My husband's "strict upbringing" is ruining him

I think he was mistreated, but he won't talk about it

Published October 14, 2010 10:12PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband has just been fired from his sixth job in 10 years, and our relationship is feeling some strain. He tells me that as a child -- an only child -- he was severely disciplined by his father, who is still living. He isn't getting any help for himself and he isn't confronting the father. He's a very private person and rejects counseling.

He needs desperately to control other people's perceptions of himself, now more than ever, and the distortions are catching up with him. I feel like the buried stuff is ruining his life, and threatening to take our marriage with it. What can I do to help?

Worried About Him

Dear Worried About Him,

I will just come out and say what I believe.

I believe your husband rejects counseling because whatever happened to him filled him with shame.

He cannot admit his shame. He cannot admit the details of what happened. He cannot even remember most of it. Most of it is buried still. He knows it's there, but he has come up with a way of dealing with it.

So here is his way of dealing with it: He says that he is a "very private person."

I feel like the way to deal with this is just to be very blunt. Being very blunt has its drawbacks. But I'll take the odds. Once you've seen enough people die because they refuse to feel their own pain or admit to their own shame, once you've seen enough people jump off bridges or put needles in their arms because they believe that no one has ever been through what they've been through and no one will ever believe them and no one will come to their rescue if they admit whatever shameful thing was done to them, once you get used to the connection between shame and self-destruction, you'll take the odds. You'll be wrong once in a while but all that means is that people think you're stupid for jumping to conclusions, or that you're alarmist for "seeing abuse everywhere."

On the bright side, once you see enough people save their own lives by admitting what happened, committing to finding love and support and thriving as a result, and once you realize that there is no way on earth you can change the outcome anyway, you stop beating around the bush and just assume that when someone says they were strictly disciplined as a child it means they were beaten, and when someone says they are a "very private person" it means they are living with terrible secrets. Then you can say there is help available and here it is, and I want you to take the help that is offered, but if you won't take it, I'm not going to waste my life pretending that you are OK. I'm not going to live in the shadow of your secrets.

We stop pretending. We say, I don't care how ridiculous I sound or what you say to make me feel stupid, I'm going to say what I see before my eyes. I see a man suffering. I see a child in a man's body. I see a child who was beaten and silenced and has now internalized that silence, is now maintaining that silence and perpetuating the awful father's authority. Still afraid to challenge the father. Still cowed by fear of his blows. Still unable to breathe when he thinks about what might happen if people find out.

Well, people do find out. People know each other's pain instinctively. We know what is done to children and we know how it affects them. They grow up cold and stoic and unable to form relationships; they flinch at power; they protect themselves by hiding. They make lives of provisional, marginal safety and something resembling contentment, and they hide. They hide what has been done to them.

Well, I think people can be changed and can be saved.

So someone comes along and rips the curtain down. And maybe the "very private person" scurries away and continues to hide. Or he sees how pointless it is to hide, that people love him and are there for him and will help. He says, OK, this is what was done to me, this is what my childhood was like, this is me as a child. We grieve for that childhood. We live with the sadness. We open the door on it.

Everything gets better once you open the door on it.

Light falls on the scene of horror. You see yourself with compassion. You see that nothing could have been done. You could not have stopped what happened. It was not your fault. You forgive yourself. You begin to take care of yourself. Things get better.


Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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