Distressed Daughter

For the longest time I felt so sorry for my father, trapped in a marriage where he had no voice. A marriage that stole his spirit and even his physical health.

Very often in toxic families, there is one troubled parent. A person who has such severe issues that they are unable to function as a parent. They are emotionally unavailable, and can even be malignant in their dealing with children in order to cope with their own problems. In many toxic families there is a second parent present. So what about them? What is their role in all this?

Pity the Fool

People who are, for whatever reason, unable to consider the needs of others often find spouses that are able and willing to sacrifice their own needs to the benefit of their spouse. If my mother complained that she did not like the lighting in a rented holiday cottage, my father would drive out the next day to buy her a lamp. Whatever she wanted, he would jump at the opportunity to meet that demand. Often people observing that dynamic feel sorry for the submissive spouse. I used to think the same thing, I felt that my father was being wrong done by, that my mother was suppressing my father. I have since come to realize that my father chose to stay in that marriage. He was not physically threatened, did not depend on her financially. He expressed a fear that one of his children might leave the family, which I think illustrates that he was aware of the abusive environment. He was an adult that decided to be in this relationship. I believe now that he needed the dynamic as much as she did.

Enabling the Abuse

For an adult to choose to stay in a relationship is entirely their prerogative. When children enter the equation, there is a duty of care on both parents. When I finally realized the emotional abuse my mother had subjected me to, I also gained a different perspective on my father’s responsibility. I know that my mother subjected him to the same treatment she did me and my sisters, but he was the adult in that household, and he should have protected his children from the emotional bullying of his wife. When I would get in an argument with my mother, my father would always tell me just to tell her she was right. Then later he would come up to my room and say: I know you were right, but it is just easier to give in. So even when I was right, I was wrong.

Flying Monkey

More often than not the spouse does not only condone or tolerate the abuse, they often take a more active role. Whether to please their spouse or to deflect the emotional bullying away from themselves, enabling parents often dish out some of the abuse themselves. They become Flying Monkeys, tools of the abusive parent. When looking at childhood videos I started to realize that my father was often as mean as my mother, especially when she was around to observe him. In the video, my sister and I are doing a playback show. My parents are not in the frame, but they are constantly criticizing and complaining about our performances.

There is No Love

Although the enabling parent is often the parent that the child feels closest to, it seems to me that there is no real love there. The highest priority of the enabling parent is meeting the demands of their spouse. These needs take president over their own needs and those of the children. I really used to think I loved my father, but I think I only felt sorry for him or related to the abuse we were both subjected to. But since cutting contact with my parents over a year ago, I have not missed my father one minute of one day. If there was love, there would have been grief.

To find out more about the different roles in toxic families, why not listen to our podcast about it?

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Having gained experience while working for a variety of European non-profits, I am proud to now work with SwanWaters. My connection with the website is not only professional. I am glad to tap into my personal experiences to help those who are living in toxic relationships whether with parents, partners or in their professional life. We need to make the world more aware of the devastating effects of emotional abuse and help more people on their way to heal and thrive.

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  1. Profile photo of Amy

    August 4, 2014 at 6:15 am

    I think this does relate to my family situation, but it’s hard for me (for some reason) to figure out exactly how. My mother “allowed” my father to be verbally abusive (she basically ignored it and wouldn’t let me talk to her about it)…but then again, my father was always the one “protecting” my mother (and that was his excuse for yelling at me many times, that I was going to hurt my mother by doing something or other). Confusing! Oh well…is it always necessary to figure out the mess? Or better just to leave it?! Thanks for the post.

  2. Profile photo of serenity

    August 5, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    Amy it sounds very much like your parents were a tag-team, just taking it in turns to verbally abusive towards you. Who started it first will probably never be known and it is entirely up to you to decide whether you wish to spend time and effort focusing on this part of your life.

    Personally I love a challenge and I wouldn’t rest easily until I had at least worked out my own conclusion, but that doesn’t mean you have to or need to!

    Hugs x

  3. Profile photo of Louise

    September 13, 2014 at 11:49 am

    I had to let go of my father when I cut off contact with my mother. I didn’t want to because I loved him. I watched her abuse him, verbally and physically, even spitting on him. She took his gun one night to kill herself, and he let her go for a while before we got upset and made him go out and search for her.

    I watched him become a quiet, obedient ‘trained pup’ and a shell of his former self, and stop standing up for himself.

    My brother and I often talked about why he stayed with my mother, and we don’t know. He died over two years’ ago, so we’ll never know.

    I recently heard a story I’d never heard before, nor can I remember. I was two years’ old and an aunt was visiting my parents. My father wanted to go to the pub, but my mother told him that if he went, she’d put me out in the street. He still went, and she put me out. My aunt brought me in, but my mother told her off for interfering. My aunt put me back out in the street, then ran around to the pub and brought my father home.

    After hearing this, I wonder if part of the reason my father stayed was because he was worried what my mother would do to us if he left …

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