How can we best help our abused father?
February 9, 2017 3:14 PM   Subscribe

My sisters and I have recently become aware that our stepmother is abusing our father. How can we best talk to him and support him?

My father and mother divorced when I was in grade school. When I was in middle school, he remarried a woman much younger than him, literally too young to be my mother. So it's safe to anticipate she will live much longer than him. I have never gotten along well with her, for a long time I thought it was just a conflict in our personalities, but I've become more convinced this is a form of abuse toward me. My two sisters feel similarly, though they are more conflict-avoidant than I am, so it is less obvious.

She has never been supportive of me, has never talked to me as though I were a smart and worthwhile person. Most things she says to me feel condescending, like they're designed to make her seem smarter than me. She finds lots of ways to compare me and my sisters to her blood daughter (our stepsister, with whom we grew up), who she believes is smarter than us and makes better decisions than we do. It's difficult to communicate with dad in private, she reads his email and is usually present when we he talks on the phone. She doesn't like for us to spend time alone with him and she makes it difficult for him to do so, and makes things unpleasant for him after he does. He doesn't like conflict either and mostly gives her her way. I don't like being around her and therefore have visited less and less often. This has significantly driven me away from my father, and I am just now understanding the real impact it has had. I now have a fair amount of guilt that I let things slide for so long.

However, I always thought she loved dad and she was what he wanted, and she was going to take care of him.

Recently dad had a fairly serious health problem, which caused my stepmother to scrutinize his will and realize she didn't like what it contained. She wanted more. Since then, she has been abusing him. Screaming and cursing at him, threatening to leave him, threatening to harm his belongings and his house, depriving him of sleep, and "grabbing" him- what this means isn't clear to me. All of this while, at times, he was physically incapacitated by medical issues.

We know this because he has been confiding in one of my sisters. He hasn't told the other two of us about this. I'm sure he is embarrassed, and probably thinks it would be a burden on us to know and talk about it. It's been very difficult having this hidden and pretending we don't know. I think abuse thrives on secrecy, and very much want my stepmother to know we are aware of what she's been doing. But we are also scared we might make things worse for him, or that he may stop talking to any of us about it. We think he is probably downplaying the severity of all of this as it is.

It's become pretty obvious that dad has struggled with depression all his life. We didn't have any idea the role that his wife was playing in this, but it looks to us now like she's been a hugely negative factor in his mental health. He doesn't feel like he can be on his own, just doesn't want to be divorced again, he feels tired and old and beat down. He seems to think somehow he can do something to fix this and everything will be fine.

As a result of all this, dad has changed his will to better suit his wife's demands. She seems somewhat appeased although I can't possibly believe everything is fine now. You can't simply undo this kind of damage. I also worry that my father will have worse health issues at some point in the future, that will put more strain on her than she's experienced yet, and I don't believe she will react well. Plus I believe abuse escalates. I no longer think my stepmother can be trusted to care for my dad.

My sisters and I have managed to get him out of the house and secure some time alone with him soon. We feel like we need to get all of this out in the open. We need help figuring out how the conversation should go. We want him to understand we all love him, and care about him, and want him to be safe. We want him to understand that how he is being treated is not normal or right, and he deserves to be treated well and to be happy. He must be so sad and hurting and lonely right now, though it would be very unlike him to acknowledge any of that. We want to start trying to repair our relationships with him. We know he loves us very much and we think he'll at least try to listen to us.

We have never honestly discussed our feelings about her with him, and think he needs to understand that it's much more than just "we don't get along". But we need to make the conversation as productive as possible, and try to avoid putting him on the defensive. We also know we can't tell him what to do. We think he will probably be reluctant to see himself as "abused"- he's from a generation where men were supposed to be strong and silent, to just always know how to take care of everything- but we think he knows the way he's being treated isn't right either, and that he needs some kind of support.

How can we start the conversation? What do we need to address and what should we avoid? What should our goals be? We're a family that is very bad at being open about our feelings, and all of us are apprehensive and nervous, but this is a crisis and we know we have to start trying something different.

I've read askme for years so I understand some aspects of controlling and abusive relationships, but I could stand to be reminded of the most important points when trying to help someone who is in one. Thanks, metafilter.
posted by counterfeitfake to Human Relations (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think you should call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. They will surely have some advice for you, including advice directed to the adult children of a person who many be reluctant to see himself as "abused."
posted by vunder at 3:24 PM on February 9, 2017 [12 favorites]

I would also call an Elder Abuse Hotline for their advice. Here is a list of state elder abuse hotlines, if you're in the U.S.

I'm sorry you're going through this. It sounds hard on everyone.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 3:26 PM on February 9, 2017 [12 favorites]

This (the will issue and ensuing abuse) is a typical pattern for elder abuse -- look up elder abuse hotlines and legal aid resources in your area. Good luck, this is so hard.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:28 PM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Is your father in better health now? If he likes his neighbors and can easily walk to their houses, you might want to give him a prepaid cell phone and a charger that the neighbor can keep in a drawer for him. Then, if he is willing to speak up, he can communicate with you, even if it is from the neighbor's bathroom.

I'd personally want to install a hidden nanny cam, with his permission but without hers, though I know that other people might find that ethically questionable.
posted by puddledork at 4:19 PM on February 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

This situation sounds pretty serious to me, Im glad you and your sisters are able to come together to help your father. Abusers often try to seperate their victims from loved ones who would be a source of support and help. It sounds like thats exactly what your stepmother has been doing for awhile now. I have so many thoughts and ideas, but I think the best advice has already been given, talk to people who are experts on elder abuse. Hot lines, maybe someone knows of some good books that you can use as resources, that sort of thing. I don't know if elder abuse follows a similar pattern as domestic violence, but it might be worth looking into whats called The Cycle Of Abuse and see if any of it sounds familiar. It may help you or your father to be able to predict times of higher risk.

Im so sorry your family has to go through this, I wish you luck and strength getting through this.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 5:37 PM on February 9, 2017

It's very good that you'll be able to spend some time with him without his wife. Tell him that the confidante sister has shared information with you -- he may be dismayed initially, but it's the truth and once it's out you can give sympathy and empathy. Let this be the approach of this first discussion -- you're sorry she's been unkind and angry, and that you're available to help in any way that he needs. Ask him what he might want, and listen.

Right now, don't recite a long list of ways you think you might help. Just say a few that are likely to make him feel like he's less alone: you're available by phone, you're available to visit in person, and he can talk to you without being concerned that any of you are going to jump in and act in a way that risks unintended consequences.

Don't show your heightened animosity toward his wife. When she's around, be polite and try to be cordial; she doesn't need to know that you're keeping an eye on her. She has a lot more control right now than you do; if she gets more vitriolic in what she says about you sisters, it will increase your dad's stress. And you definitely don't want her to trick or pressure him into giving her power of attorney.

You didn't say anything that would warrant this warning, but here it is anyway: if any of the sisters is interested in inheriting money from your dad, try to channel it into making sure his resources are used for his care and his remaining years. In my family there's one daughter that wants to ensure that "her inheritance" doesn't disappear. The fact that your stepmother wants money after he dies is fairly far down the list of justifications for helping your father to make changes for his own well-being.
posted by wryly at 7:04 PM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

It sounds like he needs an attorney -- and so do you and your sisters. You want to help him help himself, and part of that means not being coerced (and worse) into changing his will at a time when he might not have been able to think it through, and in a way that may not leave him well-positioned to provide for himself.

BTW, if you want to read this from the other side, you might go hate-read Reddit's "/r/stepparents." There are some nice reasonable people on there, and then there are some absolute wretches clinging to older men for ??reasons?? and literally hating on the kids involved, and so on. I have no explanation for this phenomenon, but it definitely seems to be A Thing. The women often believe that the kids' mother ("BM") is an utterly evil crackpot (why their BF was married to and had a family with somebody so terrible is never answered) and that they are doing the kids a favour by intervening and making a mess of the family dynamics -- nobody knows how to parent except the saintly new (and ever so self-sacrificing) stepparent. The martyr crap and me-me-me of the women involved in some of the sagas there might give you the impetus needed to, well, deal with her with rather less sympathy than you might have now. Do not worry about being 'fair' to somebody who spent much of your life treating you poorly and who has now treated your father abysmally. Document what you're told, so it doesn't get forgotten...

> We're a family that is very bad at being open about our feelings, and all of us are apprehensive and nervous, but this is a crisis and we know we have to start trying something different.

Same here; I completely empathise. But crisis stuff can be perfect for breaking down, however temporarily, those sorts of communication barriers.
posted by kmennie at 8:16 PM on February 9, 2017

Speak to the organizations mentioned above, definitely.

It doesn't sound like he's ready to make a move just now, so I agree completely with wryly that at this point, it'd be good to focus on helping him build up his emotional resources, and offering respite from the abuse - a positive, or at least neutral space to give him a breather from the chronic stress he's been exposed to, give him a chance to recollect himself. And to feel loved and cared for by you guys, so he can start to remember that he's a valuable person worth protecting. His mind is filled with his wife, there's no room for ideas about alternative ways of living - time away from her, and with people who care about him, will give him that room. Also agree, with wryly, that if he doesn't have a clear path out, or believe it's possible to leave, openly opposing his wife might make things harder on him. (She might obstruct further access to him, in addition to punishing him.) Staying cordial with her - for now - is a good idea, imo, until he's ready to leave. (If you see signs that abuse is escalating, don't hesitate to contact authorities.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:13 AM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

(You'd be surprised what is permissible as long as it can be said that a person has given their legal consent. If he's not yet in a place where he feels he can say no, it's going to be hard to help him. So you have to help build him up, in a way that's safe.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:17 AM on February 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

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