Are there limits to respect for parents?

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    jO jO

    We have a stringent duty to honor our parents. But are there limits? The Talmud praises a Roman officer for maintaining his composure even after his mother tore his clothes and spit in his face in public (Kiddushin 31a). Many cite this story as proof that a child must passively submit to abuse by a parent. This view is mistaken and can lead to terrible tragedies. The sixteenth century halachic authority Rabbi Solomon Luria (the “Maharshal”) wrote that the above situation is only applicable if a parent suffers from dementia and is clearly not responsible for his actions. He states that if a child feels emotionally ill around a parent, he must set definite limits, such as moving far away. Maimonides states that parents “should not impose too heavy a burden upon their children or be too exacting regarding their duty to honor them, lest they cause the children to rebel” (Mishneh Torah).

    This fact hit home a few days ago when, after a lecture, a woman came over to me and whispered, “Do you remember Rivka A?” “Of course,” I replied. Although I haven’t spoken to her in many years, I remembered her as a sweet-natured young woman who always sat next to me in my classes and who enthusiastically put my child-rearing methods into practice. “Well,” the woman said, “Last week, she ran away, leaving her five children, including a 6-month old baby, with her husband and mother-in-law.”

    Feeling intensely sad, I drove back home, imagining what must have happened. During the year that she was my student, Rivka had confided in me that her mother-in-law, whom I will refer to as Sandra, was making her life miserable. From the moment Rivka married Dan, an only child, Sandra constantly criticized Rivka. A lonely divorcee, Sandra spent every holiday with them and had long conversations with Dan each day. Dan felt caught between two women, each of whom was fighting for his affections. Instead of telling him that his loyalty should be to his wife, his advisors told him to “keep the peace.”

    Before long, Sandra moved next door to her son, visiting whenever she pleased and constantly telling Dan that Rivka was a terrible mother and that she herself could do a much better job at parenting his children. To the public, it seemed as if Sandra was a devoted grandmother who wanted to lighten Rivka’s burden. In truth, she was slowly alienating the children from their mother. Rivka swallowed her pain, even as Dan began to imitate his mother, becoming just as critical and scornful. It was a sixteen-year long nightmare.

    Sandra is a narcissist with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder). She needed to feel powerful, needed to be at the center of everyone’s attention and needed to be adored. Eventually, she succeeded in gaining the control she sought all along. Now she has her son and grandchildren all to herself. And lives were destroyed.


    Borderlines have two very distinct selves. On the surface, they are charming and generous to those who adore them. Often super-pious externally, they may attract attention with their unusual stringencies in religious matters. They may be devoted religious leaders, teachers or involved in helping professions. Adept at manipulating people, they move deftly into positions of power and influence. Outsiders would never imagine that, in private, these “saintly” people are tempestuous and imperious, screaming, slapping and turning family members against each other by playing favorites. Due to their need to be seen as perfect, they often become hysterical before visitors arrive, due to some minor imperfection, like a spot of dirt on the floor or a dish in the sink, or because they think a child did not show sufficient respect by carrying out their orders immediately and submissively. When the doorbell rings, they are all smiles and honey-coated talk.

    Borderlines hold an extremely high opinion of themselves. No matter how many people they hurt or how much damage they do, they insist that, “Everyone else loves me!” They feel that they are entitled to special treatment and worshipful admiration because of all the good they do for others. To live with a Borderline, you must follow unspoken rules, such as:

    If you grew up with a Borderline parent, it is likely that today you often feel anxious, confused and angry. Because your feelings were discounted, ignored or criticized, you have difficult validating your own feelings. Because you could not meet their perfectionist standards, you now feel, “Nothing I do is ever good enough.” You expect people to hurt you and are suspicious when people are nice to you. Terrified of being rejected or criticized, you anxiously seek approval, always putting other people’s needs first. You don’t feel worthy of love, joy or success.


    The only way to begin repairing the damage is by keeping your distance, both emotionally and physically. If not, you will forever be caught up in periodic storms of chaos and cruelty which will leave you reeling, while they go blithely on, smiling as if nothing happened.

    The most important thing is to refuse to feel guilty for their pain or scared of what they can do to you if you distance yourself or refuse to listen to them vent for hours. Borderlines are expert “guilt-trippers,” playing “victim,” making you to blame for their misery and illnesses. When you set limits, they will tell friends and relatives that you have abandoned them and encourage them to call and scold you for being such a terrible child/spouse/sibling. Refuse to explain, defend or justify your actions.

    “Release” them with compassion. This means that when you think about them (and they want you to think about them 24 hours a day), immediately think to yourself, “I release him/her to G?d, as this is too heavy a burden for me.”

    To help you forgive (from a distance), realize that most Borderlines have a history of early abandonment or abuse. Many had cold and rejecting parents or lost their mothers early in life. As a result, they are untrusting of people, highly controlling and inwardly very anxious.

    Don’t try to change them. Emotional illnesses are like stains on a fabric. Some stains can be removed with time and effort. But BPD is a character disorder, which means that their behavior is an integral and inseparable part of the person’s personality. People who don’t feel ashamed of their behavior will not make any effort to change, because they do not think anything is wrong with them. Your task is to learn to deeply and completely love and accept yourself, even though you, too have hostile feelings at times and to cheer your efforts to become a reliably loving and safe person. This is the only path to healing, one which can take a lifetime.

    taken from written by By Dr. Miriam Adahan

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