My mom’s in an emotionally destructive relationship with my dad. What should I do?
SOURCE: Leslike Vernick
Question: My parents are in their fourth year on the mission field, their “second” career after retiring from business and moving overseas to serve for an undetermined number of years. They’ve been married 40 years.
For decades, my mom has spent hours in the Word and in prayer daily, and has a track record of humble service to my father (and to her three kids as we were growing up). In fact, her reading habits have drawn repeated attacks and ridicule from my dad. He has a history of humiliating her (and us kids) publicly, explosive anger, and is restrictive of her freedom. But to anyone outside our family, this would come as a shock. He’s a successful businessman, gregarious, and active in every little church they’ve ever been part of.
Mom convinced him to seek pastoral counseling with her about 20 years ago and no real change resulted. He rejects psychology wholesale, yet admits to not finding anything profound or new whenever he reads the Bible. I found out when visiting them this summer that mom’s frequent trips to the bathroom were the result of frequent and prolonged sex (compounded by a long history of health issues which have rendered her “fragile”, to put it gently), which I’m guessing is precipitated by dad’s age and evening alcohol consumption.
I was incensed at the state of things mom was enduring, and told her she did not have to submit to dad’s physical advances any longer. She acted on that after I left and has not been intimate with him since. She and I both struggle with whether that is right, however I maintain that after years of humble service met with nothing but fits of rage, humiliation, zero emotional/relational intimacy, and rejection/denial anytime she attempted to talk about these issues, she no longer needed to put herself through it.
This all has caused mom to start examining her own life, tracing the roots of these problems back to her own father’s rejection of her (her mom told her that he just didn’t like her). She met my dad in college, who even then was controlling and manipulative. After a brief tryst (none of the “falling in love” typical foundation for a marriage relationship), she got pregnant and they were married a month later. She’s been working at it for forty years, and without having to explain much to my siblings, they immediately understood mom’s position when she told them she was ready to stand up to him.
Knowing what action to take has been the daily question. Your description of “crazy making” has been so helpful in understanding what she deals with. Dad does not initiate conversation with mom, denies any wrongdoing when specific instances are presented to him (by mom), and just this week has informed mom that she has been abusing him.
Mom has a plane ticket home in October to visit her 90 year old mother. My dad has removed any legitimate and substantive responsibility from my mom in their mission work. She is fully devoid of any in-country support (she refuses to take this to her co-workers for fear they wouldn’t believe her. While mom still cooks and cleans for my dad and tries to “help him”, he does nothing to reciprocate her attention or acknowledge it with any gratitude (that’s how it’s always been). My mom says she sees “improvement” in him, defined thus: he is trying really hard to control his temper, he doesn’t ask for sex anymore, he’s “earnestly seeking after spiritual things” and he has shifted from a “know-it-all” to “docile resignation.”
To me, that improvement is not reversing the pattern, it’s just neutral. He has no accountability where they are. So I’ve implored my mom to stay here in the US when she comes home. They are already making preparations to extract themselves from their position with their missions agency anyway, and since she doesn’t do anything work-related, it seems more important that she get help here.
Mom says she doesn’t know how she would be able to live apart from him, that she would always be worrying about him. This is understandable, but not healthy. How do I help my mom get healthy? Should she return even though he’d likely be home within the year? Is this “improvement” reason enough for her to resume physical intimacy?
Answer: Watching someone we love struggle in a destructive/abusive relationship is incredibly difficult. When it is our own parents, it is heartbreaking. I know you want to help your mom get healthy, but there are some things that she must do for herself and it sounds as if she is starting to do them.
You can help her, support her, and encourage her, but you must not push her to do something she is not ready or willing to do. If you do that, it will put you in the controlling role and she will once again stay in the passive role. Even though you mean well and only want her best, for someone to become emotionally healthy she must learn to figure out what she wants and to speak up for herself when necessary and not to be so passive, even when someone is upset with her for doing so.
What you can do is help her think through her choices and the consequences of those choices and then applaud and support her right to choose. For her entire marriage, she hasn’t believed she has the right to say “no”, or when she’s tried, she’s been manipulated, controlled, or pressured into giving in. You must not play that same role even if you fear she is making a poor choice.
You’ve asked a number of important questions but one in particular I want to spend a little time on. You asked how could your dad possibly accuse your mother of abusing him after all her years of patiently and passively enduring his humiliation, manipulations, verbal attacks, sexual abuse and controlling behaviors?
First, let me say that although your mother sounds like a saint, she is also still a sinner and there may be times when she does or is tempted to retaliate against your father, even if she does it more passively. The Bible tells us that people’s bad behavior rubs off on us and sometime, even if we’re not aware of it, we start to act like they do.
However, what I think is happening here is a common phenomenon I see once an abused woman stops going along with the abuser and begins to speak up for herself.
Let me give some background. When someone marries it’s understood that this person you married will have their own ideas, feelings, desires, goals, dreams and thoughts about things. If you’re healthy, you will not require the person you married to always think like you, feel like you, want what you want, or always do what you say. Instead you allow them to be different than you. The challenge of a healthy marriage is to lovingly blend two different people into a strong oneness that still contains each person’s uniqueness.
But this is not what happens in an abusive marriage. It sounds like right from the start, your father has not seen your mother as her own “person” to be cherished or loved but rather as an object to be possessed, owned, controlled and used. If this is the case, she isn’t allowed a separate voice, a personal feeling, a want apart from what he wants, or to disagree, or say “no”. As long as she stays true to the object role and shapes herself to meet every whim of your father, things stay relatively calm. Unfortunately this kind of wifely behavior has too often been applauded as biblical submission and a meek and gentle spirit which it is not.
It is not healthy to lose yourself in another person nor is it wise. Now as your mother is becoming healthier and realizing some important things she’s begun to assert herself. She is not just playing the “good Christian wife role” but is saying “I don’t like to be treated this way” and “That’s not acceptable”. However, as she begins to assert her needs, hurts, and feelings, he feels abandoned, rejected, unloved, and even abused.
The reason? In his mind, her sole purpose in being his wife is to please him, meet his every emotional need and always be available when he wants her. She has no needs of her own because she is not allowed to be a separate person. The more she speaks out about how she thinks, what she wants, how she feels and what she will or won’t do the more disappointed your father becomes.
This is not the helpmate he signed up for. And his “improvements” as your mother mentions are either an attempt to charm her to return to the object role, or as you suspect, “docile resignation” that things will never be the same again. This is still a far cry from a healthy marriage.
So do you encourage your mother to say in the States to receive support and help instead of returning to the mission field after her mother’s birthday? That is your mother’s decision to make, but you can help her think it through all of her choices and to know that if her marriage is to turn around, it is important not only that she continue to grow be the person God made her to be (not an object) but that her husband begin to value and cherish her as a person and not merely as someone who sole purpose is to take care of him, whether physically, emotionally or sexually.
Leslie Vernick is a licensed counselor (DCSW, ACSW, LSW) with over 25 years of experience helping individuals, couples, and families enrich the relationships that matter most!