Abusive Spouses and Telling Your Children the Truth

If you were in an abusive marriage, your spouse was an abuser, what should you tell your children about the abusive parent? Find out.

Most victims attempt to present to their children a "balanced" picture of the relationship and of the abusive spouse. In a vain attempt to avoid the notorious (and controversial) Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), they do not besmirch the abusive parent and, on the contrary, encourage the semblance of a normal, functional, liaison. This is the wrong approach. Not only is it counterproductive - it sometimes proves outright dangerous.

Children have a right to know the overall state of affairs between their parents. They have a right not to be cheated and deluded into thinking that "everything is basically OK" - or that the separation is reversible. Both parents are under a moral obligation to tell their offspring the truth: the relationship is over for good.

Younger kids tend to believe that they are somehow responsible or guilty for the breakdown of the marriage. They must be disabused of this notion. Both parents would do best to explain to them, in straightforward terms, what led to the dissolution of the bond. If spousal abuse is wholly or partly to blame - it should be brought out to the open and discussed honestly.

In such conversations it is best not to allocate blame. But this does not mean that wrong behaviors should be condoned or whitewashed. The victimized parent should tell the child that abusive conduct is wrong and must be avoided. The child should be taught how to identify the warning signs of impending abuse - sexual, verbal, psychological, and physical.

Moreover, a responsible parent should teach the child how to resist inappropriate and hurtful actions. The child should be brought up to insist on being respected by the other parent, on having him or her observe the child's boundaries and accept the child's needs and emotions, choices, and preferences.


The child should learn to say "no" and to walk away from potentially compromising situations with the abusive parent. The child should be brought up not to feel guilty for protecting himself or herself and for demanding his or her rights.

Remember this: An abusive parent IS DANGEROUS TO THE CHILD.

Idealization - Devaluation Cycles

Most abusers accord the same treatment to children and adults. They regard both as Sources of Narcissistic Supply, mere instruments of gratification - idealize them at first and then devalue them in favour of alternative, safer and more subservient, sources. Such treatment - being idealized and then dumped and devalued - is traumatic and can have long-lasting emotional effects on the child.


Some abusers are jealous of their offspring. They envy them for being the center of attention and care. They treat their own kids as hostile competitors. Where the uninhibited expression of the aggression and hostility aroused by this predicament is illegitimate or impossible - the abuser prefers to stay away. Rather than attack his children, he sometimes immediately disconnects, detaches himself emotionally, becomes cold and uninterested, or directs transformed anger at his mate or at his parents (the more "legitimate" targets).


Sometimes, the child is perceived to be a mere bargaining chip in a drawn out battle with the erstwhile victim of the abuser (read the previous article in this series - Leveraging the Children). This is an extension of the abuser's tendency to dehumanize people and treat them as objects.

Such abusive partners seek to manipulate their former mate by "taking over" and monopolizing their common children. They foster an atmosphere of emotional (and bodily) incest. The abusive parent encourages his kids to idolise him, to adore him, to be awed by him, to admire his deeds and capabilities, to learn to blindly trust and obey him, in short to surrender to his charisma and to become submerged in his follies-de-grandeur.

Breach of Personal Boundaries and Incest

It is at this stage that the risk of child abuse - up to and including outright incest - is heightened. Many abusers are auto-erotic. They are the preferred objects of their own sexual attentions. Molesting or having intercourse with one's children is as close as one gets to having sex with oneself.

Abusers often perceive sex in terms of annexation. The molested child is "assimilated" and becomes an extension of the offender, a fully controlled and manipulated object. Sex, to the abuser, is the ultimate act of depersonalization and objectification of the other. He actually masturbates with other people's bodies, his children's included.

The abuser's inability to acknowledge and abide by the personal boundaries set by others puts the child at heightened risk of abuse - verbal, emotional, physical, and, often, sexual. The abuser's possessiveness and panoply of indiscriminate negative emotions - transformations of aggression, such as rage and envy - hinder his ability to act as a "good enough" parent. His propensities for reckless behaviour, substance abuse, and sexual deviance endanger the child's welfare, or even his or her life.








Minors pose little danger of criticizing the abuser or confronting him. They are perfect, malleable and abundant Sources of Narcissistic Supply. The narcissistic parent derives gratification from having incestuous relations with adulating, physically and mentally inferior, inexperienced and dependent "bodies".

Yet, the older the offspring, the more they become critical, even judgemental, of the abusive parent. They are better able to put into context and perspective his actions, to question his motives, to anticipate his moves. As they mature, they often refuse to continue to play the mindless pawns in his chess game. They hold grudges against him for what he has done to them in the past, when they were less capable of resistance. They can gauge his true stature, talents and achievements - which, usually, lag far behind the claims that he makes.

This brings the abusive parent back a full cycle. Again, he perceives his sons/daughters as threats. He quickly becomes disillusioned and devaluing. He loses all interest, becomes emotionally remote, absent and cold, rejects any effort to communicate with him, citing life pressures and the preciousness and scarceness of his time.

He feels burdened, cornered, besieged, suffocated, and claustrophobic. He wants to get away, to abandon his commitments to people who have become totally useless (or even damaging) to him. He does not understand why he has to support them, or to suffer their company and he believes himself to have been deliberately and ruthlessly trapped.

He rebels either passively-aggressively (by refusing to act or by intentionally sabotaging the relationships) or actively (by being overly critical, aggressive, unpleasant, verbally and psychologically abusive and so on). Slowly - to justify his acts to himself - he gets immersed in conspiracy theories with clear paranoid hues.

To his mind, the members of the family conspire against him, seek to belittle or humiliate or subordinate him, do not understand him, or stymie his growth. The abuser usually finally gets what he wants - his kids detach and abandon him to his great sorrow, but also to his great relief.

This is the subject of the next article.


next: The Relief of Being Abandoned

APA Reference
Vaknin, S. (2009, October 1). Abusive Spouses and Telling Your Children the Truth, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 27 from

Last Updated: July 5, 2018

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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