My wife is an emotionally abusive partner (a few details in this question). Our marriage is likely to end in the next few months, but though I have moved out we have both said that we will work on the marriage (though my wife has not really done so). One of my wife's standard abusive behaviours is the silent treatment.

At present the two of us and our two children (8 yr old girl and 4 yr old boy) are spending time together for a few days. It is night where I live and my wife and I just had an argument, including the usual resort to threats from her side. I know that tomorrow morning she will be in full blown silent treatment mode and may also start to passive aggressively tell the kids "do whatever you want", you decide, etc. which always freaks them out.

When they witness fights, I always ask them later if they are scared, and tell them that we will not be going anywhere, and that it is ok to be scared and sometimes I also get scared, but they'll be all right. However, this time they have not witnessed the fight. I am thinking of telling them anyway. However, they may then ask their mother, who might then try to threaten them into silence (though she generally does not do this) or otherwise tell them that their father is having issues. This places them in a tough position between both parents. But not saying anything leaves them completely unable to understand my wife's passive aggression, which is obviously is very frightening for them.

What would you suggest I should do?

EDIT: I should explain that the "silent treatment" doesn't mean being silent - it means aggressively hostile behaviour, ignoring people when they speak to you, swearing under one's breath, wearing an expression of constant disgust etc.

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Being emotionally available to your children is probably the best thing you can do for them in such a situation. Make time just for them, and make it about them. Regardless of what your goals for the marriage are answer any questions they have as honestly and as simply as possible.

Kids:

"Why isn't Mom talking to you?"

You:

"Mom is very angry/scared/etc. about X, and is having a very hard time with it. I am very angry/scared/etc. too, but we are trying to work it out. We love you and are not angry/scared/etc. because of/at you."

Since the children's ages are so different, it might be best to give a very general explanation like this to them together, and provide more appropriately designed answers to each privately, depending on their level of interest and capacity.

However, if they aren't asking about that specific behavior, it may not be necessary - or even helpful - to try explaining it.

P.S. It sounds like help is in order, maybe even professional help. Explaining the reasons for abusive behavior to your children will not help them cope with it or undo any damage that occurs. Support for each of your will be especially important if your marriage is ending.

  • I couldn't follow the phrase "It sounds like help could is in order..." - the next phrase implies that you are also thinking of help other than professional help, in which case what would that help be? I think you're almost certainly right, and the consequences of the kids facing this kind of abusive behaviour terrifies me and literally keeps me up at night. – SGo Jan 29 at 15:10
  • @SGo I tried to clarify that. I removed and reworded my answer significantly after reading the first version to myself, and something got lost/mixed up in the process. Family and friends can be be quite supportive and helpful in cases like this, and generally perform the bulk of that work. Getting the kids out of this situation, even for a short visit to a friends/relatives, and or giving them someone to talk to is great support. – zugzwang Jan 29 at 17:44
  • Thank you, that's a big help. I think it makes sense that they should meet friends / relatives often so they can also see healthier ways of behaving. – SGo Jan 29 at 18:34

I fear your children will learn your wife's method of dealing with strife or rebuff or setback. You might start documenting such incidents for possible future use in legal proceedings concerning custody. You might explain to your children that there are various ways of dealing with such situations, some more productive than others. You might help your children practice more productive approaches as occasions arise. Perhaps you can find age appropriate books with examples of more productive approaches. Positive role models are very helpful, at all ages.

This book has some ideas (mainly discussing situations you may see or be part of): Raising Independent, Self-Confident Kids: Nine Essential Skills to Teach Your Child or Teen by Wendy L. Moss PhD and Donald A. Moses, MD Published by the American Psychological Association, 2018.

  • Yes, I have been trying to do so, and one example is the poster discussed in this question. I'm trying to look for books as well, and any recommendations would be incredibly helpful (there's a separate question on that too :) ). – SGo Jan 29 at 15:14
  • This book has some ideas (mainly discussing situations you may see or be part of): Raising Independent, Self-Confident Kids: Nine Essential Skills to Teach Your Child or Teen by Wendy L. Moss PhD and Donald A. Moses, MD Published by the American Psychological Association, 2018 – Zayde in NY Jan 30 at 0:56

I don’t think it’s necessary to say that you had a fight, per se - there have been a few times when it was obvious to my son that my husband and I were in a very bad place with one another emotionally, and what we have done is to say, “mom and dad are upset with each other right now, but it is not your fault, and it’s not something for you to worry about. We love you, and we’re going to work it out ourselves when we can.”

I would wait and see how the morning or day goes. If your children seem to notice and wonder, you can still say something along the lines of

Mommy is still angry with daddy. We had an argument last night when you were asleep. [further explanation as needed]

But I wouldn’t necessarily start their day with a message like that.

  • 1
    "There is no rule that raising children is the mother’s job alone." - certainly not, and I'm not sure where I implied that. What I mean is that this is a normally authoritarian parent who suddenly radiates rage while saying "do whatever you want." This the kids correctly interpret as anger - anyone would- but naturally they assume it's directed at them. And since there is no explanation for the rage they gradually become terrified and upset. I am very much there and they will turn to me, but that doesn't lessen the hurt and fear they feel. Hence my question – SGo Jan 28 at 2:21
  • 1
    @SGo ah. The clarification helps. – Stephie Jan 28 at 9:21

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