Obligation to Parents and Other Traps Built of Guilt, Kindness, and Hope

512px-Agaricus_silvicola_father_and_son

I can begin this no other way than by quoting from Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

This stanza will strike you as funny, dark, or both. Not to mention, profane. Today’s question is, what is an adult to do about it? The parents, not the profanity.

Therapists are not in the habit of telling you to “dump” the folks. Yet, sometimes the work of therapy leads there. I will not recount all the bad things done by parents. You are aware of them, including their extraordinary range and frank ingenuity, as if mom and dad stayed up late refining their torture kit.

Most adult offspring hang in, maintain contact, show respect, and (for a while at least) hope for love. Yes, some of the now-matured children echo Larkin’s profanity and never look back, but not as many as you think.

What keeps us in such relationships long after we’ve left the home? Here are a few of the reasons in random order:

  • “They are old. The events happened ages ago. They did the best they could. I don’t wish to hurt them.” If the caretakers reformed themselves these statements are adaptive and considerate, even without receiving an apology for past mistakes. Instead, let’s focus on only those parents who persist with criticism, setting sibling against sibling, praising one to down the other, and more creative forms of mistreatment.
  • “They are my parents. I can’t just walk away. They did lots of good for me, too. I’m obligated.” In addition to those things they did to you, they did many for you: food, clothing, and even moments of affection. The inconsistency of an abusive elder ties us in knots. Were they harsh in every action, dismissing them would be easier. I can’t tell you how to weigh the good and bad in the abstract, balancing one against another on the scales of justice, but examination often reveals you came out on the losing end. Perhaps more important, you are still losing. Indeed, you may yet spend a good part of your life’s psychic energy blaming yourself, having been taught to take fault, thus compounding your injury.
  • “Shouldn’t I forgive them? My religion says so.” Forgiveness for an aggressor who removed your spleen yesterday is not the same as forgiving someone while he is slicing out your heart today. Mercy is a generous act, to oneself and to the one who harmed you. Don’t, however, make a foolish decision by giving anyone the tacit permission to repeat the crime.
  • “The parents of my friends were just like them. Some were worse.” Perhaps, but irrelevant. Were everyone to poison their child, the violence would not be acceptable. Were everyone else to beat their children for 20 minutes a day, 10 minutes would not be a kindness.
  • “They had such a terrible life themselves. They didn’t know better.” Your mom and dad still can learn.
  • “I’m not that sort of person. I can’t be mean to them.” Ending the relationship with parents or limiting contact might be thought of as heartless. My guess is, however, if an animal bites your hand whenever you offer food, your generosity might change over time. Moreover, few of the really awful parents are “hurt” by a child’s late rejection. Anger and further indictments of the adult child are more typical. Corrupt parents have been known to deny the crime. Much wrong doing gets lost in the night and fog of passing time.
  • “I’d feel guilty.” Something for you and your counselor to work on.
  • “I should be over them already.” Maybe, but is this approach working for you?
  • “I don’t want to be a whiner. I should be tougher, not so sensitive.” Those who utter these words are justifying their mistreatment and running from the past. The notion of “getting tough” suggests those who don’t are cowardly. On the contrary, facing reality displays real courage.
  • “What’s the point of talking to them about it now?” We are assuming the mistreatment takes a different shape these days than when you were a kid, but it hasn’t stopped. The point is to get it to stop now, by conversation or removal of yourself.

512px-Keenan_Wynn_Linda_Evans_Jack_Ging_The_Eleventh_Hour_1963

  • “Talking about them is a betrayal.” Discussion with your therapist isn’t the same as a national broadcast. You do them no harm in this way.
  • “Isn’t there nobility in suffering? Don’t we all have our cross to bear?” Not all suffering is noble. As an old colleague used to say, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”
  • “I’d be ashamed to raise the issue in the family. I’d be blamed. What would my friends think? They always remind me how special my parents are.” Only those who make themselves strong risk being tossed from the arena. Therapy can help with this, especially if you have never said anything to them about how much they hurt you. Recognize that giving them a chance to repent and reform is an act of love and generosity. Similarly, exiting the home takes the bull’s eye off your chest and moves your body from the rifle range. You are not required to aid their target practice as long as they live. By giving in to the terror of family wide disapproval you accept the role of a victim.
  • “Maybe they will change — praise me, show me love, be good to me.” Ah! Here at last is the big reason, the one most often unacknowledged. This motive drives the willingness to continue to serve as cannon fodder in the hope of being recognized for your devotion. But misplaced hope is soul-killing, making you complicit in your own destruction. Should affection never come, you are dealing with what economists call a “sunk cost;” like throwing more money into an investment that has already cost you a fortune. More suffering is all you get in return.

The Marilyn Monroes of the world remain unhappy despite “having everything.” The solution requires them to challenge the long-standing internalized negative self-attributions, their critical thoughts or beliefs about themselves. If the long reach of a damaging childhood is at the core, confronting parents is not essential, but you must face the history written on your skin. You cannot recover if you continue to blame yourself and remain the victim. In childhood you had no choice. In adulthood you usually do, though the choice is not free of charge.

If your parents installed a permanent line in your vein from which to suck out your life’s blood, no good comes from sitting and watching, as you do when a phlebotomist takes a blood sample. When childhood harm is indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, there is no healthy alternative but to examine the source of the injury, grieve your losses, and reevaluate your guardians: what they did or didn’t do. Even more, when you are still being bled, the line must be removed.

Nothing about stopping or reducing the misery is easy. The treatment of such old but continuing wounds takes much time. My patients often tried everything they could to repair or improve the relationship before setting any limits on their parents. In doing so, they attempted to inoculate themselves against experiencing guilt subsequent to their decision to remove the bull’s-eye from their chest.

Still, this is not for everyone. Such a solution doesn’t fit the majority of us who had decent parents or wonderful elders. Nor, regrettably, do all of us possess the strength to protect ourselves.

Confrontation is not required, although many benefit by standing up, looking their aggressor in the eye, and saying, “Never again.” This is rather like finally getting the best of the playground bully.

You must also evaluate your own part in the sour relationship. An old injury does not give you permission to complicate your intimate contact today or become the thing you hate, however understandable.

Much of psychotherapy deals with the past, but treatment does so in the service of making your life better today. The world is a tough place, a kind place, a contradictory place: a place we are “just visiting,” as we are reminded by the game Monopoly. Time is short to put your life together.

You might have lost the game yesterday. Losing again today is not required.

Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The treatment is not intended to harm your parents, but to heal you. The firing line is no place to live out your days.

The first photo is Agaricus Silvicola, Father and Son by Frank Gardiner. The second comes from the 1963 NBC TV series, The Eleventh Hour. From left to right, Keenan Wynne, Linda Evans, and Jack Ging. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

25 thoughts on “Obligation to Parents and Other Traps Built of Guilt, Kindness, and Hope

  1. Thanks so much for that excellent article, Dr. Stein. It speaks directly to my own problem with my mother. I’ve been through most of the states of mind you mention, until I finally had to say “enough”.

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  2. lovedeferredisnotlost

    Should I be frightened that this post made me think far more about my relationship with my husband than with my parents?

    Like

    • Your comment got me to reread what I’d written. Indeed, the essay could apply to any other relationship with just a little modification. I have also seen transference from parental relationships impact a marriage, but have no idea whether such is the case in your life. While I can’t prescribe your feelings (fright, as you suggest), it is distressing to think any marriage is so fraught. You have my best wishes as you work out your dilemma.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a touching, beautiful line…”Your heart waits patiently for its cure”.
    It’s very comforting somehow.

    Happy Father’s Day to you, kind Dr.S.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is once again very well said, and it might be something I’ll have to re-read once a week until it finally settles into my thick skull. Thanks!

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  5. One more day, Dr. Stein, and I will be through one of my worst trigger months for the PTSD due to the abuse laid on me by my narcissitic, hyper-critical father (who died in 2010 and is one of the primary causes of my PTSD).The odd thing is part of me still wants to love him, but what he did to me as a person due to his emotional, physical and verbal abuse is nearly impossible to forgive. Thank you for showing that I am making the correct choice by addressing these issues in therapy when familial support has been notoceably absent. Like as a previous reader commented, I do wish you Dr. Stein a glorius Fathers Day. 🙂

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    • Thank you, Harry. Did I ever recommend the movie “I Never Sang For My Father” to you? Very powerful, starring Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas. If you do watch it, however, be prepared for an emotional experience of searing intensity. I’d say the same to anyone who suffered at the hands of an abusive, now elderly, parent.

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  6. Another amazing post, Dr S. I’ve been through most of the stages you mention with my parents, in the end, there was no other option but to take the no contact route. This is extremely difficult for any of us to do, but maybe it becomes less fraught with guilt when we exhaust other options. Trying to heal while still being injected with narcissistic toxicity can prove too much of a challenge.

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  7. Thoughtful post. Yeah probably that “long reach of a damaging childhood” is at the core of some issues in my adult life – interesting way to put it – and several of your points above work for me. Most notably, “it was a long time ago” AND “they did the best they could under the circumstances” sound just about right. Neither of my parents came from affectionate, warm families themselves and they did not have the opportunities I had (most especially, higher educational opportunities). I believe I was given so much more than they were and the childhood damage could have been so much worse. I think becoming aware of what happened and being able at this time to look backward with adult eyes on how it was to be a child in that house were helpful steps toward letting go of the desire to get more from either of them than either of them was capable of giving. Complicated.
    What I know for sure is that I DID break some pretty entrenched and destructive family patterns. Again, I attribute that to just plain knowing more, being exposed to more, via college and grad school. My two children have a very different relationship with me than I could have ever had with my parents and so future generations will benefit?
    Thanks for the post.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Sounds like you achieved a very mature perspective, JT. As you say, complicated. Congrats on making it different for your kids. Not everyone does.

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  8. Dr. Harvey Friedson

    Great post, but you left out the last stanza of Larkin’s poem, which is almost as good as the first.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks, Harvey. Yes, I left it out intentionally, for reasons of space and because the initial stanza, which can be funny, is followed by a final stanza of certain darkness.

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  9. This post resonates so strongly for me. I’m working very hard on this with my excellent therapist and I’ve heard myself say many of these reasons.

    Right now, my biggest dilemma is being caught between knowing what’s right for me and siblings who are quite firmly sticking to reasons 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. While I know the right and safest thing for me, it’s hard to have siblings take on the responsibilities of caring for an elderly parent because they feel obligated and sit back and do nothing myself. They resent it and I feel guilty. So, I try to do my share of the elder care of my narcissistic, formerly abusive parent and feel resentful.

    And the most absurd thing of all is that I feel like I’ve let my therapist down every time I do something for the parent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You describe what sounds like an agonizing dilemma. I can only say that it often takes years for people to come to a workable decision. Even then, not everyone is likely to be happy with it. As far as letting down your therapist, indeed he may well have opinions regarding what would be best for you, but he is (or should be) on your side no matter what. Most of us in his position don’t want a patient to feel the kind of obligation to the counselor you describe, but we know it happens regularly. He doubtless knows your decision is for your life. None of our patients should make decisions to please us. Your responsibility is to yourself. While I can’t know what I’m about to say for sure, perhaps your sense of obligation to your shrink mirrors the sense of obligation to your mom and sibs you are struggling with.

      Liked by 1 person

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