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When One Parent Is Abusive & The Other A Bystander

So many times over the years, I’ve gotten comments on my blog or by email from people who recognize they had an abusive parent.  They discuss how cruel that parent was, often explaining terrible tales of brutality that no child should have to face.  At some point, they mention their other parent.  From their description, you would think that parent borders on sainthood.  They say things like, “Mom knew Dad was a monster, but she gave me pointers on how to stay out of his way & not make him angry.”  “Dad was such a good guy.  He wouldn’t see the bad in anyone, even Mom.  He dealt with things by telling me that’s just how Mom is, she can’t help it, & encouraged me to forgive & forget what she did to me.”

Stories like this just break my heart.  These people truly believe what they say, & don’t realize that a passive parent is just as bad as an abusive parent.  Long ago, I was one of these people.

My mother was an overt narcissist.  Her abuse was undeniable.  It was loud, obvious & cruel, especially when I was in my late teen years.  I cried on my father’s shoulder about it many times.  The majority of those times, he turned the situation around to how painful it was for him & how helpless he was to stop the abuse.  Those times ended with me trying to comfort him.  Other times, he simply didn’t care.  I remember one time he gave me a pat on the knee & walked off.  He didn’t say anything but his attitude was one of “Wow.. glad I’m not you!”

For years, I thought this behavior was ok.  Normal even.  He was a great guy, & simply a victim of my mother like me, which is why he couldn’t (well, wouldn’t) help me.  In fact, I felt it was my duty to care for & protect him.  Yes, I am serious.  I honestly believed that it was my duty, as his child, to take care of & protect my father while not expecting him to care for & protect me.  Disturbing, isn’t it?

Sadly, many other adult children with abusive parents grew up believing the same things I did, which explains the many comments I’ve heard from adults who believe the same faulty way I once did.

The problem is this thinking is incredibly dysfunctional.  It’s not facing the truth, & the truth really will set us free!

Believing that one parent is good while the other abusive in these situations creates distrust & confusion about love & loyalty in children.  They think love & loyalty involve sacrificing not only your identity & beliefs, but even your children if need be.  If you’re unwilling to do that, you must not love that person.  This sets the stage for very dysfunctional & even abusive relationships in that child’s life. 

It also makes a child question themselves.  It’s normal for that child to grow up excessively angry at the overtly abusive parent because they simply don’t have the courage to be angry with the passively abusive parent.  One day when they realize this, they wonder what is wrong with them for not being able to accept both parents were abusive.

This type of thinking also happens a lot with people who can accept that their fathers were abusive, but not their mothers.  Admitting a father is abusive is easier than a mother.  Many mothers in such situations play up the appearance of being helpless victims who need their children to protect & coddle them.  Their children get so caught up in taking care of them, they seem to forget that it isn’t their job.  It’s their mother’s job to protect & care for them instead.

The first step to healthier thinking is to recognize both the good & bad aspects of both of your parents.  Writing these things out may be especially beneficial since written words have the ability to bring clarity that the spoken word often lacks.  Seeing your parents realistically is a healthy thing to do, & sets the stage for your healing.  This isn’t “wallowing in the past” or “blaming parents for everything.”  It is a legitimate & healthy step to take towards healing.

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Filed under Abuse and the Healing Journey, Mental Health, Narcissism