I am writing on behalf of my wife, since I don’t know how to help her or which direction to guide her. My wife’s mother has borderline personality disorder. Ever since she was little she has been called worthless, stupid, cussed at, and a whole host of other verbal insults. Now she is 39. Her mother to this day calls her (from the east coast, we live in Los Angeles) to tell her what a horrible daughter she is, what a failure she is, and cuss her out. My wife is destroyed by this. My wife’s most recent email to me was this:
Here is the beginning of my mother’s voicemail today:
In an angry voice) “We got your gifts today. I thank you for the money but that tape you made — you sent that for nothing. You’re fifty years too late with that country music sh-t. I don’t listen to one of those songs. I don’t care one bit about that tape you sent. You think I still live in the 40’s? I don’t know what’s wrong with you. You’re just like __.”
Then she proceeded to accuse me of getting all the music for free from somewhere on the internet, accusing me of putting no effort into it.
I am sobbing right now. Just wanted to share with you why I am so sensitive about gifts. This has been her reaction to just about everything but money.
This is also why I have no sense of pride in achievement. There is no achievement in her eyes except money.
My wife is quick to sympathize with her mother, and say she is just frustrated because they are very poor, or other times she will say it is just her personality disorder. Personally I think the relationship is not healthy and she needs to sever all ties, but she is too emotionally attached for that. Furthermore, her mother is pushing 70 and not in the best health. I figure that means the abuse will likely stop in its own time, but my wife is so devastated by this most recent email (and she worked HOURS compiling that CD, printing a special label, writing a sweet note to go with it, and picking out their favorite songs), that I desperately want to help her, but don’t know how. She’ll listen to me when I suggest things like not taking her mother’s calls, but it doesn’t have the same weight to her if I tell her versus someone in a therapist’s office (which we will not be able to afford for some time either).
So my question is, how should I help her? Am I right to think the abuse will stop when her mother passes? Or is it more likely that my wife will continue to beat herself up and be so deeply affected by the memory of her mother even after? What do I do? Help!
A: It’s a sad fact: The way to win what looks like undying devotion from a child (or a pet) who is totally dependent is to beat them up, then give them what they need – food and comfort and petting that passes for love. Do it enough times and the young child learns to do everything possible to win the approval of the parent in order to avoid the beatings and get what she or he needs to survive. The conclusion the child draws is the problem: The child comes to believe that it is only by currying the favor and pleasing their abuser that they will get any physical or emotional sustenance.
This pattern of behavior has become known as a “Stockholm Syndrome,” named after a group of bank workers who were taken hostage and paradoxically bonded so much with their abusers that they defended them against the police who were trying to rescue them. It’s now understood that this is a type of survival strategy. Bonding with their captors stopped the abuse while under their control.
These patterns are difficult to interrupt because the dependent person has little self-esteem and may believe that any difficulties in the relationship are her fault. Further, the controlling person may be a master at making threats and accusations that induce guilt and further the dependent person’s fear that she can’t survive without the controller. Because someone in this situation has internalized the dependence on the controller, the lack of self-esteem and the guilt don’t necessarily end with the controller’s passing.
You’re right that your wife needs help. She can’t get out of the relationship far enough to see it for what it is. I suggest you look for a therapist in your area who has worked with “Stockholm Syndrome” and trauma. I also suggest that you participate in the therapy in order to learn how best to support your wife as she struggles to withdraw from such a toxic relationship with her mother. It will be a struggle. Your love is tremendously important but it isn’t enough to combat your wife’s irrational fears of abandonment by her mother. Those fears were laid in early and powerfully. You need to learn equally powerful and concrete ways to show her that your opinion of her is more accurate than her mom’s. You both need to find ways to help her focus on the present and future with you rather than on her past relationship with a toxic parent.
I wish you both well.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 Jan 2011
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2011). My Wife’s Mother Verbally Abuses Her. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 6, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2011/01/31/my-wifes-mother-verbally-abuses-her/