Dysfunction Destruction: What Our Family Learned From Abuse

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Abuse: A man pointing his finger with an angry, yelling expression.When I was a kid, I thought all families were loving. I thought hugs and kisses were the norm and shouting and name-calling were a rarity. I thought it was safe to trust your family with your thoughts, opinions, and fears because unconditional love made it possible. I wish I were still as naive as I used to be.

A Different Kind of Family

I married into a family less idyllic than my own.

I discovered this soon after my husband and I started dating. His parents had come to town to visit and we were driving to a restaurant. Instead of small talk in the car, his father began criticizing him right in front of me. I can’t remember the nature of the criticism but it was unfounded and uncomfortable to witness. My husband’s mother just sat there, silent, letting her husband spew out his cruelty.

They say once you marry someone, you marry their family too. My husband is such an incredible person that I was willing to take that risk.

Over the years I’ve been drawn into the dysfunction, mainly perpetrated by his father and enabled by his mother. I started out our marriage trying to give my in-laws the benefit of the doubt. That didn’t last long. I’m not the kind of person who will sit back and pretend nothing is wrong.

In year one of our marriage, my husband’s father commented on my weight and pointed out that I shouldn’t eat that second slice of pizza. In year two, he told us we were irresponsible for getting pregnant. Mind you, I was 32 at the time. He made me feel like I was a 15-year-old getting knocked up in high school. That was hurtful, confusing, and laughable.

I won’t bore you with the many, many examples of his abusive behavior. I’ve amassed nearly 14 years of disdain for him. And him for me.

Parents sit at a table talking to a child, the child has a sad expression with her head down.The Last Straw of Abuse

The last straw occurred a few years ago when we were on a family vacation. I can’t even remember what he was grumbling about but it turned into him degrading my husband and calling him names in front of our young children. Oh. Hell. No.

I told my husband to step aside and I went toe-to-toe with my father-in-law. I had fire in my heart and in my words. I let him have it and made it abundantly clear that he was ruining what could’ve been a loving relationship with his son and grandchildren. He was sabotaging the family, and for what? So he could always have the last word? So he could feel like the bigger man by ridiculing his son? Not on my watch.

I made sure he knew that my husband, children, and I were no longer going to tolerate any of his abuse. We still had a few days left of our vacation but it wasn’t healthy for us to stay. My husband, reluctant to rock the boat, needed a bit of convincing to leave. He was ready to go once I explained the psychological effect staying would have on our children. I was so proud of him for standing up to his father. He says it was the first time he realized leaving was an option.

We packed up our stuff and got the heck out of there.

A Teachable Moment

On our ride home, my husband and I were transparent with our children about why we had left so abruptly. We wanted them to know what had transpired and why we weren’t staying. We made it clear that their grandfather had acted inappropriately and treated us all with disrespect. We hammered home the message that they deserve to be treated kindly and shouldn’t endure abuse from anyone.

A terrible situation turned into an immensely powerful teaching moment for our children. It was a big lesson for a five-year-old and a nine-year-old.

Abuse: a teenage girl covers her mouth with her hand that says "Silence is Violence." She has a hurt, distraught expression.As someone who has worked in the mental health field for years, relationships, communication, and emotional abuse have been at the forefront of my mind since having my kids. I know what can make or break them. I’m doing everything in my power to make sure they grow up knowing their self-worth. A huge part of that is ensuring I protect them from toxic relationships, manipulation, and intimidation until they know how to do it on their own.

It was unfortunate that their grandfather provided them practice for this skill.

There’s value in airing one’s dirty laundry. It shakes up the status quo. It holds wrongdoers accountable.

Being straightforward with kids about difficult situations allows them to exercise critical thinking and speak openly about their concerns. Keeping kids in the dark about these things just perpetuates harmful relationships and stunts personal growth. Be honest with your kids. Teach them to face dysfunction head-on and destroy it in the process.

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Jenna Arsenault
Jenna is a Maine native who moved to Charleston in 2006, moved away for a while, then moved back again in 2018. She just couldn’t stay away from this city that feels like home! She’d choose palm trees over pine trees any day of the week. Jenna and her husband of 12 years have two rambunctious sons, ages 10 & 6, and live in Mount Pleasant. A social worker and registered nurse by trade, she is passionate about maternal mental health and is currently a postpartum doula specializing in perinatal mood disorders (www.jennadoula.com). Jenna loves to read, kayak, paint in watercolor, and travel with her family. Visit her personal blog on all things motherhood at www.snarkmom.com.

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