2:40 PM on January 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

My family refuses to acknowledge abuse that echoed down the generations. A sibling is unable to treat me civilly because I called it all out. What helps me when I deal with them is that my partner is absolutely on my side. As anonymous Mefite upthread said: "What works for us is that first and foremost I believe my spouse's version of every story 100%, full stop."
posted by goofyfoot at 6:50 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm more like your spouse in this scenario, and I can really identify with the feeling that only those who grew up that way can understand.

I don't know about your spouse, but I have always found it easier to navigate my family without any partner of mine there. Half my stress comes from trying to make being around my family a good experience for my partner, which is not possible, but I feel like I have to try. I much prefer for my partner to give an excuse like work or illness and be available by phone and text rather than being subjected directly to the bullshit.

As someone who kept going regularly to whole-family events for years just to see a few people, it is such a revelation to choose to spend more one-on-one time with family members I enjoy, and that's what has made it possible for me to start being less available during the massive reunion times.

But that required me looking at how the system of emotional labor and social calendaring worked in my family. Is there an understanding about which times of year there will be gathering, like an unspoken save the date always on everyone's calendar? Who plans the specific dates and the menus and the activities? I'm guessing it's not you or your spouse. In my family, it wasn't me.

Can you do some of the emotional work of social calendaring stuff with one or two of spouse's siblings who are most sympatico with the two of you? I know it's extra hard to put additional stuff on the calendar, even if it's phone calls and FaceTimes rather than in-person visits. It's a way of taking responsibility for increasing closeness with family members (so family cannot object to it). And meanwhile it's a step toward empowering your spouse within the family and subverting the lockstep must-do-what-we've-always-done-because-family default habit.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 3:54 PM on January 2, 2019

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