My Mother’s In A Destructive Marriage With My Father

Angry Senior Couple in a Terrible Argument









Morning friends,

I’m heading off to Liberty University in Virginia this morning (October 21) to speak to their counseling students tonight on Destructive Marriages. Tomorrow (October 22), I’ll be speaking to a group of pastors in the morning, and then in the evening I’m going to be doing a 3 hour webinar for the American Association of Christian Counselors on “Effective Strategies for Counseling Destructive Marriages.” If you’re interested in attending, you can sign up at or call 1-800-526-8673.

I will also be on Focus on the Family on Wednesday, October 23rd and Thursday, October 24th talking about “Reclaiming Hope & Safety in a Destructive Marriage.” On these airdates, the streaming audio of this broadcast will appear on FOTF’s broadcast page – Please tune in as well as visit Focus on the Family’s website to see some additional video’s and articles I’ve made available.

Focus on the Family also has a “Station Finder” link for stations that carry the program around the country. This program will also be available as a downloadable podcast on iTunes (just search for Focus on the Family Daily Broadcast).

Today’s question is one that I answered several years ago. I normally don’t do repeats, but this has just been such a busy week. As I’ve prayed and asked you to pray, I’m learning balance and recognizing more and more my own limitations.

Honestly, I needed a day off with no deadlines and no pressure. But I think you’ll find this adult daughter’s dilemma quite compelling. How do we help one of our parents in a destructive marriage?

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 any time 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. 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, 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 there is one in particular I want to spend a little time on. You asked how your dad could 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. 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 you 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.

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. 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. You can help her think 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 to 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’s sole purpose is to take care of him physically, emotionally or sexually.

Friends, how would you advise someone with a parent in a destructive marriage?


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  1. Brenda on October 21, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    I started trying to get my mom to leave Satan stepdad when I was about 10. I swore I would want nothing else, if she would do this. She did not leave and 3 years later the son of Satan was born. Ugh. He turned out to be just as evil as the Satan stepdad. My mother thought if she left him she would wind up with someone worse. She did not trust herself. She is a sweet Christian woman although misguided in her own mind.

    There is not one thing you can do or say to make another person leave a destructive or abusive marriage if they don’t see the need. All you can do is love them and be there to pick them up if they need it. My mother was married to Satan stepdad for 53 years before he went on to his just reward. Son of Satan still lives with her. I have told her that I would like to come in and clean house, which means put him on the street where he belongs. Satan stepdad abused my sister and I in every way including sexually. Son of Satan abused my daughter and my sisters daughter sexually. My sister and I rarely hear from my mother, but Son of Satan is being enabled by her. In my family you must be a monster to get attention.

    I pray that your mother “gets it” and can find peace and contentment in her last remaining days. She has given your father the majority of her life. She owes him nothing more.

  2. Linda@Creekside on October 21, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Oh my heart just breaks for this woman. She is blessed to have children to come alongside her, to encourage her to be wise and strong, to reclaim her God-given voice, to make decisions that bring life, not death.

    This is not easy for women ‘of a certain age,’ but with this priceless, loving family support, she can move ahead with grace and peace.

    Warmest blessings to each of you …

  3. Robin on October 21, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    My first question is, how old is this mother, It says she’s been married for 40 yrs. It might be very difficult for her to not be with her husband if she is in her golden years. I so agree with Leslie’s advice, sounds like she has never owned her life and decisions, and it DOES need to be her decisions. I personally have experienced what its like when one goes from a controlling spouse, to a controlling mentor and it doesn’t help. Its crucial she learns what she needs and wants and has a voice.It would be great if she could be encouraged to develop some tools or skills perhaps to build better more defined boundaries. Even though one person can’t build a healthy relationship, one person can choose to change her life. I’d say SUPPORT is her biggest need. With the right support, maybe she can make some wiser decisions now that she is aware.

  4. Teresa on October 23, 2013 at 12:58 am

    My heart breaks for this woman. I am so happy she has a loving daughter that backs up her reality. The abusive behavior makes for the abused to doubt herself. Let Mom stay here and the more she is away from the abuse the more she will answer for herself and her life. The more distance and less contact with the abusive husband the more clear her thinking will be. Daughter encourage Mom to separate for awhile to care for her Mom. A great distraction from the abusive but I do worry about the elder Mom and her telling her daughter her father “just” didn’t like her. I pray and hope your mom finds peace for her life. She still has her time and love to give to others that would receive it without hurting her in return.

  5. Leesa on October 27, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    I feel so bad for this person’s mother. It must be so frightening and difficult to leave a marriage after 40 years. Leslie, what you described, about the abused person finally standing up, is my 13 year marriage. This is me, that is my husband and our relationship to a tee. I have been going back and forth, for years, trying to decide whether I should leave him and how that decision would effect my two boys. I don’t want them growing up, thinking that what they have witnessed,is how a marriage should look; and then repeat the cycle. But, I’m so afraid to leave. My family is 350 miles away and the community that I live in is small and hubby is a well known/liked business man. Reading this story, I see myself in 20 years and it makes me sick. I know my husband isn’t going to change and shows no signs of wanting to change. Just the “docile resignation” that you talk about and a bi-annual threat of ending the marriage. We are really stuck and I keep waiting for a sign; for God to say, “it’s time”. I hope the woman in this story got her sign.

    • Brenda on October 27, 2013 at 7:59 pm

      Leesa, My “sign” was after many years of crying praying and doing it all again. Saying Lord if you want to me move I will but you’ll have to help me see. In a week I had an apartment, movers and my 2 grown daughters were here from out of town to help. I don’t know that we always get a sign, sometimes we just have to move on faith. I have no family where I live and my girls were here for a few days. After that I was on my own. Little by little I am starting to get support from this blog and from a few ladies from my church. If will come.

      Are your boys seeing a destructive marriage. By seeing this will they too end up being in destructive marriages. Is seeing a strong mother in their lives better than seeing what they have now. Staying is not always better for the children. Consider prayerfully as I will pray for you as well.

      • Robin on October 28, 2013 at 5:16 pm

        I am not mindful of Scripture, saying God will give us a sign. But He does say we can ask for wisdom, and He will give it. PLease know how much God loves you and your children, and never intended for a woman to stay in an environment where she is disrespected – abused- and treated like she has no voice. There is help out there. I know. I have been through yrs of abusive treatment, and in less than 9 months, through a trained therapist, God released me from those bondages, and my children are thriving. Don’t wait for a sign, walk in faith and ask God to lead you!!!

    • Robin on October 27, 2013 at 9:12 pm

      Leeds, im wondering what you,ve tried to stand up to the abuse other than one yearly confrontation. I am learning as Leslie has counseled us, destructive relationships need definite consequences to stop the abuse. Have you tried any consequences?? I have found serious confrontations of what you won,t tolerate any.ore with consequences is what gets results. I am also learning, its not about do we leave our spouse….the greater question is what are we doing about the evil penetrating our family and home. God cannot be present with a home filled with sin and evil. I will pray God will help you stand up for a true peace for your family and home!

      • Brenda on October 28, 2013 at 4:29 pm

        So True. God does not stay where sin and evil are invited in.

        • Leesa on October 29, 2013 at 9:08 am

          Thank you for your comments and, yes, I have stood up to my husband numerous times over the last 13+ years, but it only makes things worse, so I have learned to keep my mouth shut and choose my battles wisely. It makes everyone’s life easier. I should clarify; my husband is not physically abusive, he’s mostly selfish and unkind to me. More or less a narcissist. Brenda, are you saying that God will not be with me so long as I keep putting up with my husband. I don’t agree with you. There is only so much one person can do in a relationship and to say that God will not be present in a home like mine is an irresponsible statement.

          • Leslie Vernick on November 3, 2013 at 1:29 pm

            Leesa, you are wise to choose your battles wisely if you have chosen to stay in a destructive marriage. There is no sense declaring a long term war at home – it only hurts everyone involved. However, to live safely and sanely with a selfish, unkind man like Nabal from the Old Testament, Abigail, learned to have her own life, to gain strength, to overrule some of his foolish decisions for the welfare of all and you may have to do so too. You’re correct you can make a bad relationship better all by yourself but you cannot make a bad marriage good all by yourself. God is with you always, that is what he says. Keep your eyes on him and he will show you the next steps.

          • Brenda on November 3, 2013 at 1:54 pm

            Leesa, I was not saying that at all. I was agreeing with a statement that God does not stay where sin and evil are “invited” in. No one has a perfect marriage and it is up to you what you can and cannot tolerate. It is between you and God where that line is. God is with you as long as you are a believer and do not ask him to leave. He says that He will not depart from you.

          • Robin on November 3, 2013 at 3:06 pm

            Leesa, if I said anything that offended you please accept my apology. There is no one answer that will work for everyone.


    • Robin on October 27, 2013 at 11:10 pm

      Leesa, couple more thoughts. My heart really goes out to women with young children still growing up in an abusive environment. I have lived 32 yrs in abuse, and if I could go back and do it again, I’d remove my children from the abusive spouse, as the damage is great and totally unnecessary. At the time I thought it would be best to keep the children in the home, and not have a broken home. I was wrong, our home and family were broken. The kids are healing, but they all suffer terrific woundedness. If you haven’t read Leslie,s bk, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, I strongly recommend it. It lays out all the options and choices for an abused woman to consider. I was very helped by the book. Thank you Leslie!!

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