Sunday, April 18, 2010

Other People's Anger.

Another blogger wrote a post recently, about living with another person's angry outbursts.

I lived with this for ten years, in my first marriage. I used the term "rageaholic," and because he was always so apologetic, kind and loving after one of his rages, I accepted his insistence that he "lost control."

Then, two things happened: I began training to be a volunteer on the Crisis Line, and I went to visit a friend who adored Dr Phil, and who, if I went to visit while his show was on, insisted we watch it. (I'd be sitting there, feeling slightly superior, trying not to roll my eyes, or sigh too heavily - I was so judgemental.)

That day, the show was about verbal abuse. I was barely listening, thinking about yet another of my husband's furious rages the evening before, when I tuned in again to hear Dr Phil asking a woman if her husband ever had one of his raging fits at a "large powerful man."
How about in a setting where he might face consequences, such as work?
In public, where he might face consquences such as having to deal with the police?
"No, no, only ever inside the home, and..." I watched comprehension wash across the woman's face as she thought for a moment, then finished in a rush: "...and if the windows are open, he closes them first!"

Exactly. Her husband was anything but "out of control" when he was raging; on the contrary, his rage was selectively delivered, and only against those weaker or less powerful than he, and unlikely to deliver consequences - his wife and children.

I sat there stunned, then denial clicked in (this was pre-Al-Anon) the moment passed, and I thought no more of it, until a few nights later, when I was at a training session for the Crisis Line. The topic that night was "Domestic Abuse."

The co-ordinator described the cycle of abuse as "explosion, which breaks the tension which has been building for days or weeks, followed by apparent remorse, begging for forgiveness, and then a honeymoon phase - gifts, particularly loving behavior, protestations of love and caring."

I was rocked back in my chair, in the realisation that she was describing my marriage. I was living with verbal abuse. I had never labelled it as such, because I had wanted so badly to make allowances, and, truth be told, I was the perfect spouse for verbal abuse, as I'd been trained to accept that behavior, along with physical abuse, from the time I was a small child.  It was "normal family life."

The rest of that training session went by swiftly, and afterwards, I drove home, picked up my dog, and took her to a small park we often visited. I sat on the swings under a star-filled clear night sky, and tried hard to think clearly.

There was no way around it - I was married to a verbally and emotionally abusive man. That was the beginning of change for me, that understanding. When I began attending Al-Anon a couple of years later, I learned how to deal with the rages by refusing to sit still for them. I'd excuse myself and leave - the room, the house, the car.

I didn't have children. Rage of that sort is utterly terrifying to a child - I was that small child cowering before a furious raging outburst. Children who witness this kind of treatment are deeply affected - their self-image, their view of the world as a safe place, their understanding of what makes up "normal family life." They are more likely to tolerate abuse from partners when they reach adulthood. They are more likely to display the same behaviors when angry. Kids can internalise the messages delivered with the rage, and it can negatively affect all aspects of their lives - relationships, careers, life choices, depression.

It wasn't until I had the cycle of domestic abuse explained to me in a teaching setting, that I recognised the parallels in my own home. Before that, I was manipulated into feeling guilty, convinced to minimise, promised that things would be different from now on.

For me, it's a sober truth that I teach people how to treat me, by what I will and will not tolerate and accept. If I continue to allow unacceptable behavior, by smoothing things over so that there are no consequences, I am enabling the abuse.

This morning, reading that blogger's post, and the description of her children's fear, I felt a moment's pull from my past. An icy shivering recall brushing through me, and gone again.

I am who I am because of the severe abuse I suffered as a child, physical, emotional, verbal, sexual - in some ways, I feel that I have been forever scarred by it. Also, perhaps, granted a sorrowful empathy for those still trapped with it.

There is no easy answer when we love someone "90%", but the other 10% is verbal abuse, or raging.
I pray for all children going through this.


  1. This post hits close to home. This also describes my family of origin. Both my father and step father were abusive. Both were rageaholics. I left my first husband because he hit me once and I refused to become my mother. I wanted to pretend it didn't affect me. But it did.

    I attended Alateen certification training yesterday. One of the topics was what to do if it came out that a child is being abused. I was advised to find out my legal responsibilities, to decide, in advance, what I would do.

    I was also advised to check my motives before becoming involved in Alateen service work. This might be part of it. I'm praying about it.

    I think abuse is far more common in alcoholic homes than we acknowledge openly. I appreciate your bringing it out in such a candid way.

  2. Sigh. Thank you. I wish there was a simple way out. I don't see it.

  3. I was the target as a kid and it molded my personality. I grew up to be invisible, never rock the boat, never disagree, never cause problems. Alanon gave me thick skin and a backbone. I flew into a rage one time at my husband and heard my mother. That was it. I peeled the onion and worked the Steps. I have not done it since. Good post!


  4. Nobody, child or adult, should have to put up with this kind of abuse.

    Because I grew up fearing my father's outbursts and violence, I was not able to connect with my own anger until I was in my 30s. And through the years of alcoholism, I knew that often I was swallowing anger. Little by little I have learned how to deal with abusive people and set boundaries, as well as expressing my own anger constructively and appropriately.

    Thanks for this post --

    Mary LA

  5. Today is an emotional day for me; not sad, really, but a day of healing and moving on. One year ago today, my husband (dry for many years but struggling with the emotions of sobriety) flew into a rage at our teenage son. I intervened. He didn't lay a hand on us, but could have, it was that intense and ugly. I packed us up and left in less than five minutes. His behavior was inexcusable. I had to set a clear set of boundaries, if nothing else but to show my son that he didn't need to become a victim.
    The year has been a tumult of fear, regret, "what-ifs", "how did I get here" reflections. Rather quickly, my husband discovered he had chronic, mild depression that contributed to his addiction and overall mood disorder. Antidepressants saved him. We're slogging through the hard work of couples therapy to rebuild our marriage.
    I felt I had to risk everything dear to me that day to shake the system and force consequences. In the end, was an act of love for us all and I'm grateful that my husband listened. He's still human, still an alcoholic, but I have the support of this program.
    My son? He's thriving and learned a lot about limits, relationships, forgiveness and compassion. For him it was a life lesson.

  6. I wish that the children weren't the ones so affected. They learn that abuse is okay and will often mimic what they have heard in the home. The abuse then continues. Or it may destroy their self esteem completely and a kind of PTSD results. Either way, it is devastating. I don't know why people decide to stay in that situation. What is their motive? What is to be gained? I don't see it or understand it, but I did live it.