Relationship Connection: How can I honor an emotionally abusive mother

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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. Yes, we all instinctively desire to honor our mother and father, but we’re also allowed to protect ourselves from abusive behavior.

No one has the right to guilt you into staying in a situation that is destroying your dignity as a human being. 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. Abuse in any form is darkness and it can certainly feel as though your light has gone out.

Connect to the truth about your own intrinsic worth and value 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 worth 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:

  1. You can honor your mother by breaking the cycle of abuse, being a light in a dark world and changing these incorrect patterns. I have no doubt that if she could see things clearly, she would 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 doesn’t understand. It’s also 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 choose a different way.
  2. You can have compassion for her, even at a distance. Your compassionate thoughts and prayers will can help soften your heart as you work to see her with understanding. Please remember that having compassion for her doesn’t mean you have to be subjected to her abusive treatment. This is about you not living with toxic resentment.
  3. 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
  4. 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. This doesn’t mean that you can seek help and support from others to make sense of what you’ve gone through. Abuse victims should never be silenced, but it’s not helpful for you to tear her down to build you up.

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.

You will be protected as you do this work and find the right balance. Your mother is likely not intentionally seeking to destroy you, but, regardless of her intentions, you can set healthy limits and protect yourself as you work to structure a healthier relationship with her.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: [email protected]

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • ladybugavenger November 28, 2018 at 8:52 am

    Honor her by staying away from her. In no way, do you need to be treated badly and accept it, even if it is your mother.

  • Comment November 28, 2018 at 10:25 am

    My ex-wife had bpd, or some combination of bpd and bipolar. She was good at hiding it before we were married. Therapy and meds didn’t help very much.

    • ladybugavenger November 28, 2018 at 4:38 pm

      How is she doing now?

  • Bill84790 November 28, 2018 at 7:16 pm

    I understand this situation very well, and a firm boundary is essential with any toxic person. You honor your parents by living a good life and doing good. You never need to justify your correct behavior to anyone, it is self-evident. Many times a toxic person’s behavior is so ingrained into their persoanlities it is nearly impossible for them recognize it, and they minimize, justify, or deny it to deflect attention. I have realized I am powerless over other people, the only thing I can control is my part in any relationship. I view personal relationship like a credit decision, you have the right to limit or deny “relationship credit” to anyone that has abused their credit rating in the past. You can forgive the “relationship debt”, and then limit, deny credit or require a good faith deposit in the future. A business would soon failed if it extended credit over and over again to a person that repeatedly had proven to be a bad risk. Your personal relationships are the business of your life. I wish someone would have this advice with me years ago, it would have prevented years of needless suffering and agony.

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