Case Study: Verbally-Abusive Husband, Wounded Wife

Barbara Symmons, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and career counselor, has seen her fair share of dysfunction. Here, she recounts the case of a couple where the overworked husband can’t keep a lid on his temper and his wife is slipping away.


The couple is in their mid-30s and they’ve been together for 11 years. The man used to have a serious drug addiction, from which she rescued him. They were referred to me by a former client, who was the director of a modeling agency. The female half of the couple is one of her former models and they were very good friends. He is very entrepreneurial and has made a lot of money in the restaurant business. While he has recovered from his drug addiction, he’s a dry drunk, which means that he still has all of the problems that got him addicted in the first place. They have three children, a set of twins and another child. The father works like a fool and the mother tries to take care of these children, who are terribly behaved. They have a nanny, and a weekend nanny, and a housekeeper – so there are too many people looking after the children. Last November, they decided they would get finally get married so they took themselves and their extended family and friends to Mexico for the wedding. It was lots of stress and lots of arguing and a very unhappy time. So the woman emailed me and said that she has to get out. This is the pattern: he is very apologetic but she is still wounded. You can’t un-ring the bell.


The man has very serious anger management issues and easily becomes frustrated and lashes out, not physically hurting anybody but being very verbally abusive, and yet he is very attached to her because she saved his life, and she is very attached to him because she rescued him. The issue is serious marital problems, stress, anger, and a habituated way of reacting to each other. You see the children behaving badly, you see the mother model disappearing into nothing, and you see the father so stressed that he can hardly speak.


The treatment for him has been a fairly conventional anger program that has produced next to nothing. We’ve been doing mindfulness, which he really gets, and it’s allowed him to step outside himself and look at his behavior. Now, when he comes home from work, instead of going ballistic from exhaustion, he goes upstairs and lies on the bed and breathes. In the meantime, his wife, having been abused verbally for many years, has begun to detach. She’s pulling away and the more she pulls away, the more he comes forward. We’ve also used talk therapy, recommendations of pediatric intervention for the children, and a referral to the center for addiction and mental health (where they diagnosed an addiction for pot and recommended anger management).


In terms of progress, we see a highly volatile long-term relationship based on a rescue that masqueraded as a love affair, which is now disengaging from her perspective. I don’t know what the next step will be. They have been very committed to resolving the issues, but now her feelings have changed. She says she’s over it and that she’s just not drawn to him. As he’s getting better, she’s dealing with a different person. This is what she wanted, but it’s not what she’s used to. Often, when we get what we want in relationships, we don’t know what to do with it because now how do I respond and react? When one person changes in a relationship, the other person has to make a huge adjustment.


I think they will make it. There are a lot of adjustments to be done, but there is a strong commitment and – fortunately or unfortunately – I think a lot of it has to do with the children. Both adults come from difficult family backgrounds, which makes a big difference, not only in terms of how you’re programmed but also what you set out as your goals for your family. The conscious goals are: I will never let that happen to me or my family. The unconscious program is: same old, same old.

Author by Sarah Treleaven