[note: this article is reprinted with permission from Dr. Palmatier exactly as it appears on her blog. The title, however, was subject to editorial license – 🙂 – PE]
Oh, Dr Phil. . . From time to time, Shrink4Men community members email to let me know that they’ve sent links of my articles to the Dr Phil and Oprah shows because they believe the material here is important and should be seen by a wider audience. I thank them, but tell them not to be surprised if the topic of female perpetrated domestic violence and parental alienation continues to be ignored by these two talk show titans. Oprah is unlikely to ever go there, for obvious reasons, and Dr Phil. . . well, who knows what reasoning lurks behind that moustache.
Dr Phil describes the January 10, 2011 episode, Afraid of My Husband, as a case of he said-she said. The wife, Sonja, says her husband, Lawrence, is abusive while he says he’s just reacting to her abuse. Fair enough, most high-conflict domestic cases are one partner’s word against the other’s, which is why I encourage men and women in these situations to document, document, document. In the digital age, it needn’t be a case of he said-she said.
The show begins with a request for help from Lawrence’s sister, Krishina:
Dear Dr Phil,
I’m reaching out to you to appeal for your guidance, assistance and intervention. My brother and sister-in-law are in a marriage that is in unimaginable shambles.
Both of them are so angry about so many things.
They are immensely disrespectful to one another and allow their children to consistently hear their horrific exchange of words. I am beyond hope sometimes in thinking that this monstrous situation can ever be changed.
Please note, Krishina is describing bi-directional abuse; she describes bad behavior from bothparties. She denies knowing about any physical violence in the relationship. Dr Phil then plays some audio of the couple. Here’s the first thing the audience hears:
Sonja: I’m afraid of my husband. Lawrence isn’t the man I married. We fight all the time. Sonja: I’m afraid of my husband. Lawrence isn’t the man I married. We fight all the time.
Lawrence: Sonja can argue 24/7.
Sonja: My husband will always start the fight.
Lawrence: She’s very combative and she instigates a lot of fights. She’ll push my buttons.
Sonja: Lawrence calls me every name in the book. Idiot. Bitch, Fat ass. He’s yelled F— you to me in front of the kids. I’ve been called a c—. A f—ing c—.
Lawrence: Sonja’s called me a loser. A f—ing a–hole.
Sonja: Lawrence is violent. Lawrence has punched holes in our armoire, doors. He has broken skateboards.
Lawrence: Sonja’s broken two laptops, a big TV. She gets very violent. She’s hit me multiple times.
Sonja: When I’m violent towards Lawrence, I’m trying to protect myself and the children. I explode and I’m violent towards him.
Lawrence: I’m not violent. I’m just responding to what Sonja’s actually doing.
Sonja: When I was pregnant, he twisted my arm and forced me to the ground and I just sat there and I’m like, ‘Do you realize what you just did? You just threw me down and I have a child in my stomach,’ and no response. Nothing.
Lawrence: A total fabrication. I didn’t throw her down when she was pregnant. She gets in my face and pokes me. She’ll knock your head off. She’ll spit in my face. I’ve had to run away and lock myself in a closet just so I can get away from her.
Sonja: Once when we were at a hotel…
Lawrence: She grabbed a laptop and threw the laptop against the wall…
The two of them have different descriptions of the altercation that ensued. Sonja insists that Lawrence kicked her in the stomach and pushed her to the bed. Lawrence states that Sonja got in his face because she wanted his attention while he was on the computer. He tried to leave the room after she broke his laptop, but she blocked his egress and he pushed her to the bed in order to get away from her. The police report states that Sonja had red marks on her chest and that her shirt appeared “pulled and stretched” and that Lawrence had red marks on his chest as well and a cut upper lip.
Dr Phil questions Lawrence and he admits pushing Sonja was wrong and that kicking her would’ve been wrong, but maintains that he did not kick her. Dr Phil does not ask Sonja if it was wrong to throw the laptop against the wall. He does not call her on her behavior throughout the entire episode.
Dr Phil asks the couple to stand up and points out their size difference because, of course, someone who’s smaller in stature couldn’t possibly abuse someone who’s bigger despite ampleresearch that proves otherwise. Gotta love that reasoning—never mind the fact that Lawrence had a cut lip and that Sonja admits she instigated the altercation by destroying his property and blocking the doorway when he tried to exit.
Sonja accuses Lawrence of being a control freak and of “pestering [her] for sex.” She states sex with her husband feels like “a job” and that she thinks he “isn’t appreciative enough” when shedoes agree to have sex with him. She even claims that he raped her one night as she slept. Dr Phil does not challenge her on this. I’m a sound sleeper, but I’m pretty sure I’d wake up during the act unless I was passed out cold on sleeping meds. In other words, I don’t believe her rape claim. Lawrence denies this calmly and matter of fact-ly as opposed to Sonja who becomes indignant on more than one occasion. An example of DARVO, perhaps?
Sonja admits to her abusive behaviors; Dr Phil says nothing.
If you don’t want to watch the entire episode, click and drag the YouTube embed below to 17:01 on the counter. Sonja openly admits that she has spit in her husband’s face, kicked a hole through their big screen TV (she smirks and suppresses a laugh when Dr Phil mentions this particular incident), has broken Lawrence’s laptop computer not once, but twice and that she gets in his face to make him listen, so much so that Lawrence has shut himself in a closet with his feet bracing the door to get away from her.
Sonja admits to hitting, kicking and punching her husband in the chest, arms and stomach. She claims she is violent towards Lawrence because he is violent towards their children and still Dr Phil says nothing. Yeah, because you teach children that violence is wrong by engaging in more violence. It wobbles the mind.
Question: If you were living in fear of your partner, would you strike him, spit in his face, get in his face, chase him into closets and break his property or would you be tiptoeing around him so as not to set him off? Something doesn’t add up here. When I’m afraid of someone, I try not to provoke or deliberately antagonize the person, but that’s just me. How about you?
The couples’ son holds both of his parents accountable; Dr Phil says nothing.
Lawrence describes how Sonja undermines his parenting. When he tries to set limits with the kids, she tells the kids they don’t have to listen to their father. Essentially, Lawrence is frustrated by his wife continuously undermining his parenting and he expresses his frustration by being hard on and physically rough with the kids. For example, he tells his son to leave the kitchen because he’s not doing his homework after being asked several times to do so. Lawrence becomes frustrated and physically propels his son out of his chair by his shoulder.
Lawrence says he feels bad about this and owns that his behavior is wrong. Sonja is never asked if it’s wrong for her to undermine her husband when he tries to set reasonable limits and consequences for the kids. Given Sonja’s behavior toward Lawrence, I’d be willing to bet she behaves in a similar fashion towards the kids when they don’t listen to her, that is, if they dare to disobey her. Dr Phil never asks these questions, however.
Go to 22:29 to hear the couple’s son describe what goes on at home. Notice the boy attributes abusive behaviors to both parents equally, states he wishes his parents wouldn’t put him in the middle and that his mom talks to him a lot about why she and his father fight. This is most likely an indication that Sonja is parentifying her son and possibly attempting parental alienation—at least their son’s words raise these potential red flags for me. Dr Phil doesn’t explore this, however.
Dr Phil tells the couple the potential consequences of exposing their children to their ongoing conflict and violence.
At 24:50, Dr Phil lists the possible consequences of exposing kids to abuse and violence. He makes some good points until he says the following: “These kids will be aggressive in their relationships. The girls will be aggressed against and he is likely to become an aggressor.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, Dr Phil, just you stop right there.
It’s a coin toss as to which child will become the aggressor and which ones will become the aggressed. The boy has seen his mother attack his father and his father defend himself against his mother. The girls have seen their mother physically assault their father. Why is the boy destined to become the aggressor and why are the girls destined to become the victims? Utter poppycock.
Granted, I think it’s a given that these kids are going to be screwed up for years to come because both of their parents are dysfunctional and engaging in a mutually abusive relationship, but Dr Phil’s prediction is biased. I think there’s a very strong likelihood the daughters will grow up to be aggressors who play the role of professional victim. Way to perpetuate a false stereotype that’s paints all men as potential abusers, Dr Phil.
Dr Phil tells the husband his behavior is abuse and, in the same breath, describes the wife’s violent behavior and provocations as a “relationship issue.”
Dr Phil, in no uncertain terms (26:03), calls Lawrence out for his abusive behavior, which I believe is largely a dysfunctional coping mechanism he employs when confronted with his wife’s own highly aggressive, confrontational, abusive and violent behavior. Then, in what I can only describe as one of my biggest “WTF, Dr Phil?!” moments ever, he minimizes and justifies Sonja’s reprehensible behavior as a relationship issue:
Now I didn’t put labels on this before. I just wanted to get the facts out [*the couple gave contradicting stories, but remember, Sonja admitted being physically violent on numerous occasions, so much so that Lawrence has hidden from her]. Let me put some labels on this now. [To Lawrence]: What you’re doing is abuse. It is domestic violence. It is physical abuse. Mentally, emotionally and physically, it is abuse. Just what you have admitted to is abuse. There is no question about it.
And you say, ‘Well, what about all of what she does?’ That’s a relationship issue. When we’re talkin’ here, we have abuse issues and then we have relationship issues. You say, ‘Well, why can she do it and it’s okay, but I can’t and it’s abuse? She does it—no problem. I do it and I’m an abuser. It doesn’t seem right.’ There is an imbalance of power here. You are bigger. You are stronger. [To Sonja]: What you’re doing, you should not be doing. That’s a relationship issue.
Wrong, Dr Phil. Sonja’s behavior is domestic violence, too. It is equally abusive and just as wrong. It doesn’t matter that she’s physically smaller than Lawrence.
Dr Phil then tries to put words in Lawrence’s sister’s mouth, Krishina, by saying, “Isn’t it true you’re afraid of your brother?” (27:33). She corrects him and Dr Phil is condescending toward her, which seems fitting, if not ironic, since the topics are power imbalances and abuse. Check out the look on Sonja’s face when Krishina describes both partners as “bullish.” Priceless. Dr Phil continues to beat the “power imbalance” drum by citing their difference in physique again. Um, that’s not a power imbalance, Dr Phil; it’s a body size difference. It’s not the same thing.
There is a struggle for power in Sonja’s and Lawrence’s relationship, but it’s not what Dr Phil thinks.
Sonja seems to want absolute control of her husband and the relationship. She uses verbal and physical violence and the kids to try to exert her power over her husband. Lawrence doesn’t want to be controlled and seems to fight back in unhealthy ways and, yet, Lawrence is portrayed as the abusive villain in this situation.
I think it’s healthy for a person to push back against behavior like Sonja’s. If she got in my face the way she does to Lawrence, I’d tell her to back off and knock it off. So, if I, as a woman, said, “Back off!” and shoved Sonja in retaliation to her shoving me, would it be abuse because we’re both women or would it be a “relationship issue” because we’re both women? Would I be the abuser if I’m a couple of inches taller than Sonja? What if she’s taller and heavier than me? How would Dr Phil define that?
Dr Phil tries to explain the difference between abuse issues and “relationship issues”(28:37):
Lawrence needs some help and Sonja needs some help. We are at two different levels here. Because of the imbalance of power, what a man does in a relationship to impose his will can be an abuse of power and control. What a woman does in a relationship is a relationship issue. It is not an abuse issue here.
[To Sonja]: You may be too controlling. You may be one of those people who likes to get in somebody’s face and get it to a point that may not be the best problem-solving skills that you could use. And I want to give you some different coping skills. [To Lawrence]: But she does not have the ability to isolate you and exercise power and control over you. And you do have that ability with her. Do you get the distinction? [Lawrence tries to respond, but Dr Phil talks over him.] We have to hold ourselves to a different standard, Lawrence. Do you agree or disagree, Lawrence?
In the above statement, Dr Phil unequivocally states there is a different set of rules for men and women when it comes to abuse. Dr Phil appears to believe that it’s not abuse when a woman tries to impose her will through physical force and verbal abuse, but it is when a man does the same exact thing. It wouldn’t be surprising if the average home viewer interpreted Dr Phil’s postion to mean that it’s acceptable for women to be violent and emotionally abusive toward men, that men cannot be the targets of abuse because they’re men and, therefore, physically stronger and that women cannot be guilty of abuse even when they admit to physically assaulting a man. The most Dr Phil seems willing to acknowledge is that Sonja’s behavior is inappropriate, which is a gross understatement and just plain wrong.
Lawrence tries to answer Dr Phil’s rhetorical question (29:35):
I do agree to a certain extent, but I think what happens is I tend to back down. Maybe I’m not going about it the right way, being the father figure in the house, but in reality, I find myself running away from Sonja 99% of the time. Running to the car, sleeping in the car, you know, just trying to get away from the arguments.
The car is actually his tool to isolate me. He takes the car numerous times and leaves me with nothing.
No, Sonja. The car is where Lawrence goes to escape from you. If he were using the car to isolate you, he would lock you in it and throw away the key.
Dr Phil and Sonja then reveal that Lawrence has a gambling problem (scratch tickets and online poker). Lawrence admits that he has a problem, says he uses gambling as an escape from Sonja and as a cry for help that he wants her to hear. This is duly ignored by both Dr Phil and Sonja, lest we forget who the one and only victim is here.
In the next segment (32:21), Dr Phil brings on Sue Else, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She rattles off a list of Lawrence’s alleged abusive behaviors (remember, Lawrence flatly denies Sonja’s rape allegation and many of her other claims), observes that his violent behavior is escalating and becoming more severe and that it makes Sue fearful.
Ms Else then trots out the old chestnut, “Love does not equal fear.” Ms Else ignores the fact that Lawrence stated, more than once, that he is afraid of his wife and has hidden from her, which Sonja herself confirmed as true. Ms Else does not address this inconvenient fact nor does she address Sonja’s own other admitted extremely violent and abusive behavior. Else’s fear is exclusively for Sonja and herself.
Dr Phil jumps in (33:22) to remind us that, while Sonja’s behavior is “inappropriate,” it’s still just a relationship issue; not abuse:
[To Lawrence]: What’s happening with you is different because of the imbalance of power and I’m trying to convince you of that, but I’m getting nowhere. I can see that I’m getting nowhere. This situation needs a hero and you’re the best candidate here. I’m just trying to tell you, just man-to-man, that what you’re doing is not right.
Lawrence: I do need need a lot of help. That’s why I’m here.
Dr Phil: Are you acknowledging anything I’m saying? I mean you blame this on her. You even say your daughter is smart and knows how to push your button, but it can’t ber fault. It can’t be your son’s fault. It can’t be your wife’s fault. The only person you control is you. And you have power that you have to manage in a relationship. And if you abuse the power, you abuse the relationship and everybody in it. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, you have to be better.
[Lawrence asks Dr Phil what he needs to do.] You have to be willing to say, ‘I will never put my hands on my wife or children in anger again ever no matter what. That’s where you start, right there. You just don’t ever. Just say, ‘I will not accept that from myself, character-wise. I am a better man than that. I will not do that.’ [To Sonja]: Do you get that? And you should not settle for that for yourself or for your children. [Lawrence should not accept or tolerate that from Sonja either, but Dr Phil is selectively mute on this counterpoint.]
Dr Phil perpetuates a dangerous double-standard.
Dr Phil states that abuse in a relationship is an absolute deal-breaker (35:44). I agree. However, Sonja’s behavior is also abuse. It is not a relationship issue—whatever that is, although, from what I can tell, it appears to be double-speak for “abuse” when the woman is the perpetrator. He tells Lawrence he needs to be the “hero” by deciding if “[he] wants to be happy or if [he] wants to be right” and that [he] needs to “rise above it.” Essentially, Dr Phil is advocating that Lawrence tolerate and not react to Sonja’s abuse. He advises Lawrence to not only accept her abuse, but to accept it unquestioningly and unflinchingly.
Now, imagine Dr Phil giving the same prescription to Sonja. It’s unthinkable and it’s unconscionable that he basically tells Lawrence it’s his job, his responsibility, to rise above Sonja’s abuse and take it. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s Lawrence’s job to set healthy boundaries with Sonja for both himself and his children. If she continues to abuse him and drag the children into it, he needs to rise above it by removing himself and his children from an unhealthy situation instead of sinking into a mutual race to the bottom.
*Please note: Lawrence asks for help and guidance several times throughout the episode. He admits his behavior is wrong. Sonja never really admits her behavior is wrong. She says she wants help. What she really wants is help “fixing” Lawrence because, naturally, her “relationship” issues are Lawrence’s fault. She doesn’t need to change anything about her behavior.
Dr Phil enables Sonja’s scapegoating of Lawrence by telling her that she just needs some better “problem-solving skills” and “coping mechanisms.” It’s okay for her to blame Lawrence for her bad behavior, but not the other way around. Furthermore, while Lawrence states that Sonja provokes him and that he allows her to push his buttons, he acknowledges that it’s wrong when he responds physically. Sonja just makes excuses for her behavior and takes no responsibility for her own actions and Dr Phil enables her. The twisting of reality and propaganda that Dr Phil perpetrates in this 42-minute episode is staggering.
What Dr Phil should have said.
Abuse is wrong. Initiating abuse is wrong and responding to abuse with more abuse is wrong. You both have issues.
Sonja, you’re no innocent victim. I don’t care if Lawrence isn’t giving you his undivided attention or obeying all of your commands. You have no right to lay your hands on him in violence nor do you have the right to destroy his property.
Quit putting your kids in the middle. Quit undermining Lawrence’s mutual authority as a parent and take responsibility for your own abusive behavior. Just because Lawrence married you does not mean you own him or have the right to control him. That is an unreasonable expectation.
Lawrence, you may need to accept the fact that your wife has control issues and she may not be able to change. She won’t even admit she has a problem, which is the first step in the change process. You have a right to be an autonomous being. You have a right to equal input on how your children are raised. You have a right to respect, love and affection. You may need to realize that your wife just wants a submissive lackey even as she grows to resent you for being a submissive lackey.
You also have a right to defend yourself, but let’s face it, as a man, if you defend yourself from physical attacks by a woman, even to just push her away so you can escape, you might get arrested. Therefore, continuing to live with a violent woman increases your risk of being incarcerated, whether you retaliate with force or not.
Don’t take your frustation with your wife out on your kids. One of the parents needs to be a grown-up and act responsibly and, given Sonja’s apparent inability to do so, you’re going to have to be the grown-up. You may need to get a good divorce attorney who understands high-conflict cases and sign those divorce papers your wife uses to control you by playing on your fear of abandonment or some unfounded sense of obligation or commitment.
Jan Brown, founder of the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women, posted an article about this Dr Phil episode on the DAHM Blog that includes responses from Dr Phil’s fans on his own forum, many of which express their disappointment in the way he dealt with this couple.
Lawrence, if you’re reading this, your wife’s behavior is also abuse and you deserve help and support; not one-sided condemnation. You ARE better than that and you do need to hold yourself to a higher standard because, clearly, no one is going to hold your wife to a higher standard and your kids need at least one healthy, functioning parent.