Boyfriend Tolerates Abuse from Parents

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Reader’s Question

I am a 24-year-old woman, and I have been with my boyfriend for over two years. I love him dearly, and we share the same goals and values. For the most part, I would consider our relationship healthy, but his family is becoming an increasing concern for me.

I have spent the past few years attempting to “earn” his parents’ respect, but all I have experienced is abusive behavior from them. As far as I’m concerned, they treat him in the exact same abusive manner they do me. We are both constantly called offensive names and are given belittling speeches about how ‘stupid’ we are. While I have never been physically hurt, I have witnessed my boyfriend getting smacked upside the head more than once. Whenever I voice my concern, his typical response is “Mom and dad are so funny. They have a great sense of humor.”

My boyfriend seems to be somewhat of a slave to his parents and does not see the things they demand of him as “going too far.” He constantly returns home to do chores, cook meals and will leave me wherever we might be if his parents phone him to get them beer, cigarettes, or groceries. This year he ended up doing his parents’ taxes, covering their mortgage payments, paying their utility bills, etc. He is by no means rich, as we are both graduate students. Both his parents hold full time jobs and should be able to care for themselves.

I have consistently suggested that I think his parents’ behaviour is abusive and unacceptable, but he does not see it that way. He always alludes to the fact that both his parents had a tough childhood, had him too young (he was an “accident”), and that they just need more understanding. I want this relationship to work, because I know he is a great person. However, I can’t stand his letting himself be walked on, and I can no longer put up with the emotional abuse I receive when his parents are around. How can I approach this situation?

Psychologist’s Reply

It’s simply not possible to set limits or enforce boundaries for someone else. Every capable adult person must do that for him/herself.

While it’s not possible to assess your situation accurately from such a distance, it seems clear that you need to make some decisions for yourself. First, you must decide what limits you will put on the kinds of “abusive” behavior of any type (e.g., verbal, emotional, physical, etc.) that you will tolerate from anyone else. You’ll also need to make some decisions about the “core values” you believe must be shared by two people in a relationship with one another. You indicate that you and your boyfriend share a lot of the same values. But it also sounds like you have some significant differences when it comes to determining what kinds of behavior constitute being “walked on” as well as some concerns about the kinds of unhealthy needs that might lead a person to tolerate behavior that you’re convinced is fairly abusive.

Sometimes the objective viewpoint offered by a counselor can be helpful in working through the kinds of issues you describe. But in the end, you must decide what kinds of behaviors are in line with your values and enforce your own limits and boundaries.

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