How mothers can support daughters coping with an abusive relationship mothers support daughters Clare Murphy PhD_2Are you a despairing mother whose daughter is in an abusive relationship and you’re at your wits end trying to work out how best to support her?

Have you opened your home time and time again, then your daughter comes home and you and your family try and help her through the drama she’s having with her abusive partner, but then she goes right back to him?

Is watching the way he treats your daughter breaking your heart?

Judy, whose heart was breaking witnessing her daughter living with an abusive man, made a comment about her daughter under my post Warning Signs that your Male Partner is Controlling you:

“We hardly ever get to see her …. It’s all a lot of small things — calling her names, abusive to the max, being unfaithful. It doesn’t matter what this boy does she takes him back.”

Another mother told me:

“My daughter and I and her dad are really close and love each other loads. My husband and I have always found his behaviour to her to be selfish, sexist, uncaring, disrespectful and at times cruel. When I visited her to talk about what we were seeing, her reaction was withdrawn and non-committal, she was very loving, but said we had blown it out of proportion.”

This mother was advised by Domestic Violence organisations not to push her daughter to take any action and to leave such decisions to her. Current research shows this is the best action in cases where coercive control is involved. But that may seem counter-intuitive to you. I’ll explain how to support your daughter below. Meantime, this mother went on to tell me some ways she tried to support her daughter. This mum’s approach is the recommended way, despite her daughter minimising her experience:

“I tried to keep checking on her — she always said things were fine and they were getting on well. Their wedding went ahead, he behaved very nicely in front of all the guests. All my friends said we were worrying needlessly — however he is very convincing. As time’s gone by my daughter became pale and ill looking, and seemed deeply unhappy. We noticed behavioural changes including she is now saying and doing things to try to please him even when totally against her character and interests. . . . . Recently she seems to be withdrawing from me in particular — doesn’t reply to my emails and avoids taking my calls. Again we told her our concerns about the changes we were seeing in her and about his behaviour towards her. But this time she vehemently denied everything, said she was happy, accused us of having it in for her husband and judging her marriage, and mostly refused even to hear our reasons for concern, so it was all very difficult. Taking her denials as a cue we didn’t mention the word ‘abuse’, we tried to keep it calm and play it down a bit, and at no time did we criticise her husband as a person – only some of his behaviour. I have to confess that I am finding it all a terrible strain and miss my daughter very badly, but realise that there is not much else that we or anyone can do at this stage other than, whenever possible, to monitor the situation, fight against the increasing estrangement of our daughter from us her family, give her a bit of relief from the relentless abuse every now and again if we get a chance to do so, and make sure that if we get a chance to let her know we are there for her.”

Have the impacts of abuse led your daughter to . . . .

  • become defensive and push you away?
  • be jumpy, hypervigilant, and walk on eggshells round her partner?
  • appear to bury her needs and her pain, minimise the harm being done to her?
  • modify her behaviour to fit in with his wishes, demands, commands?
  • seemingly not assert herself, not challenge or confront her partner?
  • do whatever it takes to avoid or reduce his abuse?
  • avoid revealing the truth of her situation to outsiders?
  • develop fatigue, exhaustion, confusion, depression, anxiety?
  • live with shame?
  • consider herself as unworthy, not good enough, inadequate, and that something is wrong with her?
  • ignore her own voice and intuition?
  • lose her perspective and adopt his?

One mother told me that as time has gone by, she and her husband feel in a catch 22 situation because their daughter has drawn back from them even more, is less communicative and in less and less contact. This mother said that:

“if we try to overcome this with lots of phone calls, emails and suggestions to meet up it seems to feed into her husband’s smear campaign about us. He has made up fabricated stories about us to our daughter — that we are pushy, intrusive, over-protective and jealous of our daughter’s closeness with him and his family.”

What is he doing that’s causing your daughter to reject you?

His month-by-month smear campaign slowly, but surely, divides and conquers the loving relationship between daughter and mother . . . .

  • He instils stereotypes into your daughter’s head by telling her that you are a lying, interfering, overbearing and meddlesome mother-in-law who needs to back off.
  • He uses a system of rewards and punishments — rewarding her loyalty to him and punishing her for reaching out and connecting with you.
  • He fosters distrust in her by manipulating her belief system, her interpretations and perspectives about you by telling her that you’re extremely controlling.
  • In conversations and arguments with your daughter he consistently degrades, insults and criticises you, slowly teaching her to hate you, others in the family and friends.
  • He constantly tells her that his perspective is right and her family’s perspectives, beliefs, behaviours, and lifestyle are bad, wrong, false, etc.
  • He lowers your family’s status and talks up his own family’s status. Many mothers I’ve spoken to who are going through these experiences have observed that the man’s entire family supports his divide and conquer strategies.
  • He restricts her relationships with her family by saying he loves her and wishes she’d spend more time with him and his family.
  • He may outright prevent any alliance between your daughter and you by restricting contact in any form — phone and Skype calls, and time spent face-to-face. He may insist she move towns or countries with him, isolating her from family and friends.
  • And finally, he brainwashes her into believing she needs to grow up and separate from you by telling your daughter she’s just a ‘mummy’s girl’.

Rachel, who rejected her mother whilst in an abusive relationship gives advice to mothers:

“I did that to my mum – didn’t talk to her for 6 months. Sadly she passed away. I had only just begun talking to her to be honest. My ex hated my mum and I didn’t talk to her as it was easier than getting him angry with me. She was a dragon and I stayed away, coz if he knew he went over and threatened her. My advice is never shut the door on your daughter and know she loves you but it’s hard.”

Failed attempts at supporting your daughter?

Instinctively you might have tried to get your daughter to leave her partner, tell her you don’t like him, tell her to assert herself and stand up to him, tell her to meet her own needs and stop kowtowing to him. You might have become angry and aggressive and threatened to cut off support. In exasperation you might have told her she’s stupid, obviously can’t think for herself and you might have confronted him. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with a coercively controlling person, they believe they are always right and are driven to get their way at all costs. They deny wrong-doing, minimise harm caused, and they blame and manipulate the victim. If anyone tries to interfere in his “territory” he will retaliate — he will turn your attempts into an excuse to further degrade you and he will continue to coerce your daughter into taking sides — he will do what it takes to make her be loyal and dependent on him, and to be disloyal and break away from you.

Your daughter is doing the best that she can in these abusive circumstances

Research shows that while in relationship with a coercively controlling man, women are constantly safety planning, constantly managing ways to keep herself (and her children if she has any) . . . . keeping as safe and sane as possible. And she manages this whilst also dealing with his tactics that have distorted her reality and perspective. It is often safer to stay in the relationship than to leave. Leaving a controlling man is the most dangerous time for many women. The chance of further control, and further violence rises when she leaves, or threatens to leave. If he has not used violence in the past, the chance that he will do so at this time is high because coercively controlling men, for various reasons, cannot stand it when they lose control of their partner. Leaving is the most common time when a controlling man murders his partner — many controlling men threaten to kill their partner if she leaves, which is one reason women refuse to talk to outsiders about the abuse they’re experiencing. Check out my blog on assessing danger here.

Two rules of thumb when you support your daughter

  1. Firstly, she is already being controlled by her partner, so some of your instinctive reactions might seem controlling to her and will drive a wedge between you and send her more deeply into dependency on him. Therefore it is not really what you say to her that’s important, it is how you support her that matters.
  2. Secondly, find ways to support her that keep the doors open and that let her know you are there for her in the long run. Offering a loving, kind compassionate, concerned and non-judgemental presence creates trust.

Here are some suggestions to support your daughter

Keep the doors of communication open:

  • Let her talk
  • Just listen
  • Be empathetic
  • Let her get things off her chest
  • Ask questions aimed at helping her hear her own story out loud
  • She is not stupid — women gain deep insights when someone just listens without any agenda
  • Don’t try to convince her of anything
  • She needs you to believe her
  • She needs to trust you and she needs to make sense of her situation in her own way and in her own time
  • Tell her that you are there for her when she is ready
  • Create a welcoming safe atmosphere for her to come to (even if this is only for one hour, one day, or a one minute phone call)

Keep conversations casual:

  • Chat to her about what you’re doing in your life
  • Chat about funny things
  • Chat for short times
  • Chat about general stuff — nothing to do with your daughter’s relationship

Things to say to her:

  • I’m afraid for your safety
  • I’m afraid for the impact his abuse is having on the children
  • Research shows that many boys who witness this kind of abuse copy their fathers and grow up to abuse women and many girls learn to be doormats
  • The ways he behaves towards you are not your fault
  • You do not deserve to be abused
  • You deserve better than this
  • Use praise to build up her healthy behaviours and ignore the behaviours you see as destructive
  • Use praise that connects her personal worth with qualities she’s using to survive
  • I know you want to help him because of the weaknesses and vulnerability you notice in him, but research shows that the pattern of coercive control only ever gets worse
  • Lots of women stay because of a compelling sympathy for his vulnerabilities. Women say they don’t want to hurt him, so they choose to stay and suppress what they really want. It is okay to leave a man who refuses to take responsibility for his abusive and controlling behaviours.
  • Anecdotal evidence shows that when you draw this line in the sand, it is only then that he might start to take responsibility for his behaviours and get help to change
  • Abuse is not respect and it is not love

Ask questions to try to draw her out:

  • It must be confusing for you living with a man you love who abuses you, what is it like for you?
  • How can I support you?
  • When he calls you names how does that affect you?
  • If he continues to treat you this way, what do you predict for your future in 5 years time? And for your children’s future?
  • I notice you believe the words he says, but you seem to separate that from the reality of his behaviours. Would you like support to deal with that?

Safety always comes first:

  • Check with her when it’s a good time to call
  • Hang out with her at a safe place
  • Ask if she’d like to brainstorm a safety plan to use while she’s in the relationship and one if she ever decides to leave
  • Keep yourself safe, because some men abuse anyone who supports your daughter, and many men will abuse you if you confront him.
  • If she abuses you, assert yourself and make your boundaries clear to her.

I make the following suggestion with a vehement warning:

You could suggest good books you’ve read that might give perspectives outside the perpetrator’s mindset. However, I must warn you that if the controlling man discovers her reading anything about domestic violence and power and control, it is common for those men to hit or otherwise abuse her and it is common for him to up his game and isolate her from you even further. And a second warning: If you offer reading materials to your daughter, she herself might refuse to take the information, and the offer may drive a wider chasm between you.

Remind yourself that manipulative mind games lead to a double bind:

  • She loves him and he cares for her AND he despises and disrespects her and abuses and controls her.
  • He flexes his muscles, puffs out his chest and clamours for continual power over her AND he regularly reveals his vulnerability, anxiety, shame, weaknesses and fears. This causes many women to try to not want to hurt him and to want to help him. He uses this mix of power and powerlessness to keep her hooked in.
  • She entered the relationship with hopes and dreams AND she still has hopes and dreams that the relationship will work.
  • She used to trust him and she used to trust you — remember the ways controlling men manipulate and distort her belief systems.
  • Your daughter is experiencing the same impacts as those experienced by prisoners of war, people who have been sucked into cults, and slaves who are whipped into shape.
  • Unfortunately it is not straight forward trying to encourage her to leave. The daughter you used to know is still there. It is a natural survival strategy for anyone experiencing coercive control to tuck away large chunks of themselves in order to survive the abuse.
  • She trusts you AND he’s played mind games aimed at making her not trust you.
  • She goes through stages in making sense of the abuse — check out this series of blogs to help you understand her processes:
    Stage One
    Stage Two
    Stage Three
    Stage Four
    Stage Five

No matter how much control he has over your daughter — full control over her is never complete…. there is hope

old woman young lady SpeakOutLoud about Psychological AbuseYoung women controlled by their partner struggle between believing in their own voice – and believing in his voice. She switches back and forth – as demonstrated in this picture of the young lady and old woman. Notice how it’s extremely difficult to see both women at the same time. Women describe not being able to hold tight to their own voice. Empowerment entails a long process of reclaiming her own voice, reclaiming her intuition, re-developing the ability to critique what’s been going on, and the development of independent thoughts that differ from his. Your aim is to let her know you are always there for her no matter what. And that you love her no matter what. Her rejection of you might mean you are not able to tell her that directly, but it can be indicated to her just by your presence. Or, depending on your intuition — you can say it directly and explicitly.

Getting your lost daughter back might take much longer than you hoped

Unfortunately all of these suggestions for supporting your daughter may appear as if they are not working. One mother told me that when she confronted her daughter, her daughter:

“vehemently denied everything, said she was happy, accused us of having it in for her husband and judging her marriage, and mostly refused even to hear our reasons for concern, so it was all very difficult.”

Watching your daughter suffering is painful in the extreme. But don’t give up hope. Many women have told me that just one thing that someone said to them months or years before had made the difference to them being able to eventually seek a way out of the relationship! Planting one small seed can make a very big difference. Some seeds take time to sprout. Seeds need the right nourishing conditions. You can be one person who offers those nourishing conditions. For many mothers you have to take care of yourself, have clear boundaries, know your limits, and seek support for yourself. If you have given all you can give and you know you’ve fully informed your daughter and extended your hand one too many times, you might need a huge dose of self-compassion and to stop providing active support. You have every right to step back and leave the door open when your daughter decides for herself to return, and you have every right to close that door if your health is being impacted detrimentally.

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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.