[Two Pronged] Abusive uncle

Jeremy Baer, Margarita Holmes

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'It happened a couple of times and then he stopped when I told him to. So, now I am left scared and angry towards him,' goes this week's Two Pronged dilemma

Rappler’s Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr Margarita Holmes. Jeremy has a master’s degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in 3 continents, he has been training with Dr Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives. Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.

Dear Dr Holmes and Mr Baer: 

Before telling you my story, let me introduce myself to you. I am 20 years old, single and living with my adoptive parents. I was adopted by my aunt and her husband when I was 15 years old. Just call me Sam as I don’t want my real name to be published. 

My story starts here, I’ve been living with them for 5 years now and my story happened just recently (to be exact last year) when we were in the car (the aunts husband and myself).

He was talking to me normally, and all of a sudden he opened up about having a crush on me and told me not to say anything to my aunt. I just ignored what he said and didn’t pay attention to it.

After that conversation we were okay, like nothing happened and he didn’t bring up that topic again, until one morning I was having breakfast and he told me he wanted to say something to me.

Out of curiosity I suddenly asked him after what he want to say, so he said if he could give me a hug and being a daughter to a father I said yes but little did I know it meant something different to him.

The day after that incident he would give me a kiss on the cheeks and hug me without my permission and saying that he couldnt stop himself from admiring me, and after doing so he would tell me not to mention it to my aunt (his wife).

It happened a couple of times and then he stopped when I told him to. So, now I am left scared and angry towards him. I don’t know what to do and sometimes I felt like telling my aunt, but I’m afraid that she won’t believe me and/or she might think that I was just exaggerating about what happened?

I don’t know if I can call it abuse. Your advice will be appreciated. Thanks and more power to you.


Dear “Sam”:

Thank you very much for your letter. Yes, what your uncle did to you is definitely abuse. How bad the abuse is depends on what he did after you told him to stop. 

May we ask you a couple of questions so we can answer you better?  They may seem intrusive, but our knowing the answer ahead of time will help us give you far more helpful answers. 

  1. It has been a few days since you told your uncle to stop.  Has he done anything since then?
  2. Is there anyone you can run to in case your uncle becomes more aggressive later?  This is not to say he will be, but it is nice to be able to plan ahead in case he does. 
  3. Who did you live with before you were adopted at 15? 
  4. Is either your aunt or uncle – your adoptive parents – a biological aunt/uncle. Are either of them the biological sibling or cousin of you biological parents? 

Once again, thank you for your trust in us. I hope we can help you.  Meanwhile, hang in there. I promise this will be the next letter we will answer as soon as we get a reply from you.


MG Holmes and JAF Baer 


Hi, Thanks a lot for your response. Since then he stopped but like I said, I feel awkward towards him now compared to before, when I was a bit open to him.

Honestly I feel angry towards him, and I don’t really talk to him if it’s only two of us, as I’m afraid.

Sometimes at night I can’t sleep because of thinking about what hes done, and I even had nightmares. My younger sister (his 17-year-old daughter) and my aunt usually are not at home during the night as she is working. I lived with my biological parents before.

I dont know if I’ll tell my aunt or not as Im afraid my aunt wont believe me, or that Ill destroy their relationship. Thanks.


Dear “Sam”,

Two more questions: why did you leave your parents’ house and move to your aunt and uncle? And is it possible for you to move back?


MG Holmes


Because of financial reasons. At the moment I don’t think so because they are helping me for my studies.


Dear Sam,

Thank you for your emails.

Regarding your uncle’s behavior, there is no doubt that it is wrong. From a legal perspective, it seems to constitute lewd or lascivious acts and/or sexual harassment. However, it seems that it cannot be legally labeled incest since I am advised that incest (as distinct from incestuous marriage) is not a crime in the Philippines, although there is one proposed. 

What does the prohibition of divorce but not incest tell us about the protection of family values? How come the Catholic Church, prurient as ever in its desire to judge our bedroom behavior and so anxious to safeguard us from the supposed evils of even the availability of contraception, has not weighed in on this issue, not only now but decades ago, when its power to sway both populace and government was far greater than now? 

However, you are primarily interested not in your legal remedies but in finding a solution to the daily nightmare of being condemned to live with this situation.

Although you are benefitting from a lull in your uncle’s advances, there is no guarantee whatsoever that this will last. After all, he came on to you more than once and there is no way to know that he won’t do so again. And there is no way of knowing if he will not up the ante and refuse to take no for an answer next time. Your situation is stark – either you cannot sleep or you have nightmares – and this sword of Damocles is hanging over you every day. 

The answer is simple to formulate but possibly difficult to implement: you must leave as soon as you can. We are not familiar enough with your circumstances to know what your options truly are but you must put your own mental health first.   

As for telling your aunt, or others, about your uncle’s behavior, that is something you can reconsider once you have dealt with the urgent issue of your own safety.

All the best,

JAF Baer


Dear Sam:

Thank you very much for your letter.  

I would just like to explain, for those who may not be aware, that in the clinical (as opposed to legal) world, what your uncle did was abuse because he was using his power over you to try and get what he wanted/wants.  

Some might say that his telling you he had a crush on you cannot be considered abuse because all this was a fishing expedition and when you didn’t bite, he stopped. I am prepared to concede that point. 

However, what happened afterwards – his hugging and kissing you – without permission is definitely abuse, and I am glad you were able to tell him to stop.

What I’d like to make clear is that clinicians like myself who consider your uncle’s hugging and kissing abuse do so not because it was something physical. Abuse can happen even if it is “merely” verbal, mental, emotional or spiritual. Anything that is purposely done after being told in no uncertain terms that it is not welcome is abuse.    

You have two urgent matters to consider:

  1. Should you move out of your adoptive parents’ home; and
  2. Should you tell your aunt about her husband?

I cannot tell you what to do not only because it is not in our remit to do so, but also because it would not be helpful for us to do so.  All I can do is share what others have done in the hope that it will give you both ideas and also even more courage (because telling him to stop already took a lot of courage) to continue as you have.

In an ideal world, finding another place to live in would be easy but, alas, we do not live in a world like that. I would suggest, however, looking for places which might fit your budget either now or as soon as you get a job. Some women have chosen to live in boarding houses, or even renting bed space because while financially more expensive, emotionally it was worth every penny.

In an ideal world, telling the truth is the best thing to do, but again, this is not an ideal world. In my clinical experience, unless there is inconvertible proof that her husband did something to you, most women behave as if they believe their husbands rather than their children, especially if their children are not, or only tenuously related, to them by blood. Perhaps your aunt will be the exception, but this may be a risk.

Your uncle seems to be employing a warped version of successive approximation, a psychological principle especially common among those who belong to the Behaviorist school of psychology.                     

Successive approximation is occasionally called ‘shaping’. The methods of successive approximation were introduced and tested by B.F. Skinner who used the technique to train pigeons, dogs, dolphins, and people over the course of his career.

In successive approximation, each successive step towards the desired behavior is identified and rewarded. The series of rewards for different steps of the behavior increases the likelihood that the steps will be taken again and that they will lead to the desired end result being fulfilled (read this).

But you did not come to us for an analysis of your uncle’s behavior, but for practical suggestions to help you in your dilemma. Admittedly, my bias is that understanding more about successive approximation will help you deal with your uncle, and I will tell you more about it within the week, promise.

But for right here and for right now, I suggest you lock your bedroom door, start a diary detailing what he did in the past (trying to be as accurate as possible re time, place, etc) and anything he does in the future. If all else fails, you can threaten to tell his wife, but this sort of threat can work only once and is best kept as a back up until you find a better, more permanent solution. 

Right here and right now, I also call on your fellow-readers to make suggestions, provide support, give names and numbers et cetera in the comment section below.  Any contribution will, I am sure, make Sam stronger. 

Already starting on the promised answer,

MG Holmes

– Rappler.com

Need advice from our Two Pronged duo? Email twopronged@rappler.com with subject heading TWO PRONGED. Unfortunately the volume of correspondence precludes a personal response.

When leaving a message on this page, please be sensitive to the fact that you are responding to a real person in the grip of a real-life dilemma, who wrote to Two Pronged asking for help, and may well view your comments here. Please consider especially how your words or the tone of your message could be perceived by someone in this situation, and be aware that comments which appear to be disruptive or disrespectful to the individual concerned will be removed.

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