Choosing Whether to Stay in an Abusive Marriage

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Reader’s Question

I’ve been with my husband for 12 years. We do not often fight, but when we do I tend to withdraw and wall up. He has significant abandonment issues, and there have been times that he has become mildly or moderately physically abusive in his complete panic that I am going to leave when I respond that way. In the last 6 weeks, we’ve been going through a particularly hard time (I slept with someone else), and he recently was mildly to moderately physically abusive, as I’ve been asking for a separation to better understand my thoughts. Everyone is clamoring for us to get divorced, but I’m unsure because I feel the abuse is rooted in his abandonment issues. Is it possible if he sought therapy for his abandonment trauma that the physical abuse would cease? I love him, and I want him to get help, but I cannot stay in a marriage where I will (even infrequently) be physically assaulted.

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds as if you have been struggling with the dynamic that exists in your marriage for a while, and that you have both resorted to tactics (such as stonewalling) that have shut down communication, increased the conflict, and have caused harm to the relationship. Having said that, the presence of physical abuse suggests that seeking help from a mental health professional or seeking other professional support may be necessary as you make decisions about your next steps. Many people who experience domestic violence find support in first making a confidential call to a hotline such as 1-800-799-SAFE in the U.S. or visiting the organization’s website. Sometimes having a safety plan in place can also help anyone in this situation take steps to decide whether and how to leave an abusive relationship.

What stands out most to me in your question, however, is that it seems as if you do not want to be with your husband any longer, and are seeking permission or validation from others to leave him. In your description of your marital dynamic, it appears there is very little opportunity to resolve conflict. The conflict may build and then escalate to abuse (his response) or escape (your response). Sometimes the act of having an extramarital affair is a way for a partner to give herself an “out”, or introduce a reason for the other spouse to react in a way that would also give cause to exit the marriage. Perhaps your choice to have an extramarital affair (an escalated escape) confirmed his abandonment fears, which escalated his abusive response. It sounds as if the trust in the relationship has been damaged, and whether or not it can be (or whether or not you want it to be) repaired is the question to address.

To answer your question, it is unclear whether or not the physical abuse could cease. Statistically, one study suggests that following intervention, approximately half of batterers decreased the frequency of violent acts over a two-year period, but the other half did not. Among the half who were able to decrease the frequency, fewer than 10% were able to completely stop abusive acts.

Given that you are questioning your limitations with the abuse, I would encourage you or anyone in this situation to find a licensed mental health professional to discuss choices and get confidential support apart from your partner.

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