Dear Patti,

My wife, Diana, can love more intensely than anyone I’ve ever met. She deeply loves me and our daughter, Sophia (6).Diana has four older brothers who constantly bullied her and, accordingly, she held all her feelings in and became very shy. Despite her shyness, I immediately fell in love when we first met in high school and saw how beautiful she was inside and out. In her senior year, she started drinking intermittently, getting angrier and acting out with her temper. She’d get in fights out on the road with other drivers or at clubs. She’d often get me involved and I’d have to engage in fights to protect her. Although she felt bad about raging, she said it felt good not to be shy anymore and hold all her emotions in.

I know Diana loves our daughter, but her angry outbursts do upset Sophia. When Diana drinks and rages, Sophia becomes very quiet, trying desperately to please her mother. She told her teacher that her mother yells at her and makes her scared and sad. She also said she wished she was a better little girl so her mother wouldn’t get so mad at her.

Someone from the school called Children’s Protective Services and a social worker has been making visits. A neighbor told the social worker she saw Sophia outside late at night. Sophia admitted to her she was outside looking for her dolly because her mother had thrown it out the window. The social worker recently told me that if I don’t move out and take Sophia away, she’ll remove her from our home.

The social worker is trying to force me to leave Diana. Sophia loves her and doesn’t want to leave her any more than I do. I’m afraid if we left Diana would feel devastated, terribly guilty and get even more depressed. My sister would keep Sophia but it might be rough for her to be separated from both her parents. I’m afraid she’ll blame herself. I’m being torn in two and I don’t know what to do.

    

  — Chris

Dear Chris,

You don’t have to ever stop loving Diana, nor do you have to turn your back on her. You do, however, need to protect Sophia. It’s one thing if you want to stay and endure Diana’s rage but it’s your job to keep your daughter safe and out of harm’s way. While it will be intensely difficult, you need to separate from Diana, letting her know that Sophia has to come first and you can no longer allow her to live in an environment which is hurting her. You can meet Diana every day and discuss how to get her help. Further, it’s not in her best interest for you to minimize her problems. Although you’re not divorcing her, you need to let her know you’re leaving to keep Sophia safe until she gets professional help with her rage and substance abuse.

    Children coming from abusive situations often develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and somatic complaints. Take care not to minimize the psychological impact on Sophia. The social worker who interviewed Sophia may have come to the conclusion that the volatile nature in your home has created an unsafe environment for your daughter and that her emotional needs are being neglected since the focus of the family’s attention is on Diana.

Sophia could come to believe that her mother’s behavior is an acceptable method to express anger, frustration and control. She could also develop characteristics of learned helplessness as she’s powerless to stop the abuse. Additionally, she’s at risk for various acting-out behaviors such as alcohol/drug use, running away, sexual acting-out, stealing, and other dangerous behaviors. She may learn that getting her needs met involves using intimidation, control and aggression. She may learn to identify with the aggressor (her mother) and become verbally or physically abusive. Don’t forget that Diana was once shy and bullied by her brothers and learned to act-out through to adulthood.

I understand that Diana can be positive and loving and that you don’t want to break up your family, but I’m concerned you’re confusing enabling with loving. If you really love Sophia, keep her safe no matter what. Prove to her that her well-being comes first. Insist that Diana no longer abuse herself and her family by not getting the professional support she needs.  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 website, patticarmalt-vener.com.


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 website, patticarmalt-vener.com.