How much did I contribute to my mom staying in her abusive marriage?
May 7, 2014 12:36 PM   Subscribe

My dad is verbally abusive. My mother told me many times as a child that she want to divorce him but is staying for the kids. She said that when I grew up, she would leave my dad and come live with me forever. When I became an adult, I decided I don't want my mom living with me for the rest of my life. She is still with my dad, being verbally abused. Did I cause her to stay in her abusive marriage because I changed my mind?

My dad is prone to suddenly screaming in public. He insults my mother, me, and my sibling. There were years in which he called my mother stupid every day. If one of us makes a mistake such as missing an appointment or incurring late fees, he will berate us for hours. He'll keep bringing it up for months / years. He makes personal attacks on our intelligence and personality, and predicts that the character flaw which caused this mistake will lead us to experience failure in life.

I'm in therapy for this, and finally starting to learn new ways of thinking. MeFi has also helped a lot. (Thanks, everyone.)

As I was growing up, my mother told me how miserable she was due to my dad's verbal abuse. She would cry and talk about how her marriage is unbearable, but she couldn't leave due to the kids. This of course made me feel guilty.

She said that when I become an adult, she would come live with me permanently and would escape my dad that way. When I was a child, this sounded great. I was eager to take on this role. She would say things like "remember to get an apartment with two bedrooms so that i can live in one". Or "won't life be great when we finally leave your dad in a few years, and it's just us?"

When I actually became an adult, I realized that I do not want this. I do not want her to live with me for the rest of my life and become emotionally dependent on me. She is retired and has mental / emotional issues, so she would always be at home, focused on me, without friends or a job of her own. It would be a big strain on me. I think it would derail my goals for my career and my romantic life, if she's living with me forever.

However, because she has stayed with my dad all these years, I feel guilty. I feel like because I changed my mind on our agreement, she stayed in an abusive marriage. If I had honored the agreement, then she'd be out of the abusive marriage.

I would like to hear from women who left verbally or emotionally abusive marriages.

1. Did you feel compelled to stay in the marriage for the kids, if your husband was also verbally abusing the kids?

2. Can it be true that if the woman has a home to go to, then she would leave the marriage, but without that home, she'd stay in the marriage forever? Could having a new home be the difference between staying vs leaving?

Thank you very much. MeFi has been so helpful during this tough journey.
posted by cheesecake to Human Relations (60 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm glad you are in therapy. It was not okay for your mother to put you in the position of feeling responsible for her. I have been in an abusive marriage as a mother. It's a horrible place to be, but I also feel like it was hugely irresponsible of your mother to tell you she was staying for you and make you feel like it was your fault she wasn't leaving. I can only speak for myself, but I left and found a way to get a new place. It's not your job to do this for her. You need to take care of yourself.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 12:41 PM on May 7, 2014 [76 favorites]

The fault of the abused lies exclusively with the abuser.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:43 PM on May 7, 2014 [33 favorites]

This was in no way your fault and you deserve to live as an adult however you wish...completely free of your mom.

I wish I had time to give a longer answer. The short answer is that you are not to blame for even the slightest thread of whatever decisions your mom made when you were a kid. This is unfair to put this somehow on you and, in my opinion, abusive of your mother to do this. You are not at fault here at all.

I would highly recommend (since you are already in therapy....good idea) you take a look at the Pia Mellody book, Facing Codependence. It basically helps differentiate the kid in you from the parent in your mom.
posted by BearClaw6 at 12:44 PM on May 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

Your mother didn't stay for you. She stayed for herself. She wasn't brave for staying in an abusive home and for raising you in one, she was a coward for not getting out as soon as she could.

I'm sure you would have happily camped out on the floor of a studio apartment with her if you didn't have to grow up in such a horrible environment.

It's not your job to provide for your mother, not when you were a child, not now when you are an adult.

Your mom has options. She could divorce your dad and get spousal support, or she could get a job and leave. She has chosen not to do this for your entire life. I'm not even sure that if you provided her with a room, that she would leave to live in it.

You can say to her, "Mom, I'm going to live my own life and if you want, I'll help you live your own life too. I'll help you find a lawyer so that you can divorce dad and get your share of the assets, I'll help you find training programs so you can get a job, I'll help you find a place to live, I'll help you become your own person, but you have to want it for yourself first. I am going to be a free and independant person and I am setting the example for you."

Know this. Your mother's decisions had NOTHING to do with you. That may be the lie she told herself, and you, to justify staying in such a terrible situation.

What was so great about that marriage for you kids? Having a place to go does make it easier, but some women like the drama and the dynamic of their abusive marriages (in a deeply warped way) and no matter how much they complain and wail about their lots in life, won't leave.

Discuss this with your therapist. My Dad is a therapist and once said to me, "She says,'he gambled away the rent money, he's mean to me, he hits me and my kids. But when I say, 'what keeps you from leaving,' she says, 'BUT I LOVE HIM!''

The point is, you mom felt guilty for having you kids in such a chaotic home, and made up this fantasy about the sacrifice she made to stay (again, I ask, did YOU want to be there?)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:49 PM on May 7, 2014 [46 favorites]

You contributed zero to your mom staying in her abusive marriage. Zero.

It doesn't matter if she decided to stay back then because you were there; it doesn't matter if she decided to stay now because she can't live with you. She still decided. She never asked you, did she? She just told you how things were and how they would be, so how can it have been your choice or fault in any way?

My mother left an emotionally abusive marriage even though she had no other home to go to. She went and found a home for herself. She did this because she was ready to leave and she wanted to leave. On some level, your mother is not actually ready or wanting to leave her marriage, or she would do so.

I kind of suspect, though obviously I cannot actually know, that if you had offered her your home, she would have come up with some reason not to go, actually. (I had a cousin who insisted she could not leave her awful husband because she couldn't afford a house on her own; when a family member offered her a house, suddenly she couldn't leave because some other reason, and on and on. She's still with the guy 15 years later...)
posted by like_a_friend at 12:52 PM on May 7, 2014 [23 favorites]

She sounds like the type of woman who absolutely can't live on her own independently, and must rely on others to support her (emotionally or financially). I've known various people like this. This is not your problem. She can choose to either stay with him or go to a DV shelter where they have resources to get her to live elsewhere. Again, not your problem. Don't let her suck the life out of you.
posted by Melismata at 12:59 PM on May 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

You weren't responsible for her staying when you were a kid and you aren't responsible for her staying now.
posted by wwax at 1:05 PM on May 7, 2014 [10 favorites]

Your mum is trauma bonded to your dad (abusive relationships are very, very complex and very, very layered).. you had to parent her, none of this is fair. Be aware that studying the dysfunctional dynamics could be a protective factor from history repeating itself in your own life. It's hard and brave and sore to look at though.

You might find Daniel Mackler vids interesting on youtube.
posted by tanktop at 1:12 PM on May 7, 2014 [9 favorites]

It sounds like you already know the answer and are looking for validation that it is the right one. Well, I'll add to the pile!
No, nothing of this was or is your fault. It is healthy and good for you to draw this boundary. Well done.
Of course, your mom now has an excuse not to leave your dad. "Because cheesecake didn't want me!" That is of course horseshit.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:16 PM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry this is the situation you grew up with and the situation you're in now.
It's not your fault, and it was also unfair of her to say those things to you when you were a kid. When you're growing up, your job is to be a kid, to learn and grow, not to provide comfort to crying parents all the time.
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:17 PM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Emotional abuse causes people to think about the possible choices they have in ways that are not logical. Your mom does not feel like she is strong enough to leave her relationship on her own. She likely feels that way at least in part because the emotional abuse has worn down her self-esteem and sense of her own agency. This is not your fault.

When she says things that try to place the responsibility and blame on you, first remind yourself that she is speaking from a place of deep hurt and trauma. Her experiences have warped her viewpoint and she feels trapped.

Offer to help her in other ways if you feel comfortable doing so. You could help her call a DV hotline, find a shelter, or look for her own place to live.

However, put on your own life preserver before assisting others. You survived this abusive home and your first responsibility is to yourself to keep on surviving. Don't compromise your own needs to help her.
posted by mai at 1:18 PM on May 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

How much did I contribute to my mom staying in her abusive marriage?

Zero. I grew up in a verbally abusive household and I'm mad at your mom for dumping that on you as a kid to the extent that you are feeling pressure from it now. She's her own person and possibly worthy of empathy but people's choices are their own choices and claiming that someone else's choices are the ones that are dooming your life to ruin is an uncool and unfair thing to do to the person you are implicating, especially if that person is a child. It may have seemed true to her at the time, it may even seem true to her now, but it was not true then and it's not true now. Your mom may need some kind of help, but that "Only you can save me!" crap is bad bad codependent nonsense and should be treated with more of a "wow, you need help" response than a "I'm sorry my choices led to your terrible life" response. I am so sorry, that sounds like a lousy place to be.
posted by jessamyn at 1:19 PM on May 7, 2014 [33 favorites]

I was in an abusive relationship for several years. I made a lot of excuses to stay. A lot. I had a lot of reasons, things that made sense to me, things that kept me in.

None of those things or reasons are to blame. It is my abuser's fault that he abused me. It is no one's fault that I did not leave sooner. It just is.

The fact that your mom did not leave your dad? That's because he's abusive. Leaving is hard. I didn't want to leave. I wasn't ready until I was. That was no one's fault but my abuser's fault, for treating me the way that he did. It's a cycle, and I genuinely thought it would get better. Your mom might think this too. Or she might think he will commit suicide if she leaves. She might be scared of starting over. Abuse is awful awful awful awful.... and yet I still miss my abuser. She might not want to live through the pain of leaving, the pain of realizing what he is and how long it's been.

I don't know what is happening in her head but I know one thing for sure and that is that this is not your fault. It's his fault. It's his.
posted by sockermom at 1:24 PM on May 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

I know this is not a direct answer to the question...however, I feel STRONGLY that it should be clear that the promise was made by a CHILD (and I would be shocked if there were not emotional manipulation on the part of the mother). A child should never be put in this position, and if they are, they can't be held accountable.
posted by wintersweet at 1:28 PM on May 7, 2014 [17 favorites]

I agree on the zero part. I would much prefer divorced parents than a yelling, abusive dysfunctional family. And I don't like your mothers dependence on you, even if she was joking- a child should NEVER feel responsible for the adults who were adults all the childs life. She put way too much on you. She needs to be the one to save her, not you. If she does need support and help, you can devote time and energy to that, yes. But trying to carry her by letting her live with you.... that's too much, probably. You have to live your life. Shes already shown (for years!) that shes got terrible boundaries. This will NOT improve if she lives with you.
posted by Jacen at 1:30 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

If your mother made you, as a child, feel like you were making her a promise, she was abusing you emotionnally. As a child, you were not in a position to make such a promise. Now that you are an adult, you understand better what is right and what is wrong. Your first priority is to take care of yourself.

Your mother did not leave and protect you as a child; that should have been her first priority. She failed you.
posted by aroberge at 1:31 PM on May 7, 2014 [17 favorites]

With all due respect, do not listen to anyone who says you share blame. That advice is, frankly, wrong and victim-blaming.

This isn't your fault. You were a child. You are still her child. Setting new boundaries with our parents is hard but it is necessary. You are being asked to do something that you cannot do.

I promised my abuser that I would never leave him. Does that mean that I should have stayed? Some promises cannot and should not be kept.

Frankly, it was wrong of your mother to put this weight on you, a child. A child. That is so heavy. No kid would say no to that. Kids often want to marry their parents - of course you wanted to live with your mom when you were older. It was all you knew and it sounded like a great deal at the time. I would have agreed to it, too, when I was a kid.

This isn't your fault and I hate that someone here thought it was OK to say it was. I was told by a user here that leaving my abuser was wrong, an "albatross around my neck," because I promised to take care of him. What do you think? Do you think getting out and gaining autonomy and being loved by someone instead of being abused verbally, physically, and sexually by the man I lived with - was that wrong of me?

I dare say it was not.
posted by sockermom at 1:32 PM on May 7, 2014 [22 favorites]

Your mom is a victim, but her behavior towards you is horrendously inappropriate. I probably can't articulate it any better than many of the above posters, but I felt compelled to respond.
posted by radioamy at 1:44 PM on May 7, 2014 [11 favorites]

Your only recourse as a child growing up with this abuse was to be pushed to make promises that are not healthy or appropriate. Your mother, an adult, asked you, her child, to protect her when she should have been concentrating on protecting you.

She was an adult who chose to keep her children in a highly abusive environment with the excuse that it was best for them. She was the adult. She could have made different choices and protected her children, but she didn't. If you want to, you can help her make the steps toward independence by helping to find her a counselor and/or a lawyer and encouraging her to start a new life away from her husband. She shouldn't, however, continue to make the inappropriate promise of an abused child her only key to freedom.
posted by quince at 1:49 PM on May 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

Your mother's behavior is itself (emotionally) abusive. You always had the right to be a child and a separate person, not framed from your earliest years as an anticipated exit strategy. Offer her help to access resources for domestic violence victims (counseling, supportive housing, etc.), but you owe her absolutely nothing more, no matter how she tries to make you feel.

Parents who are emotionally abusive like this (who frame themselves as passive victims) count on the fact that the targeted kid is terrified not just of turning them down, but that they will be judged as the selfish, inconsiderate, unloving, pathological one by not just the parents, but by outsiders. As you can see by the support you're getting here, that's not what always happens.
posted by blue suede stockings at 1:53 PM on May 7, 2014 [15 favorites]

Can it be true that if the woman has a home to go to, then she would leave the marriage, but without that home, she'd stay in the marriage forever? Could having a new home be the difference between staying vs leaving?

No, it is not true. How many times have you heard about abused women who had offers of help and did not accept any of them? Because I've heard countless stories like that. Just like I've heard countless stories of abused women who had no safety net, no home to go to, not even a bed in a shelter for a night, but they left their abuser anyway because leaving with nothing was better than staying.

Your mother made terrible, terrible decisions, but they are not your fault.
posted by palomar at 1:54 PM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

I left a verbally and emotionally abusive spouse. It's difficult to do (especially when there's no threat of physical violence--I was already checked out but I left when I felt physically threatened) but it's entirely possible. I can't imagine blaming a child for my own decisions in that situation.

I have also been the child told by a parent that I was the reason the parent made a life decision they were unhappy with. My own mother blamed me for my father wanting her to quit her job (when she got pregnant with me, in the late 60s). This was exremely hurtful and a part of her abuse of me. This is part and parcel of her own birth family's abuse cycle; I have to fight not to let it extend to me.

Other commenters are right on that you shouldn't blame yourself, and moreover, you should listen to that voice telling you not to let your mom take over your life now. Your mom is a victim, just as my mom was a victim of her family's abuse. That doesn't mean you have to let your mom treat you badly because someone else abused her.
posted by immlass at 1:57 PM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

I am so sorry that she is trying to dump this on you. However, people with children divorce one another all the time. What your mom is saying is completely unfair to you and inaccurate. Hopefully you can find some stories from abusive families or go to Co-Anon or a support group for people with an abusive parent. Hearing other people's stories will help you get some distance from her statements and see them as typical, sad, unfair, and wrong.
posted by salvia at 2:02 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

She doesn't want to leave badly enough to actually do it. A lot of women don't, which is why they will be married for 40+ years to an abuser. This is probably some kind of excuse on her part, along with other things she's said to you. In her case, it sounds like "I can't live unless I parasite off of someone, it's either you or your dad." She doesn't want to try surviving on her own. Though even if you'd said you'd marry her and support her forever, I still don't know if she'd actually leave.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:11 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the replies. It's so hard for me to know what normal is. I was expecting the answers to be divided between people saying I'm not responsible versus people saying that I should at least give her a home for 6-12 months.

One thing is confusing me a lot. Most of the replies are saying that my mom had a choice and she made her own decision. But there are also answers describing how years of abuse will wear down a victim's self-esteem until they lose their sense of agency. If that happens, then is the person still responsible for their decisions? How can someone who's lost their sense of agency be held responsible?

Regarding the things you're saying about how she behaved inappropriately, selfishly, and abusively, is that still true even if decades of abuse had already worn down her self-confidence and sense of agency?

Also, it is true that I preferred divorced parents to the situation I had. When I was 11, I asked my mom if she could please divorce my dad, and she didn't.

Kruger5's comment made me panic for 5 minutes and think about how it's not too late and I can still move to a bigger apartment and bring her here. But Kruger5 didn't say he has experienced abuse, and others have, so I think others are stronger authorities on this.
posted by cheesecake at 2:11 PM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

You should read about parentification. Your mothers actions were abusive. In some ways, abuse like this is harder to unravel than more obvious abuses, particularly when you're trying to navigate an adult relationship with your parents. I've once heard it described like this: all our lives our parents take care of us, and then, if things are healthy, we can help take care of them when they get older. But what do you do if your parents never took proper care of you, if you were always the caretaker? How do you shoulder that burden? I don't have any answers. It's something you should talk to your therapist about.

Most important, this was not your fault. You were a child. Regardless of whether your mother could or should have acted otherwise, you deserved better.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:16 PM on May 7, 2014 [12 favorites]

Your mother being abused by your father doesn't force her to put this on you.

She is perpetuating the cycle of abuse by emotionally abusing you, by holding you accountable for her actions, and indirectly for your father's. You are not to blame for what she does or doesn't do.
posted by RainyJay at 2:24 PM on May 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

Seconding that your mother's actions towards you were not what an ideal parent's would've been. This does not mean she is a bad person or that she meant to do it on purpose. But just be aware that she was likely both an abuse victim (of your father) and abusive (towards you).

In addition, there is a reason minors cannot sign legal contracts. They have no way to actually understand the consequences of their promises. As a child, many things sound easy an wonderful, but people learn as adults that there are bills to pay and that things aren't always as simple as it seems. That's just how it is.

It is horribly emotionally manipulative for your mother to not only blame her continued abuse on you but also demand that you keep a promise (that she prompted) you made as a child when you didn't yet know how the world works. And when probably 90% of what you knew came from your parents.

Love yourself first and take care of yourself. If that means you are not emotionally/mentally strong enough to have your mother depend on you, then don't. If you want, offer what help and support that you can give (where ability is determined not just financially, but also by emotional energy) and give her reassurances that you do care about her, and that you do want the best for her.
posted by ethidda at 2:26 PM on May 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

>Regarding the things you're saying about how she behaved inappropriately, selfishly, and abusively, is that still true even if decades of abuse had already worn down her self-confidence and sense of agency?

Yes. It's unfortunately not rare for people who have been abused to fall into unhealthy patterns of abusing others. You can understand what shaped your mother into the person she is; you can have sympathy and compassion for her; you can offer her help-- but that does not change the fact that her treatment of you was unacceptable and emotionally abusive. And no matter how much sympathy you have for her, you're not obligated to allow her to continue to mistreat you. If someone beats their children and says, "but my father who beat me wore down my sense of agency and normal human interaction," they might be correct, but they don't get to keep beating their kids.

You can help your mom work towards a place of greater agency, and recovery from her abusive marriage-- but this help does NOT mean conceding to her demands and moving her in with you. Helping her break this cycle doesn't mean 'doing what she says', especially when you're talking about promises of dependency that she pressured you into making as a young child.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 2:29 PM on May 7, 2014 [13 favorites]

Abuse can be incredibly distorting and can wear down a person's sense of self and their sense of agency, but it doesn't abdicate a person's responsibility for themselves, their decisions, and their actions. She has been in an unhealthy place for a long time, but she still retains the ability to make a choice not to be if she really wants to and is ready. What's not OK is for her to pretend that she has no ability to change herself or her situation and make "saving her" your responsibility.
posted by quince at 2:36 PM on May 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's me again.

I was the one who made the comment about how abuse has worn down her self-esteem and agency. My intention in making that comment was to help you understand why your mom thinks the way she does - her blaming you is not based on any kind of sense or logic. It is based on the way abuse has warped her viewpoint.

She is still responsible for her words and actions towards you. But I think it would be hard to convince her that she's wrong.

For what it's worth I grew up in an emotionally abusive home too, though not as bad as the way you describe your experiences. My parents eventually divorced a few years ago. I am still struggling with feeling like it's somehow my responsibility to make things right. But on an intellectual level I know it is not my responsibility, that I can't fix things for my parents. I can be a caring daughter but I have to take care of myself first and foremost.
posted by mai at 2:37 PM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

The questions you're asking are hugely common (in my limited understanding) among abuse victims, and they're ones you'll probably have many different viewpoints on and have to answer for yourself. But it sounds like you're just beginning to think about this, so I'd encourage you to gain as much information as you can -- from books, therapy, support groups, etc. -- to inform your thinking.

Some people go through the phase you seem to be in, seeing their mother as a helpless victim. Others feel angry; for example, Derrick Jensen (an environmental writer who grew up in an abusive household) writes about how angry he was at his mom for not leaving his father, and his path to forgiving her. All of these views are understandable. Ultimately, it will take a lot of work to come to a nuanced view of seeing her both as a victim and quite possibly as someone who could make (and could have made) different choices and whose choices sometimes impact you in a negative way. Ultimately, your job isn't to pass judgment (she's good! she's bad!) on your mom, but to live your own life in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and compassionate (but compassionate within reason to remain healthy and sustainable).

One thing to realize is that you are not some independent social worker. You are her child who grew up in this household. You were a tiny baby, a toddler, a child... while all of this was going on. Even if she is a victim, are you really the best person to save her? She may still be basically "drowning," but it sounds like you're just learning to swim yourself. Don't you both need "saving" to some extent? Will trying to save her on your own result in you both drowning? It would be a lot better to wave your arms and attract the lifeguards to swim over and help you both. And if she refuses, you can still signal a lifeguard to help you. (For instance, you could see a therapist to help you untangle all of this.) Make sure not to take on more than you can really handle here with your mom -- put on your own oxygen mask first.
posted by salvia at 2:39 PM on May 7, 2014 [12 favorites]

But there are also answers describing how years of abuse will wear down a victim's self-esteem until they lose their sense of agency. If that happens, then is the person still responsible for their decisions? How can someone who's lost their sense of agency be held responsible?

The answer to that question is based on your personal ideas about agency and responsibility. My outlook is that a person is always responsible for what they do regardless of the circumstances, but I know that many people disagree. However, even granting that she lacks agency, you are not doing her any favors by taking her in and perpetuating this idea of hers that she can't do anything on her own.

When people urge you to only support her in a divorce and independent life, this is because independence seems the greatest possible help for her while harming you the least. You might decide that this sounds really cold and utilitarian, and I think that is true. But taking in a person who is not really ready to be responsible for themselves and providing for them requires you to have financial and emotional resources that you may not possess (I know I don't, and I don't know anyone who does), so this is why the utilitarian argument is made so strongly. If you try to support her and it doesn't work out because of the enormous difficulties involved, you maybe unable to assist her later if she becomes ready to be truly independent.
posted by _cave at 2:44 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think the notion of responsibility is really sufficient to capture the dynamics here, and I think notions of cowardice and heroism are misplaced and completely miss the impact of daily abuse for decades (like learned helplessness, for example - I can't easily get to a link from here, but look it up. If a dog's been zapped by an electric fence on every approach, it learns to stop trying, and won't, even when the fence is taken away. We aren't so different from dogs, in many ways). Nevertheless, an abused person, a mentally ill person, absolutely can be abusive.

It is certainly not your fault your mom stayed, and you are certainly not beholden to a promise you made as a child.

If, and ONLY if, you now have the emotional resources to deal with your mom, you could, only if you wanted, let her stay for a short time on certain conditions - eg that she attend therapy, that she work toward financial and social and emotional independence. You could apply the boundaries your mom doesn't understand. But ONLY if you could do it without suffering, yourself. Contrary to what your mother believes, it's not the only way out, and you could try to help her see that and work to assist her in other ways. But it would be no failing of yours if you felt unable to live with her, or didn't want to, even... It's completely understandable that you might, after a lifetime of experiencing your own and vicarious abuse, want to live free of any reminder of it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:51 PM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I spent my adolescent years expecting fully that I was going to graduate from high school, get a job, and help pay my dad's bills. That's what I always thought I would do. And then I did it, and then it... well, it didn't help.

I don't want to say I blame your mother. I've been in an abusive relationship--the one I got into to get away from my dad, no less--and it really is something that totally messes up your head. It's not her fault. It's your father's fault. That does not mean that you are personally responsible for caring for her, now. You aren't personally responsible for anything, here. If you are so inclined to help her, you may help her, but you don't have to help her in the way that she wants help, necessarily.

I would absolutely help her by helping her to find the resources she needs for whatever public assistance she would be eligible for on her own. Figuring out how to get her a home that is not your home, figuring out how to get her a divorce. Those are things that if she has mental health issues and a history of abuse, she will probably have trouble getting on her own. You can do a lot for her without having to let her live in your home. If she will accept no help short of that, then that is not your responsibility. But I suspect at this point she doesn't think that living independently is even an option, and it absolutely is. She does not have to stay with him. There are places she can go and people who will help.

As someone who got out of an abusive relationship, I feel some obligation towards those who are still living in abuse, to help where I can to get them out, too. But the key words are "where I can". I help to the degree that I do not compromise my own mental health. If you can help without compromising your own, by all means, help, but do not hurt yourself to help her.
posted by Sequence at 3:08 PM on May 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

I stayed in part for the kids. My husband was not abusive but it was not a very happy marriage. However, had he been abusive, I would have left and taken the kids with me, even it meant a life of prostitution.

We all have choices. Some of us only have sucky choices. What we do within those constraints is still partly determined by our own values. What your mother did to you is wrong. I am sorry if she feels extremely trapped. Some people have huge obstacles to getting their life together. But it is wrong to make it the child's responsibility.

Having kids helped me stand up to my husband better than I could when I was childless. I can be a terrible doormat when it comes to my own self interest. But if you mess with my kids, I will be all too happy to cut you and bleed you real quiet like. Do not mess with my kids. So having kids did help protect me but not because I brainwashed the kids into having some sort of responsibility for me. Far from it.

I am sorry this was done to your head. If, for your own peace of mind, you want to be absolutely sure you are not trapping her, you can offer her assistance of some sort to help her leave him but I strongly suggest that under no circumstance should that assistance involve living with you.
posted by Michele in California at 3:26 PM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

What others have said about choices and victimization, while seemingly contradictory, are both true. Like Michele said, sometimes we're choosing between a bunch of crappy options, but we do all have choices...even if it's just in the attitude you choose about a situation.

I don't want this to come across at all as victim-blaming your mom, but the fact of the matter is your mom stays with your dad because it's easier to stay, and she made this "getaway plan" with you because she wanted someone (you) to do all of the work and make it easy for her to leave. Because it's damn hard to leave someone, harder when it's an abusive relationship. But you're not her white knight, she's gotta be the hero of her own story.

You have zero responsibility towards her, other than to be a loving child to a loving mother within healthy boundaries. If you want to help her, give her the number to a local woman's resource center. Offer to go with her if you can handle it. But it is not your job to rescue her.
posted by kattyann at 4:55 PM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Coming to say that there is much truth in this thread.

Don't let your mother live with you. This won't help her. It won't help you.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:24 PM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Your father abuses your mother, but your mother is trying to emotionally abuse YOU --- you can call it 'guilt tripping' if you'd rather, but what she's doing IS abuse. She's trying to blame other people (you, your sibling) for her own choices: you were not responsible for her staying with an abusive partner when you were a kid, and you aren't responsible for her still staying now that you're an adult.

NO do NOT back down, do not let her move in with you. Remember the Oxygen Mask rule: you put *your own* mask on FIRST, before you try to help someone else put theirs on --- that's because it won't help EITHER of you if you pass out too. In this case, that means just what you are doing now: taking care of yourself and getting therapy..... you can't help her or anybody else if you let her drag you down.

Sure, find her resources if you want: phone numbers and websites, maybe where to find women's shelters. But that's all!
posted by easily confused at 6:01 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

For whatever reasons, your mom did a not good thing to you. Yes, she has her own issues, but this does not absolve her of her responsibilities. She, consciously, unconsciously or just by purely abdicating her power & voice, decided to stay in a bad situation. Unfortunately, she chose a very unreasonable exit point (20 years in the future? BLEH.) Some much more reasonable exit points would have been: When your dad first started abusing her, when she got pregnant, definitely when he was abusive around and towards you, or pretty much any time in the relationship. The two terrible things she did (in my opinion) is A, not protect you from your dad, and B, consciously put this burden on you of having to be her protector/savior.

I agree that this type of burden is too much for a child, and it for sure feels manipulative and abusive from here. Even if she is sorry, even if she wants to improve, she may not be a safe person for you now, or ever. This is very, very hard to deal with, because we all instinctively want to be loved, protected, and supported, and parents should definitely do this as best they can. But she did not, so you have to do this- FOR YOU. Not for her. You are worth good things! Protect and love yourself, but do not try to carry your mother.
posted by Jacen at 6:11 PM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Would it be easier for you emotionally to make a financial gesture to your mom? I do not want my mother to live with me ever, but I would still feel obliged to support her financially if she needed it as a cultural-social expectation. It might be easier on you to make the gesture of putting a small amount each month into a joint account for her and you and telling her, okay this is money you can use to leave dad or make your life easier. That way you are not leaving her unsupported, but you are also not taking on responsibility for her choices.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:46 PM on May 7, 2014

I'm going to share with you one of the most important things I learned upon "growing up".

Your parents' shit predates you and is not your fault at all.
Your parents' shit predates you and is not your fault at all.
Your parents' shit predates you and is not your fault at all.
Your parents' shit predates you and is not your fault at all.
Your parents' shit predates you and is not your fault at all.

posted by easy, lucky, free at 7:55 PM on May 7, 2014 [9 favorites]

I was in an abusive marriage. After the first child, we sought counseling. And after the second. By the third, I was so beaten down I could hardly function. I noticed that the only time that my home was functioning close to normal was when my then husband wasn't home. I decided that I did not want my children to live in suffocating bubbles of times between his moods. I decided that, even if he what he said was true, even if everything wrong in his life was my fault, I couldn't change any more for him. I couldn't make myself any smaller or any quieter. I couldn't be any less than I was without disappearing. So I left, with my 3 children. The youngest one had her 1st birthday the week after I left him. He continued to verbally abuse me and use my children to try and hurt me. My older two children are badly scarred by his behavior. But, every day without him is a blessing. Leaving him was the nicest, best thing that I ever did for myself. And I made the decision to leave while I was recovering from pregnancy, after 11 years of a bad marriage.

And I never once told any of my children that they were responsible for helping me escape.
posted by myselfasme at 8:47 PM on May 7, 2014 [16 favorites]

Your parents' shit predates you and is not your fault at all.

Quoted for truth. Also, someone upthread mentioned parentification. As someone with a very similar mother, I think this is worth a look into.

To paraphrase something one of my child therapists once said, "She is the mother, you are the child."

The deeper truth behind that statement, the real weight of it, didn't hit me until well after I'd become the adult child.

She is the mother, you are the child.

Your parents' shit predates you and is not your fault at all.
posted by MuChao at 9:15 PM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, feel free to m/email me.
posted by MuChao at 9:16 PM on May 7, 2014

How much did I contribute to my mom staying in her abusive marriage?

Zero. I know it's been said, but again, zero.

Regarding the things you're saying about how she behaved inappropriately, selfishly, and abusively, is that still true even if decades of abuse had already worn down her self-confidence and sense of agency?

Yes. But it's complicated, and my heart breaks for you, because hearing that she's been abusive may make you question everything you've believed about her and her love for you. Don't let it. Her loss of self-confidence and agency does not make her behavior any more appropriate, but that doesn't mean she hasn't loved you and wanted the best for you. Staying in an abusive marriage sends a terrible message to the kids (as you know), but verbal and emotional abuse can be hard to prove, meaning risk of shared custody and possibly crippling fear of the prospect of you and your sibling being on your own with your dad.

I am not saying this was right or clear thinking on her part, since she wasn't successfully protecting you anyway. I am urging you to talk with your therapist pronto so that the idea of being abused by both parents doesn't unravel you. No, it's not something you "should" have recognized; you had to depend on a parent and she was the safer bet. This does not mean your judgement is off; it means your child instincts were right, but you were in a terrible situation.

I was abused as a kid, and so was the man that abused me. His behavior was wildly inappropriate (criminal, in fact), despite what he'd suffered. I pity him--nobody wants to be a monster--but still I pressed charges decades later. That's to say it's possible to have compassion and still set boundaries. There's a lot of good advice here about how you can help your mom (compassion) without having her live with you (boundaries).

You are smart and kind and seeking right. You're able to admit you're confused, and you're getting help. You seem to have a better handle on things than you realize (that's okay, too--it takes time to trust oneself). All your hard work has amazing potential to break the cycle your parents put you in, so try to give yourself some credit.
posted by whoiam at 9:56 PM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Your mother needs help. You are not the right one to help her. The hand life dealt you is hard enough to play. I know from experience that you do not want to take care of your mother this way.

It is going to take you some time to process how you were raised so that it makes sense to the future non-screwed up-from-childhood you. Some of us never get there. It's taken me a couple decades and therapy probably makes that process quicker. It's a lot of work and whether you are aware of how much time it is taking because you're dealing with it, or unaware because why not just bring that stuff along for the rest of your life and repeat some cycles, it's still going to chew up a lot of your personal time.
posted by bigbigdog at 9:59 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Reading your replies today was intense and eye-opening for me. As a child, I knew that what my mom did felt really wrong and bad. But I had niggling doubts that maybe I needed to just be strong and get over my selfishly negative reaction. It didn't help that a lot of friends and relatives kept telling me, "You need to treat your parents well. You have to find a way to get along with them."

My mother did many other things to me that were emotionally abusive. Starting when I was 10, she spent hours every week telling me all the worst things my dad ever said to her, before their wedding, during a miscarriage, their sex life, how she should have married an ex-boyfriend, and two men who were interested in her during her marriage. She talked about how my dad's abuse was destroying her health, and giving her nausea and headaches. She scared me so much that I often cried and cried during these multi-hour talk sessions. She kept talking, watching me cry, and saying more things to make me cry. She wanted my empathy, even though it was destroying me. At the end of the sessions, she would often be noticeably happier and more cheerful, while I was devastated.

She also left me alone in my dad's care for over a year while she went to work in another city. I was 9. I woke up one morning, and she was gone. I didn't see her for a year. She told me that she wanted to wake me up to say goodbye, and my dad said it would be too sad if I cried and it might make her chicken out and not leave. So she decided to just leave silently without saying goodbye. During the year, she rarely called, and never sent letters. When I told her last year that this really upset me, she said that "there was no choice" because she had to make money, and also if I was sad, I should've told her at the time. Every time I confront her about something awful she did, she asks me why I didn't protest to her at the time, even for things that happened when I was 5. (My parents left me alone in the house every night until 1:00am when I was 5.)

My dad called me stupid even though I was winning state-wide academic competitions. When I graduated as high school valedictorian, he said I should hold on to that diploma because it might be the last one I ever get. I graduated from one of the best colleges in the world with honors. (At least they paid my tuition, for which I am grateful.) Then I worked hard and made a pretty hefty amount of money. My dad said my significant other was probably after me for the money, because I'm not that attractive.

I am upset about all these things. The one thing holding me back previously was the thought that perhaps my mom is not responsible for her own actions, since she was a victim. Hearing these replies from other abuse victims has been really helpful in letting go of that justification.

All my life, my parents told me I was super-sensitive. They said I over-react to perfectly normal things. They said I better find a spouse who is extremely considerate, because that's the only type of person who could be with someone as sensitive as me. Now I know that was so wrong. I was a normal person with a normal reaction to being abused.

I've spoken only once to my parents in the past two months, and my life is way better after cutting them off. It feels as though all my life, I was trying to solve a problem that was so impossibly difficult, and everything I did kept failing and feeling horrible. I paid for trips to take them to Europe and South America and Asia, thinking the exotic locations would distract them and make for happier interactions. I bought them cruises. Nothing worked.

Finally the nightmare is over. Life is so peaceful without my parents. It was only this week that I realized that what happened to me is abuse. When I first told my therapist, I thought she was going to tell me not to use the word "abuse" so lightly. Instead, she looked horrified while I explained, and confirmed it qualifies as abuse. I looked up the definition for emotional child abuse, and I cried reading it. Just knowing the name for what happened to me has been so pivotal.

I hope I can learn how to have a healthy romantic relationship.

Thank you for telling me what's normal and what's not normal. It may seem obvious to you, but it's not obvious to me.
posted by cheesecake at 2:13 AM on May 8, 2014 [29 favorites]

Oh cheesecake. I'm in year two of estrangement and it is so peaceful and better. It gets better and you are doing so well. You definitely don't have to repeat their marriage! Congrats on making the choice to move on.
posted by viggorlijah at 2:17 AM on May 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, cheesecake, I'm crying for you. I'm so glad you're in a place where you can start to see that none of that was your fault. Ever. I worked at a shelter for battered women for eight years, and I saw many women like your mother who seemed unable to put the needs of their children first, no matter how many times it was stressed that the children would be safer without the abuser. I think it might be helpful for you to call a local DV shelter (or the national hotline at 1−800−799−7233) and look into support groups. You are not alone. You are not unworthy. You CAN learn to have a healthy romantic relationship, and you can find a partner who values you and understands you and doesn't use any of your past as a weapon to make you into something you're not. Thank you for asking this question and for your updates. I'll be sending you thoughts of strength.
posted by SeedStitch at 5:58 AM on May 8, 2014

The fact that your mother was the victim of abuse can help you understand her, but it doesn't excuse her.

You are not bad. You were not bad as a child, and you are not bad now.

I had an intense and transformative moment at 18 when I was remembering something bad that I had done as a kid and thought, you know, if I had murdered someone at that age, I'd be out right now. Or would never have been in jail in the first place. Because I was a kid. Our entire society, and most other societies, feels pretty strongly that children are not morally responsible for the bad things they do and need help, not punishment. It's not even controversial. There isn't a powerful "life in prison for 12 year old kids" lobby in Washington. It actually feels obvious to most people that when a kid does something bad, like actively bad, it's not the same thing as when an adult does the same thing, and we're supposed to explain to the kid that what they did was bad and help them learn how to be better, not say, well I guess you're some kind of shitty kid, let's agree you're a bad person forever. Whatever you did or did not do as a child no longer matters, those records are sealed and gone. You get to decide who you are as an adult.

That was part one of how a lot of things changed inside myself and I started to let go of the message I had taken on that I was bad. The second part, which took a lot longer, was figuring out what it meant to me to be a good person as an adult, and to learn how to trust myself to be the judge of how good a person I am. There will always be someone in your life ready to tell you that you are bad, either directly or through burdening you with guilt and shame. It's good that you're in therapy and working on figuring out for yourself what it means to have healthy relationships and how to better understand the story of your life so far, which you seem to have been seeing through your mother's eyes.

I wish you luck and happiness. You seem to be doing a really good job of confronting and dealing with a lot of garbage that you didn't ask for and never deserved. I'm sorry that your mother did not take care of you. I'm happy that you're taking care of yourself now.

PS, yes. You know already, but I agree with you, and think you can safely trust your judgment on this. You are not bound by "agreements" imposed on you when you were a child. No child is responsible for his or her relationship with an adult. And now that you are an adult, you are not responsible for your mom, and you are not in control of her choices. She made you feel like you had power you didn't have, when you were a kid and she told you a story about how her happiness was up to you. You didn't just not have that power then, you don't have that power now. Only she does. You can't make other people happy, and you can't make other people different. Keep making yourself happy and surrounding yourself with people who treat you with kindness and make you feel safe. People who make you feel that they believe you are good. I send you my warmest smile.
posted by prefpara at 6:18 AM on May 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

"Now I know that was so wrong. I was a normal person with a normal reaction to being abused."

Quoted back at you for truth. Because, as you well know, this is truth.

It is never, never, never your job to fix people. This is impossible. We want to, and we often pour blood treasure and lives into it, but... if they are not fixing themselves, we cannot. 100% can. not. They will never be the people they could/should have been, and that you deserved. I'm sorry.

And yes, on the scale of abuse ranging from 'Raised by Mr. Rodgers' to 'reenacting the Saw movies' I'd rank both your parent's behavior as 'pretty damn abusive'. This was not your fault! There was nothing you could have done to change this. Neither parent did their job, which was to protect you from exactly that kind of abuse.

You are a good person! You don't have to believe the lies of your parents. I hereby absolve you of having to be perfect. I absolve you of having to prove your dad wrong, constantly and forever. I absolve you of having to carry your mom, of being the slightest bit responsible for anything in her life. I'm sorry they did this to you. You deserve better. I believe in you! Love yourself. If random internet strangers see good things in you and believe in you so much, there must be something good there.

This is getting into advanced healing, some, but it can be beneficial to forgive. This does not mean their behavior & abuse is ok or good, or that they magically become safe people you need to hang out with/have live with you/send on cruises, but something you do for you, because you're worth it. Not sure how relevant this is yet, and I know you have a ton to process still, but maybe come back and re-read this bit in a year. :)
posted by Jacen at 6:42 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's silly, but I recommend you watch Stuart Saves His Family. It deals with a lot of these questions. I watch it sometimes when I start to feel the urge to sacrifice myself for my family.

Also about your friends and family telling you to help your mom? It's really easy to say something comfortable and Hallmark channel approved about how family is so important blah blah blah. It's so easy people say it a lot to make themselves feel like Good People. But it doesn't reflect the messy unpleasant world in which we live. Ignore that kind of advice.
posted by winna at 7:07 AM on May 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

[Hi cheesecake, glad you're getting some good advice from the thread, but it needs to not become an overall discussion thread for the larger topic. Please feel free to post a question next week if there are other things you'd like advice on from the community.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:24 AM on May 8, 2014

Re your follow-up: Have as little to do with your mother as possible. You owe her nothing. She was able to leave YOU for a year to go work elsewhere when you were nine. You were routinely left alone until 1:00am at age five. She did not stay for you. She could have left (in fact did leave for a whole fucking year). Your mother has serious issues that have nothing to do with your dad being an abusive jerk.
posted by Michele in California at 9:39 AM on May 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

While my family is by no means abusive and my parents get along mostly fine (unless my father has one of his choleric phases or my mother gets passive-aggressive again), once in a while they get into huge arguments and my father threatens to leave and my mother tells me if it weren't for my brother and me, she would have left my father years ago. She has been telling me that since I was a tween, I guess?
It really does a number on you. You think, "it's MY fault my mum is unhappy." Last year, I developed mental health issues that were mostly unrelated (I guess some part is always somehow related to your upbringing, your confidence etc.) and started seeing a therapist. He said - and I agree! - that having children or not and to raise them as a single parent or stay married was my mother's choice. SHE decided to marry my father, SHE wanted children, SHE decided to stay with my father. (And they do get along most of the time, they just have awful fights, so your situation is really different.)
Your mother has no right to make her staying in an abusive relationship your responsibility. She likely didn't do it on purpose (neither does mine), she's only human as well - and that's the point. Motherhood doesn't automatically turn people into perfect human beings. Mothers can say and do really shitty things as well, and sometimes they really do. Kids tend to believe a lot their parents say and sometimes it can take years to figure out that they were wrong and you were actually in the right. That's what makes this so hard.
But yes, you are not at fault here. Your mother was an adult all through her relationship with your father. You can help her if you want, because she's your mum and she raised you (because she wanted you!!!) and you love her, but some people just can't accept help. I'm sorry.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 10:28 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, the "you're so sensitive" shtick is something both of my parents have used, and it took me a while to figure out that that usually means, no matter who says it (replace parents with racists, for example): "I'm an insensitive jerk who doesn't care if what he says is hurtful and who doesn't want to put any energy into thinking of what could be wrong with the way I say things."
posted by LoonyLovegood at 10:33 AM on May 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Sweet sufferin' succotash, cheesecake, it sounds like the best thing you can possibly do for yourself is to go 100% No Contact with both your parents..... not 'occasionally call or write to them', not 'visit them now and then', not 'respect your parents simply because they are your parents': have absolutely no contact with them whatsoever, for at least six months. No need to warn them either, if you don't feel like it; just never answer their phone calls or emails or letters, never call or write or visit them.

Sure, your father was abusive, but it sounds like your mother was equally abusive --- what kind of person details their sex history with a little kid, or demands that their kid provide the adult with emotional support like that?!? That's icky, to say the least. Go no contact, you'll feel better with them totally out of your life.
posted by easily confused at 12:10 PM on May 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

People who say you have an obligation to support and engage with your parents usually come from happy families, and have no context for comprehending what others have been through. Just ignore it, telling yourself as many times as you need to, "That doesn'T apply to me."
posted by ravioli at 5:27 PM on May 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

My father is an alcoholic with psychotic fits of rage - has been so for more than 20 years now - and although he has never seriously hurt my mother, my sibling or me, I had experienced enough to dream about moving out as soon as was possible (as in - things thrown at me/out of the window (3rd floor)/crashed into the walls/money and personal stuff stolen and sold/returning home all bloody after fights with his alcoholic friends/etc). My mother does not drink and has been the only breadwinner in the family for the same 20+ years. She has also used the "I'm staying for the kids" card and repeatedly told me she would move out to live with me when I grow up. So, I grew up. I got a place of my own, so did my sibling - no move. I went to live and work in another country, but kept the old apartment so that I have where to stay when I visit and so that she can leave my father. Guess what? It has been TWO years, she still lives with him:( And says he now ONLY gets violent when I visit:( I must be lucky, heh?
posted by tashkelis at 4:36 PM on December 14, 2014

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