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?