Sins of the father

Sins of the father

Children carry domestic violence they’ve experienced into adult relationships

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 01/09/2014

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Dear Patti,
I’ve refused to look at the truth about myself my entire life, but now I’m ready. I abuse my wife. I’ve only been physical twice, once I pushed her and the second time I wrestled her to the ground. Although I’ve never thrown punches or bruised her, I can be verbally abusive and horribly menacing when I rage, threaten and smash things. I’m very controlling, extremely demanding, neglectful, and insist on controlling our finances and restricting her from any financial independence. I’m also a sexist and undermine my wife’s accomplishments and overestimate mine.

I’ve always rationalized that my behavior is largely her fault because she has a personality disorder and is impossible to cope with. I’m a gentle, successful, intelligent physician and in no way do I ever lose my temper with anyone else except with my wife. My father was an abuser, but he was an ignorant, uneducated drunk and would lash out at everyone, especially my mom, myself and my siblings. 

My teenage daughter recently looked at me with bitterness and accusation and I realized that that’s how I looked at my dad. I’ve been in denial. My father and I are different in many ways, but I rage and act out like he did. My wife would never call the police, because I could lose my medical license and destroy the financial and social stability of the whole family. I realize now how unfair it is for her to be in such a predicament. She resents me so much that for the first time she’s thinking of taking the children and leaving. I love my family and don’t want that to happen.

I’ve been to two different anger management classes and didn’t find them particularly helpful. They seemed superficial and unable to get to the core problem. I went to individual psychotherapy; the counselor listened to me but that was about it. My newfound insight has not come from therapy or classes but from self-reflection and knowing I could lose my family. I’d appreciate your input.
 
— David

Dear David,
It’s a common myth that domestic violence only occurs in poor, uneducated families. Domestic violence is prevalent in all socioeconomic levels, in all kinds of families and relationships, and while alcohol and drug abuse may go along with domestic violence, it’s not the cause. 

I’m so pleased that in spite of how you’re different than your father, you’re willing to face how you’ve emulated his destructive patterns and now want to take responsibility for your own actions.

During this process, your commitment to change will be acutely tested. There will be many times when you’ll feel particularly angry, victimized and justified at returning to the old acting out behavior. Remember, though, that you are never justified at acting out. Find different ways to communicate your concerns. 

Some anger management programs are based on willpower to change concrete behavior; i.e., “If you find yourself getting angry, just walk away.” Increasingly, more programs are adding behavioral, emotional, family systems and psychodynamic approaches to the treatment of domestic violence. Every individual is different insofar as which approach is the most helpful. Some might find it tremendously beneficial to partake in family sessions — identifying one’s own types of abusive behaviors, understanding one’s grave psychological impact on the family and developing empathy towards them. Others might be most helped by behavioral therapy, learning tools like time-outs, stress management skills and identifying anger triggers. There are also those who might specifically grow from looking at repressed core feelings, childhood dynamics and the tendency to recreate early experiences later in adult life. 
In your case, understanding the extreme impact your father’s behavior had on you might be particularly important. From your family of origin you might have learned poor conflict resolution and communication skills, gender role stereotypes and expectations, negative self-talk and distorted psychological dynamics concerning power and control.

Even if your wife decides not to leave you and allows you to continue to rage at her, you’re still putting your children at risk for experiencing abuse in the future, at risk for abusing their own children, and developing depression and anxiety.
There are many psychotherapists who listen well but also have exceptional dynamic input. Keep interviewing individual counselors and attending anger management classes until you find the right matches. You and your family need and deserve competent support. n 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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