Writer and broadcaster

My stepmother is abusive to my father, who is 70. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

I am one of four adult children and we are extremely worried about our 70-year-old father. He has been married to our stepmother for 20 years and throughout their marriage she has been extremely unpleasant to him. She shouts at him and belittles him in public. He is very scared of her and won’t stand up for himself.

She has full financial control in the relationship, which is primarily income from his pension. When they travelled across the world recently, she flew business class while he was in economy. She has private healthcare, but he doesn’t (he had it before they were married).

She is constantly phoning us and telling us how awful he is to live with and how difficult her life is. Obviously he is far from perfect, but he is a nice man and does not deserve to be treated like this.

Family and friends are aware of the situation. We spoke to her two daughters about it to see if they had any suggestions and they just said that their mother was a spoilt, nasty piece of work. They said her first two husbands had left her, and they were surprised he hadn’t.

Our father has gone through periods of bad depression since they married. Our stepmother’s latest assertion is that he has dementia and this is why he is depressed. We have seen no evidence of this when he has stayed with us, but he has agreed with her diagnosis as he seems to find dementia more acceptable than depression, which he feels is a sign of weakness.

He has no self-esteem. He tells us how difficult it is for our stepmother having to live with him and how much of a strain he is causing her. We have him to stay as often as we can, but have full-time jobs and young children, so it is difficult during the week. He lacks the confidence and energy to leave the marriage and I can only assume he feels it is too late in life to change things. They are well-off, so it’s not a question of money.

Do you have any suggestions as to how we can help him? It seems such a waste for him to live the rest of his life like this.

What a very sad letter; it must be very hard for your dad, and for you to have to witness this. And it also shows, unfortunately, that men can also be in abusive relationships – for that is what this sounds like.

You didn’t say what your father wants to do, and this is really important. You say he lacks the confidence and energy to leave the marriage – but does he want to? Ultimately – just as if this were a situation with the gender roles reversed – your father needs to want to do something about the situation. But I want to make it really clear that he has done nothing to merit this treatment. Your stepmother alone must take responsibility for the abuse she is meting out. This goes far beyond petty sniping in a relationship, she is actively belittling him and there seems to be a huge imbalance in their relationship.

There is a helpline and website I’d like you and your siblings (and your father if possible) to look at and ring. I consulted Thangam Debbonaire, research manager at the Men’s Advice Line, in preparing my answer for you (tel: 0808 8010327, mensadviceline.org.uk). Any of you can talk to them about what’s happening and go into more detail – it’s entirely confidential. They can also talk you through options for your father and if he chooses to leave, how to do so safely. There is also information on its website, including a booklet called Talk it Over that is full of useful information about domestic abuse: sometimes it helps to see it written down and have it confirmed that this is abusive behaviour. Your dad may be so used to it that he may no longer see it as unusual.

We were concerned that your father has no control over his financial affairs. Is he happy about that? Debbonaire suggested you might want to look into power of attorney for your father if he is worried about this. Obviously, you will need to talk to him about it, but you can do it with him – independently of your stepmother. I recommend you have a chat with a legal adviser.

We also thought it would be useful to try to get an actual diagnosis for your dad re the depression/dementia. Could you go to the doctor with him? Although his GP can’t discuss your dad with you, he or she can listen to you.

It sounds as if you and your siblings are very supportive of him – keep doing that, don’t isolate him, have him to stay as often as possible. Debbonaire also suggests you might want to get adult social care involved. “Gather some information and then have another conversation with your dad – people sometimes feel differently when they have more information,” she says.

Your dad still has plenty of good life left to lead.

This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 14 February 2015.