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Home / Articles / Ask Amanda / Ask Amanda: My Abusive Pastor-Husband Has Dementia

Ask Amanda: My Abusive Pastor-Husband Has Dementia

Leaving someone with a disease presents even more guilt, challenges

  • By
  • Nov 11, 2020
Ask Amanda: My Abusive Pastor-Husband Has Dementia

This edition of Ask Amanda was written by Lisa Fontes, a domestic violence expert with a Ph.D. in psychology.

Q: The way my husband has treated me over the years has been a nightmare—emotional manipulation, put-downs, trying to make me what he wanted me to be, demeaning and blaming me for everything, financial abuse so I have no money, etc. 

He’s a retired pastor.  Others think he’s a saint—no one knows his true self and wouldn’t believe the nightmare he’s been to me. If he had been physically abusive I would have left him decades ago. It wasn’t until he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease that I stopped denying the abuse, the gaslighting. 

I fear I can’t leave him. I’m committed, but detached. I’m disabled, and I fear the few years I have left will be spent living with this demented man. 

Is there any wisdom you could give me? I am thankful and grateful for things, and I’m just trying to take it one day at a time. Thanks for caring.  – R. 

Dear R.,

The situation you describe does sound like a nightmare in many ways. Let’s separate the various threads of it and examine them one by one.

Coercive control: You describe years (or maybe decades) of manipulation, degradation, control and economic abuse. I encourage you to read about coercive control, which is a strategy that some people use to control their intimate partners and often includes the elements you describe, plus isolation, and sometimes physical and sexual abuse. Many people find it helpful to connect the dots among the various forms of mistreatment that they have endured and realize they are not alone. It can be difficult to understand and extricate oneself from a coercively controlling partner because the relationship itself wears down a victims’ self-esteem and reduces their access to friends, money, and transportation. I encourage you to feel hopeful—reaching out about your situation is the first step to breaking free.

Disability: You mention that you are disabled and write that you have “few years left.” Certainly, disabilities present enormous challenges for people living with an abuser. The challenges as well as the resources available to you vary, depending on where you live and your disability. You seem to feel an urgent desire to claim your life now and live the rest of your life in greater freedom. I support you in tuning in toward that inner voice. 

The abuser’s dementia: From what you say, your husband was abusive for a long time before he had dementia. This is important: when he was in full possession of his faculties, he made the choice to act abusively toward you again and again. You may be wondering what you owe him, and as a caring person, you may feel conflicted about leaving him now that he is also becoming disabled by his dementia. 

It is important to remember that if you do decide to end the relationship you are not doing so because of his disease, but rather due to his long-standing abuse. You would not want to abandon him due to his disease, nor should you see yourself forced to stay with him because of the same. While you are caring for him, you may find support from one of the many in-person and online forums that focus on caring for someone with dementia. The Family Caregiver Alliance is one of these.

Religious abuse: You mention that your husband is a retired pastor and appears saintly to others. You do not mention whether he used religion as a weapon against you, but because this is so common, I am including links here to religious abuse and spiritual abuse, which involve the ways religious texts and customs can be distorted to ensure submission and entrap people in abusive relationships. It sounds as if your husband managed to impress your friends and his congregation as a kind and good person, which is not unusual for abusers, who can often be quite charming to outsiders.

You say you feel “committed but detached.” You also say you “fear you cannot leave him,” which makes it sound as if you would like to leave him. Only you can know what decision is right for you. In any case, with your disability and his dementia, you will need to do some serious planning for the future. Make sure your finances are safe, which can often become a problem when a partner has dementia. You may want to consider working with a financial planner who specializes in couples where one person has an illness. I also strongly recommend that you seek counseling with a specialist in domestic abuse trauma, to help you through this difficult moment.

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I am concerned that you might feel guilty if you do make the decision to leave. Please remember that your husband has chosen to be abusive, and you are not responsible for this choice. You can do your best to see that he is well cared for and chart out the rest of your life without him, or you can choose to stay with him but try to engage as many caretakers are possible so you are not burdened exclusively with his day-to-day care. Perhaps members of his former congregation would help. Certainly, you are not required to endure his abuse into the future.

I wish you all the best.

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Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.