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Victim Reversal

Parents need to worry if their son is being abused by his wife

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 08/11/2011

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­­Dear Patti,
Eric, the youngest of our three kids, is 36 and has always been very quiet and even a bit passive. He’s been married to Liz for about seven years, but my wife and I have suspicions that she is verbally and physically taking her temper out on him. She has always been nice to our family, but several times when she and Eric thought they were out of earshot, my wife has heard her call him names and threaten to punch or kick him. A year ago, he had his arm in a sling and admitted to his sister it was the result of Liz throwing his toolbox at him. When his mother confronted him about this, he lied and said he’d been joking around. He later admonished his sister for breaking his confidence. When she defended her actions by telling Eric he was too important for her to keep silent, he insisted that he and Liz had worked out their problems. He’s been even quieter since then — maybe even depressed — but I can’t get him to talk to me. On a recent visit to his house, a neighbor came up as I was leaving and told me he always hears Liz screaming and berating my son. He also said Eric has been to the emergency room twice this year. Eric insists that the neighbor is lying and doesn’t like Liz. I can’t ignore this but I don’t know what to do. –Rob

Dear Rob,
I agree; you shouldn’t ignore this. Even if the incidents are exaggerated, based on perceptions, you need to do everything you can to make sure Eric doesn’t get seriously hurt. Awareness of domestic violence has steadily grown in public consciousness. While the primary focus has been on female victims, men are abused as well and suffer the same emotional consequences, such as depression, anxiety, isolation, shame, learned helplessness and degraded self-esteem. Men are also often injured severely because their female aggressors may use weapons. The lack of social and cultural support is compounded by law enforcement’s disbelief, suspicion and mockery as well as a lack of shelters and abuse hotlines for battered men.

Web sites, clinical articles and books typically frame the perpetrator as male and the victim as female, and although a high percentage of ER patients are males, men themselves view experiences of abuse as unusual, unsupportable and cause for denial or minimizing, because such acts of violence contradict their sense of identity as strong, stoic, dominant and independent.

Commonalities in male victims include depression, guilt, insecurity, self-destructiveness, distrust and a heightened sensitivity to any form of criticism. Their sense of powerlessness may lead them to substance abuse or working long hours to avoid being with their partner. Fear of retaliation, potential economic hardship or even well-meaning intervention can also cause them to avoid friends and family. Further, it’s not uncommon for abused husbands to believe their wives’ promises that it will never happen again.

If this is true, I’m concerned for your daughter-in-law as well. While female aggressors have individual personalities, they share common traits, such as substance abuse, mental illness (including borderline personality disorder), post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, anxiety, suicidal or homicidal thoughts and the use of psychiatric medication. Common motivators that trigger their actions include self-defense, retaliation for real or perceived threats, jealousy, resentment that they’re being ignored and a maternal instinct to protect their children from harm. Many of these women were sexually or physically abused as children, witnessed parental abuse or had disruptions in parental attachments, including placement in foster care or with relatives.

You and your wife need to decide intuitively how best to broach this situation. Should your whole family confront Eric? Or should it just be you or you and your wife?  Should you talk to Eric alone or with Liz present? There’s no easy answer, but the problem must be addressed. Treatment options vary depending upon the severity of violence and the intensity of denial, but Eric most likely needs psychotherapy as well as psycho-education. Your son may very well be in avoidance and denial, and you don’t want to be doing that as well.

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 Visit her Web site:


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