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Ask the Rabbi/Psychologist: The Enabler

July 25, 2012 | by Yaacov Haber and Dr. Michael Tobin

I'm ashamed for enabling my husband’s verbal abuse.


I'm ashamed of enabling the verbal abuse against my daughters by my husband. For many years I’ve been feeling the guilt and do not know how to proceed. My husband and one daughter do not speak or have a relationship. I am stuck in the middle of this horrible situation and heartbroken beyond words. The distorted relationship also affects my other daughter and her family. Is there a solution beyond divorcing my spouse?

Dr. Michael Tobin

Dr. Michael Tobin's Answer

In order for me to properly answer your question, I would need to understand what you mean when you say that you feel terribly ashamed and guilty for enabling your husband's verbal abuse of your daughters. Clearly your strong language of remorse indicates that you feel a great degree of responsibility for not doing enough to stop it. Assuming that's true, do you know what prevents you from taking firmer action? Are you afraid of your husband? Has he also been abusive to you as well? Has he ever laid a hand on you or your daughters, and if so, did you take action to protect your children and yourself?

The fact that you opened your question by pointing an accusatory finger at yourself tells me that you need professional help in dealing with your guilt and shame over your lack of firm action. It's impossible to assess from your question to what extent you are indeed being an enabler by taking excessive ownership over the problems within your family and thus indirectly "enabling" your husband to avoid taking responsibility for his abuse. Enablers by nature tend to take far too much responsibility for abusive and/or alcoholic spouses and are constantly blaming themselves rather than confronting the abuser.

Since your question is short on explanatory information, I am taking on face value your use of the word abuse. It's a word that too often gets bantered around without any clear definition of what it means. So for the sake of clarity, I think it's important that we define what abuse is and what it isn't and what an abuser is and isn't. (I am certain that many readers may take issue with my definitions and I eagerly await your reactions.)

Abuse is any behavior which belittles, shames, ridicules or threatens another.

I would define abuse as any behavior, be it verbal, non-verbal or physical, in which the abuser belittles, shames, ridicules, or threatens another. Through verbal and/or physical force the abuser discounts another's feelings, thoughts, and opinions. In other words, the abuser tries to intimidate another with aggression and power so as to maintain control over the other person.

Like all bullies, an abuser is a weak and emotionally improvised individual who is threatened by his wife's or children's independence. The irony is that if you were to ask an abusive father if he loved his children, he would answer emphatically, "Yes!" which is why he feels he needs to "invest" so much in order to properly guide and educate them. The abuser doesn't recognize the individuality and separateness of the other, but sees the other as an object to manipulate and control.

So if this more or less defines your husband, then the best thing your children can do is to keep their distance. And the best thing that you can do before considering divorce is to get help on how to be more assertive with him. If he is a physically abusive man and you are at risk of being in harm's way, then you need professional advice on how to protect yourself. I would advise anyone who is at risk of being the victim of physical abuse to immediately contact the police and get a restraining order placed on the abuser. I am hoping that the situation with your husband does not demand that level of intervention.

Another important distinction is understanding the difference between an abuser and someone who can act abusively. An abuser by definition is someone who has a powerful need to control another and does this through a number of threatening and manipulative behaviors. Someone who can act abusively but is not intrinsically an abuser may suffer from an inability to control his anger but is not driven by a need to control another. He or she has poor self-management skills and may easily become overwhelmed by frustrations and anxiety. It's said that rage is the last act of the incompetent. In other words, anger and rage fill the void left by the absence of creative problem solving skills and the ability to identify and express deeper feelings and emotions.

The question of divorce to a great extent hinges on being able to make a proper determination about whether your husband is an abuser or a man who has a great deal of difficulty communicating his frustrations, resentments, and emotional pain.

Another point that we need to look at is how you as a family have dealt with your husband's abuse. It seems that the way of coping with him is to disengage. In fact, the question that you're asking is whether the ultimate disengagement, divorce, is the only solution for you. Is your husband that powerful and/or defensive that neither you nor your daughters are able to communicate your difficulties with him? Is he that unaware that he is unable to see any causal relationship between his behavior and his daughters' reactions? Is his only emotional stance to blame and criticize others? Is there no part of him that feels alone and scared about losing his family? Would he absolutely refuse to enter therapy with you and begin to deal with these issues?

In order to decide to divorce, it's imperative that you deal with these questions and know in your heart that you've done everything to save your marriage and to protect your children. Again I want to reiterate that to make the proper decision you will need professional help in order to understand whether you have a role in perpetuating the problem and whether divorce is the only "solution."

Good luck,


Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov Haber's Answer

The fact that you are ashamed and feel guilt means that you feel you are at fault for the difficult relationship that your children have with your spouse. Maybe you feel that you should have stopped the abuse earlier on. You feel that by tolerating abuse, you have enabled it. And now, you feel that you have brought upon your family a "horrible situation."

Let’s be very clear. You are not the abuser; your spouse is. Perhaps, had you have been less tolerant you may have helped the situation – and ‘enabling’ certainly isn’t a wonderful thing. But life isn’t so simple and it is possible that other paths may have made it worse. What happened happened and there is no use crying about it. I don’t believe that there is a proven formula, i.e. say this, do that, don’t say this and the abuse will stop. Who knows?

What is past is past. What about the future? I want to suggest five steps.

Step 1: Understand that you are not the abuser; your spouse is. You didn’t cause your spouse to be abusive and you probably can’t stop it.

Step 2: Understand that there is no justification for abuse. Abuse is wrong. There is nothing that you or your family could have done that could ever justify or deserve abusive behavior. Period.

Step 3: Make sure your decision is healthy. You wrote that divorce is not a good solution for you – that is your choice. Divorce is a very personal and a very big decision with very wide ramifications. It should not be an easy decision. However, please ask yourself, why is divorce not a solution? Is it because you feel that divorce will make your life even more difficult than it is already; or is it because you feel that you are a hostage to the abuse (and the abuser) and that you don’t really have the freedom to make a decision to divorce?

You are not a hostage to your spouse. You can make any decision you want.

Please know that you are free. You are not a hostage to your spouse. You can make any decision you want. I’m not encouraging divorce; I’m just letting you know that YOU can decide what to do, not the abuser.

Step 4: There is help for the abuser; but that help is probably not going to come from you. Get your spouse to a professional now. You must be brave and you must be consistent and firm. It is time to confront your spouse, perhaps together with your adult children, and make it abundantly clear that you care about your spouse and you want what’s best but your spouse must get help – now. When speaking to your spouse remember not to lose yourself in anger. Keep your tone of voice down; show respect in the words you choose. Attack the problem, not your partner.

Step 5: Pray that God gives you the courage you need to confront your husband and blesses you with the right words to say. Pray that God will open your spouse’s heart and that your spouse will be moved to get help by your very firm yet sincere demand. Pray for recovery and peacefulness. Abusers can change. Relationships can improve. Brokenness can be healed. God can do anything.

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