How Can I Help My Adult Daughter Who’s in an Abusive Marriage?

Morning friend,

Next week I am heading to Seoul, South Korea. Over 40 years ago we adopted a baby girl from Korea, and she and I are flying there to meet her birth parents and Korean extended family. It’s going to be a trip of a lifetime and I’m so honored that she wanted me to accompany her on this journey. Please pray for our safety and for this to be a time of greater love and connection for both families. 

Even after our children grow up, we are always their parents. We still feel protective and care about their wellbeing. Today’s question comes from a concerned mom. 

This week’s question:

What can I, as a mother to my abused daughter, do to help her? She finally left 3 months ago after 8 years of abuse and 4 children later. They are not legally separated but she (he) thinks she has to let him have the children every Saturday all day and Wednesday evening. Being grandparents it's like we can never plan anything on Saturday with our grands. 

No repentance from our son-in-law, the church has done pretty much nothing. Many who were with her at the beginning now have stepped back because they don't want to take sides. It has been quite frustrating. 

I think she should insist he get in a Men's Batterers group. (He has said this word abuse has been used too much). He tells the children he is living in an apartment because the Pastor asked him to, with no mention of his sin against their mom. 

What should I encourage her to do? 

 P.S. I gave my daughter your book “The Emotionally Destructive Marriage” in June this year and she left at the end of July we had no idea he was physically abusing her. He found your book in the first part of July and tried to burn it but it wouldn't burn. I just thought you would want to hear that.

Answer: God knew that angry abusive men might try to burn my book up. Good to know the cover is fireproof.

As a mom of adult children, my heart hurts for you. You hate what’s happened. So now, what can you do? What should you do? First, you’ve already done a lot by noticing that your daughter is in an abusive marriage and giving her my book to help her discern what her right next steps forward are. She took action to separate and inform her church. Good for her. How you help her from here might be a bit more nuanced. 

Your grandchildren and daughter are precious to you. I can tell you love them very much. My next statement is not meant to thwart your desire to help however, your daughter’s problem is not yours to solve, it’s her problem to solve. You can’t decide for her what she needs to do to get safe or strong. You can’t decide for her what’s best for her children, even though they are your grands. Part of her healing right now is to restore her own agency (choice) and be empowered to use it. When well-meaning people helpers, including parents, step in with the solution, we unintentionally communicate an unhealthy message to our adult child. The message is “I don’t trust that you can figure it out. I must rescue you. I must solve your problems for things to get better.” 

I’m sure that is not the message you want to communicate to your adult daughter. Therefore, instead of thinking of how to fix her problem, applaud the steps she’s already taken to start solving her own problem (separation). Ask her how you might support her as she figures out what she needs to do next to stay safe and get healthy. 

She might ask to borrow some money to pay a lawyer to better understand her legal rights, or custody issues. Or she may need help to pay for some coaching or counseling to get her body/mind/spirit rebooted. You could offer some childcare help while she seeks employment so that she will have an income to support herself and the kids if her marriage fails. She will want you to pray for her as she walks out this journey of separation and possible divorce. Supporting someone while they solve their problem is different than trying to fix/solve their problem for them. Unless your daughter asks for your opinion or help, try not to tell her what to do. Her work right now is to learn to think for herself, not depend on you or others to think for her.

In the same way, you can’t fix your daughter’s problem, your daughter cannot solve her husband’s abuse/anger problem. That is his problem to fix if he wants to change and be a better, safer husband and man. Advising her to require him to attend a Men’s Batterer group will not solve his problem unless he sees he has a problem and wants to change. It’s like requiring some to take chemotherapy who doesn’t believe they have cancer. Why would they do that? 

Therefore, let me help you define more specifically what your problem seems to be. Your problem is you’re worried for your daughter and your grandkids. You’re anxious for their safety and well-being. Giving your daughter my book showed that your instincts were spot-on and she took action from there. What makes you believe that she can’t continue to take appropriate action on her and her children’s behalf? What kind of support do you need to manage your own worry and fear without trying to control or manage her?

Another problem you stated is that you don’t see the grandkids as much as you’d like since they are spending time with their father on Saturdays. Instead of being resentful or critical of that arrangement, how might you find other times to spend with your grandchildren? Saturdays are out but what about Sundays? Friday evenings? Even having them over for dinner during the week might be a nice break for your daughter. 

As a parent of adult children myself, I know how hard it is to sit on “the answer” to their problem and wait for them to figure it out for themselves. But remember when she was little? She had to learn to do new things to become more mature and self-sufficient. She had to learn to roll over, crawl, and walk and babies do that on their own timetable, not because we are “showing” them how to do it. Later, she had to learn to manage conflicts with her friends or teachers. She had to organize her homework and study for her tests. You could have done it for her, but if you jumped in and fixed her problems, she would have become less strong, even if the problem would have been solved in the moment.  

We hate to see our kids struggle or in pain at any age. Get some support for yourself through this season. Continue to offer your love to her, encouraging her to grow through this experience. Support her steps of growth: valuing her safety, finding her voice, setting new boundaries, and reclaiming her No. If you see she is making unwise choices, ask if you can share your concerns before you offer any advice. By doing so you demonstrate honor and respect for her as an adult image bearer of God. She will feel valued and respected, and that alone can empower her to make her next right choice. 

Friend, when your adult child (or someone you love) is hurting or making decisions that you struggle with, how do you handle your own anxiety and desire to take over and give advice?

9 Comments

  1. Caroline Abbott on February 28, 2024 at 9:57 am

    Wow Leslie, you are so right. It is very difficult to watch our adult kids struggle. Sometimes I think it is more emotionally painful than dealing with the day-to-day work I did when they were little. Stepping back and watching them make choices I think are mistakes is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

    For this sweet mom, I would say, Love on your daughter and grandkids as much as they will let you. And pray pray pray for patience as you hold back what you feel you want to say. If God gives you an opening, you can make a suggestion here or there, but make sure you have prayed about it first.

  2. Norma Torres on February 29, 2024 at 8:27 am

    You are so wise Leslie! I’m also struggling with things like this and this words have brought comfort to my soul.

  3. Barb Waalkes on February 29, 2024 at 8:55 am

    Such a timely answer to a great question. I too have a daughter living in a very destructive marriage. It’s so difficult to see my daughter living in denial. I really want to swoop in fix it for her..Your advice is a reminder that it takes time for clarity and strength to make good decisions. I’m going to give the outcome of her marriage to God.

  4. Caroline on February 29, 2024 at 9:15 am

    Thank you for your wise and Godly advice. This book helped me so tremendously with my marriage and divorce especially since I didn’t have my mom around at the time. But now you have also helped me with your response to this dear mother. You have helped me to see that always jumping in with advice is not always a help but a statement of my lack of distrust for my grown kids’ ability to manage their issues on their own. My job requirements have changed and I see them much more clearly having read this! Thank you!

  5. Deb on February 29, 2024 at 10:11 am

    Leslie,
    I thank you (and the Holy Spirit) for these perfectly-timed words, which apply in a different context in my life right now.
    Yesterday – after years of following your writing, attending a church where you spoke, reading your books, leading a group or two for divorced women – I drove about 600 miles and took care of someone else’s problem for her, instead of applying any of these well-founded principles about not *rescuing* my friend. (Think, “Superwoman Strikes Again!”)

    Thankfully, I stumbled onto your email this morning and am humbly repentant as I begin to look at my motives, as a result. The outcome easily could have been deadly yesterday. The relationship with my friend continues to need careful application of all you wrote in this response, after many decades of exerting patience and trying to apply these principles.
    I am grateful for you.

  6. Connie on February 29, 2024 at 11:08 am

    My German mom had a saying that basically means, “Little children, little worries, big children, big worries” . Now I know what that means. 😊 This young mom actually moved rather quickly after receiving the book! I would be proud!! That tells me that she’ll probably figure it out sep by step. I have 10 children, ages 30 – 50. Because their dad has subtly convinced many of them that I’m not too bright, the don’t ask me for advice much. I pray a lot and love a lot, encourage a lot, rejoice in the smallest progress, and keep my mouth zipped over things that bother me. I remember that I was probably a lot stupider at the same age. I think I gave them a head start in the wisdom department, sharing what I learned insteaf of silence like my parents were. 😊

  7. Missy on February 29, 2024 at 12:05 pm

    I was a daughter in a relationship just like this – I can only applaud Leslie’s advice to parents. I will never forget the support my parents provided. Even more important was that they empowered me to make my own choices and grow into a strong woman, after so many years of being emotionally beat down. Even now, (more than a decade later) I hear my dad’s voice saying, “You will make the right choice.” I learned to bounce my thoughts and ideas around with them, take their input but be fully responsible for my own outcomes. I want to be the same for my own children. Thank you, Leslie! My mother gave me the book, too.

    • Leslie Vernick on February 29, 2024 at 1:48 pm

      Thanks for sharing Missy, your words of growth bring comfort to many a parent’s anxious heart. Your parents were supportive but not rescuing and that is a huge difference.

  8. Der on February 29, 2024 at 5:42 pm

    I remember sharing with my dad my than Husb anger and effects on all of us. He offered to speak to Husb. I declined as I knew Husb would use it against me yet act all nice to my parents. Already saw that.
    To this day I love my fathers offer and his care and trusting my decision to decline .
    I now see my grown children making some good some poor decisions and some good.
    This was great encouragement to support not fix.
    Do not be surprised if she gives him another chance if so encourage and keep communication open. It takes time to see truth . Blessings!!

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