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Help! My Son-In-Law Is Abusive

Help! My Son-In-Law Is Abusive

Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

Our daughter Joan married Donald ten years ago. We all knew there was something off about him; he is very controlling and very insecure. Before they got married, my husband, who is a police officer, let her know how much we love her, and talked to her about our concerns about her marrying him. She went ahead and married him.

It’s been very hard. Donald is very verbally abusive to me and actually will yell at me in front of our daughter. Yesterday he was mocking me and I spoke up. He was yelling again in front of both my daughter and my 18-month-old-granddaughter. I kept asking him to stop, but he wouldn’t.

Recently Donald did something very vile! He is very jealous of my daughter’s old boyfriend. It is on surveillance video that Donald had a bowel movement in the doorway of the ex-boyfriend’s business establishment and then smeared it all over the door. This is all on tape. Her ex-boyfriend did not press charges. My daughter does not know yet that we know.

I don’t want to lose my daughter or my grandchild. What should we do? I have already decided I won’t travel up to see them unless my husband is present. Please . . . your thoughts would be so helpful. I am afraid for my daughter and my grandchild.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

Types of Abuse

You are concerned for the safety and well-being of your daughter and granddaughter with good reason! It sounds like your daughter may be among the estimated 12 million people who are victims of one or more of the five types of abuse in relationships: (1) Emotional – belittling, playing mind games; (2) Verbal – name calling; (3) Digital/Technology – as with online shaming; (4) Sexual – forced participation, often with others; (5) Physical – punching, choking, shoving, head pounding.

The Profile of an Abuser/Batterer

Clint Van Sandt, MSNBC analyst & former FBI profiler, has compiled a list comprising 14 of “The Characteristics and Early Warning Signs of an Abusive Spouse or Partner.”

According to your description, your son-in-law seems to fit at least some of the characteristics of an abuser/batterer (he perhaps fits more in ways that you have not observed firsthand), including:

  • Exhibits a violent temper along with poor conflict resolution skills, e.g., smearing feces.
  • Needs always to be in control of situations and those closest to him, e.g., unable to deal with you pushing back on him when he is verbally abusing you.
  • Is usually jealous and may spy on friends and family, e.g., as with the incident with the ex-boyfriend from over ten years ago.
  • Insensitive to the feelings of others – he does not feel your pain, e.g., continuing to yell even after you have expressed your distress; not caring if he is upsetting your daughter and granddaughter.

Immediate Steps You Can Take

abuseIt is not unusual that your daughter has not reached out to you and asked for your help; many spouses and partners in situations similar to that of your daughter’s live in fear of serious repercussions that they, or their children, might suffer if they in any way challenge their abuser. Your son-in-law has already demonstrated the lengths to which he will go with his disturbing behavior towards the ex-boyfriend. It is hard to predict what he is capable of doing.

(1) With this reality in mind, the first and most important action I urge you to take is to contact a lawyer who specializes in domestic abuse. I realize that it is not clear the extent to which your daughter may be a victim of abuse; a domestic abuse lawyer can help you determine this.

Here are two sites that can help you locate a lawyer, depending on what state/city you live in:



Because your husband is in law enforcement, he may have access to resources to help you locate a respected and effective domestic abuse lawyer.

Your domestic abuse lawyer can help you formulate strategies and tactics that meet local and state requirements in your efforts to try to protect your daughter and granddaughter. Alas, as many grandparents have learned, this process of trying to protect loved ones from potential and actual abuse can be difficult, frustrating and disappointing – all the more reason to have a professional guiding you.

(2) Should you feel the need to talk with domestic abuse professionals at any time, there are hotlines available 24-hours a day, to advise you:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline.

The Feminist Majority Foundation lists over a dozen resources and hotlines.

(3) In the event that your daughter decides she needs some therapeutic help in dealing with her domestic situation, in addition to the resources I have suggested above, here are two sites that can help you and/or your daughter locate a professional (by state):

Psychology Today: Find a Domestic Violence Therapist

The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides some guidelines you may find helpful: Finding the Right Counselor For You.

(4) I think you are very wise to make sure your husband, or another male friend, is with you whenever you will be around Donald. Part of the profile in abusers is a need to control and be dominant. As a matter of gender practicality, Donald may decide that challenging your husband either verbally or physically is a bit more than he wants to take on, especially since your husband is a police officer.

Related to your visits, I know this is going to be hard to do, but I am going to suggest that both you and your husband be as cordial and polite as possible. I make this recommendation because Donald may be in a position to cut off all contact between you and your husband with your daughter and granddaughter. It is possible that isolating you from your daughter would suit Donald just fine.

If you do not have access to your daughter and granddaughter, you may not be able to respond quickly to help your daughter and granddaughter in their time of need, should it come to be. You need to stay connected.

I close by reiterating how important I think it is that you immediately locate a domestic violence lawyer to advise and guide you.


Karen L. Rancourt, Ph.D., writes an advice column for parents and grandparents at Mommybites.com and is the author of Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Help Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts.

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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