Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Dismaying Story #56: Divorcing Your Toxic Parents
I don't have these challenges anymore, but I think it'd be interesting to talk about adult children ending toxic/abusive relationships with their parents. When I had to do this, I couldn't find information anywhere about what I was feeling and what I was doing, nor about how to do it. I relied on a friend who'd been there and could walk me through the emotions to help me, but other than that people thought I was insane. So many people said "But they are your parents!" and expected me to put up with harmful behavior just because!
It would be nice for people to hear from someone like you that they don't have to put up with it and that they are worth saving, even if it means doing something so hard and so strange. It would be helpful to touch on what it's going to feel like, how strange it's going to be to go against not only your whole family, but society as well, and give some tips or exercises in how to cope.
Signed, Better Off Now
Dear Better Off,
My sympathy goes out to you and any other reader who has faced such a difficult situation. Your parents are, after all, irreplaceable. They are the people who gave you life and nurtured you when you were completely helpless and dependent. Everyone would prefer to have parents to whom we can turn for love and support through our entire lives. This is, however, not always possible.
The world is full of different types of people, so parents naturally come in every possible flavor. Those who are addicted, emotionally lost, abusive, narcissistic, criminally insane or mentally ill can all end up as parents. Not everyone is up to the task of being an effective care giver and children sometimes suffer mightily as a result. These toxic effects can continue when the children become adults.
It should come as no surprise that people are sometimes better off apart from their parents since our laws recognize this need. All too often judges must order children to be removed from dangerous home environments and placed in alternative care.
Things have apparently changed since you originally searched for information; considerable material is now available on this topic. For example, Motherless is a site for sharing real-life stories of people who are apart from their mothers (and fathers in many cases) for all sorts of reasons, not least of which are those who had to make the difficult choice to walk away. Reviewing these stories will show you that you are not alone. You will gain tremendous insight into the ways other people deal with situations similar to your own. If you go the extra step of posting your story, this can not only be therapeutic but also offers others the opportunity to provide supportive comments.
A large number of online discussion forums address this topic. For example, the first post on this Beliefnet message board offers this insight: My Husband is a recovering victim of child physical abuse and even adult abuse, as the abuse mutated into emotional and mental abuse in his adult years. He learned through therapy that if he cut all ties with the abuser, his father, he could begin to heal. It has helped. However, cutting ties means leaving behind all the other family members who are still allowing themselves to be abused, including his mother. It has been the hardest thing we have ever gone through. But I must say, his mind and heart is heading in a healing path.
As a final example of an online resource, Adults Recovering From Narcissistic Parents is a "group for past victims of abuse who have made a conscious decision to change old patterns and behaviors which keep them from living a fuller and more productive life."
For a comprehensive guide about handling this type of situation, however, I recommend you consider the books recently published on the topic. From the book flap of Divorcing a Parent: Free Yourself from the Past and Live the Life You've Always Wanted by Beverly Engel (1991): No one should have to endure an abusive, unhealthy relationship that threatens his or her well-being -- even if that relationship is with a parent. In this ground-breaking book, Beverly Engel draws on her own personal experience, as well as the stories and letters of other adult children, to offer a complete guide to why, when and how to divorce a parent. Engel discusses good and bad reasons for taking this step, when to stop trying to reconcile, and how to prepare yourself emotionally for the actual divorce, including such alternatives as temporary separation. If you do decide that parental divorce; how to handle negative pressure from others; how to come to terms with your own grief and guilt; what to tell your own children, and how to deal with their relationships with their grandparents; how to cope with holidays; how to divorce a parent after his or her death; and what to do if you change your mind and want to reconcile.
Cutting Loose: An Adults Guide to Coming to Terms With Your Parents by Howard Halpern is a more recent book (2003) that discusses various ways of handling difficult relationships with your parents. Separation may sometimes be necessary but many relationships can be improved dramatically by setting boundaries and by the adult children learning how to respond more effectively to their parents. This book offers guidelines for telling the difference and for making improvements.
I agree with Better Off Now; everyone is worthy of a life without abuse, whatever the source. I must also offer a word of caution for those who feel their parents leave much to be desired. Cutting ties is a drastic step that should be taken very seriously indeed. Separation almost always comes with a bucket-load of negative consequences, even if the overall effect for the adult child turns out to be positive (which can sometimes be far from true). Keep in mind as well that you are not the only player in such a scenario. Might your parent's difficult behavior be an indication they need your help? (e.g. a possible undiagnosed mental illness) Will pulling out mean denying your siblings the support they need from you?
In many cases the appropriate course is to learn how to modify your own behavior so your parents are less able to act as a negative influence in your life. When reading the books I mentioned above, pay attention to the balanced advice about alternatives. If it turns out separation is necessary, then these books provide comprehensive advice for dealing with the many issues that arise from such a decision.
Again, I feel badly for anyone who has to deal with such a gut-wrenching conflict in their life. I hope the sources I mention above can provide some help. If this type of self-help material is not effective for you, counseling is another alternative.
All the best,
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