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Emotionally Abusive Mother

Emotionally Abusive Mother


Dear Rachel,

I am an adult woman who has had a difficult relationship with my mother my entire life. While I was never physically abused, I definitely suffered severe emotional abuse. I have always tried to retain a relationship with her as I actually feel sorry for her more than angry. However, when I am around her I revert to being a hurt child once more and don't feel I can protect myself. I know you are supposed to honor your mother and father, but a part of me feels that it would be best to cut off the relationship. Another part of me wonders if I should pretend to ignore what bothers me and maintain a connection so that she is a part of my life and that of my children. What do you suggest?


Dear Hurt,

I feel sorry for her more than angryI don't think there is a mother-daughter relationship that isn't complicated and difficult in certain respects. However, yours definitely sounds much more extreme than the average. The fact that you are able to recognize what is unhealthy about your relationship is already a huge step in the right direction. The big question that needs to be addressed though is if you can have an ongoing relationship that doesn't cause damage either to yourself or your children.

Right now it sounds like you are extremely hurt and vulnerable. So for the immediate future it would seem to make most sense to keep your distance a bit while you come up with a strategic plan of action. It might sound funny that you need a plan, but whenever there is someone who acts in an abusive way, the only way of dealing with that person is to have a clear plan so that you can remain protected.

You mention that you feel sorry for your mother which leads me to believe that while her behavior and actions have caused you tremendous pain, you perhaps do not feel that she is able to control them, and perhaps she has no malicious intent. Is it possible that your mother has some kind of emotional or mental illness that could be balanced through intensive therapy or even medication? Often if someone is unstable they will behave and respond in ways that are quite hurtful, even though they are not fully aware of what they are doing or able to stop such destructive behavior.

While I can't imagine that your mother will accept a suggestion coming from you that she should get help, perhaps she will accept that suggestion from someone that she respects and listens to? If there is someone like that in her life that you feel comfortable speaking with, let him or her know how you feel and how sad it makes you to watch her be destructive both to herself and to you and your family, and how you would like her to get help but don't feel you can be the one to suggest it. It is not clear that she will ever pursue this option or direction, but it is worth a shot.

At the same time, while you can't control whether she seeks professional help, you can certainly ensure that you receive any support or counseling that you need. You clearly are carrying around a lot of pain and issues that should be worked through, regardless of whether you decide to continue your relationship with your mother.

If you find that breaking off your relationship with your is too extreme, I would suggest that you try to make the time you spend together less frequent. A relationship over the phone or through email and letters is often much less volatile than one in person. And if you are to spend time together, try doing so on your turf. Sometimes she will treat you much better when she is in your home and your guest than when you are under her roof and her control.

When a child is being abused, the law of Honoring Your Mother and Father are suspendedNow, if all the above measures don't work: you can't get your mother to receive the treatment she needs, and limiting your relationship isn't an option (or doesn't offer you the relief you seek), then indeed you have to consider whether to terminate the relationship.

While I do not feel that I have enough information to suggest whether or not you cut off all relations with your mother – for that you need to speak to a therapist or perhaps your rabbi – I do want to clarify one very important point: You mention the importance of Honoring Your Mother and Father, one of the Big Ten of the Ten Commandments. There is no question that honor and respect are valued greatly and a huge focus in Judaism. However, there are limitations to this commandment, and one huge exception is when the relationship is abusive, no matter the form of abuse. When a child is being abused, and it is not healthy for that child to remain around that parent, then the law of Honoring Your Mother and Father are suspended, in those areas where according honor would be harmful for the child. In your case, you shouldn't feel that out of respect for her you need to be around her, if being around her is extremely unhealthy for you.

On the other hand, any communication that you do have with your mother, must at all times be respectful (even if you are informing her that you are terminating the relationship, that, too, must be done with respect).

I hope you are able to find a therapist or professional who can help you work through your past issues with your mother and help you create a plan for whatever kind of relationship you will have with her for the present and the future. May you be blessed with strength and clarity as you work through this painful relationship and may your mother find the help she needs to be a happier and healthier person.

All the best,


"Dear Rachel" is a bi-weekly column that is answered by a rotating group of experts. This question was answered by Sara Esther Crispe.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the Co-Director of Interinclusion, a non-profit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of and wrote the popular weekly blog, Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Discussion (177)
October 30, 2015
Damaged people need not be blamed and scolded!
To Gila Hirsch; this is not a forum to people like you who scold the victim and have NO CLUE what it 's like. We realize that no human is perfect, even a mother, and we all have people in our lives. We forgive them for their imperfections. And that is NOT what we are talking about here. We can love and respect our mothers in certain ways, but once burned, twice shy. We cannot trust. We have to learn self
preservation tactics and do not need to be scolded by people who have no point of reference. We are not whiners....quite the opposite. We have had to endure having our budding self esteem squashed over and over without any outlet to turn to. We have had to silently coach ourselves because our mothers were not able to. We are done with being a punching bag, and are drawing boundaries. It's not up to you to
tell us we can't, and try to guilt us into silence. Until you've lived it, you cannot understand.
Carol Gage
October 29, 2015
I have a mother who I love because she's my mother, but when she's upset about something I am her number one target she uses as her human verbal punching bag. One minute she can praise me for what I have done for "her" then the next she is assassinating my whole character. She will try to pick a fight with me but once I don't take the bait she will keep trying and then once she gets what she wants from the fight she wants to stand back and say "you see that's why ur so hateful" or why don't you want me at your apartment to stay over" ? I wanna say because you pick fights and start yelling for no apparent reason and I dont want to be embarrassed and for my neighbors to hear. It hurts having a mother like this but I am at my breaking point.
Miss Truth
October 27, 2015
I wish you could somehow be enlightened, Gila, by the punishment of what we've experienced, transported back to a 4 year old child who knows her mother hates her, tells everyone all the way through school that her mother hates her and no one believes you. Yet she hates you, your siblings all emulate her & they hate you & she loves them hating you. My mother hated me and I thought it was love, my siblings hated me & bullied me every day & I thought it was love. I did honor my father and mother and I learned much later in life that I had no faith in God b/c I couldn't have faith in my own mother. My mother was in church every time the doors opened, we all were. & sitting next to the biggest hypocrite in the world, hearing how we should love each other as God commands, then going home to be hated destroys a child. I think you are a mother just like mine, condemning others as your sick excuse for the abuse you've dished out and you try to cover by pretending to be a godly person. spew...
5 against 1
October 22, 2015
Honoring an abusive parent is not a god given right.
IMO, Parents need to earn the respect of their children just the way each human being must earn the respect of anyone else on the earth.

It is impossible to honor an abusive disrespectful parent. Honor belongs to those who deserve and earn it. Simply breeding is not a reason to be honored. Anyone can breed. Psychopaths, the mentally challenged and even 12 year olds can breed. That does not mean they will be good parents and bad parents to not deserve to be honored.
Pennsylvania, USA
October 22, 2015
Obviously Gila you did not suffer at the hands of an abusive parent, physically, emotionally or verbally. Unless you have been subjected to this horrific treatment as an innocent child I don't see where you have the right to judge any of us who have suffered from a toxic parent. save your post for a place you have experience and first hand knowledge. For those of us who have endured this, stay the course, stick to what YOU know is worthy of your respect!
Liz Edelstein
Baltimore, MD
October 20, 2015
I am dismayed, but not shocked to see how many adult children are still crying about their mothers. Kavod l'Em, Honor of the Mother, is the hardest mitzvah to keep, and yet, is what the entire universe is built on, or not.

1. It is written 'Honor Thy Father and Mother, so that your own days be long.'
It is not written 'honor your mother except if she is: abusive, narcissistic, lazy, mean, stupid, aggressive, fake, a thief, a whore, a liar. et al.

2. The child is no longer a child as of the age of 12 and 13 for a girl and a boy respectively. From this point on, at the very latest, a budding adult is responsible for his/her own self, their own thoughts, words and deeds. There are many resources out there for figuring things out, but, the base line is this: Honor your mother (and father)

3. 'Honor' is not a 'feeling', nor is it 'respect' as in st to 'earn'. It is a pro forma set of behaviors set out in our teachings. Go study and grow up. Be grateful for LIfe. She gave it.
Gila Perach Hirsh
October 17, 2015
I had a troubled relationship with my mother too, and the best thing I did was distance myself from her. I still talked on the phone when I (get that? "I") decided to. I moved physically away from her and it was the best thing I did for myself. I was able to find who I was not who my family told me I was. Years later I actually cared for her as the Alzheimer (not suggesting this, it was just my situation) took her and through that difficult experience I was able to forgive her.
Do I still carry some of the pain? Yes, yes I do, but I have made some peace with her as I learned about life and read up on mental illness and concluded that she could not help herself and did not treat me badly out of meanness (most of the time). So, creating the space for you to find yourself can be a most valuable tool to self identity and peace of mind.
Treva Harper
July 30, 2015
It pains me to learn that a fellow Jew feels abused. No one should feel the anguish of abuse. I learned in yeshiva of someone who was very a Torah scholar who was highly respected in the community was appointed chief Rabbi of the only synagogue in the area. As the Rabbi was giving his Shabbos sermon, his mother stormed in,,went into the men's section, spit in her sonיs face, tore offf his shirt, and slapped him. He could've verbally told his mother off or shoved her away. All the Rabbi did was ask someone to please escort his mother to a seat in the women's section and he continued his sermon. When asked later why didn't the rabbi kick her out of shul or admonish her behavior, he responded that one must honor their mother and father applies to even then most extreme cases. True the columnist wrote, rightly so,, that she still has to communicate with her mother respectfully. How extreme she should keep the Commandment needs to be addressed by a competent Orthodox Rabbi,
New York
January 15, 2015
don't completely agree
I don't know
I was told in a group setting that one is obligated to honor a parent just for the fact that they were a partner in me coming into the world. HSe said one does not have to love all that a parent does or love the parent - but one MUST HONOR AND RESPECT THEM!!!!!
I think that most parents did the best they could for their childern and somtomes the child even knows what was hard for their parent - like Chas VeShalom sickness, abusive mate, being used by peoples , etc and I wonder if all who have written here are always such angels?????
January 6, 2015
That letter sounds as if it could have been written by me. My mother makes me cringe inside I am sorry to say. She has never admitted to any of her wrongs and she never will, of this I am sure. As for having a relationship over the telephone as Rachel mentioned, I tried that for 5 years. It never got any better. I hope it does for you.