Question

My father has a habit of saying hurtful things about my mother and it really hurts me. In the past when I have brought this up, he has been defensive and hasn’t owned his actions, saying “that’s not how I meant it”, or “well I can’t control your emotions.” I want to stand up for myself and for my mother, but how can I when he is the authority in the house and has held church leadership callings and I’ve been raised to “honor my father and mother”? How can I be confident that I am living in accordance with my values to forgive and be merciful and not judge others? How can I nurture my relationship with my mother while putting space between my father and me? And what if he feels left out? How could I handle that so that I can strengthen my bond with my mom? What are some ways I can be clear about how I am being affected in the relationship without being overly accusatory or confrontational?

Answer

It’s difficult witnessing someone you love mistreat someone else you love. The resulting dilemma of how to respond can leave you feeling uncertain and troubled. You feel protective for both of your parents and want both to know of your love and respect, even though there are hurtful relationship patterns. Let’s talk about some options for how to proceed.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks wisely observed that, “our greatest expressions of joy or pain in mortality come from the members of our families.”[i] It’s common to feel neutralized by the commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother” when trying to figure out how to relate to parents who cause us pain. Many conscientious individuals worry they’ll dishonor their parents by setting limits or confronting harmful patterns. I don’t believe this commandment means we passively endure mistreatment. Instead, I believe it’s an invitation to show gratitude as we learn lessons from our parents’ examples.

I remember meeting with my wife’s father before I asked her to marry me over 25 years ago. He offered his best wishes to me as we wrapped up our visit and then asked me to make one promise to him. He said, “My wife and I have done the best we knew how raising our family. We hope you’ll adopt the good from our family and toss the not-so-good as you start your new family.” His request reminds me of President Spencer W. Kimball’s commentary on the fifth commandment, “If we truly honor [our parents], we will seek to emulate their best characteristics and to fulfill their highest aspirations for us.”[ii]

As you can see, honoring your father doesn’t mean you ignore his harmful behaviors. You can distance yourself from those things he’s doing that cause damage to both your mother and you while embracing his best characteristics. This is a personal commitment to seek the good in your father while also refusing to perpetuate those traits and patterns that cause harm. We are expected to undo the harmful “traditions of the fathers” by seeking light and truth.[iii]

This will require what Elder Dallin H. Oaks described as “righteous judgement.” He distinguishes this from “final judgement”, which doesn’t allow others the room to change and grow. Discerning the harmful impact of your father’s treatment doesn’t mean you’re passing final judgement on him. Instead, you’re identifying something that isn’t working and trying to figure out how to address it so you can improve your relationship with him.

Elder Oaks further elaborated on how we can ensure we’re making “righteous judgements”:

We should refrain from anything that seems to be a final judgment of any person—manifesting our determination to leave final judgments to the Lord, who alone has the capacity to judge. In the intermediate judgments we must make, we should take care to judge righteously. We should seek the guidance of the Spirit in our decisions. We should limit our judgments to our own stewardships. Whenever possible we should refrain from judging people until we have an adequate knowledge of the facts. So far as possible, we should judge circumstances rather than people. In all our judgments we should apply righteous standards. And, in all of this, we must remember the command to forgive.[iv]

Above all else, Elder Oaks reminds us to make sure these judgements are, “guided by the Spirit of the Lord, not by anger, revenge, jealousy, or self-interest.”[v] My dear friend Wally Goddard once taught me that we don’t have permission to correct anyone we don’t love. And, he noted, once we truly love that person, our desire to correct them diminishes.[vi] This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak up or invite your father to see the impact he’s having on you. I’m simply saying that the state of your heart will greatly influence the way you approach him.

If your father becomes rude and disrespectful in your presence and you feel the need to speak up, I encourage you to consider this example of loving redirection Elder Neal A. Maxwell shared in his final General Conference address:

Young or old, my priesthood brothers, be grateful for people in your lives who love you enough to correct you, to remind you of your standards and possibilities, even when you don’t want to be reminded.

A dear and now deceased friend said to me years ago when I had said something sardonic, ‘You could have gone all day without saying that.’ His one-liner reproof was lovingly stated, illustrating how correction can be an act of affection.[vii]

You can know when it’s time to speak up and when it’s time to extend compassion and understanding to your father’s weakness. Elder Maxwell reminded us that, “We must be prudent and discreet and yet be willing to communicate, for true brotherhood is such that our friends and families will blow away the chaff in our communications—and do so with the breath of kindness.[viii]

Remember that you have an individual relationship with each of your parents. Each of them has the responsibility to invest in the kind of relationship they want to have with you. You may decide to be freer and more open with your mother about your life while keeping things lighter and more superficial with your father. If you or your father want a different kind of relationship, either of you can initiate that conversation. If he feels left out and wants a deeper connection with you, then allow him to act on that dissatisfaction and claim ownership of his desires.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

Download Geoff’s FREE guide to help you quickly end arguments with your spouse: https://www.geoffsteurer.com/3-steps-to-end-your-marriage-argument

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[i] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1991/04/honour-thy-father-and-thy-mother?lang=eng

[ii] The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 348

[iii] D&C 93:39

[iv] https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/dallin-h-oaks/judge-judging/

[v] https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/dallin-h-oaks/judge-judging/

[vi] Personal conversation with Wally Goddard

[vii] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2004/04/remember-how-merciful-the-lord-hath-been?lang=eng

[viii] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/eternal-marriage-student-manual/communication?lang=eng