Why Does My Husband Honor His Abusive Father?

Reader’s Question

My husband was raised by an alcolohic/drug dependent father. His whole family, including his mother, is in denial to this day about the whole thing. My father-in-law died 31 years ago, and his name hasn’t been mentioned since at any family gathering, etc. (except in our home, where I have told my children everything they want to know about him).

My husband and I have had some great talks where he has begun addressing the situation. He has finally been able to express the hurt and sadness he felt as a child. His father wasn’t violent toward him — that I know of — although he did beat my husband’s older brother up when he was about 18 years old. He was completely unavailable emotionally, and looked at his children as interruptions and a bother.

As in many co-dependent households, the truth is something that is impossible to uncover. My husband only told me about his father after a friend of mine mentioned that she knew he was an alcoholic. We had been married for 15 years. He was furious with this friend. Before then, whenever I would ask a question about him or talk about him, it was met with anger — in other words, don’t talk about that!

The biggest problem, in my mind, is that he is hung up on trying to “honor” his abusive father. I think it is really hurting him because he won’t let himself get angry about all the hurt, confusion, and sadness he went through as a child. Any suggestions?

Psychologist’s Reply

Q: If his abusive father died 31 years ago, it’s quite likely that your husband has gone through all those feelings and thoughts and has settled on a strategy. From your description, the family isn’t actually “honoring” the abusive father: no one has spoken about him or mentioned him in family gatherings for 31 years. Instead, the entire family has gradually developed and accepted a strategy that quietly accepts what happened in their childhood — they talked about it years ago, they don’t talk about it now, they don’t mention his name, and they want grandchildren and future family to know very little about his abusive behavior. This is actually a very common strategy in families.

You now find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. You’ve recently become aware of the family history and the father-in-law’s abusive behavior. That information helped you understand many situations in the marriage that were confusing — such as your husband’s reaction to discussions about his father. Now you want to know more, but your questioning is met with the accepted family strategy.

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Your husband isn’t honoring his abusive father. He’s honoring the approach the family has accepted. After all these years, both he and the family have developed a strategy that works. Now, you not only want more information but also want him to relive those 31-year-old hurts and emotional traumas. He is not willing to do that — and that’s also normal. His resistance has nothing to do with honoring the father. He is honoring the family approach to minimize information provided about the father’s behavior.

I’d recommend letting this go. Allow the family to use their current strategy unless something occurs that you feel might be directly related to his childhood — such as abusive behavior or drug/alcohol abuse. Many family systems have secrets, and you’ve discovered one. It’s more important that the children know who their father and mother are than know about a long deceased grandfather.

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