My husband hit me

I'd leave him, but not if it means shared custody of our child

By Cary Tennis
Published November 30, 2010 1:30AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My husband has a lot of problems.

Most of these problems didn't come to the surface until after we got married. I did know about some of them, just not to their full extent. Some of my husband's problems are historical, like his strained relationships with an abusive, alcoholic father and his absentee mother. The rest are current problems, and they're big ones. They're the kind of problems that impact our life on a daily basis -- for example, an inability to manage his anger, his need for validation from every pretty girl in close proximity, and his reluctance to divulge major personal details, such as the existence of a first ex-wife. (Almost up until we got married, I had only known about one of his previous marriages, and that was the second one.)

There are still other major current problems, like a volatile relationship with his second ex-wife, with whom he has days-long arguments via e-mail, phone and text messages. They argue about his challenging relationships with their children, his role in their life, the visitation schedule. Then there are his children, who alternately like (well, tolerate) me and dislike me without any kind of predictability.

On top of everything, he lost his job about a month ago.

Our problems really escalated a few months ago when we were arguing and he hit me. Since then, he's been going to therapy and "working on things" (whatever that means). I understand that he can't "fix" even one of these problems overnight, and I can see some changes already coming to light, but I'm already emotionally spent and frustrated.

I also know that, because of our relationship, I have changed dramatically. I used to be "the nice girlfriend," willing to help out whenever I could, in any way that I could. But after a few years of playing housekeeper, financial analyst, career counselor, caregiver to his kids and life coach, I feel like I've given a lot -- my time, energy, love, patience. In response, he's taken advantage of me, gotten angry with me and intentionally misled me. I don't feel like being so nice or patient anymore. I just feel very, very stuck.

The reason I'm considering trying to work things out with him and hope for him to make progress through therapy is because we have a child, an amazing, funny, sweet, brilliant baby, whom we both love tremendously.

One part of me feels tethered to my husband because I think that maybe he can pull things together, and he deserves the time to improve. At the same time, if things don't improve, I still feel like I have to stick around because, otherwise, I would be forced to share custody of our child with him. The thought of leaving my child with my husband unsupervised terrifies me. He's never been angry or violent with the baby, but he's pretty absent-minded and easily distracted. And mobile babies need continuous supervision.

I don't feel like I have any influence over these circumstances of my life. I feel torn between staying and leaving, and I'm worried about how either decision will impact our child in the long term.

If I stay in a relationship that's only passably healthy part of the time and otherwise filled with arguing and bickering, what impact does that have on our child? On the other hand, if I end the marriage, I can't ensure (as much as I can from inside the marriage) that our child would be safe without me there to step in whenever my husband gets distracted or frustrated. In the past, I've never been an indecisive person, but I really don't know what to do. Which is the worse choice?


Dear Indecisive,

This is what I think you have to do: Find a therapist or MSW or Ph.D. or psychiatrist or guru who is expert in matters of domestic violence and parenting and marriage and conflict resolution and law and sociology and women's rights and stress reduction and anger management who also is likable like a friend and protector, uniquely suited to work with you, who sees you as you are and can stick with you through the wrenching but ultimately life-affirming journey that you have begun, and enlist that person in your project, which is to face this thing and learn what you can and stay up late and lose sleep and wander in a tormented daze and bite your nails and eat lots of ice cream and eventually when you least expect it but well in advance of the deadline you have set for yourself make this important, life-changing decision, whether to stay with your husband and take the risk that his violent tendency will escalate or leave your husband and risk the consequences of leaving him, including the possibility that he may end up harming your child.

About custody: I would suggest that you keep an open mind:

"It is rare for the courts to award sole physical and legal custody to a parent, unless the court deems that one parent is unfit. Examples of what might make a parent unfit include a history of violence, mental instability, drug or alcohol abuse, or neglect of the child. Even then, visitation rights might be granted under a supervised visitation agreement."

It is not a foregone conclusion that after a divorce your child would be left alone with your apparently dangerous and unstable husband. Rather than assume that, I suggest you find this wonderful expert who is on your side and knows everything there is to know, and talk this over.

You have a lot of courage and you have a clear mind and you can do this.

Set a deadline for deciding. The decision will not be black-and-white. It will be about probabilities. How probable is it that your husband can learn nonviolent conflict resolution and stick to that method even under intense stress? What is the likelihood that he might improve and then slip back? Will he be more likely to improve if you stay married or if you divorce? How does age affect a man's propensity for violence? Might he improve naturally over time with no intervention at all? How are violence toward a wife and violence toward a child correlated? Is one an indicator or predictor of the other? 

These and many other questions arise. So you need to work with someone who knows the statistics on domestic violence and can help you weigh the risks of staying vs. leaving.

Your instincts are important: If you truly believe it would not be safe to leave the child alone with your husband, then by all means no matter what happens do not leave your child alone with your husband. But does that condemn you to staying in a marriage you do not want to be in? I don't know. I don't even know if that is the question. We can frame a situation as either/or but that does not mean it's as simple as our convenient either/or proposition.

I believe in working with real-world experts to reach the best possible solution.  I hope you will do that.

Where will you find these experts?

Perhaps some experts in the field will post their information here so you can evaluate them and get in touch with them if you choose.

That would be nice.

That Special Time of Year

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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