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My father believes the world is ending – and is abusive to my mother

It’s important to offer your mother a sympathetic haven from your father’s apocalyptic ideas, counsels Mariella Frostrup

My father believes the world is ending – and is abusive to my mother
A sign proclaiming the end is nigh at the Edinburgh festival fringe. Photograph: Alamy

The dilemma My father believes the world is going to end. He’s bought a house in the most isolated part of Ireland he could find, without consulting my mother. He now intends to live there and await the apocalypse, which he thinks will soon engulf the rest of the world. He’s trying to force her to go with him. I’ve seen how he uses conspiracy theories almost as a form of emotional abuse, verbally haranguing her until she agrees with anything he says, and now I’m afraid he’s trying to isolate her from the rest of the world. I know she really doesn’t want to live there, but I don’t know how to broach the subject with either of them.

Mariella replies That’s certainly not a pretty picture. Enduring, let alone trying to understand, the dysfunctional dynamics between parents can be one of the toughest trials of growing up. You seem to have recognised an unpleasant and worrying element to your parents’ relationship but give me little clue as to whether this bullying is an unwelcome new aspect or a long-standing element of their marriage. I’m trying to understand whether the increased paranoia about world events predates his brutish behaviour towards your mum or is a further manifestation of an increasingly troubled mind.

Are you actually worried about your father’s mental health? If you’ve noticed an upsurge in unstable thoughts and deeds you must get professional help. Reaching out to experts, such as the charity Mind (0300 123 3393) is also what you need to do if your worries about your mother being manipulated are as troubling as you describe them. As their child you’re not in the best position to solve any long-term issues in their relationship, but you can open it to the light and initiate the conversation.

I’m sympathetic to your fears for your mother, but do you understand what gives your father such traction? You sound like a grown-up so I presume they’ve been together for decades. The dynamics of their relationship don’t sound healthy, but neither are they likely to be a surprise to your mother, who’s probably been stashing away tinned goods and dried foods at her husband’s behest since the Cold War.

Your dad sounds committed to his path, investing in a property being a pretty conclusive move. In terms of the pressure on your mother, if, as you say, she’s being dominated by a bully, the best way to approach her is gently and sympathetically. Find a plausible excuse to extract her from their home and take her somewhere conducive to frank conversation – so nowhere too noisy or too quiet.

You use strong language about emotional abuse and bullying. I presume it is as it sounds, that this is a scenario that requires serious intervention and you are not using dramatic licence to describe less onerous family power struggles. Is your mother powerless in the relationship when it comes to investments and choices? Is she physically or mentally threatened by your father’s actions? If either of the latter is the case, then you need to contact a professional organisation which can offer advice and support, and take matters very seriously.

If I’m overreacting, which I sincerely hope is the case, and you just want your voice to be heard and to support your mum, then ensuring she knows she has choices and, most importantly, someone sympathetic she can turn to, is imperative. Like anything, I suspect Armageddon gets less terrifying if you live with it daily.

Trying to block the tide from your father’s side is more likely to increase confrontation than result in resolution. So I’d suggest you corral your mother’s friends and any sympathetic family members (siblings?) to work with you to encircle and support her while decisions are being made. Offer your mum an alternative type of safe haven where she can unburden herself about this proposed step, and help empower her to make her own choices.

Once you’ve ensured your mother is safe and isn’t being coerced, you might consider why your dad is so afraid of the future. It’s the one aspect of his behaviour I can relate to. As the world becomes increasingly hostile there’s some sense to holing up in an Irish wilderness, even if the price is that you have to keep one ear cocked for the four horses of the Apocalypse charging over the hill.

You’re probably not in the mood for levity, but I’m only half-joking. It’s hard to find good news right now and easy to see how a person of more paranoid persuasion might see only dark clouds on the horizon. Haven’t we just been given 10 years to prevent a global-warming meltdown? There are journalists being murdered for highlighting injustice, and Rohinga women being raped in their refugee camps. And in the countdown to Brexit, no one in a position of power in the UK can offer anything but sober statistics about the future fallout of our national act of self-harm.

Were your father to get up and deliver a public sermon at Speakers’ Corner instead of bullying his wife in private I suspect he’d get quite an appreciative crowd. There are far fewer of us in a position to denounce him on that topic than on his unacceptable behaviour to your mother.

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