Nina Johns Story


Meet Nina, twenty-eight, a kindergarten teacher, who is so afraid of her husband John's out-of-control anger that she's gotten a judge to issue a restraining order to protect her and their two-year-old daughter.

NINA'S TURN, Part One:

"Last week, I had my husband arrested. What choice did I have? He grabbed the back of my sweater as I was walking upstairs, dragged me down three steps and smashed my face into the wall. Thank God my daughter was at my mother's house and didn't see any of this--though she's certainly been living in a household filled with rage for a long time now. Kelly hears us screaming at each other, and she'll run over from wherever she is crying and push us apart.

That night, I ran across to my neighbor's house and called the police. I was sobbing hysterically and the side of my face was all swollen. When the police came, they handcuffed John and he spent the night in jail.

The judge issued an order of protection, but it didn't really mean very much. All it said was that he was not to antagonize or intimidate me. A lot of good that was going to do! They did demand that John attend a six-week class for men that teaches them to control their anger. But where does that leave us? We have so many problems, and I doubt this class will have much impact."


"Anger has taken control of this marriage. We all deal with anger in our lives--subtle or violent. In fact, there are many faces to our anger: We may be frustrated, irritable, annoyed, aggravated or anxious. Or, we may actually use physical force--such as the flying fists that John is using--to express our rage. Either way, a marriage punctuated by such hostility is clearly in trouble."
NINA'S TURN, Part Two:

"The only positive thing is that John has at least agreed to come for counseling. Clearly, we need a lot of help. We've been married for three years, and we lived together for three years before that. It's never been easy. This wasn't the first time John hit me, though it was certainly the worst. We argue incessantly about everything; when I took Kelly to McDonald's for dinner a few weeks ago, he lit into me and practically accused me of poisoning her. He's in the food business, and he thinks that fast food is a sin. I don't do it every night, for goodness sake, but once in a while, when I'm rushed and hassled, what's the big deal?

I'm worn out from living like this. John expects me to do everything around the house--all the cleaning, all the errands. He's a slob, and though he helps with Kelly--I know he adores her and is a very good, sometimes too-indulgent father--he leaves so many things undone or half-done. I might as well do them myself. The other night he gave Kelly a bath, which I appreciate, but then he leaves the bathroom a mess, with a puddle of water on the floor and dripping towels in the sink. This is not a help--and it's the last thing I need after working all day teaching twenty-five kindergarteners and putting in several extra hours a week at the bookkeeping job I've taken on to bring in extra money.

Even so, we can barely make ends meet and I'm frantic about how we're going to manage. Every month, we're one step ahead of the bill collector. Is it any wonder I don't want to make love? That's another battle royal we have all the time. Why would I want to sleep with someone who treats me the way he does? We'll have a huge blowup, then John wants to kiss and make up. I just can't. I feel that any moment I'm going to boil over with rage. For some reason, we bring out the worst in each other. At least in the beginning, I thought we both loved each other very much."


"Nina is like many women I counsel who feel unhappy, unloved and worthless--and can't figure out what to do or how to help themselves. Emotionally stuck, they see no way out of their dilemma and perpetuate it by continuing to do nothing. But anger thrives on unmet needs--and uncovering those is the first step in defusing the inner rage that fuels this marital meltdown."

NINA'S TURN, Part Three:

"I didn't have a very happy childhood. My parents divorced when I was a toddler, and I haven't seen my father since. When I was five, my mother remarried a man who was verbally and physically abusive to her and verbally abusive to me. I can't explain what it was like to grow up in that home. My mother tried to protect me as much as she could, and to keep my life as normal as possible--but how could it be? A day never went by that I wasn't scared that Tony, her husband, would hurt her. I still have a vivid picture in my mind of Tony sitting on top of my mother as she lay on the floor, and he was pounding her head on the kitchen floor. My mother had diabetes and was very weak. I was scared she was going to die. I grew up fast--recently, one of my childhood friends told me that I was the most mature six-year-old she had ever known.

My mother and I are very close and I adore her. As miserable as her life was, she was always there to listen to me and guide me. If I had a problem at school or with friends, she would never tell me what to do but, somehow, she gave me the strength to know that I could figure things out on my own. Whenever my life gets really messed up and crazy, I try to hold on to that feeling, though it's getting harder and harder to do that.

I met John at a party at my aunt's house, and I was immediately attracted to him. He's very handsome and charming, and we spent most of the afternoon laughing and talking in the den. We just seemed to have a lot in common. When he asked me to dinner the following week, I was really excited. I was dating a few guys at the time, but once John appeared on the scene, I had no desire to be with another man.

We never had much money to do anything special, but we always had fun. Living together seemed like the natural thing to do. After three years, we decided to get married. I knew it wasn't perfect, but I really hoped that I had finally found the happiness that had eluded my mother for so long. She liked John and was really happy for us.

But after we married, and especially after Kelly was born--she wasn't planned, by the way--the fighting really flared. I'd say something, he'd argue back, and before I knew it we were pushing and shoving each other.

At my daughter's christening, I had a black eye, thanks to John. I was so worried about how I was going to explain this to all our relatives, but I decided to tell them the truth. My family was very angry--they wanted me to leave him. But his family had the most unbelievable reaction: His mother actually told me, 'If my son did that to you, you must have deserved it.' That tells you a little about what I'm up against. I can barely stand to be around members of John's family. They are so condescending, always implying that I'm a bad mother and that they, far better than me, know how to handle every child-related problem from an earache to a temper tantrum.

What happened at Thanksgiving put me over the edge. John called from work to say that he had to stay even later than usual and wouldn't be home until after seven. We were expected at my mother's house at five. Now, last Thanksgiving John worked late. The guys are supposed to alternate holidays, yet my husband is always the one to volunteer and agree to extra hours. I'm tired of being the last priority on his list. So we got into an argument on the phone, I took Kelly to my mother's, and John didn't show up until after nine P.M.--and I could smell liquor on his breath. I was livid.

When we got home that night, we continued the argument and, I'll admit, both lost control. I told John that I was going to call the police because he had obviously been driving while he was drunk. I started up the stairs--and the next thing I knew, he had yanked me backward and started pounding my head into the wall.

"Right now, I'm not sure there is any hope for our marriage, but if there's any chance at all, I owe it to our daughter to try. If I felt that I could support myself, I would leave John today, but my teaching salary prohibits that. As disgusted as I am, I don't want my daughter to grow up in a single-parent household, or to have the same kind of life I have. That's the only reason I'm here."


"Nina has spent a lifetime caring for others and, though she's unaware of it, she's actually furious that she is always giving to others but getting little in return. She buried a lot of her rage--against her father, stepfather, even her mother--but she let it explode against John. Feeling frustrated and unloved, her fuse was short and any issue, large or small, set off the same hostile reaction in her. In a calm moment, she understands that a dripping wet towel on the bathroom floor is not as important, say, as the fact that her husband might be drinking and driving, but each has the same power to put her over the edge. She always feels on-duty and stressed out. Unable to reign in her anxiety, she lashes out the only way she knows to infuriate him--with hurtful words and mimicry."

JOHN'S TURN, Part One:

"My love for my daughter is the only reason I'm here, too. Nina always threatens to take Kelly away from me, and I know I couldn't bear that. She's the only good that has ever happened to me.

I was the youngest of four kids. My father was fifty when I was born--I was definitely an accident--and he retired from the police force when I was nine. That meant he was home a lot more than when my older brothers were little. Dad was an old-fashioned, old-world kind of guy, and he thought I was out of control, rude and defiant. Look, I was certainly no Boy Scout, but I was no worse than my brothers were. Dad used to bellow, 'The others were never like this,' and my mother would always insist, 'Yes they were; you just didn't see it because you weren't here.'

To be honest, my father was a brute, and I was scared of him. He was always screaming at my mother and me, and when he was really angry, he'd come after me with a stick or a belt. By the time I was a teenager, we were warring constantly. Though I managed to get decent grades, I don't remember ever getting his approval or thinking that he was proud of me. Mostly, he complained I was hanging out with kids he didn't like.

My mother was very sweet but pretty helpless when it came to dealing with my father. She tried to defend me from his outbursts, and that created a lot of problems between the two of them. As soon as I graduated from high school, I got a job at the local grocery store, and moved into an apartment with one of my older brothers. I never took another penny from my father again. He died five years ago and I can't say I was sorry. My mother and I are still close, though."


"Here's a good example of how past experiences can affect our present actions and attitudes. The overriding influence in John's life had been his relationship with his hostile father, who he was forever trying to avoid, yet with whom he inevitably locked horns. John's mother tried as best as she could to keep the peace, and she indulged her son out of sight of her husband, but she never had the strength to stand up to her husband. Unfortunately, violence seemed like such an ordinary and inevitable part of life that she continued to excuse her son's behavior toward Nina."

JOHN'S TURN, Part Two:

"I dated a lot of women but no one I ever considered marrying until I met Nina. The first time I saw her she was in the middle of a group of people at a party, laughing. That's what I remember most about the times when we started dating, that beautiful laugh. I had never felt so comfortable with another person. It's hard to even remember the way we used to be and impossible to think that our lives could have disintegrated like this.

I know I'm not an easy guy to live with, and I've always been too physical, but Nina is no angel. She gives as good as she gets. She baits me. Maybe I don't help as much around the house as I should, but I feel she overlooks the things I do. Her complaints ring in my ears from the moment she walks in the door--pick up your clothes, clean the fish tank, stop tracking dirt in the house. She's like a broken tape recorder. I can feel my teeth clenching and my ears getting hot when she calls me names that would make you blush. She also mimics me and then screams at me to get out of the house. That pushes all the same buttons my dad used to. I'm not going to take that attitude from anyone ever again--certainly not from my wife.

Thanksgiving was a perfect example of how Nina takes a small incident and lights a match to it. I didn't want to work on the holiday any more than she wanted me to--but, hey, it's my job. I'm the manager of a gourmet grocery store and when the owner asks me to pitch in, I feel it's my responsibility to do it. I'm going to get paid for the overtime, which we could use--and besides, these guys are my friends. Why create waves when I have to work twelve hours a day with these people? If I make a stink, it only generates ill will.

Well, Nina went ballistic. She called me at work and started screaming so loudly I had to hold the phone a foot from my ear. It was embarrassing. Everyone in the store heard me getting scolded; she told me not to bother coming home. After we closed that night, my friend Will suggested I have a beer with him and cool down before going home. That's what I had--one beer--but as soon as I got to her mother's house, Nina accused me of getting drunk. We continued the argument at home. She smacked me across the face, started hammering me with her fists, and then said she was going to call the police and have me locked up for driving under the influence. That's when I lost it.

Yes, spending the night in jail knocked some sense into my head. I have no excuses for my behavior. I was wrong and I want to change. But we can't have a marriage unless she changes, too.


"First, let me state emphatically that some marriages cannot, and should not, be saved. Abusive relationships should not be tolerated under any circumstances. What's more, if there is abuse of any kind in a relationship, it must stop before any marital counselor, or the partners themselves, can begin to address the underlying issues that prevent a couple from relating to each other in a healthy way.

In many abuse cases, counselors will see the husband and wife separately. However, for several reasons, I wanted to work with Nina and John as a couple. First, unlike some abusive men, John was aware of his actions, sorry for them, and deeply motivated to change. He had also just completed a court-ordered anger management class--which, though only six sessions, had at least given him some insight into the reasons for his actions and how he could begin to temper his outbursts.

What's more, my sense as a clinician was that John was not a hard-bitten abuser. Rather, this was a young family so weighed down by financial and emotional pressures, and so lacking in the basic marital skills needed to handle the myriad stresses in their lives, that they were on the verge of becoming another statistic. I believed I could help them, though I was emphatic when I told John: 'If you hit her again, the marriage is over. But if you want to make a real change in your lives and that of your daughter, we can work together to achieve that goal.'

When I first see any couple, I usually meet separately with the husband and the wife in order to take a personal history. However, with Nina and John, I also believed it was important for them to listen as they each described the sadness, loneliness and violence that permeated their respective childhoods. Hearing their partner detail their lives also helped them both understand how their present actions often inflamed old wounds.

One of my first goals was to simply instruct them in basic information about violence and the home. I pointed out that they both grew up in families in which anger raged out of control, ones in which the abused spouse not only continued to accept the unacceptable, but felt that she had somehow deserved to be treated that way.

'You're both victims,' I told them, 'and you shouldn't be victimizing each other.' Countless studies have drawn a direct link between violence that is witnessed as a child and abusive actions later on. Our parents are the models for how we behave--in a marriage, with friends and others. These two never had a chance to see how emotionally healthy couples can argue but still love each other. Nor did they ever witness skillful conflict resolution.

What's more, I added, women who are raised in violent homes are more likely to marry men who will abuse them. This last fact was pivotal in convincing John that he must drastically change his ways. 'I don't want my daughter to marry a man like me,' he said with tears in his eyes.

We spent several sessions discussing the strong links between their childhood experiences and their current attitudes and actions, as well as emphasizing the part that each of them played in the dance of anger that characterized their marriage. Nina's barrage of insults and mimicry, for example, often provoked John to use physical force. This is not to excuse or justify his actions in any way, but it was essential for Nina to understand her role in the marital dynamic. Once she was able to separate her past anger from her present anger she learned to react more appropriately to what was happening in her life today. Instead of overreacting and leaping to a global accusation of her husband, she learned to take a step back--emotionally and physically--and ask herself: How important is this issue right now? What are my priorities?

While John has to try to heed his wife's desire that he be more helpful around the house, she's learned to say, 'Which is more helpful to me--the fact that John bathed the baby and got her into bed on time, or the fact that the bathroom is untidy?'

To build Nina's self-esteem and confidence in her own abilities, we focused on what she had already achieved despite great odds: putting herself through college, working at a demanding full-time job while mothering a young child. Though finances were clearly a serious issue for this couple, Nina decided to give up her bookkeeping job and, instead, work in the evenings toward a master's in special education. When she completes her degree, she is most likely assured of a higher-paying job.

My work with John zeroed in on reinforcing his efforts to manage his anger so that disagreements didn't explode into full-blown arguments. He's learned to recognize when he's getting angry, and to literally call a time-out to cool down. They've both learned to short-circuit misunderstandings by asking each other: 'What do you hear me saying?' and then immediately clarifying any misconceptions. What's more, after an argument is resolved, they have both come to appreciate the healing power of a simple apology to clear the air and look toward the future.

It was important for Nina to see that John could support her and stand up to his family when they either criticized her or implied that they knew more about raising a child than she did. 'Even if you think she's being too sensitive,' I told him, 'let her know that you're on her side.'

Once Nina saw some real changes in John, she felt some of her old affection return. They desperately needed to carve out couple time, but with their work schedules and Nina's classes, that was not going to be easy. Right now, Monday nights are their only time alone together. To make the most of these evenings, they try to get Kelly in bed by seven-thirty so they at least have a quiet evening together. Nina feels more loving toward John and no longer withholds sex. I told her: 'Remember, he doesn't have to be perfect, he just has to try.'

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