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Can you help me know how I can “honor” an emotionally abusive mother? I refuse to talk to her when she starts putting me or my husband down. I am getting flak from my sister and my aunt who tell me that I must honor her by being polite and not hanging up the phone when she launches into one of her tirades. Even when I politely tell her that I don’t want to hear it. She continues and tells me that she is my mother and deserves my respect. She has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Please help.
First of all, I think you’re an honorable person for even entertaining a thoughtful question like this. I think most people would understand if you moved on in your life and didn’t look back to see how you should deal with an abusive parent. You have asked a sincere question, and I completely respect your desire to understand this painful issue. So, let’s talk about ways you can still resolve this difficult question.
Hopefully you know that your mother’s abusive treatment of you isn’t your fault. It wouldn’t matter even if you were a difficult child. No child deserves to be belittled or abused in any form. The Church has developed a website on recognizing and dealing with abuse, which is a resource that can help you organize your experience and get additional support in knowing how to respond to your mother and family members. The message is clear on the website, “No one is expected to endure abusive behavior.”[i] They define emotionally abusive behavior as, “treating a person in a way that attacks his or her emotional development and sense of worth. Examples include constant faultfinding, belittling, rejection, and withholding of love, support, or guidance.”[ii]
Yes, we are commanded to honor our mother and father, but we’re also allowed to protect ourselves from abusive behavior. I believe it’s a form of spiritual abuse when anyone uses a scripture (or even one of the ten commandments) to guilt you into staying in a situation that is destroying your dignity as a human being. Heavenly Father cares about the security of his children and had strong words about protecting the vulnerable.[iii] Instead of guilting you into submission, I think it’s important to pause and listen to your experience and concerns before ordering you back in line.
Your struggle is understandable. It’s painful to experience the instinctive emotional tug of longing to have a secure bond with your mother while also needing to create distance from her because of abusive treatment. Even though you’re an adult now, you’re still your mother’s daughter and can’t easily escape the pull of this dynamic. This tension isn’t easy to manage, especially when you’re experiencing pressure from other family members who have opinions about how you should relate to her. I can tell it’s been difficult for you to find a healthy balance between being there for her and protecting your own peace. I believe it’s possible to still honor a difficult parent while preserving your dignity and emotional safety.
Here are some suggestions you might consider as you decide how you’ll respond to your mother. First, there is nothing your mother can do or say to actually diminish your true worth and value as a human being. Your spirit is light and this light is eternal. Abuse in any form is darkness and it can certainly feel as though your light has gone out. Connect to the truths about who you are, where you came from, and what your Heavenly Parents have in store for you so that you don’t let your mother’s mistreatment of you become the defining narrative of who you are. You will make better decisions about how to best honor your mother when you are rooted in the truth about your own light and trust that you cannot be diminished by her treatment of you.
Allow me to share some ideas on what honoring your mother might look like:
- You can honor your mother by breaking the cycle of abuse, being a light in a dark world, and changing these incorrect “traditions of the fathers”.[iv] I have no doubt that when she sees things clearly in a future day, she will feel honored that you didn’t allow yourself to be abused and that you had the courage to stand up to her abusive treatment of you, which I’m certain she didn’t understand at the time. It’s not in her best interest for you to allow her to treat you that way. She’s not only abusing you when she’s doing that, but she stays stuck betraying her own deepest values of protecting those she loves. If the pattern isn’t challenged, she’ll miss the opportunity to “see things as they really are”[v] and choose a different way.
- You can pray for your mother to get the healing she needs. Ask Heavenly Father to help her heal from the abuse and neglect she likely experienced in her family. Your prayers can help soften your heart as you work to see her with compassion and understanding. Please remember that having compassion for her doesn’t mean you have to be subjected to her abusive treatment.
- You can determine what types of interactions you are willing to have with her. You might find that one-on-one conversations with her are riskier, whereas mixed company interactions might provide more of a social buffer to help remind her to be more appropriate. She might long for more intimate conversations, but proximity is based on trust and must be earned
- You can honor your mother by not speaking ill of her to other people. You can set your limits with her and continue forward with your life without being stirred up about her treatment of you. When you’ve set the appropriate distance where she can’t abuse you anymore, you will drop the anger and frustration. When you figure out the right balance of closeness and distance, you’ll be less troubled and you won’t need to keep talking about her and your irritation with her.[vi]
Your sister, aunt, mother, and others will all have opinions on what you should do and how you should feel. You get to choose your own limits of what is healthy and what you can tolerate. Honoring your mother doesn’t mean subjecting yourself to abuse. Honoring her is more of a condition of your heart and your willingness to love her, even if it’s at a distance right now. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught that even though we don’t need to stay in toxic relationships, we want to make sure our hearts stay full of love and forgiveness.[vii]
You will be protected as you do this work and find the right balance. The Book of Mormon prophet, Jacob, invited us to, “look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will console you in your afflictions, and he will plead your cause, and send down justice upon those who seek your destruction.”[viii] Your mother is likely not intentionally seeking to destroy you, but regardless of her intentions, you can be strengthened and protected as you work to structure a healthier relationship with her.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[iii] Matthew 18:6
[iv] See D&C 93:39. Also, I am grateful for the inspired wisdom of Eddie Kaufholz who first introduced me to this idea https://relevantmagazine.com/life/how-do-i-honor-my-father-and-mother-if-they-were-abusive
[v] Jacob 4:13
[vi] This concept was influenced by this post from author Elizabeth Gilbert https://www.facebook.com/GilbertLiz/posts/dear-ones-i-found-this-note-on-my-phone-this-morning-from-last-year-this-is-some/1999760936772678/
[viii] Jacob 3:1