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"My Mother Allowed Her Husband to Abuse Me"

I'm having trouble forgiving my mother.

Key points

  • Mothers often fail to meet our emotional needs.
  • It is important to be curious about why our mothers have limitations.
  • While you may never be able to forgive your mother, a relationship is still possible.

Dear Dr. G.,

I am a 21-year-old female currently living at home with my mother. Most of the time, things are normal and function well. But mine and my mother's relationship has been broken for a few years because my stepfather was abusive to me, which she knew, yet she still kept him around. This had a multitude of negative effects on me, such as adopting the mindset of "I don't matter" and "no one cares what happens to me." I've spent multiple years trying to combat those thoughts and heal from the abuse and trauma that I went through with some recovery.

Over the years, since the abuse has happened, my mother has apologized to me multiple times, telling me that I didn't deserve what happened to me, that she's so sorry and wishes she could have done differently and "protected me," as well as begging for my forgiveness. It's not obvious, but she has a veiled excuse for what she did. She says she "wasn't in a good place." I have empathy for what she went through, as my stepfather was not a good man. However, it doesn't excuse what she did.

For a while, I thought that the reason I was having a hard time forgiving her was because of me. In the most recent months, I've been starting to realize that the reason I cannot forgive her is because she hasn't changed.

She still shuts me down and dismisses and minimizes my emotions. She doesn't listen to me when I'm talking–checking her phone or not responding when I'm opening up–or she gets angry and defensive when I show any emotion. There have even been times where she's gotten furious with me for talking about how her ignoring the abuse affected me.

I don't feel comfortable talking about how she's hurt me because I know that I will face anger and guilt-tripping. I constantly feel as though I'm being placed on the back burner and am not important. Overall, I feel that she is extremely neglectful of my emotions, and that I don't have a mother anymore.

The reason I'm writing to you is because I'm not sure where to go from here. I love her but being around her is too painful. I find myself getting angry whenever I'm around her and I don't know how much longer I can deal with her completely ignoring my emotions. I feel scared to talk to her about any of this because as I said, she tends to get angry when I tell her how I feel. At this point, it feels easier to not have a relationship with her, but I find it heartbreaking as I still desire a relationship with my mother.


A Very Tired Daughter

Dear Daughter,

Thank you so much for reaching out and being so wonderfully honest about your feelings. You, like everyone else, would like to have a mother who is attuned, empathic, and protective. Unfortunately, many children are disappointed when their mothers do not and perhaps cannot provide these emotional gifts. After all, mothers are in a wonderful position to do this for us but as you have sadly experienced many are unable to provide us with what we yearn for. In your case, your mother was unable to protect you from your stepfather and continues to dismiss your emotions. This leaves you feeling sad and angry.

You may be expecting the impossible from your mother. She may never be able to listen to you discuss your feelings without becoming dismissive and defensive. Sadly, this expectation may lead to constant feelings of frustration. I have some ideas that may help you look at this situation a bit differently. Your mother's limitations are likely a result of her own history. What do you know about your mother's own childhood? What happened or did not happen that resulted in her tolerating abuse and being unable to tolerate emotion? Why did she feel that she could not protect you? Did she feel that abuse was somehow acceptable? Your mother may not want to answer these questions for you. Nonetheless, I suggest that you become curious about your mother. Maybe she has siblings, friends, or other relatives who can help you understand the emotional environment that your mother grew up in.

You may never forgive your mother completely. Her apologies so far have felt incomplete. It is more important that you move on from the expectation of complete forgiveness to some sort of understanding of who your mother is (as described above). Holding on to the anger and the hope that your mother will be present for you in a more emotionally skilled and comforting manner will keep you stuck. It is important that you accept your mother's limitations and then decide what sort of relationship you want to have with her. She may never change.

Your mother may never be able to give you what you need. While this is certainly devastating, once you accept her limitations you may feel less frustrated with her. It will be important for you to develop other relationships in your life in which people are able to provide you with what your mother can't. This does not mean that you need to cut your mother out of your life. It means, instead, that you understand her in a more nuanced and informed manner and make peace with her limitations.