Dear Marital Therapist, You Are No Better Than My Abuser

(Names changed for anonymity)

Dear Marital Therapist,

I just received your message claiming you “don’t have very detailed notes” of the October 2016 session with me and my husband because you were “focused on the couple.” If murder/suicide fantasies and assault threats, both aimed at children, don’t make it into your notes, let alone sit in your memory, you are not the competent therapist I thought you to be. Is it that you don’t understand abuse, or that you just don’t care enough to get involved?

I wish Hasan had beaten me and the children. It would be so much easier if we could point to physical manifestations of the pain he caused.

Although, I have learned that I could have called the police for assault when he:

- Drove the children and I in dangerous, rage-filled episodes in which he rapidly switched lanes, either cursed at me or was eerily silent (as we all were when he was furious), and maintained a driving distance of mere inches between our car and the vehicles in front of us while traveling at speeds of 90+ mph in an old minivan. He also did this to me when driving me to the hospital to deliver our third child.

- Threw a heavy book just past our then 2-year-old’s head, such that it smashed with great force on the wall behind him.

- Told our then 7-year-old son he would smash his face in. Did I say told? Yelled, with all his might while holding a fist over his head. I left our newborn on the bed where I was nursing him and ran to put myself between Josh and his father, to tell him that he would do no such thing. When I grabbed the newborn and my daughter and told Josh we were going out for a while, Josh didn’t want to leave his father. He wanted to make it better, to ingratiate himself to him, repair the rift “he” had caused by being a “bad boy.”

- Told me he fantasized about killing me and the children. This made it especially disconcerting when, upon the many occasions I tried alone to inform him that I was going forward with the divorce, he said, “I apologize to you in advance for anything I’ll have to do now.” He would not offer an explanation as to what, exactly, he meant by that.

- Chased my sister-in-law (his sister) throughout the house while she held my infant in her arms. I came home to find her sitting outside in a state of shock and tears, holding my baby.

By the way, after our last session when Hasan said he would let me go and he did so with the most genuine tears in his eyes, he spent the one-hour drive home explaining how he was justified in each instance for the pain he caused me and the children, how it all came from his immense love, and how selfish I was being.

Also, he said it was obvious that anything he had done to me was my fault because he was a healthy, non-violent person — anyone could see that.

He said I must have provoked him with my sarcasm and my inability to take criticism.

Of course, the “non-assault” instances were just as damaging. The happy family outings that could turn somber and tense at the drop of a hat, everyone walking on eggshells even in the “good” times.

I was the main breadwinner and expected to keep a good house and “obedient” children and defend my professional life if it ever became so demanding as to make it appear that I had to actually spend time making the money I brought in. So, I averaged maybe 4 hours of sleep a night for years so I could be available as the woman of the house during the day.

And, while I was working, he would demand sex which I had to either accept (and be called cold if I didn’t enjoy it) or face days of silent treatment and/or constant minor retaliations.

You know, the kinds of little insults that wear you down. “You put the wrong milk in my coffee. Do you make those kinds of mistakes when you’re working?” “You’re bringing living room problems to the bedroom.” “You’re lucky I’m Muslim or I’d go outside the marriage for sex.”

You wouldn’t have known about many of these things at the time. When we went to counseling with you, it was under the condition (his) that we could not discuss his parents, sex, or divorce. It took me two years to get him to your office. And while much of the work we did with you was helpful, when he said I couldn’t take criticism, you looked me in the eye and said three times, “If you are going to be yourself in this marriage, there will be times when he doesn’t like you.”

This was such a dangerous message to receive. You see, I didn’t realize at the time that he was abusing me. I thought we had problems as a couple.

So, I doubled down on my efforts to move forward and “be me” without letting his constant insults or criticisms bother me. A professional had, essentially, endorsed the message as constant as his insults — that I couldn’t take criticism. You had us do exercises in which we each appreciated things about the other and said them out loud. This also reinforced that it was us who had a problem with our marriage. I continued working hard to fix my side of things.

I read so many books about relationships and communications. At first, I fought, of course. But that was a shitty way to live. It just escalated everything. Then, I adopted a policy of non-engagement. I had to throw that out the window when I realized the kids were listening to everything he was saying to me and to them. I began simply stating, “I see things differently.” I thought the problem might be that he didn’t love himself enough. Maybe if I loved him hard enough, he could love himself and then love us. I tried living with him as a roommate. I tried putting a figurative wall of protection around my heart so his outbursts couldn’t hurt me. I would let him into the “sitting room of my heart” and no further. I saw a past life regression therapist to try to heal whatever karma was coming between us. I saw your practice partner for two years with a goal of being myself in my home, regardless of his behavior. (I also wish she had better understood abuse.) None of it worked.

It was no picnic for any of us. I’m sure you know that children sense much of what happens, even that which is unsaid. We didn’t fight in front of them. But he was hurtful to them to.

He resorted to power and control tactics to get the children to do anything, even something simple like putting a dish away.

Our daughter, if she was upset, would hear from him, “Why don’t you smile? You look so pretty when you smile.”

With our eldest son, it was less subtle. He told Josh that he was a loser, a disgrace, lazy. “We don’t call names in this house,” I’d say, having carefully read the books about what exact language to use to address verbal abuse without personally attacking the abuser. “Josh is a winner. He won his basketball game on Tuesday and at Pokémon, the trainer uses him as an example of how to win without a lot of fancy cards.” I used the approach from so many parenting books, giving specific examples of accomplishment.

How could anything I said, though, heal the fact that his father thought him a loser?

What could make up for the time he threatened to send Josh away to boarding school, telling him when he protested that his mother would never allow that, “I’ll convince her. I’ll show her all the research online and she will want to send you away too.”

Do you know what it’s like to see your young son make a small error and respond by calling himself garbage?

Have you ever had your 8-year-old tell you that he didn’t deserve to be alive? That he wished he didn’t exist?

Have you ever sat on the opposite side of a one-way mirror and watched your son tell his therapist that there is nothing good about himself? “There must be something,” the therapist says supportively. “Your mother had many good things to say about you.” “No, there is nothing,” he says.

Have you ever tried to do the right thing during a divorce? Speak only well of your children’s other parent? Facilitate phone calls every night. Pursue joint parental responsibilities. Because everyone from your lawyer to the kids’ therapist says that a father figure is so important in their lives? Because these children were made in love and the spouse you met 15 years ago was open-hearted, funny, and generous? Because you truly hope that this divorce, though painful, will wake him up and get him to be a better father?

But, it’s been a few sessions your children have had with their therapist now. And one day you go in and she plays a Disney movie for them, taking you to another room to tell you she’s discussed your situation with her colleagues. She says when she laid it all out, they were, at first, dead silent.

Then they said, “That man is doing damage to those children.” And the words split your heart in two. But your heart doesn’t stop there. Each piece splits and splits again, until your heart is in shards on the floor. Because you know it’s true.

You’ve always known. That’s what you tell the therapist when she asks if you are okay. “You are not telling me anything I don’t know,” you assure her. She says that she and her colleagues want you to seriously consider pursuing sole custody. The benefit of having an involved father is outweighed by the damage he is doing. Josh is still young, she points out. So much healing can happen at this age.

That is what led me to call you. My lawyer wanted to know if you would testify since Hasan had admitted some of the scariest behaviors to you.

When you said you were not the right person, that he had always been polite and courteous in your office, you could have picked my jaw up off the floor.

Why?

Because he politely and courteously told you that he’d spoken to me of fantasizing about murdering us. Because he politely and courteously told you he had threatened to smash our son’s face in.

You were not privy to everything. But these things he told you with his own polite and courteous mouth.

I really didn’t know what to say to you. It’s not just that you said no. It’s that his innate charm makes him seem like the last person in the world who would harm anyone, and that seemed to have had its effect on you too.

It’s that you are a mandated reporter. No matter how politely or courteously it is said, if fantasies of killing children or smashing their faces in don’t merit reporting, what does?

It’s that at every turn, this world is so hard on women and children and you were one more “nice man” in an authority position seeming to say that none of this was important enough to take a stand for, that it was as much my fault as his.

The “it takes two to tango” perception of domestic abuse keeps so many from taking a stand.

What I have learned in healing myself from this marriage and from childhood sexual abuse is that neutrality always hurts the victim.

The challenge with marriage counseling is that it is supposed to be neutral ground (as you told me when we spoke on the phone, you were there to be a resource for both of us). This needs to change in cases where abuse is present.

After reading voraciously and being in support groups and somewhat turning into a peer counselor to women who are at various stages of freeing themselves and their children from dangerous situations, I have come to firmly believe that all mental health professionals must support victims.

I realize there can be a great deal of subtlety. It’s not always easy to recognize abuse — especially because many mental health professionals don’t have the training to recognize signs. But this ignorance must be replaced with understanding.

I realize, too, that mental health professionals are caring and empathetic and see the humanity of the person who is being abusive. They want to help. It must feel somewhat like a betrayal of them to support the other party.

But, taken to the extreme, this would mean that having empathy for Hitler and for white supremacists (which we certainly can do) justifies not protecting Jews or African Americans (an immoral attitude in which the impact renders the intent null and void).

Your voice and the power you wield are especially critical because the courts place little importance on domestic abuse.

“New research from the National Institute of Justice found the courts give more importance to alienation than domestic violence or child abuse. This contradicts the findings from leading scientific research like the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Studies from the CDC and the Saunders’ Study from the U.S. Department of Justice.” (http://bit.ly/2wvIIT8)

This means that if a parent speaks out about child abuse at the hands of the other parent, the likely result is that the parent trying to protect the children will end up with less decision-making and parenting-time allocation — less protections for the child, not more. Parents are punished for trying to protect their children, and I have several women in my domestic violence support group who have lost all custody and have only a couple of hours’ supervised visitation a week — if that.

This makes it terrifying to think about pursuing sole custody, the sole custody my children’s therapist is saying is in their best interest.

Many of us pursue 50/50 custody agreements and hope that the abusive ex will become less interested in parenting once he’s moved on to a new relationship.

Oh, and it’s also in the children’s best interest if they and their mother are alive. Statistically, all physical violence begins with verbal abuse, and when a woman is leaving is the time she is most at risk. When I had Hasan served with divorce papers, I took the children camping to an undisclosed location. We made it fun, roasted marshmallows, went on hikes. But my heart was racing the whole time. And we couldn’t stay there forever.

Just last July, the CDC released data stating that half of all female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by intimate partners. And domestic abuse is everywhere once you see it. I am very sad to report that many of the women in my friends circle have turned out to be a member of this unfortunate club.

I ask that you take my experience (and the data showing that it is, unfortunately, not unique) to heart.

There is a big difference between a lousy marriage (“takes two to tango”) and an abusive one (one person using violence against another).

If you fail to take appropriate action to change your practice and advocate for victims in your interactions with colleagues, you are just as much of an abuser as my husband.

Very sincerely,

Marlo Islam

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