Dear June, How can I help my son's troubled wife?

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By June O'Connor

My husband and I believe our son is being verbally and emotionally abused by his wife of four years. They have two young children. It is very painful to hear the way she speaks to him and what she says, which she does no matter who is nearby. With a family business, we all work together every day, so we see and feel this problem regularly. I can’t imagine how our son must feel. But when we ask about their going to counseling, he says everything is OK. Our daughter-in-law is a good person, but she must be so unhappy to react to him in this way. I’ve prayed and prayed for God’s help for these two wonderful people. Things get better and then go bad again. What do we do?

- In need of advice, via e-mail

Your empathy for both your son and daughter-in-law is admirable. You recognize that they are both good people and that they must both be hurting.

I wonder if part of the problem is your son’s denial or passivity in the face of what appears to be his wife’s frustration. Denial of problems by one spouse commonly generates a sense of desperation in the other. If he tells you that everything is OK, he is either denying what is happening, ignoring what is happening, or pretending it is not happening. It may be that she is trying to wake him up out of his denial, wanting some sort of awareness of the need for change.

I wonder if it would be useful for you to talk to your daughter-inlaw woman-to-woman. Share with her what you have observed and how you wish there were some way to help her feel better about her marriage and family life. Ask if she would be receptive to counseling, either with her husband or alone.

In preparation for this conversation, it would be wise to do some homework, so that if she is receptive to seeking guidance and help from without, you have a name and phone number for her to contact. She may not make that call immediately, but you must offer a concrete next step for her as soon as you see a sign of receptivity.

Let your loyalty be directed to both your daughter-in-law and your son. Do not take sides. Tell them what you have written here — that they are both good people and that they are both suffering such that others in the family are now suffering, too. Since we are responsible for what we see, and since you see (and hear) trouble in this marriage, it is incumbent on you to offer some measure of help.

If she rejects your initiative, you might talk to your son or encourage your husband to do so. Third-party observations can help people who are locked in misery and immobility to realize some action needs to be taken. If you and your husband are suffering, surely the children are suffering, too. Someone has to represent the children.

Empathy may well be the key here. If you empathize with her, acknowledging that she is unhappy and that you want her to recover a sense of happiness and peace of mind, she may be able to let you into her heart. If not, even if she rebuffs you, know that your initiative very likely planted a seed. It may bear fruit in time. CD

Ph.D June O'Connor

If you have a problem for Dr. June O’Connor, write to: Dear June, Catholic Digest, P.O. Box 6015, New London, CT 06320 or email her.