: The optimist in me hopes that your mom’s fiancé is expressing situational insecurity, and that once he’s married to your mom (i.e. feels more secure) he’ll be less of a jerk. But the realist in me suspects this problem is one of his character traits. Unfortunately, this kind of dynamic can become a vicious cycle. As this guy’s behavior further alienates you and your siblings, he’ll sense your rising disapproval and react by becoming increasingly possessive, further driving a wedge between you and your mother. That’s the underlying risk here, the scenario you want to avoid: a kind of loyalty showdown. I’d do what you can to ease the tension, especially as the wedding approaches. You don’t have to pretend to like this man, or approve of his conduct. But it might help to remind yourself that this man makes your mother happy, by her own account. What’s most important in all of this is that you establish a relationship with your mother that’s independent of your feelings toward her partner. This begins by letting her know that you love and support her unconditionally.
: My heart sinks every time I read your letter, Sad. Your situation is awful and, unfortunately, common. Everyone who loves someone who’s in an unhealthy romantic relationship shares your conundrum. I’ve been there myself a few times. That your mother reports her fiancé makes her “happy” does not obliterate the fact that he behaves horribly, and perhaps abusively, toward her. You and your siblings have done the right thing in being honest with your mother about your observations and feelings about her fiancé. Your intervention in advance of her engagement didn’t yield the results you’d hoped for, but that doesn’t mean it was a wasted effort. If your mother ever questions her relationship, she’ll remember your words. That she can’t see now what you see doesn’t mean she won’t.
One aspect of being in a relationship with someone who exhibits the behavior you describe is that often the victim begins to question reality. The abuser manipulates truth and distorts meaning so the victim can no longer accurately perceive what’s reasonable and right. This is how it came to pass that your mother would lie to her partner about taking your brother to college with his father, for example, or remain with him after he threw a tantrum in response to a benign comment about a long-ago boyfriend.
SA: As you may know, the process of psychological manipulation that Cheryl describes is often called gaslighting. It’s what happens when people weaponize their self-doubt and turn it on those closest to them. Abusive men often control their female partners in precisely this manner — though the practice is also popular these days with politicians and demagogues. You and your siblings have done the right thing by sharing your misgivings with your mom, and you should do so whenever you see hurtful behavior. At the same time, it’s important that you continue to connect with your mom simply by listening, by giving her the space to talk about what’s going on in her life without fear of judgment. If this man is trying gaslight your mom, she needs to know (now more than ever) that your relationship is one she can turn to if she needs a reality check, or a sympathetic ear, or a shoulder to cry on — or even someone to whom she can confide her joy. Her life is hers to lead. That’s a hard lesson all parents learn sooner or later. Sometimes it’s one children have to learn in relation to their parents.
CS: I encourage you to continue being honest with your mother. Practice expressing your observations about her partner in a neutral and succinct manner. Simple, declarative “I” statements (“I see X is still treating you disrespectfully”) allow you to say what’s true while not requiring your mom to defend him. They also keep you from feeling complicit — via your silence — in the dysfunction. When a family member of mine was in an abusive relationship, it helped me enormously to speak such sentences, and years later, when she finally left her boyfriend, she thanked me for refusing to pretend his behavior was normal, even while she did. Your mother needs your support more than ever, but being supportive does not require you to accept the unacceptable. Find ways to connect with your mom outside the sphere of her fiancé. Make solo dates with her or call her when you know her fiancé is not around. Most importantly, tell her often the truest thing of all: that you’ll love her through even the most complicated times.
The is an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains more letters; submissions are welcome at . Click the play button above to listen. You can also find “Dear Sugars” on the (iPhone and iPad) and (Android and tablet).