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November 19, 2018 - Welcome Guest!

Advice » Hard Knocks

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Am I imagining this?


I am a third year psychology major who after working my way from receptionist to corporate controller found that I never pursued a career-oriented goal/dream. I have been married for approximately four months. As with many, I come from a dysfunctional broken home and have just begun to realize the implications that it has grounded in my personality as well as the fact that there is some history of mental illness in my immediate family (i.e. bipolar sister, borderline father). In addition, my mother was very submissive not only to my father but to my stepfather as well. While my biological father ruled the house with a frightening quiet sense of control, my stepfather was verbally belittling to my mother in front of us. I am in my second marriage after a disturbing and mentally abusive first marriage failed. I stopped drinking alcohol approximately six months ago because I began to fear that my outrage and anger was rooted in my consumption of alcohol. The anger still resides; however, I am now more capable of dealing with this anger without temper tantrums.

Over the last six to eight months, my husband (fiance prior to wedding) has become more verbally outraged with outbursts ranging from yelling at me like I was a child when making mistakes such as accidentally locking us out of the house to screaming cursing outbursts when spilling coffee on himself (even though he was dressed in "work" clothes). During one incident he called me an idiot in front of his family. I have repeatedly asked him to stop talking to me like this and explained how psychologically damaging this was to me. He proclaimed that it wasn't mental abuse, he would never seek counseling and that I was overreacting. He also stated that if I was a friend I would take these outbursts with a grain of salt. Prior to our marriage, I seriously contemplated leaving him for I always felt like dirt!

I am worried that I have attracted another verbally abusive/mentally abusive individual. I am, for the most part, quite confident and even stubborn. However, when he acts in this manner, I curl up into a ball on the inside and am afraid to breathe. Please help me....am I imagining that this is unacceptable behavior? Should I just brush it off and be a "tough-skinned" friend? I swear I feel like I am a child again when he talks to me like this...Please help.

Buddy (29 year-old woman)



Thanks for your letter. You say, "Should I just brush it off and be "tough-skinned" friend?" as though this is a possibility for you. Is it? It sounds as though you have tried to be "thick-skinned" for a while now. How has that worked for you? I'm asking you that question so that you realize you don't have a whole lot of options, here. They are:

  • Be something you cannot be. Deny the pain you feel inside. Respond to your husband's verbal expressions of anger in a way which is impossible for you.

  • Be true to yourself. Be who you are. Be real, genuine, and authentic. Trust what you see, hear and know to be true. Trust your gut.

Luckily for you, you are learning all about psychology and about how complicated human beings are! This will help you understand that when you say, "I feel like I am a child again when he talks to me like this," this is because - dynamically - you are a child. You are reacting to not only to your husband's insensitivity and rudeness, but also to the projection of the other dominant males you have known - sort of a triple-whammy of abuse. The fact that this has a lot to do with your history - that you "curl up into a ball on the inside" and are "afraid to breathe" - makes it be your responsibility (to change). The problem is yours, not your husband's. But that doesn't mean you should tolerate his abuse, either. In fact, if you decide to work on these self-esteem issues in therapy, your husband's personality traits will become useful for you. As you learn to set limits and boundaries with him, you will do a lot to address the abuse issues of your past. He will become your setting-limits-with-verbal-abusers "guinea pig". By learning how to have strength, dignity and self-respect in your relationship with him, you will confront all of the fear and intimidation of your childhood. (Projection works both ways.)

I suspect that it's not coincidental at all that you stopped drinking and then discovered the intense feelings you have inside. Drinking diverted you from feeling these emotions so that you acted out; now you must sit tight and feel this hurt, which will guide you. By writing to an online counselor, you proactively invested in yourself and your own reality. Please consider getting into ongoing therapy, which will really speed up your recovery. You are on a wonderful and very hopeful path towards self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

Congratulations on your career goals, too. Working through these difficult self-worth issues will make you be more effective at whatever you focus on in psychology (or in life).

Good luck,

Margaret "Peg" Burr, MA, MFT

This question was answered by Margaret "Peg" Burr . She is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC34374) with a private practice in Santa Clarita (near Los Angeles). She performs psychodynamic psychotherapy with individual adult clients as well as couples, teens, and families. She also runs groups for adults and adolescents. Her specialty area is Object Relations Systems Theory. This branch of psychodynamic psychotherapy uses a client's interpersonal relationships as windows into his or her intrapsychic structure.

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