When One Parent Is Hurtful and the Other Stands By
Coming to terms with betrayal can be harder than dealing with toxicity.
Posted Jul 11, 2019
Not long ago, I got this message from a woman, now in her mid-50s:
“For years, I focused on my tyrannical father and how afraid of him I was. Mind you, my two brothers were scared of him too, but they dealt with it by being the boys he wanted them to be. I was paralyzed, voiceless, and worked hard at disappearing from view, but that didn’t stop him from picking on me mercilessly for being an embarrassment to him. It was only when I got into therapy that I started realizing my mother’s role wasn’t really passive. There’s nothing passive about standing by and watching your husband abuse your children. Your thoughts?”
She isn’t alone, of course; I often hear from daughters whose fathers either stood by or retreated to the safety of a den or workshop, or hid behind a newspaper, or, even worse, encouraged their children to be accepting and understanding of their mothers. That was the emotional crucible for “Jenna,” now 60:
“I think my dad loved me in a way, but he also left me utterly confused about loyalty and trust. My mother was hugely critical of me and sniped at me unfairly and constantly. She never let an opportunity go by to put me down or, alternatively, ignore me. If I messed up, she’d go on and on how I was a failure. If I got an ‘A’ or succeeded, she’d pretend it didn’t happen or tell me it wasn’t important. When I got older and started to push back, my father would step in. He’d appear to acknowledge that I was being hurt but then he’d tell me to placate her or apologize. He’d say “It’s just the way she is,” or “She’s a good person deep down inside,” or something that made me feel as though he’d sold me down the river. That was as damaging in the end as my mother’s sniping.”
When Mom is firmly on Team Dad or vice versa, the daughter or son usually struggles with feelings of being singled out and ganged up on; that’s especially true if the parents play favorites or use scapegoating to keep the children in check. That kind of dynamic creates a very specific kind of damage. But the parent as a bystander or one who acknowledges but palliates creates a deep mistrust of others and even distrust of love in the child which can last long into adulthood, like Becca, now 43, wrote me:
“My mother is my father’s staunchest defender. My father is a control freak and a bully, but she considers him strong. She thinks his put-downs are a way of keeping us from getting too full of ourselves, his criticisms a way of motivating us, his authoritarian style the mark of a man who knows his mind. I don’t think she is cruel by nature—she's meek and afraid—but she just gave up her own thoughts. It has taken me years to really understand that loving someone doesn’t require you to lose your soul and that how she treated me was about her, not me. I still have trouble trusting people and feeling safe.”
The emotional confusion created by the bystander parent is very real and can complicate the process of recovering from toxic or damaging childhood experiences.
“Am I focusing on my father, because I can’t bear to blame my mother?”
That is a question I received a few weeks ago from a reader who had believed that her issue was with her father until she began to read my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. She had always seen her father as the villain of the piece, but she began to see that what she considered her mother’s passivity was much more than that. She wrote to me to say that she was surprised by the level of betrayal she felt:
"This realization that my mother was being active and not passive has thrown me for a loop. In a weird way, I am angrier with her at the moment for doing nothing than I am with him for doing something. Is that strange?”
It actually isn’t. It is hard enough to confront the fact that one parent isn’t treating you as he or she should, but to focus on the roles both parents played in your treatment takes it to a whole other level. It’s no wonder that some daughters choose to look away as best as they can. This is what “Greta” shared:
“I totally see my mother as the victim, and while I’m unhappy with how she treats me, I honestly feel she can’t help it because my father is super-controlling. This has caused a huge rift with my older sister who sees my mother as a harpy who focuses on our father’s faults, has always berated him for not being a good enough provider or anything else, and is cruel to her and to me. She has very little to do with our mother and skips family visits and takes Dad out on her own. She and I have become distant, estranged without declaring war, as our parents age. She thinks making Mom a victim is sick stuff on my part. I don’t know what to do. I just want everyone to get along.”
It’s worth saying that from a cultural point of view, it is easier to be open about an unloving father than it is to talk about an unloving mother, which flies in the face of all the mother myths—that all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, that all mothers love their children. Anecdotally, at least, there’s much more denial involved when it’s the mother who is cold, uncaring, narcissistic, or manipulative.
The third player: your parents’ marriage
It’s impossible to begin to understand the dynamics of your parents’ relationship when you are a child, and it remains difficult even in adulthood; we never become peers, but always remain offspring, limited in our view of their marriage by the relationship we have to them and the fact that we weren't around when their connection began and they settled into their roles as spouses. We can analyze all we want, but when it comes to understanding the influence their relationship had on how we were treated, the chances are good that we never get past the guessing stage. It’s a very real blind spot. Working with a therapist can, of course, clear away some of the brush.
That was true for a daughter named Julia whom I interviewed extensively. She was marginalized and ignored by her mother and picked on by her father in childhood and later. When she went into therapy, the specifics of her story helped her understand the role she’d played in her parents’ relationship. Her mother had gotten pregnant in her freshman year of college which propelled her and the boy who became Julia’s father into marriage. Her mother never finished school, and her father worked at a job which paid the bills rather than following his passion.
“My birth was the cause of all hardship and strife. And I was never allowed to forget it. They chose to have two more children later, and it was always clear that unlike me, my sisters brought them happiness and pride. That was the family story, and they have never deviated from it, not in 50 years. I am still the source of all their disappointments, large and small, and that is part of their bond. In a weird way, their marriage has thrived, because they had someone to blame for their occasional unhappiness from the very start. My mother still dismisses me, and my father finds me lacking. It will never change, and I know that.”
My own father died when I was 15, and I too have wrestled with what he thought of my mother’s treatment of me and why he did little to defend me. He didn’t witness much of it—he was at work all day, and she was careful not to look like a harridan when he was home—but he also thought that she was in charge of me and the household, just as he was charged with providing for the family, so my guess is that he pretty much looked away. In the few years before he died, I had begun to push back, and he aligned himself with her on almost every issue. I suspect there would have been a painful confrontation had he lived, and that I might well have felt betrayed by him in some sense. I know for sure that he was always on Team Mom.
Coming to terms with the less obvious damage
Jenna’s comment mentioned earlier that her father “loved me in a way” is echoed in other adults’ stories; while dealing with the obviously toxic and hurtful parent presents its own set of problems, dealing with the parent who appears to collude in important ways has its own pain. “Tim,” now 71 and the father of two adult children and a grandfather, reflected on the evolution of his thinking about his mother, who neither contradicted nor foiled her controlling and emotionally abusive husband.
“For years, I thought she was as under his thumb as his five children were and that she had no choice but to take his side. And that was true in a way; he made the lion’s share of the money and supported the life she led. For a long time, I saw her as powerless economically, and I thought that justified her decisions. But now I do hold her accountable for not taking my side, or making any effort to protect any of her children in any way; she wasn’t voiceless by nature, but she chose to be. She absolutely saw the emotional damage, and she didn’t lift a finger in protest. She could have done better. She should have done better. That’s the truth.”
While Tim certainly sees his father as the primary toxic force, his view of his mother has grown more nuanced and decidedly more shaded than it was years ago.
Understanding the pace of recognition
Occasionally—well, more than occasionally—I hear from people who tell me to stop “blaming parents” and to stop encouraging adults to “wallow” in the past or similar language. Sorry, folks, there is a big difference between blaming and assigning responsibility, and between wallowing and understanding how you adapted to your childhood treatment. Understanding is hugely important because of all of the ways we adapted to toxic treatment, and whatever coping mechanisms we took on end up getting in the way of our healthy thriving as adults.
Untangling each of our parents' roles in our development—really seeing both their positive and negative influences—is the first step we take toward healing. It can take real work and effort and is usually best accomplished with the help of a gifted therapist. Sometimes, the bad guys aren’t easy to spot.
Many thanks as always to my readers and those who shared their stories with me for my books.