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? Sarah in VA
Answer: This is a very painful situation for many people. And, with the holidays coming, we often feel pressure to resume family relationships (before there has been any true repentance or reconciliation) in order 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! So encourage 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 we can minister to 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 that he is teaching is not to retaliate when someone hurts you. He’s saying 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 to give them license to do it more and more.
So in light of those 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. It might mean offering to help her with chores around their house if she’s unable to do some things. 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 last winter, even though his mother said cruel things in response. 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. It doesn’t mean that he must intimately fellowship with his mother during that gathering. It also might mean that in the moment of the next verbal attack from mom, he might need to stay calm and set some boundaries. 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 can’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?
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 look out for what’s in their long term best interests.