Dear Carolyn: Can therapy for anger ever really work? My husband is a screamer and a bully when he feels he isn’t getting the attention (sex) he “deserves.” He agreed to go to individual counseling a few months ago after I issued an ultimatum; we have small children and I wanted to give it one last shot.
This week there was another outburst that resulted in screaming for hours at me. I know it is time to leave for my sake and that of the kids, but I want to feel I have explored the options fully before I blow up the kids’ lives.
— Anger Issues
Anger Issues: And “screaming for hours” is not “blow[ing] up the kids’ lives”? Leaving in such cases is typically the first step toward putting lives back together.
I’m ahead of myself though, so, back to your question.
Let’s say therapy for anger can work and does (since it can and often does). Then what about his sense of entitlement to things that aren’t his? Your body and your consent are arguably the only two things that are utterly and inalienably your own. Which makes his expectations only the more egregious.
And what about his open disregard for his kids’, and your, emotional health, which he proves when he screams for hours?
What about the profound instability he apparently feels — and likewise imposes on the household — that moves him to take such drastic, dehumanizing steps to achieve the sense of control and validation he craves?
Therapy can help people find their way out of places even as dark as the one your husband is in. I hope he keeps going. I hope he opens himself to the need for profound and compassionate change.
But if you think you have to “explore the options fully” due to your marital vows, then please note how many vows he has broken with his abuse. If you think you have that duty for your kids, think what his bullying teaches them.
You are not obligated to live with him while he gets treatment, or to subject yourself and your kids to his rages.
You are not obligated to look the other way on the entitlement and instability just because he’s working on the anger.
You are not obligated to stay in exchange for his getting help.
The fact that he has taken a first step toward wellness is good. Promising, even. But it is independent of you, your health and your choices.
If he doesn’t see it that way himself — if he thinks you owe him something in exchange for getting therapy — then he’s still not on the threshold of change, because it says he sees counseling as a quid pro quo and not a sincere effort to repair himself.
Your ultimatum no doubt encouraged him to think this way, which is one reason I don’t advise them. But even though the implication built in was that if he does get counseling, then you won’t leave, you’re still not bound to a promise to stay. Not when you and your kids are at risk.
Please be aware, too, that abusers are at their most dangerous when their victims try to leave — and get ongoing guidance of your own from a professional trained to handle domestic abuse. 800-799-SAFE. Take care.