Q. I’m in a bad situation. My husband yells at me in front of our children (2 and 7 years old). He says I’m fat and lazy. He says he hates me. Once in a while, he hits me, but not where anyone could see. I’m staying with him for now because I have nowhere to go and no money of my own. My plan is to wait until my youngest starts school and then somehow leave. Since both kids are young, I think it won’t hurt them if I wait. What do you think?
A. You think the emotional and physical abuse you experience will have little effect on your kids because they’re young. You may be quite mistaken. There has been a lot written about the effect of family violence on kids of all ages, including pre-school-aged kids. I’ve also seen the effects in my therapy practice.
Children react in different ways to family violence, including blaming themselves. Young children can experience feelings such as helplessness, fear, sadness, dread, shame, worry and anger. As children get older, they can experience anxiety and depression. Some children may withdraw and show no emotion, or they may become angry and disobedient. Children can become hyper-vigilant or hyper-active. They often have low self-esteem and may have medical complaints. Teens may run away from home or engage in risky behaviors. They may marry young to escape the environment. They may marry an abusive partner because it feels familiar.
Remember that you and your husband are the role models for your children. Over time, you may see some of your husband’s abusive behaviors and your submissive behaviors showing up in your children.
Your husband calling you lazy and fat is psychological abuse. The intent can be to make you think you’re lucky to have him, because no one else would want you. The physical hitting could get much worse. Perhaps you feel self-blame and want to excuse your husband. If you do, I suggest you stop that line of thought. Anyone who has a toddler and spends the day keeping them safe will feel exhausted.
You mention a plan to leave your husband in about three years. I suggest you need professional help in the meantime and a solid plan to leave as soon as you can. So, what can you do? Here are some suggestions:
- Don’t share the plan with your kids. Leave no evidence of any action toward leaving (such as on your phone or computer).
- Talk with a domestic violence support person who can help you identify your options. The SAFE Alliance here in Austin could be very helpful to you. They have phone, text and chat options. There is help for all people seeking assistance, with or without children.
- Until you leave, find a way to make or keep some money of your own and save it secretly.
- Keep some things packed for yourself and the children, should you need to move out in a hurry. Have the telephone number for quick transportation and an idea of where you would go to be safe.
- Take an inventory of the people in your life who might help you: relatives, friends, the church and any other source of help. Only talk with people who can keep confidentiality.
Your leaving may lead to your husband accepting and getting help. You may or may not decide you want to work to save your marriage. You can work on this with a professional, when and where you are safe. Don’t tolerate abuse because you think you have to. There are options.
Betty Richardson PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.