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Am I an abused spouse?

by: Toni Coleman, LCSW, CMC

Dear Toni:

I want to know if I am married to an abuser. No, this is not a trick question. I am a professional 32 year old, recently married woman who is starting to notice things about my spouse and our relationship that may be red flags.

  Some history--our relationship has always been intense, and throughout our courtship we only had a few real “fights,” but he never got physical except a few times when he grabbed my arms hard and shook me and once when he pushed me in anger.

I wrote these off because the rest of the time I felt safe and loved and believed I was the luckiest woman in the world to have a successful and attractive guy like my husband fall for me. Now after four months of marriage, there have been a number of incidents in which I was pushed, grabbed and even slammed into the wall—not too hard, but it did happen. Each time I have reacted with surprise and shock and told him he was frightening me and upsetting me—but his response has usually been to say I provoked him and it was basically my fault.

Honestly, I can’t think of anything I actually did that was so awful—maybe made a nasty remark in passing when tired, disagreed with him or pushed him on something I wanted, or forgot to do something he had asked me to handle. But nothing that warranted such a strong response from him. I know I’m not perfect, but I’ve never had these problems in prior relationships and I do generally get along well with people. Which brings me to my other concern.

My husband had always been open to some hanging out with my friends and family before our wedding. Now, he has less and less interest and even gets annoyed when I bring it up. I have done things without him, but he generally pouts over it afterwards and refuses to speak to me or he tries to pick a fight with me. These incidents are the ones that have escalated into the worst fights lately. I know I shouldn’t push him if he doesn’t want to do something—but isn’t it ok to go without him some of the time?

I guess what I’m trying to figure out is how much of this conflict we are having is considered “normal” for newlyweds, how concerned should I be that he has gotten physical—and are these red flags indicating something worse down the road? Any feedback, thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated.

Dear Prince or Spousezilla:

I was immediately struck by your comments regarding your then boyfriend not “getting physical except for a few times,” and how you were “slammed into the wall—not too hard…. “by your now husband. Both of these are attempts by you to minimize and/or normalize his anger and how he handles it. You reinforced my concern with your questions at the end asking if this behavior is “normal for newlyweds,” and if these are indeed “red flags warning of danger down the road.”

In my judgment, you are already there in the danger zone—but are holding onto denial because you love him and he is otherwise “protective successful and attractive.” Yes, this is abuse by anyone’s standard. As soon as a guy (or woman) acts out their anger physically, they have crossed a line. Actually any verbal escalation/aggression or attempts to demean/control or devalue another person (emotional aggression) are all forms of abuse and should all be throwing red flags. It’s possible he uses these as well—his telling you it’s your fault that he harmed you physically is a classic example of both.

You do have options here for how to address the abuse in your relationship—the only one you don’t have is not doing anything while hoping things will resolve on their own. They won’t, they will only escalate. I think you need to educate yourself on what domestic abuse is, what steps other women have taken to deal with it and what resources exist in your area for help and support. Local therapists who have experience working with domestic abuse victims, marital counselors who work with couples who want help with this, support groups for victims, legal help for spouses who are at risk and/or want to leave a marriage, and/or hotlines and shelters in the event you find yourself in immediate danger and require assistance.

Once you have worked on accepting you have a problem and have a list of resources (you need to move quickly)—you are ready to take the first step. It may be to contact individual counselors and find one who can help you move safely through the process of addressing the domestic violence in your relationship. If your husband is open to marital counseling, you can do this at the same time. The key is to find someone who is a good fit for both of you and has this experience. Depending on what happens in your individual and/or marital counseling sessions—you should be able to establish a plan that includes what you, or both of you, need to do going forward—with ground rules for what is and is not acceptable behavior in the relationship.

If your spouse refuses to go to counseling, denies he is the one with a problem and/or becomes angry and escalates because you insist on making a big deal of this—you will need to make some hard decisions on your own. This is when all those supports and resources can become critically important to you. There is no way to predict how your spouse will react to any of this and if he will be willing to work on the marriage and relationship with you. His willingness or lack of is the best barometer for what your collective future holds.

I understand how devastating this is to you and that, as a newlywed, it can be hard to feel as though you are giving up too soon. So I’m going to reframe that for you—you would not be giving up, you would be taking the courageous and bold step to meet your problem head on, do what is necessary to address it and move on if that is what is in your best interest. If it comes to that, you would be cutting your losses and giving yourself time to heal, move on and possibly find a new life with a man who would be capable of the healthy relationship you seek.  Here is another article written by Toni called the Angry Spouse. 

Toni Coleman is an internationally recognized dating and relationship expert and founder of http://consum-mate.com. Her expertise is sought frequently by local and national publications, top-ranked dating and relationship websites. Toni has been a guest on a number of radio and TV programs. She is the featured relationship coach in The Business And Practice Of Coaching, (Norton, September 2005); and authored the forward of Winning Points With The Woman In Your Life, One Touchdown At A Time (Simon and Schuster, November 2005). Toni's popular relationship articles can be found in several magazines and a number of self-help, personal growth, and dating/relationship websites. From March until December 2005, she was a weekly contributing commentator (love and dating coach) on the KTRS Radio Morning Show, (St. Louis, MO). Toni holds a master’s degree in Clinical Social Work, is a licensed psychotherapist in the state of Virginia, and holds certification in life coaching. She is a member of The International Coach Federation and The National Association of Social Workers. Toni writes bi-weekly for HopeAfterDivorce.org and FamilyShare.com. Follow her on FB at www.facebook.com/coachtoni.coleman and Twitter @CoachToni.

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