How Do I Honor A Parent Who Is Abusive?

Morning friends,

I just returned to the cooler weather of the mountains from hot, hot Phoenix. I’m so thankful for this break. Even our dog resisted her walks because of the hot sidewalks. Up here, she can run around and expend all her energy.  

I receive quite a few questions from readers who are struggling in relationships that are toxic but not necessarily in their marriage. I thought I’d open the discussion this week to ways we can deal with toxic family members, even when we don’t have to live with them, especially the pressure from other family members to “get over it.”  

Question: My husband’s mother was (still is) emotionally and verbally abusive. His father is a wonderful, kind and peaceful man. My husband has spent his entire life walking on eggshells so as not to upset his mother. This past winter, my husband had a falling out with his mother and she told him she didn’t want anything more to do with him and that she was “done” with him. He is still healing from this hurt.

Meanwhile, other immediate family members have told us that we are selfish, and have asked how we can walk away from our parents? We believe that as children, we need to honor our parents, but what do you do, and what does God want us to do when one of the parents is verbally and emotionally abusive? Are we supposed to turn the other cheek and act as if nothing happened?                                                                   

Answer: This is a very painful situation for many individuals. We often feel pressure (or get pressured) to resume family relationships (before there has been any true repentance or reconciliation) just to have some semblance of family peace.

I understand your husband’s dilemma. I talk about my own struggle to handle my mother’s emotional abuse in a godly way in my book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship. Let me give you some things to think about.

First, it’s impossible to have a good or healthy relationship with someone who abuses you. Period! Remind your husband not to put that burden on himself.  

That doesn’t mean that your husband shouldn’t forgive his mother or that he can’t ever see her again. Jesus calls us to love even our enemies and to do them good (Matthew 5:43). But he doesn’t expect that we’ll have close fellowship with an enemy or be their friend. But if an opportunity presents itself, we can minister to even an enemy with love.

When Jesus teaches about going the extra mile or turning the other cheek, I don’t believe he’s advocating that we tolerate abusive behavior without protest. What I believe he teaches is not to retaliate when someone hurts you. Click To Tweet

Jesus tells us that when someone forces you to do something, your response to that injustice is important and may affect what happens next. In any situation of abuse or injustice you can protest or speak up (which he also talks about in Matthew 18, or you can actually choose to do something very unusual. You can go the extra mile, or turn the cheek, or give your enemy your coat (Matthew 5:38-42).              

This out of the ordinary, extravagantly generous response is meant to shock the abusive person into seeing their own sin more clearly. It’s like heaping burning coals on their head so that they more quickly repent (Romans 12:20). It is not done to give them license to do more and more abuse towards you. 

Therefore, in light of these biblical principles, what can your husband do? First, we’ve already said that God calls us to love our enemies and do them good. He also tells us to honor our parents, but in the same way, we can’t have close fellowship with an enemy, honoring a parent doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to have a close relationship with them. What would honoring his mother look like right now?

I can’t answer that specifically for your particular situation, but I believe part of honoring someone is telling her the truth. Her behavior is sinful, toxic, and destructive to her relationship with her son and most likely other people too.

However, it’s unlikely that the truth will change her. Therefore, honoring a parent might also mean offering to help with chores around their house if she’s or her husband are unable to take care of them. It might mean taking her on errands if she needs a ride. It might mean apologizing for his part of the blow-up that happened even though his mother said cruel things to him.

It might mean being with both his mother and father as well as other family members during a holiday meal or family gathering without bitterness, but with good boundaries. It doesn’t mean that he must intimately fellowship with his mother during that gathering. It also might mean that if there is another verbal attack from mom, he might need to leave. For example, he might say this next time Mom loses her temper.

“Mom, I’ve tried very hard to honor you and be a good son. I love you and I want to help you, but I find it very difficult to stay here and talk with you when you call me names or swear at me (or whatever she is doing here). I’m going to leave now. I’ll be back later. I won’t allow myself to be treated that way any longer.”

He needs to say this in a neutral voice tone and then just leave. He can return later when she’s calmed down. 

Meanwhile, what about his father? You say he is a kind man. Is he not caught in the middle of this whole thing? How can your husband honor him and continue to enhance his relationship with him even if his mother is not included? 

These are questions to pray about and ask God for wisdom. But let everything you do and decide, be done with love. Love doesn’t mean anything goes. It means that you care about and look out for what’s in their long term best interests.  

As far as the pressure from the other family members, I think your husband can simply say or write, “I love my parents and would love to have a better relationship with my mother. However, I will not allow myself to be treated that way and pretend it’s acceptable or healthy, especially when it’s in front of children. I believe God calls me to honor my mother and that’s what I intend to do, but I cannot have a good relationship with my mother all by myself.”   

Friends, when you’ve had a toxic family relationship (not marriage), how have you dealt with the pressure coming from other family members to overlook the offense or forgive and forget?


  1. Moon Beam on July 24, 2019 at 7:34 am

    Emotional detachment is an excellent tool for dealing with an abusive Mother. I participate in family life on a limited basis with the mindset that I am visiting a psyche patient on a psyche ward. I know her behavior is not my responsibility nor am I responsible to fix her. I psychologically surrender her to the “staff” who will monitor and work on her mental illness after I leave. She slings mud at me and tries to hook me with her crazy talk. I ignore it. I keep visits short and shake her poison off after I leave. I take my hand and brush my clothes off as if knocking dirt off myself after I leave her. I get in the car and drive away free.

    • ja47646 on July 24, 2019 at 8:33 am

      Great post, Moon Beam! I need to remember your ideas the next time I am near my now ex-inlaws at family events.

      • kerri on July 29, 2019 at 4:20 pm

        Yes. Great Post MB. Thank you. As mud is slung at me everytime I try to associate with almost all my family. ‘Lucky me’ Now, I see that I am as well as you; ‘BLESSED’ over and above, because, we see it for what it really is “fiery darts” strait from hell. Though I love them and they gaslight me I keep my eyes on Jesus and recently started praying with a broken heart for their depravirty. Gosh, I really needed a refresher. Thank you for sharing your conquest. It’s infected my whole family; cousins etc… But God… 🙂 God Bless from MA

    • Jo on July 25, 2019 at 12:30 am

      Have care when associating the mentally ill with abusive behavior. Abuse and mental illness are not necessarily associated. It does a disservice those with mental illness in ourselves, our families, or our friends. Mental illness is not the same as abuse, and people with mental illness are more vulnerable to being abused than the average person. It’s a rough road to walk without an unfair label connected with abuse.

      • Jo on July 25, 2019 at 12:36 am

        Plus hospitalization for mental illness can only help with mental illness and a person’s particular behaviors driven by mental illness. It will not d bring repentance an abuser who needs to changes his ways.

        • Moon Beam on July 25, 2019 at 6:54 am

          Yes, I agree that mental illness is a broad subject matter, although Narcissistic Personality Disorder is in the DSM-V.

          My point was to suggest detachment. You can think up what ever scenario works for you.

  2. Lynn McIntosh on July 24, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    My mother was very very social growing up. Always having parties…. She started a Phi Mu chapter at a university in our hometown. She’s never met a stranger. But when I was 19 I got pregnant with my boyfriend and my mother made me have an abortion. I sat in the waiting room crying and throwing at tissues at her. I am 59 now and it’s taken many years to understand and forgive her. But we are very close now. Took a lot of forgiveness though.

    • Tre14k on August 16, 2019 at 10:58 am

      Best balanced book (like Leslie Vernick, Chris Moles, and Bob Hamp) is BOLD LOVE by Dan Allender.
      Below the title it says no the difference between loving and evil person, a fool, and I normal center. What it means to “honor“ a wicked parent Etc.

  3. Lauren Michael on July 24, 2019 at 12:19 pm

    How should minor children honor their verbally abusive parent? should they be required to stand their and listen to the abuse?

    • JP on July 24, 2019 at 6:14 pm

      Lauren Michael I have a similar issue. My ex is trying to force our children to honor him. He was sending many messages about it. He even sent them a link to listen to a sermon on the 5th Commandment. He missed in the sermon when the pastor talked about being honorable. None of us receive his hurtful messages any longer thankfully. In my opinion the best way to honor someone while still being in the midst of abuse is to not respond negatively. If that requires not communicating for a time I think that is best. That’s what we do anyway. Our kids are too upset to respond in a mature way. It’s a learning opportunity for them

      • JP on July 24, 2019 at 6:34 pm

        Before the divorce, when living together, the kids spent a lot of time in their bedrooms to keep their distance or spent time at their friends’ homes. It was more difficult when they were younger, but we still spent quite a bit of time away from their dad.

      • Connie on July 28, 2019 at 11:24 am

        Now, over 20 years later, my one son still says that their father ‘makes’ them honour me, and that I don’t honour him because I won’t talk to him and I supposedly talk about them to some of the children behind his back. I know what that looks like. I’ve seen it. “You must honour your mother (with eye-rolling and understanding smirk that says ‘even though you and I know how crazy she is’). And I don’t talk bad about him – he just says I do and son believes it. Sometimes there is really nothing you can do besides pray.

        • JoAnn on July 28, 2019 at 9:47 pm

          Connie, I agree with you, and the Lord has ways of revealing the truth eventually. Be patient and just keep loving your son. The Lord knows.

  4. Sherry Cortese on July 24, 2019 at 4:09 pm

    This touches a very raw nerve. My mil is verbally & emotionally abusive & controlling. I believe she is truly a narcissist. I have had intense struggles with her over a 46 year period. She’s 90 now but can still set me off. We moved away years ago & I felt that God told me it was to preserve me. I whole heartedly believe that moving was beneficial to me. I am bewildered with her ability to trash me to others & have them take up her cause & insult, criticize & annihilate on her behalf. It seems demonic to me.

    And what have I done to cause her hatred? She wants to be praised (her words) she wants to be viewed as flawless (“Everything I do & say is exactly what Jesus would do!” Her words) she wants emulation & obedience. Over the decades she has wanted to make my choices for me. Our biggest conflicts have been over food. She wants me to eat & LIKE what she likes. Strange as this sounds, she has become irate at what I choose to put in my body. The fact that this is off the chart ridiculous has escaped family members including my husband who defends her lunacy. The last time I was around her she was angry that I take supplements & felt I should, instead, be taking the same medications she takes.

    I have no patience left for her. I have tried to “just get along” & cannot do it. I cannot give up all my personal choices to accommodate her ego. I cannot dye my hair the color she does, use the scouring powder she likes or arrange my dishes to suit her. While this may sound pretty, the constant unrelenting insults & control is soul sucking. If she truly needed my help, I would give it & have done so in the past. However, I will avoid seeing her when it is in my ability to avoid it. Had I refused to submit to the abuse years ago. I would be in better emotional health. I always looked for someone to validate my right to resist the control. Because I never got that, i concluded that i must be wrong. I was not wrong. No human deserves to own another.

    • JoAnn on July 24, 2019 at 11:21 pm

      Sherry C. I am so sorry that your MIL has made life so difficult for you. But I have to wonder why your husband hasn’t stood up for you? That surely adds to your pain. The very first time my mother tried to intrude in our decisions, my h stood up to her, and that was the last time it ever happened. Of course, my mother never was as strong as your MIL, but the principle is the same. It’s his job to stand up for you.

      • Nancy on July 28, 2019 at 7:26 am

        HI Sherry and JoAnn,

        You make an excellent point JoAnn. Your h is to ‘leave’ his parents and ‘cleave’ to you. From what you have written, he has not done this and if that’s the case then that is a much more important issue.

        The loving thing to do on your part would be to require that he do the emotional work of leaving his parents. This will be no small ‘ask’ after all this time. He will need counselling as well as accountability.

    • Angie on July 27, 2019 at 5:52 pm

      Sherry C. this sounds like my mother. I have chills from reading it because none of my family members will acknowledge her manipulation or abuse. I too thought I was wrong. Now 50 years later I have PTSD from her abuse and from marrying a man just like her. I wish I would have known how to stop it. Good for you for standing up for yourself. And thank you for posting so I could put into words what has happened to me and confirm that I am on the right path!

  5. Ann on July 24, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    My mother-in-law is a large reason why my husband is who he is. She is everyone’s friend in public but toxicly abusive in private. They moved a few years ago, God’s grace in action! When they come home to this area, they are allowed to visit for a few hours in our home but not stay the night here. This makes her angry because then she must ask to stay at friends’ homes. She was born and raised here so has many places she could stay. She went through a season of being verbally abusive whenever she phoned so we made it a rule that no one answered her calls except her son, my husband. I try to speak honorably about her but without lying about her behaviour to the children and others. Her husband disengages from the whole thing. I think he is part of the problem himself in his lack of positive engagement.

  6. Ana on July 24, 2019 at 6:27 pm

    The wheel that I prepared for my father who has since died my mother has a copy of that will. When I asked her if she could provide me a copy because I cannot find mine anywhere, she was reluctant. I don’t know why my mom will not provide a copy of my fathers will. Then one day she asked me if I would waive my rights to the house that my father owns in Mexico which my mom’s sister has been living in for the past 20+ years. I wouldn’t mind waving my rights but it just seems so underhanded something doesn’t feel right and I don’t know what else to do?

    • Ana on July 24, 2019 at 6:28 pm

      Error. Not wheel. That was Siri. Will.

    • Sunny on July 24, 2019 at 9:10 pm

      Insist on getting a copy of the will and have it read by your legal advisor. If it seems right after those steps, then consider what/ if rights you wish to waive. Tell your mom you can’t waive your rights unless you know what they are and see a full copy of the will.

      • admin7ana on July 24, 2019 at 9:47 pm

        Thank you Sunny…good advise.

  7. Grace Sanchez on July 25, 2019 at 9:43 am

    Help !!!! I’m married to a man who has pushed away our children by his behavior ! And now they don’t talk to me either ?
    And I’m mad at both my husband & my children for acting the way they do ..

    • JoAnn on July 25, 2019 at 12:30 pm

      Grace, being mad at them isn’t going to help the situation. Spend some time before the Lord to get an understanding of why they are mad at you, too. What part have you played in this? Are they upset with you because you didn’t stand up tor them when he abused them? Have you said unkind things to them? (just possible examples) Ask the Lord to give you some ideas for how you can restore your relationship with the children. What do you need to apologize for? How can you make amends?Children do love their parents. You are their mother, so deep down, they surely do love you, so tap into your loving heart and reach out. They want to have a loving relationship with you, but you must provide the way to do that. Just don’t bring your anger to them. That will push them further away.

    • Free on July 28, 2019 at 8:12 am

      If the children are teens or young adults they can think for themselves. You husband can not push them away. They chose either not to engage with her abusive behavior or to be influenced by it and it’s consequences. I suggest you leave their actions to them and instead put all that energy into yourself. Your children will be more interested in your vibrant life and zest for living than participating in the ongoing Mom and Dad drama.

      • Free on July 28, 2019 at 8:15 am


        Your husband can not push

        Not to engage in his abusive behavior

      • Jennifer K. on August 10, 2019 at 7:48 pm

        Grace, please don’t “put all that energy into yourself” that’s not biblical one bit and will not lead you in the way of grace and truth…the abundant life our Lord calls us to. Our life is not about “self” but about others.
        While we can examine ourselves, repent, ask the Lord to change our hearts, it is a dangerous path when we choose a “self” life instead of a God life. I love JoAnn’s advice. It will help purify your heart and bring you even closer with God. You will gain wisdom, power, love, and a sound mind. Pray and do all you can to be salt and light to them. The Lord will surely bless all that you do in His name and in His ways.
        God can take that mad away sister when you confess it to Him. He can remove it and instill in your heart peace, love, and joy xo

  8. Nancy on July 28, 2019 at 7:19 am

    We have had zero contact with my MIL for a year and a half now. We’ve recently been moved to contribute financially to her care (through his brother, on the condition that she does not know this).

    The Lord is beginning to nudge us toward making contact with her – the key will be to maintain boundaries and as Leslie said above, be prepared to walk out when she busts our boundaries.

    I recently told a confidant that I could not see myself walking out. She responded, “you’re right, on your own you couldn’t walk out but Christ in you wants your protection and safety. He will enable you to walk out.”

  9. Jennifer K. on August 10, 2019 at 7:53 pm

    What do you do if your MIL is a martyr? Don’t get me wrong, she’s not terrible. I’ve tried to reach out so many times to make a good and godly connection with her, but to no avail. So what do i do when she is making these martyr comments and constantly talking about herself? She even did this at my daughter’s 6 year old birthday. She has problems with her eyes and instead of getting her sunglasses (which my dad offereed to get for her from the car) she had us turn the lights off and just went on and’s been hard to know how to respond. I don’t want to respond with frustration or anger..but i know if i continue to be around the complaining and her self focus I might eventually say something…I just don’t know how to handle this :'(

  10. Ruby on August 13, 2019 at 8:21 am

    My husband never would stand up to his bossy and conniving mom and sister and now he still talks behind my back to his sister instead of talking to me about any issues we have. He talks to my children too.

    I asked him several months ago to be committed to me, willing to talk and have a real relationship. So far, he just wants to act like a polite stranger. I’m in a period of not engaging with him and it is a relief after three decades of trying to pull him to my side.

  11. Nelly on August 13, 2019 at 9:00 am

    Just say no Jennifer. When someone, even an in-law, is in your home, your home is still your home. Just politely say “No we are not going to turn off the lights but we will be glad to go get your glasses – it is your choice.” Having healthy boundaries is about what you do – not what you make someone else do because you cannot control others – you can only control your own behavior. Just say no.

  12. Tre14k on August 16, 2019 at 11:04 am

    Henry Cloud (from boundaries books)
    On how to confront your parents

  13. Susan on December 29, 2019 at 1:08 am

    After many years of very little interaction, it was necessary for my brother, sister and I to be in close contact to discuss inheritance issues. We did not really know each other well after many years apart. Almost immediately, I noticed unusual behaviors and responses directed at me from my brother He was vague, evasive, talked in circles, giving no straight answers. He was executor of the will so this behavior led me to distrust him. Next, he began to belittle me, demean, and say I was not deserving of my portion of the inheritance. I wanted to have a relationship with my brother so I made multiple attempts to encourage positive communication. Nothing worked. He was not receptive and instead ramped up the negative attacks. I found myself pleading for civil responses from him and had to make sure my answers were short and polite, to avoid provoking him. The vitriol continued for months in person, by phone, text and email. To keep my sanity I eventually decided to limit access. So, I blocked his texts and phone access and requested email messages only.

    It’s so shocking and hard to describe the degrading content of the messages he continued to email once the inheritance issues were settled, Soon I cringed every time I saw his name in my inbox. My sister was copied on the emails but she never commented on the attacks until an extremely derogatory, senseless attack was leveled. My response to him was straightforward and firm but not unkind. I presented facts and established boundaries. My sister came to my defense and sent me a private email supporting my stance.

    When he continued to send negative emails, I decided it best to resist responding except to express a pleasant thought and then only if a response was absolutely necessary. Otherwise I ignore his emails.
    He continues to try to Hoover me back in to interact with him and illicit responses from me. He changes tactics using different lines to lure me back. He sends emails about things he knows are of interest to me, or emails about deaths, fake urgent emails, guilt trip emails, etc. Past experience tells me if I respond he will twist my response into something it isn’t and send an inappropriate comment in return. So, I refuse to take the bait.

    All of this is quit sad because we have lost both parents now and it’s just the three of us. I have worked hard to continue to forgive. I’ve realized that with repeat offenders it’s not wise to continue to grant access to my life even if he is my brother. So I don’t, but this has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life and completely unexpected.

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