Domestic Violence

Letter #3

Dear Dr. Harley,

I tried to learn about how Jim thinks, like you suggested, and he eventually agreed to counseling together as a couple. At first, things seemed to be going quite well. He seemed much more caring and expressed a willingness to control his temper.

But on Friday night Jim beat me up. He grabbed me by the hair and threw me around for about 20 minutes yelling the whole time. My whole body aches, especially my neck and scalp. He also tried to crush my head with his hands and tried to strangle me. He relented before I passed out. I am terrified that next time he won't relent in time which would kill not only me but our unborn baby.

Like the last time he hit me, he called his parents to come over. The last time, they tried to convince me that I was the one who drove him to violence, so I managed to get out just as they were arriving. The three of them insist that what Jim does is not violence and that it is my fault for provoking him not his. They say I deserve this kind of treatment.

I am now staying at a shelter for battered women.

I am terrified for my life, terrified that if he and his parents have a part in the raising of this child they will impart these warped values to my child. I don't believe in divorce but see no alternative. When I first wrote you, I thought he was incapable of hurting me to the point of death. Now I see that it is only a matter of time before he kills me and/or the baby.

G.S.

Dear G.S.,

I'm so very sorry to hear about what you've been through. Throughout my professional career, I've tried very hard to keep marriages together. But, short of providing your husband with a cure for his mental disorder, I don't think your marriage can be saved. My original guess that he has a serious mental disorder, perhaps organically caused, is probably correct. The fact that his parents are so supportive doesn't necessarily negate my opinion. Many parents blindly support their children in the face of overwhelmingly damning evidence.

I don't believe that in his more rational moments he really wanted to hurt you, but that's not the point -- he did hurt you when he was not rational, and that makes him too dangerous to be married to. At this point in time no one knows how to prevent him from becoming irrational in the future, and therefore your safety cannot be guaranteed.

In a way, a brain tumor would make everything much simpler to understand, and maybe that's what's causing his violent behavior. But many of the violent men I've counseled are just as dangerous as your husband, and they do not have a tumor to blame it on. If he was truly rational, he would recognize his inability to control himself, and suggest separating until his problem was diagnosed and treated. But that caring perspective is rarely seen in my business.

He will probably want you to return to him, and will probably agree to anything to get you back, even counseling. But his problem may be so serious that no treatment would guarantee your safety with him.

You are now faced with one of the most important decisions of your life: What will you do next. The fact that you and he will share a child throughout life makes the rest of your life dangerous for you, and you should take special precautions to avoid a sudden attempt on your life.

I suggest that you file a criminal complaint for assault and insist on his being given a neurological examination, and a mental health exam. The best thing that could happen to him would be for him to be incarcerated and forcibly evaluated for a mental disorder. Perhaps a mental health specialist would be able to find a solution to his problem. But at the very least you want his violent behavior to be on record. Quite frankly, he didn't do enough damage to convince most judges that he is a threat to you, but I'd file your complaints anyway. The people who work at your shelter should be able to help you follow through on that plan.

I believe that everyone who is ever hit by a spouse should file a criminal report for assault. They should also tell all their friends and family about it. Those who are able to control their tempers, control it pretty quickly when they are faced with incarceration and public scrutiny. While in your case, I don't believe your husband has control over his anger, you should file the report just the same.

I'm sure you have a great deal of compassion toward your husband, and you probably still love him, but your love and compassion could get you killed or maimed if you're not careful. I suggest that you move to where you can be surrounded by your friends and family, for emotional support and protection. Moving may make your life even more chaotic at first, losing your job and moving your things at a time that you're pregnant, but in the end, your life will be much more peaceful and secure.

What's instructive about your case is that your husband has not spent his life in a mental hospital, nor does he have a history of violence. Moreover, he is gainfully employed and has been reasonably successful. When you first met him, he seemed perfect to you, and you fell in love with him. And yet, he is capable of killing you. Most cases of domestic abuse that I've witnessed have involved productive citizens. In one case, a judge, who is still in office, tried to kill her husband with a knife -- in their front yard, of all places!

Domestic violence comes unexpectedly. While it's progressive in most cases, it's often excused as something other than what it is -- until it's too late. Now that you know what you have, a violent husband, you have no choice but to protect yourself and your unborn child from him.


PostScript: G.S.'s ordeal has not ended. She is trying to reconcile with her husband, in spite of my warning. It is my experience as a counselor, that most women do not leave their abusive husbands even if their lives are in grave danger, and G.S. is no exception. Women tend to leave their husbands not when they've been abused, but rather, when they've been neglected.

I am continuing to receive letters from G.S. and may post an update of her situation in a future column.

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