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I am married to an emotionally abusive woman (a bit more background is available in this question). I have recently been trying to implement an approach of setting boundaries (it took me years to realise that the 'problem' between us is the result of emotional abuse) laid out in books / works like Respect Me Rules etc. But I am unable to think of good ways to call out / confront behaviour where the children are used as pawns, in particular:

  • Criticising / yelling at / attacking the children for engaging in activities with me. My wife will never address me when I'm with the kids, instead choosing to address the kids.

  • Constantly wearing an expression of intense disgust and contempt when I am with the children, and showing them this face when talking to them when I'm around (or rolling her eyes and sighing dramatically when I start some activity with them).

I would like to think of healthy ways to call out this behaviour that also tells the children that this behavior is inappropriate. For instance, one example, though I have not yet used this, would be to say "Mom has her dragon face on." Calling out the behaviour does seem to reduce it.

Are there other things I could say or do to show that a boundary has been crossed, and that I will not reward this?

In advance, along with thanks, two requests:

This is not a request for advice about this relationship (so please no "why don't you just leave" answers, please see earlier question as to why this is not helpful); and

This is not a request for ways to communicate with my wife on this, it is a request for ways to indicate a boundary has been crossed (if you're not familiar with setting boundaries in abusive situations, Respect Me Rules is a great place to start).

  • Please respect the OP's requests; comments or answers will be moderated. Also, don't answer in comments :) – Acire Jul 7 '17 at 23:20
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I read the other question & it is hard to say if what my family does would in any way help you as I do not know what you have communicated to her and what she is willing to work with. In my home, we make family rules together (everyone decides on what is fair in a family meeting) & my children are permitted to call us on the rules we break. So for instance, my child may say to me or my husband, "Hey no yelling" if someone has gotten louder than we should. What you refer to as dragon face we call mean face & someone may be asked to "not make mean face at me". We also agree to not talking under our breath, no eye rolling, etc. (on top of other typical things like no hitting, no taking other people's things without asking, etc). Anything I ask my children to do in behavior, I am also agreeing to in my own behavior. We also wrote into the rules that when we break a rule, we need to make amends with the person we wronged. This empowers my children to speak what they see. I do not say things about my spouse to my kids in my spouse's presence as I feel that sets up an odd dynamic, so I would address the spouse. If your family were to have a "no dragon face rule" then I'd then say to my husband, "hey dad, no dragon face". It reads to me that you don't want to address her directly but I could be misunderstanding that. I am unsure in anything I have read on boundaries that talking about her in her presence is a strategy on boundary setting, so if that is the intention, that doesn't seem like a standard approach. It's been some time since I read on it (maybe 10 years?), but that isn't anything I recall. Everything I have read is about is addressing the person directly & calmly & assertively, and I think it is powerful for children to see us address such things correctly & without any hesitation. I am hoping that I misunderstood, as it seems she is speaking to the kids in your presence, when you feel she should be addressing you, so you need to address her to set the healthy boundary in such a case & redirect the energy. I also think that even at their young ages, based on seeing how my own kids are, they are capable of calling out parental missteps if missteps have been agreed to & outlined for them. I have had my own kids as young as 3 remind me of rules. I don't make it their job to remind us, but I empower them to know they can call it when they see it. We (as parents) agreed to that in the rule making meeting with the kids. We also remind one another if need be.

If you are instead wanting a way to talk to the kids about it when she is not there, again, based on what I know of boundary setting, it's worthwhile to discuss what abusive behaviors are, but the boundary still must be set with her in the moment itself & directly with her. That would be the most healthy for them to see.

I grew up with a dad that is a lot similar to the things you describe & maybe not so ironically, my spouses's mother has a lot of those same traits (likely why we both relate to one another and why we work hard in parenting to avoid it).

My mother in law is seldom around and my husband hasn't really ever called her out on any of it. I do not feel it is my job to deal with their relationship, so I just set up boundaries for myself & around my kids. Mostly with her I repeat the same statements over and over, such as "I really do not wish to speak to you about this. This isn't something I want or need your input on. I do not wish to speak to you about anything when you are this upset. We should talk later. I won't have this kind of thing around my kids." I say all of those many times. I really will not engage in an argument with her at all about anything & I never have. Usually we can get through a week together with no issues now. If I say anything it will be only one time I have to go over that. It has worked very well over many years at reducing her efforts to control or manipulate situations in our lives.

My father is around often, but things are much better for us now. It's taken a lot of work and repetition, but I do even trust him alone with my kids for short bits of time. That is not really a way you can handle a spouse, I know. I tell you that only so that it may offer hope for you on how your children will get through it. They have you. My mother was my soft place & my spouse had a great dad. As such, they gave us the tools to be resilient and try to do better with our own children, as I believe you will do this too. There is every reason to hope that yours will be okay, even if it's hard going through it. And I think you are right to be concerned. When I was very small my father was kind. It wasn't until I was old enough to start holding my own opinions or he started to think I was "taking my mom's side" that he became cruel to me and my siblings. I used to hope they would divorce so that I didn't have to live with him anymore and then I'd remember that if they did, I'd have to visit him without her protection & then I'd return to being grateful that she stayed.

  • This is a wonderful response and has really helped me rethink my approach. I think you're right in that I was confusing the boundary with the consequence (calling out the behaviour rather than allowing passive aggression). I'll try to address her directly. – SGo Jul 8 '17 at 6:33
  • I follow exactly the same approach as you with my kids - we have agreed rules and they can call me on them, we have a system of 'fines' too. My wife has never participated and breaks the rules frequently, ignoring the children's protests. I have tried to discuss this frequently, and we've gone thru 2 counseling processes in the last two years, all to no avail. Hencr the boundaries, though as you say I plan to communicate them directly later. – SGo Jul 8 '17 at 6:37
  • It sounds to me that you are doing very well with the things you can control. As you know, we cannot control others, nor should we try to. So you just have to continue on with controlling your responses to the situations you have at hand and hope that in time she will decide to behave in more appropriate ways. If she does not, then you have set an excellent example to your children on how to manage such situations. To my own kids I tell them about proactive living, versus reactive living. So you set your own code of conduct & use it regardless of how someone else acts. That is proactive. – threetimes Jul 8 '17 at 22:17
  • When you live proactively you retain all of the control in your own life & no longer allow others to dictate your behavior by being reactive to them. I wish you all the best for sure. It's a hard situation you are in & you are doing your very best to make it as livable as it can be for everyone. That is something to be very proud about. – threetimes Jul 8 '17 at 22:18
  • Thanks so much again for your wisdom. I had one last question. I am, as said, heavily relying on Respect Me Rules and a few other materials I've found. Most of the stuff about boundary setting I can find is too general to be useful. Is there material you would recommend, or specific search terms I should use, that might help me find more useful references? I still feel confused, as you can see :). – SGo Jul 9 '17 at 13:06

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