How can I save my sick brother from his abusive wife?

I think she may have assaulted him, but that's just the beginning.

Published November 9, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am writing to you because I don't know where else to turn.

My brother has had health issues on and off for 20 years. He is a very kind and sweet person and a loving father. His 11-year-old son is the center of his world.

A few months ago his wife of 18 years got a boyfriend. At first, she insisted that my brother leave and take his son with him on weekends (they stayed at my apartment or my parents' home) so she could have her boyfriend over. Other times, she has stayed with her boyfriend at his place while my brother stayed with his son. One time, my brother awoke in severe pain and called her and begged her to come home and be with their son so he could go to the hospital. She would not come home. He got a neighbor to drive him to the hospital and stay with his son.

His wife has never been nice. Always curt to our family. Always belittling to my brother. But he seemed to love her and wanted to stay with her. He has endured periods where she would drink a bottle of wine every night. He has endured other periods where she would spend huge amounts of money in a short time. Now she seems intent on sleeping with her boyfriend all the time.

I had to ask him point-blank if she had ever hit him. He admitted that recently she pinned him down on the couch and head-butted him. My brother weighs between 105 and 115 pounds. He is frail.

I finally convinced him to move out and file for divorce. He is terrified of losing custody of his son. He is in deep despair. He fears that because of his health issues she will win custody.

After the head-butting issue I said he should press charges. He refused. He said that someone told him that they very rarely believe male claims of domestic abuse.

Last weekend he wanted to get just a few of his belongings out of their home. She would not let him in even though the house belongs to both of them. She continues to belittle him and insists he won't get to see their son once they are divorced.

How long does it take a divorce to process? What are his chances of getting custody? I feel he is falling too deep into despair to stand up for himself. What can I do? Who should I inform of her behavior?

Desperate in Massachusetts

Dear Desperate,

According to, in Massachusetts "There is a 120-day waiting period for an uncontested no-fault divorce. Otherwise, the entire process should take less than six months." Such an estimate would assume that his wife does not contest the divorce and otherwise cooperates.

The best person to ask how long the divorce will take would be the lawyer who is handling the divorce. I would strongly advise you to use a lawyer in this case, because it does not sound like a simple divorce between two reasonable people. His wife sounds like she could be unpredictable and troublesome, to say the least. As the site says, "There are situations when you should not represent yourself and you should seek the assistance of counsel. These situations include where you have substantial assets; where you and your spouse cannot reach agreement on custody, visitation, or child support issues; and where your spouse is uncooperative or has been abusive."

If your brother has fallen too deeply into despair to stand up for himself, it may be that along with his other ailments he has become depressed. So in addition to consulting a lawyer about the divorce, I would have him get a referral from one of his regular doctors to see a specialist in psychiatry. It would not be surprising if he had depression, and it can often be treated with drugs.

As to informing someone about the wife's behavior so that authorities could intervene to protect your brother, I would ask the lawyer. A lawyer would know what behavior would constitute a crime, and what behavior, while outrageously cruel and insensitive, has no direct legal remedy. Presumably there are laws against spousal battery, and surely if his wife were to physically attack him the police ought to be called. But again, because this is a complicated and unusual situation, the advice of a lawyer would be crucial.

But, to take a step back from the immediate situation and look at the larger questions, it must be said that nobody can step in and fix what is fundamentally wrong here, not the police, not social workers, not therapists. I think the only thing that can really make a difference in your brother's life is a change in outlook, a recapturing of a spirit of humanity, of who he is, of pride and dignity and courage. Those qualities may have been drained from him by years of sickness and emotional abuse. If he is clinically depressed it may take a lot of work to regain them. But they are eternal qualities in humans; we can always find them if we search for them.

One reason we often do not find them is that we do not search for them. If life is mostly OK, we may not be driven to ask difficult, piercing questions about the nature of our existence. So it is that people who have been through the worst and most trying ordeals sometimes say they are grateful -- not that they enjoyed the pain and difficulty, but that they were forced to embrace certain larger truths that formed the foundation of a new and happier life.

Ultimately, if your brother begins to struggle with his difficulties, he may begin to ask himself, How should I live my life? Of what does my life consist? Does it consist of only directives and imperatives related to my illness? What about my capacity for choice, damn the illness? At what point do I say that I am no different from anyone else in one respect: We are all going to die. Because of my illness I may die before others but that does not alter the essential situation: We're all going. So before I go, how shall I live? Shall I live in fear because I am ill? Or shall I make what I can of my humanity, shall I take responsibility for my own life and admit that though I am ill I am still human and able to choose, still human and able to feel, still human and able to be humiliated, still human and able to refuse to be humiliated any longer.

The practical problems are important and must be dealt with. But the larger question is important too -- is he going to knuckle under to a mean, selfish tyrant or take what dignity he has left and finally say, No, I refuse to be treated this way any longer, I may be ill but I am a man, a father, a human being.

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