Advice Columnist Says That An Abusive Marriage Could Still Work

"I don't fear him. He has hit me twice," writes an advice-seeker of her husband. And instead of telling her to leave, columnist Cary Tennis says they can work it out. Can this ever be good advice?

The One Who Thought She Got Away writes that she loves her husband deeply, that he was a stabilizing force in their difficult youth and that they connect on almost every level. But then there's that "hit me twice" bit. Actually, it was more than hitting, and more than twice. She says her husband "restrained me very tightly and crushed me." Later, "he pushed me out of my house, assuming I was ending it, and when I wouldn't go, he punched me in my chest, successfully launching me out the door." And in a third incident, while she was pregnant, "he came and restrained me, like I was some out-of-control harpy who had tried to murder him. [...] I asked him to get off me, I told him no one had any right to touch me without my permission, even him. I moved and tried to get him off, and somewhere it went from him restraining me, to him with a red face and spit coming from the sides of his mouth punching and kicking me, I lay there and covered myself while I could, and eventually he stopped." Away has since had an abortion, and domestic abuse hotlines tell her to leave immediately, but she wants to stay with her husband and maybe have children with him. She asks Tennis, "Is there a way I can make this work?"

Tennis opens with the words, "Women have lost their lives because they did not leave a violent man when they had the chance. I suspect that is why your phone counselor advised you bluntly to get out now." Well, yeah. But then he gets philosophical. After some rather confusing caveats (this is Cary Tennis, after all) about how "we live in a fictional world, you and I; that is where our dialogue takes place," and "in this fictional world you are safe," he writes,

I believe that you and your husband can embark on a journey that will bring to light what you are actually fighting about and show you ways to have conflict without throwing punches or bowls. You will need someone trained in the arts of soul journey, or therapy; you will need someone who is not afraid of letting your voices speak. But you can do this.

Then he comes out of the clouds a little to give her some specifics: both parties should "learn interpersonal conflict-resolution skills;" she should set a time limit for improvement and leave if he hits her again. All of which sort of sound reasonable, until you come back to the part about how she could die. I see what Tennis is trying to do here — he's trying to acknowledge that conventional wisdom would tell Away to get the fuck away, and then offer some alternatives to that conventional wisdom. But in this case, conventional may also be right.

On the one hand, people write to Cary Tennis because they want long-winded, weird missives full of statements like "we live in a fictional world" (and I, in general, enjoy these missives heartily). On the other, matters of life or death aren't really the time for philosophizing. It's true that Away's husband could benefit from counseling. It's true that some abusers learn to stop. It's true that blanket statements like "you should always leave the minute he lays a hand on you" can feel soulless and inadequate when you love someone. But given that abuse can escalate so quickly (and, in Away's case, has escalated), anyone who gives her advice has to take into account that to stay with her husband means risking death. And no relationship, however seemingly loving, should force someone to accept that risk.

I'm In A Loving But Violent Marriage [Salon]