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