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Question 

My husband’s mother remarried about a year ago. We tried to welcome him with open arms, but his behavior has complicated the situation. He is short-tempered with a tendency toward physical violence. He has physically attacked multiple people during the time we have known him. While he and my mother-in-law were still dating, he even attacked my husband’s older brother when he told this guy to stop calling his mother “stupid.” A couple weeks later, he attacked someone else, who pressed charges, and her boyfriend went to jail. My mother-in-law promptly bailed him out and married him shortly after.

We still tried to give him a chance, but the last straw occurred two months ago when he physically assaulted and threatened to kill my mother-in-law. She said she was going to divorce him, but changed her mind and opted instead for marriage counseling.

We are no longer interested in attending events in which he is present, especially as we have three very young children. I do not think our concerns are without merit, as I once actually witnessed him swatting my 9-year-old nephew simply for “being hyper.” My mother-in-law doesn’t seem to understand our concern, and chooses to stay with him for fear of being alone. Any advice?

Answer

Your mother-in-law is in serious trouble, but she obviously can’t see it. Her fear of being alone is putting her in danger. Her husband is dangerous to other people and she’s not only going to find herself separated from her children and grandchildren, but also seriously injured or possibly dead. I can only imagine how agonizing this is for you to witness. Here are some things you can do.

I think you’re wise to protect your family from being in his presence. He can’t control himself and you don’t need to expose yourselves to his impulsive and violent behaviors. I encourage you to warn other family members who may not know so they can also protect their children.

Next, it’s time to stage an intervention with your mother-in-law. I usually recommend people allow family members to work out their own relationship difficulties, but this is not a safe situation. Your husband needs to contact his other siblings and any other family members who would have a positive influence on her so you can all meet with your mother-in-law without her husband present.

It might be difficult to get her alone, as abusers will often sense that something like this is going to happen and they will make it virtually impossible to spend time with her alone. I’m sure you can all come up with a plan that will work.

The purpose of the meeting is to send a clear message to your mother-in-law that she’s in danger. Consider meeting with a counselor prior to the meeting to help you structure it and even possibly facilitate it. Even though you may have shared your concerns with her at different times, this is an opportunity for you to offer to house her, protect her, and help her to get away from her abusive husband. She will need to know that she won’t be alone, that she will have financial support, and that you will get her to proper counseling and resources to help this last.

Your mother-in-law is an abuse victim and will need intensive help to give her the clarity, strength, and courage to see this situation truthfully. It’s heart-wrenching to see her put herself back in this situation when it’s clear to everyone else that this is a bad decision. Abuse victims can be so turned around in their minds and hearts that they stay stuck in patterns that continue to harm them. You’ve most likely heard of the “Stockholm Syndrome.” It’s a real dynamic between perpetrators and victims that must be taken seriously.

The LDS Church teaches the following about abuse:

[Abuse] harms the mind and the spirit and often injures the body as well. It can cause confusion, doubt, mistrust, and fear. It is a violation of the laws of society and is in total opposition to the teachings of the Savior. The Lord condemns abusive behavior in any form—physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional.[i]

I encourage you to educate yourself about abuse so you can be prepared to support your mother-in-law in protecting herself from further abuse.

Tragically, if she won’t allow all of you to protect her from her abusive husband, then you have to clarify and reinforce the boundaries you’re using to protect your families from his abusive behavior. If he does something illegal, you can certainly report it to the authorities again, but there is nothing you can do to force your mother-in-law to protect herself. We can only hope that she will hear and respond to your concerns for her safety and well-being.

 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

[i] https://www.lds.org/topics/abuse?lang=eng