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My wife engages in a lot of emotionally abusive behaviour, including yelling, calling names, and the more dangerous stuff like the passive aggressive silent treatment, gaslighting, projection of her own mistakes on to others etc. We have two small children, and so far she has done less of this with them, but as they grow and begin to challenge her authority I can see her doing it more and more.

I am learning to set boundaries and am in the last stages of trying to either change this relationship or leave (please do NOT give me advice on the relationship - that's not what I'm looking for). I've made a small poster and want to put it up in the house to both help my kids understand and to reduce the amount of self-blame if she begins to guilt trip and use the silent treatment on them as well. So I came up with these points for the poster:

  1. If I'm angry, it's my job to tell you calmly, and your job to listen calmly.

  2. If I feel like screaming or hitting you, it's my job to calm down, and your job to let me calm down.

  3. If I call you bad names, it's my job to stop, and your job to not believe what I say about you.

  4. If I do something wrong, it's my job to say sorry and try to make things better.

  5. If I honestly do that, it's your job to stop being angry.

And it's our job to love, to care, to build our dreams together.

Would these be ok? Do you think I should change them or add anything? Please also note that my wife will, definitely, reject anything I propose, so please do not suggest discussing it with her, as at this point that will not help.

EDIT: Here is a revised version, based on the very very helpful comments from @anongoodnurse below. Explanation for revisions below this.

OUR FAMILY FIGHTING RULES

Repeat after me:

  1. If I'm angry with you, it's my job to explain why, calmly and clearly.

  2. If I feel like screaming or hitting you, it's my job to calm down.

  3. If you're telling me what you're feeling and why - angry or sad or happy or lonely - it's my job to listen and to care.

  4. If I'm calling you names or saying you're a bad person, you shouldn't believe what I say about you, and it's my job to stop.

  5. When I do something wrong, it's my job to say sorry and try to make things better.

  6. If you do something wrong, say sorry, and try to make things better, it's my job to forgive you and stop being angry.

  7. Whatever you do, it's always my job to care for you.

Because we all make mistakes, and we all need forgiveness, because otherwise we can't do our main job - to love, to care, and to build our dreams together.

Reasons:

  • To avoid the impression, that was pointed out, that any one "job" depends on the other person doing theirs
  • To include the explicit point about negative self-images
  • The last two points in @anongoodnurse's list seemed like they specifically were aimed at the person being abusive - so putting them in seems like it would make the poster seems less universal, since as he/she said, the key is to make these rules that clearly apply to everyone. Those could be communicated elsewhere?

NB: In case it might be useful, I've put up a poster version of these rules here.

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    What ages are your children? Can they read? Can they write/print? – anongoodnurse Oct 5 '17 at 14:48
  • Daughter can read and write (she's in third grade), son can't do either yet, but he should learn in the next year or so. I'm kind of counting on my daughter to get the idea first :) – user29941 Oct 5 '17 at 15:54
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    Please respect OP's request to not give advice on the relationship. – Acire Oct 6 '17 at 17:16
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    @anongoodnurse - thank you so much! I'm really grateful for this, and one of the reasons I waited 24 hours before accepting your excellent answer was in the hope that others would see an unanswered question and pitch in :). I have been working on my draft using your comments, and am posting in an edited version for thoughts. – user29941 Oct 7 '17 at 15:54
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    I wouldn't use "job", use responsibility. Job sounds like it getting paid and only doing it because someone else is making you. Responsibility makes it more personal and says it is on you or me to do it because we should. – DCook Oct 9 '17 at 18:03
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If your kids can't read yet, it won't help too much. If your wife isn't on board, I can see some big problems ahead with this approach if she doesn't respect boundaries. (tearing the poster down, for one.)

Do teach the kids the rules verbally, every day, before the abuse starts. I would change a few things though. What the parent is doing may well be different than what their 'job' is, and the 'jobs' of the children change in those cases. For example, if mom doesn't calm down, is it because the kids aren't doing their jobs well enough? I would change the 'rules':

  • If I'm upset, it's my job to tell you calmly why, and your job to listen calmly. But if I'm angry, I'm wrong to yell or make you afraid. You may have done something to upset me, but it's never your fault that I'm angry.
  • It is never OK to scream or hit you. If I'm that angry, it's my job to calm down, and your job to quietly give me a few minutes to calm down. If I don't calm down, it's not your fault, it's mine. And I'm wrong to do that to you.
  • Don't believe anything I say in anger. If I call you bad names or say bad things about you, please understand I am not in control of myself or what I'm saying, even though I should be.
  • When I do something I'm not supposed to do, it's my job to say I'm sorry and try to make things better. It's not your job to try to make me feel better.
  • If I honestly apologize and try to make it better, please forgive me. We all need to experience forgiveness.
  • It's everyone's job to care about each other. But it's normal to feel disappointed, afraid, angry, or even unloved if I am scary angry and out of control, because at that moment, I am disappointing you, frightening you, being unjust towards you, and being unloving.
  • It's ok to wish things were different, and to imagine a world where people treat you well and lovingly all the time. (This is called negative identification. It allows the child to more easily become a better parent than they had.)

Please note that these things apply to everyone, the kids included. They remove the artificiality of having different rules for kids and adults. Kids have an inherent idea of fairness which is quickly ruined by an abusive parent, and can be ruined for life. So this is a great thing you're trying to do. You're preserving, in a way, their idea of what's fair and what's not fair. You're giving them permission to refuse to take the blame for someone else's irrationality. You're allowing them to preserve their sense of self worth. What a gift!

Also, I would add giving your children a rich emotional vocabulary. They will need it. Teaching them to write things down (what happened and what they wish had happened) is a valuable tool for deniability (refusing to become the object of blame.) At first, you may have to do this with them, writing for them. But this will help them sort reality from gaslighting.

Now, if you're trying to keep them safe while someone is threatening them, that's a bit different, and should be approached as "self-preservation." (Also not a bad idea. But separate them, so as to decrease the cause-and-effect aspect.)

Good luck. You're facing a lot, and it's great to be proactive about it.

I'm basing part of this answer on the experiences of children who proved resilient in the face of a mother with BPD, only because of the uncontrollable anger and emotional volatility of people suffering from BPD.

  • Thank you. The idea of suggesting a journal is brilliant, and you wrote down what I'm trying to do in such a clear fashion that it clarified it for me :). Your point about not allowing the kids to be blamed is vital (I also didn't intend for the "I" to be the parent, but to be anyone, so that also needs clarification). My only thing is that I think the rules need to be short, but I'll try to incorporate your points in a shortened version. – user29941 Oct 5 '17 at 15:55
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    @user29941 Other posters like this? If so, I'm not convinced the new poster would add much, since her behavior is continuing. – Marisa Oct 6 '17 at 14:29
  • I like repeating rules and clarifying what ought to happen in case of breaches, but these are longer and more complicated than I would expect someone too young to read to master quickly. Posters with pictures can aid illiterate people especially as a reminder to a verbal lesson. – user26011 Oct 6 '17 at 22:29
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    @notstoreboughtdirt - "Master quickly"? Umm... Many people who have been abused never master these things. As I said, "every day". Every day. Eventually, one hopes, they will incorporate these things into their beliefs. There's nothing "quick" about it. – anongoodnurse Oct 6 '17 at 22:34
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    @anongoodnurse - I take your point and I have already been doing it verbally as much as i can. The poster idea is meant to be a kind of anchor for the verbal stuff... I hope :). – user29941 Oct 7 '17 at 4:13

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