My mom’s in an emotionally destructive relationship with my dad. What should I do?

Good Monday Morning Friends:

I hope you had a beautiful weekend. I just finished reading a beautifully written new book by Michael and Gina Spehn, The Color of Rain. It is a true story of incredible loss, hope, and trust in God’s goodness. Both Michael and Gina lost their spouses to cancer at young ages. The shared grief turned to friendship and eventually to love. Their story is a testimony to the grace of God.

I have had the privilege of being on Michael and Gina’s weekly radio show, “Your Family Matters” (streamed live at as one of their Round Table Experts over the past year but didn’t know their full story. If you know someone who needs renewed hope, I highly recommend their book.

Also, if you want to read my next blog for the Association of Biblical Counselors, here’s the link.

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.


  1. Anonymous on September 20, 2011 at 5:18 am

    Leslie…it looks like the end of this post didn't fit…it seems to stop mid-sentence. I'm dying to know your closing thoughts…because this could be MY story too. I lived this life for 28+ years…it nearly destroyed me from the inside out. I am finally breaking free from it and moving on with my life. Learning to be strong and healthy in mind and spirit is like having fresh clean air to breath once again. Your books and teaching has had a huge part in my healing. Just because this happens to be my history…doesn't mean it has to be my identity too! God has never been so real to me as now…and HE says I have value…so that's good enough for me 🙂

  2. Leslie on September 20, 2011 at 11:20 am

    You're right. The last few words were left off by accident. Whether physically, emotionally, or sexally. Hope that helps. I will edit the blog later today.

  3. Anonymous on September 21, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    One point that jumped out at me from the daughter's story, is the fact that her parent's getting together was described as a "tryst". Based upon the father's history of controlling behavior and sexual agressiveness, I am wondering if their first encounter was actually merely coercive/controlling/pressuring insistence on the part of the father, not a consensual situation.
    If that is the case, it further colors the whole story, and relationship, as having been abusive from the start. I wonder if there was ever a basis for a valid marriage. I would also like to point out that just because the father is doing mission work, this does not make him a Christian. Call me nit picky, legalistic, or whatever, but I believe REAL Christians should act like Christians, and that their
    Christian fruit should show in their behavior and relationships.
    I hope the mother decides to run for her life.

  4. Anonymous on September 23, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Dear Leslie,
    This story was so helpful! Sometimes it is hard to remember there are other people going through this or that there are people who will believe you. Our friends think my husband is such a nice guy. I am taking baby steps to break free from the emotional, physical, and verbal abuse that is a result of my husband's controlling behavior. However, when I disagree with him, he punishes the kids and I by taking away his financial support.
    I have been a stay-at-home mom for many many years and have no resources. It is slow work.
    Your advice was so helpful and I really appreciate all of the information you post!
    Thank you! It gives me hope!

  5. Heather on September 25, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    I hope the last poster can run and get away from her husband as well as the mom that was written about. I am married to a man like this and finally have the courage to not be treated like this anymore and get a divorce. Women stay for financial support and because they have no self esteem left. I was that way, too, but did not want to be that type of role model for my daughter. I wanted her to see that it was not okay to stay with a husband that claimed to be a Christian and sweet on the outside, but had a life of hidden porn and lust. I will no longer stay with someone that treats me like a dog. I agree, RUN!!!!!! For women that have stayed at home ( like I have) start by taking one step at a time – get the divorce and then start looking for jobs at home if you are still raising children. I have found a lot of moms in this same situation and they watch children in their homes or work at the school in the cafeteria or as an aide. There is a way out!!! Do not accept being treated this way!!! You are precious to the Lord!!! I understand when you say no on would believe you as my husband's side are very well known and people think they are wonderful Christians, but there are some that do know the truth about the men and their affairs and porn etc..

  6. Anonymous on September 27, 2011 at 6:06 am

    I think women should use caution before they get divorced. I believe we must pray and ask for God's directions and guidance, then listen and wait for instructions from Him. I have been married for 30 years and have learned to become strong inside my unhealthy toxic marriage. I could have ran all the way to China. My problems of co-dependency, low self-esteem, etc. were inside me. No matter who I have a relationship with, it would have been unhealthy. As I changed my dance steps to the dance, my husband had no other choice than to dance differently, because I became different. Sometimes it is wiser to stay in a bad marriage, than to go through a good divorce. Divorce is destructive to the children, just as much as an unhealthy marriage. Abigail was married to a fool, and God gave her wisdom on how to live with her foolish husband. God can do the same thing today in our day and age. The key is don't stay the passive victim, learn how to be assertive (not overly agressive). God can show us how to survive and do it in such a way that it is not harmful to the children. There are many women who are divorced and raising children, poorest of the poor and their children are paying a heavy price for it. We need to be sure to seek the wisdom of God. Sometimes it is to stay. God will give us the Grace to endure an unhealthy relationship, if we put our total trust in Him!

  7. Anonymous on November 27, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    I am in just this type of abusive marriage and have been for 29+ years. Now that I finally woke up and separated from him, he claims he is doing everything he can to change. I have a hard time believing that. He is a narcissist and has OCD and clinical depression. One person says he seems very much changed; the next says he's no different – just a little less angry. I myself can't even be in his presence, so I don't know what the truth is. I have biblical grounds for divorce since he has been so abusive, but does that mean I should? I have already forgiven him, but do I need to also reconcile? I'm not sure if I can.

    • Elizabeth on November 22, 2019 at 9:13 pm

      Why is it so hard for women in abusive relationships to leave the marriage? What is so necessary that she stay and continue to be abused and figure out how to grow stronger. This is crazy. I must be in la la land… I can’t imagine living with an abusive man. Abigail as an example or not. I’m just baffled by it all.

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