Supporting My Wife with Her Abusive Mother

Reader’s Question

I am a supportive husband of a spouse who is dealing with an abusive mother. Your earlier article about dealing with an abusive mother describes our situation exactly.

I’ve often recommended that my wife disconnect herself from her abusive mother (and sister) while maintaining her relationships with her two brothers. Unfortunately, it is easier said than done. While my wife logically knows that disconnecting from her abusive mother would be best…she still maintains a secret hope that she will one day have a loving relationship with her mother. My wife is a good person, and she works hard to see the good in everybody. When she is hurt by her mother, she will be in pain for several weeks until the pain wears away and she begins to “forgive and forget”. She reconciles with her mother, after which her mother abuses her again several weeks later.

As a husband and a father to three kids, this is hard to watch. I want my wife to be happy. This last round of abuse has made me question whether I can help my wife at all. And, I’m beginning to think that I will always have a wife who is unhappy and somehow connected to her abusive mother.

I don’t want to lay down ultimatums such as “You can’t see your mother anymore”, or “Our kids can’t see your mother anymore”, or “I don’t want to hear about your mother anymore”. But this is how I feel. My wife is unhappy and it is affecting our family (myself, her, and our three kids).

I want to be supportive; but I don’t want to restrict her either. What should I do?

Any thoughts are appreciated.

Psychologist’s Reply

Abusive mothers and fathers are often “personality disorders” in psychiatric terms. Personality disorders are totally selfish and highly manipulative with everyone in their grasp. They seek to not only have all the attention in the family, but to control the family members with guilt, intimidation, temper tantrums, or other techniques. I’ve listed many of the techniques used by Personality Disorders in my article Identifying Losers in Relationships on this website. Personality disorders never accept responsibility for their bad behavior and in fact, blame everyone around them for their behavior. Your wife will be blamed every time her mother has a temper tantrum or acts abusively.

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Your wife is making a mistake commonly seen in these situations. She believes her mother’s behavior has something to do with her behavior as a daughter or something to do with their relationship. Both are incorrect. Her mother behaves abusively to everyone equally…it’s that your wife accepts the blame for it. In families where a parent has a personality disorder, three strategies are often found:

  1. “Identification with the Aggressor” — As a child, you feel the best protection is acting like the abusive parent so you become nasty as well. Sons of criminals typically have criminal records…that sort of thing.
  2. Emotional Detachment — The child detaches socially and emotionally from the parent and becomes very independent at an early age, making no attempt to gain the acceptance of the parent.
  3. Emotional Attachment — The child anxiously seeks to gain the acceptance of the parent (it never comes by the way) and spends their life in misery trying to guess what will make Mom happy.

I’d bet that each of her siblings is using one of the above strategies to deal with Mom. I’d recommend that you and your wife read my Loser article as well as the Love and Stockholm Syndrome article, also on this website. In a sad reality, your wife is seeking something in her mother that her mother doesn’t have. It’s like spending twenty years trying to teach your dog to speak English, only to find it has no speech center in the brain. Mother is the problem…not your wife.

In this situation, once your wife understands and accepts the situation, you and your wife should develop a team strategy to deal with Mom and her theatrical drama. I recommend using a policy of “protective distance” — keep contacts short and superficial, visit as a team, minimize reactions to her drama and behavior, and work on repairing the damage done over the years to your family. Counseling would also be beneficial to your wife as Mother like this use overwhelming guilt to keep their daughters under their control, something that may take a while to fix.

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