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Stabilizing Family
After Breakup of Abusive Marriage

QUESTION: A friend of mine has separated from her husband, some 8 months now, with no intentions of getting back again. Her husband is a "total control freak", literally speaking. There are 4 children, 11, 9, 6 & 3. The mother was passive but is finding it hard to cope when her eldest daughter is now taking on the role of the "father" of the family. It is a bitter struggle for her as she is trying to do right and not resolve to violence against the kids. Domestic violence was the cause of the break up and has happened many times before and she took it in. the length of the marriage was 11 years. Every time she confronts or even politely tries to resolve or becomes the mother in the situation the eldest daughter says, " You can't tell me what to do because grandfather, grandmother and Dad says I can do whatever I want!"

At one stage, the daughter was in favour of mum's opinions but now it seems that the grandparents are siding their son and getting the eldest daughter involved so that she believes someone other than her mother. What should we do?

ANSWER: The eldest daughter is trying to stabilize the family in the only way she knows how. She is attempting to take Dad's place in the family! This is a very volatile period, as the organization this family has known for 11 years has been unbalanced. The eldest daughter may be drafting herself into the missing place in a misguided effort to stabilize the family system. She is also no doubt experiencing a sense of responsibility as the eldest, and fighting with her mother continues the marital battle, which was likely the one thing the family organized itself around for the past 11 years. She is offering herself as a replacement object for the family to continue to organize in the manner they are accustomed.

Because her mother did not show the strength to leave the situation earlier or in some other way stop the abuse in the family, the daughter may also distrust the mother's ability to navigate the family through the upheaval of the divorce. The only show of "strength" she has learned in the family may be the destructive behavior of her father. It is a call for the mother to take leadership of the family and succeed with her 11 year old daughter in realigning the family with Mom in charge. There is a void left by the father's absence and Mom is the one who must fill it!

It is tempting at this time to draft some other person into this place, such as the maternal grandmother or some other adult. However, it may only further delay or block the possibility of Mom taking charge of the family which is the real answer. A single parent family needs to be a self-sufficiently organized system to run well and provide the stability children need to grow and develop. This does not mean that support isn't important in a single parent family. It is!!!! But the parent should be the one making the decisions. The mother is, by her position in the family, the leader. All efforts should be oriented towards supporting her in this role.

Granted, this can be quite a stretch for a wife and mother who for more than a decade has adapted a passive role to an abusive spouse. She will need support to take charge. And support to not return to the abusive relationship. Groups for battered women have shown to be the most effective in strengthening a woman's resolve to refuse to tolerate abuse and work through feelings of attachment and behaviors which are self-destructive in relationship. Developing a sense of herself as an individual, her likes, her dislikes, her interests and talents will be new. Her identity as a woman must change to incorporate not only single motherhood but possibly a new work identity, too. Her sense of personal power will grow with achieving goals she sets for herself which are attainable and practical. Meeting these goals will build self-esteem and the ability to make decisions in the best interest of herself and her children.

The eldest daughter will respond to her mother's insistence, backed by action, that she is in charge, not the daughter. And that she will be making the decisions in the family. She can offer a listening ear to her daughter's ideas, but she should not accept verbal abuse from her. Sanctions, such as losing privileges for watching television, visiting friends or other consequences should be decided upon and acted upon when rules are broken. And broken they will be, until it is clear that the mother is the winner. And if Mom wins, they all win!

The mother should expect that she will need to act on the sanctions for her daughter to know she is serious. But after several times or so, the need for consequences will decrease. Rules will be broken again, verbal abuse may flair at various times, but decrease continually as the daughter develops trust in her mother's ability to handle her!

Family therapy aimed at supporting the mother's position as the leader in the family, while giving a forum for discussion of the new rules, consequences for not following rules and feelings about the abuse that went on in the past is strongly recommended. This family has the opportunity to develop the kind of family they want to be. This includes discussing why things that went on in the past are no longer OK now. And it includes forming a vision of what kind of family they are going to become. What rituals they will make happen in their new family form.

Verbal abuse and physical abuse should no longer be tolerated. But these are big changes after 11 years! And so they need safe discussion and a format for making this change possible. Multi-family therapy groups can also provide invaluable support for families making these changes together.

A child custody evaluation may also be necessary in this case, if the children are at any time in the care of their father without supervision and he has a history of domestic violence. A history of previous physical abuse may be considered a counterindication to joint custody. Getting appropriate legal advice about this situation may also decrease the daughter's triangulation in the marital conflict and may be a step towards the mother's empowerment. Family therapy or mediation might also be recommended if not required by the court if the daughter continues to be caught in the middle of the marital conflict.

You can empathize with your friend and encourage her to take steps towards securing and maintaining her leadership of the family. Be patient and non reactive to her struggles. You are a valuable resource to her on the road to change. But she is the one who will have to make those changes!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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