Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Toxic Parents



I read an article today in the New York Times about toxic parents, and whether or not, for one's long-term health, it might be better to sever the relationship. This is a really tough call. I agree with the writer in that the mental health profession is geared toward keeping the relationship, no matter what. It was termed "cut-off" in my classes, and was to be avoided at all costs, with the exception of abuse. The idea behind it is that we are hard-wired to attach with our parents, which is true, and that cut-off really doesn't work to maintain good mental health.

I disagree with the last part. And it has taken me awhile to get there.

The author used the example of a woman who was being treated for depression. Her mother had always been abusive to her and her siblings, going so far as to wish her a disease, instead of happy birthday, on one occasion. I don't advocate cutting off your parents, or parent, because they have aged and are annoying or difficult. That is a natural process, and we have a responsibility to care for our aged. It's part of the circle of life. I doubt any of us had, or became, perfect parents. We all had our issues.

But I also believe we reap what we sow. Not all are good, loving parents. For whatever reason, they were too selfish, self-centered, unhappy, or had substance abuse issues, to be a good parent. And in some cases, they were hateful and dangerous. It is this type of parenting that is at issue.

We know that long term stress affects our brain and body in a very negative manner. So at what point do you throw in the towel on a toxic relationship, and how much responsibility do you carry for an aging parent who falls into this category?

I think each individual needs to come to this decision on their own. But I'm beginning to lean in the direction of good mental health. I don't think we are responsible for someone, just because they are aging, if that person has always, and continues to be, a destructive presence. At some point, that person has to face the consequences of a lifetime of bad behavior. I don't believe we should sacrifice our health. Trying to make sure they are safe is sometimes the best that we can do.

This is a very serious decision, and should be made with professional help, certainly, but people who constantly make us feel bad are dangerous to our well being. Unfortunately, that may also include our parents in some rare circumstances. Choosing to forgive them, and moving forward, is important in becoming the pilot of our own lives. Learning from their mistakes, and making sure the cycle of abuse ends with them, is a lesson well learned. Sometimes removing ourselves from a negative environment is the only way we can heal.

59 comments:

Lily Robinson said...

I would have agreed with you a few years ago; but, with the help of God, I have learned the proper 'distance'.

I went through a couple of decades with very little contact with them. But it did not bring healing. It brought emptiness.

I could never take either one into my home to live out their days. But I have a closer relationship with them than I ever have.

I do, however, speak up. I do not allow them to be verbally abusive to me. I drew a line that I keep a sharp watch on.

Merisi said...

I know people who would have been better off if they would have been able to sever their relationship with their parents in time to escape to a life of their own. They have mothers whose form of abuse was subtle, but their egoistic behavior virtually ensured that their children ended up being their mothers' slaves.

GYPSYWOMAN said...

another thought-provoking post here, lady - and one with which i am all too familiar - but to sum up where i am today - which may not be where i have always been - i have chosen to install my own parameters and barriers to protect myself without losing entirely that person in my life - and focusing on how it is that person came to be the embittered unhappy person that they are - and from that perspective, for me, anyway, i have been able to move forward and not entirely away - does that make sense?

beautiful post, again!

oh, and lest i forget, i did a little thing yesterday that i would love your feed back on should you be so inclined to check it out at gypsywomanworld - the snow tiger - something that i just began playing with when i came across the image with it - anyway - thanks if you make it over that way!

have a glorious day, lady!

Brian Miller said...

irony..i just did a post earlier this week on this very situation...i was just involved with finding a new home for a child...i was conflicted really as i desire to preserve the home, but in this case it was for the best...or at least i hope. i hope one day i can help him if he needs it, for now i comfort those that let him go.

Nancy said...

Lily - It sounds like you created boundaries, and that allowed for a relationship with your parents, which is healthy. I'm really glad they can be a part of your life.

Merisi - This may be one of those instances that I'm talking about. :-(

Gypsy - It does makes sense. And is always preferable to cut-off.

Nancy said...

Brian - Wow, that is being on the front line. I'm sure you used all your powers to preserve the relationship.

Sophia said...

This post really hit home to me. Like, seriously. I am in a tough situation right now. Both of my parents were extremely abusive to me and my brothers growing up. My mother...still carries on her antics. She denies being abusive, she REFUSES to stand up for me from where my eldest half brother sexually raped and abused me.

It gets "better"...she is sweet and kind when she gets her way, but the minute you use the word "no", she turns evil and says the most horrifying things....and oftend DOES some horrifying thigns to pay me or my other brother back. (not the molester).

Just yesterday, she pulled another one of her stunts and it has me terribly upset.

Lily...I believe that God can only do so much. It really does get down to the choice that each and every human being makes. Beleive me, I prayed my entire childhood to be protected from the abuse I went through...it NEVER happened. For years I was beaten and sexually abused by more than one family member.

I have tried the whole "proper distance". It does not work. I always end up feeling obligated to take my mother (and even my father) back into the "shelter" of my arms because, well...they are my parents.

I have stood my ground on a number of occasions to them, and it only temporarily works.

After yesterday's stunt by my mother, I am now at the point of feeling like it is time to sever the lines with my parents. Because I do agree with what was stated in this post...if I continue to "shelter" my mother...she will NEVER learn from her mistakes and she will continually think/feel she can not only do it to me (TOTAL MANIPULATION), but to others as well.

I have been through enough domestic violence/abuse counseling to know when enough is enough. NO ONE deserves to be abused....even if is their own family. At some point and time, they have to suffer some consequences for abusing someone...especially their own children.

Meeko Fabulous said...

This is such a thought provoking post. Sometimes, in my case included, it's better to remove oneself from the situation for a while until things get better. And only if they get better, try to mend what was broken.

Sniffles and Smiles said...

Another profound and thought-provoking post, Nancy!!! How do you do it??? You never fail...I always find something interesting to ponder when I visit with you!!! Love to you~Janine XO

lakeviewer said...

This is a serious topic, to be taken seriously. Our first responsibility is to survive. If that means we need to put distance between ourselves and our parents at some point, we have no choice. It is not easy; it will create conflict and guilt; it will tear our souls apart. But, we will survive, and will be able to look back at the action and make sense of it, eventually.

It will also help us become better parents ourselves, as we brave new trails.
Thank you for broaching this difficult subject.

wendyytb said...

What a difficult topic. I work in a nursing home and see many "sweet" elders that are never visited. I have begun to realize that there may be good reason for this.

People for the most part are products of their past. Parents who are abusive, neglectful, cruel, and hateful, have most often experienced those things in their past. For the most part it is all they know.

I think you have to do what is best for you. You can forgive and move on with or without your parent. They may never "get" it. You may never hear "I am sorry" but at least, you can do everything in your power to break the cycle of abuse.

Nancy said...

Sophia - I am so very sorry for your circumstances. You mentioned having counseling, which is necessary in horrific circumstances. But I also understand where you are right now. Thus, this post. Sometimes one has to save oneself. It is just the unfortunate consequences of poor parenting. And you are absolutely right - no one deserves to be abused.

Meeko - That often works. It is always worth the try, except in extreme cases.

Sniffles - A lifetime of studying the human condition. :-) This topic is so rarely discussed in family science. We really want to ignore it, and expect people to rise above it, but that is not always the healthy approach, I don't think.

lakeviewer - Truer words have never been spoken. You are a very wise lady.

Nancy said...

wendyytb - Exactly.

Rain said...

Nancy :)
A complete SEVER was the only way I could attain good mental health. My p-doc encouraged me to sever the relationship because my pattern was to forgive too much. I became a punching bag until I cut ties with parents and all family at age 34. I talked individually to the 2 parents and 4 siblings but got the same mocking responses from all of them, so it was a no brainer for me. The full legal name change and move to the other side of the country followed, and man, the only regret I have is that I didn't have the courage to do it sooner!!! As you know I've grown and flourished and I will never look back. I believe that SOCIETY hardwires us to attach to parents and family for that matter, my opinion of course. Once I stopped paying attention to what society thinks I SHOULD do - and getting past the ignorant judgments, it was a clear cut choice. A parent told me once that "you can't choose your family, so you just have to get used to it"...sorry witch, you are WRONG!
All is good and life is great!
:)

Rain said...

I just cringed at my bad grammar, lol...but you get the gist!
:)

scarlethue said...

It's probably different in every situation with every relationship. It all depends on what gives the child the best mental health.

I am mostly estranged from my older brother. We talk maybe twice or three times a year on the phone. He was verbally abusive when I was growing up and still has a substance abuse problem. While I've forgiven him for that and we've moved past and are able to converse as adults, he's such a downer that I can't bring myself to call him up just to chat. Everything is always wrong with him, he's never happy, never will be happy, blames everything on my (amazing, loving) parents, and I ran out of ideas to "fix" him years ago. At some point he has to take responsibility for himself. He knows how I feel. We do the obligatory Christmas and birthday calls, and we're good that way. I'm sad not to have a better relationship with him, but I know for my own personal piece of mind, my sanity, it must remain this way.

crone51 said...

I wish I had severed relationships with my entire family of origin way before I did. The feeling of freedom and relief that came when I finally did ( a year ago at the advanced age of 57) was startling. I am still haunted by memories and old patterns but I am so glad to finally be free.
I hope my kids never feel that way about me!

Nancy said...

Rain - I agree that this is a taboo subject. We want to ignore it, and expect children to grow up and move beyond it. You are a perfect example of saving one's self. Sometimes eliminating toxic people from your life is the only way. Sometimes we have to make our own family, and in order to do that we have to create healing for ourselves. I am so glad you have found the person you were always meant to be.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Great post, Nancy. I like Gypsy's solution - protecting barriers.

Nancy said...

scarlethue - I don't think that is unusual. We can't always be close with our siblings. I think many families operate the same way with certain members.

crone51 - You children will never feel the same way, because you know all too well what it feels like. You learned from them. Sometimes that is all we can take away. Glad your life is so much better.

Nancy said...

Trish & Rob - Boundaries, and then barriers are what is needed sometimes.

willow said...

Both my sister and I have been forced to make this sad and painful move, in order to preserve our own mental health and the happiness and well being of our families.

Alicia @ boylerpf said...

This si a very tough topic and one that comes up in our house often as we deal with an aging parent who was not always the best. I should say MOST always not at the best. My husband has always said that what goes around, comes around but as the adult with the thinking cap, he knows his responsibility. We are fortunate that none of this behavior was learned which in some instances it is with the children to live by the prior example. I sometimes wonder what the abusive aged parent is crying out for?

Nancy said...

willow - So sorry. It must have been a very difficult decision to make. But sometimes it's a necessary one.

Alicia - I think sometimes people are a product of their own upbringing. But the one thing we do have is free choice. We have the ability to decide whether or not to also be abusive. Your husband sounds like a kind and considerate man. Maybe the parent is learning something from him.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Such a valuable post Nancy. People need to know that they do not have to subject themselves to abuse from a parent. There are many ways to limit contact and set boundaries, but sometimes, as you say, it may require cutting off contact.

DJan said...

When I first read this post, my own family of origin came to mind. Then I had to read all the comments, many of wh

I was the oldest in a family of six children, and the third child, a girl, was the scapegoat of my mother. Although the rest of us had some issues with Mom, they weren't out of the ordinary (whatever that means). But the third child, when she was an adult, severed her relationship with my mother on the advice of her therapist. I talked with my mom about her hurt feelings, but one day, years later, they came back together, and all the old stuff had died during the separation. It was the only way my sister would ever have had a good relationship to my mother. It worked.

Natalie said...

This is where i am at right now with both my parents.
I don't want to care for them, why should I? They have given me nothing but deep, ulcerating heartache for 44 years.

The Good Cook said...

Wow Nancy - it certainly looks like you have struck a nerve. So many, many family are dysfunctional and go through the "motions" of what and how they believe families should be.

I myself have had to distance myself from my mother in order to keep my dignity and sanity. I choose the how and whys of communication. It's just better that way....

Your post reminds me of a quote I learned many years ago:

"The moral majority is neither".

Nancy said...

Bonnie - Unfortunately it is the last resort for many people.

DJan - Scapegoating is a very real problem in some families. It is often one child. I think sometimes it is the child that reminds the parent of themselves. A form of self-hate or self abuse? Glad your sister was able to come back after the separation have a relationship with her mother. Maybe your mother learned something important.

Natalie - I can't imagine having that kind of pain. I hope you find a solution soon.

Good Cook - Communication is so important. Those implicit and explicit rules are so often obfuscated. Clear boundaries about what you will, and will not allow, is an important way to live. Good quote, btw.

Kathy's Klothesline said...

Such a timely subject. My own tale is too long and way too complicated. Just know that we all have to live with the decisions we make..... even when the decisions mean we can live. Way, way too complicated.

Nancy said...

Kathy - It is so very complicated. No easy answers, that's for sure.

otin said...

Through out my life, I have kept some distance between me and my Mother, because her negativity can be overwhelming.

Joanne said...

The complicated and intricate woven web of family is so often not easy. Your post has so much validity in it, most definitely. Sometimes leaving a relationship behind is the only way to move forward to peace.

Marlene said...

Nancy..I thought I was all alone in this ...I did not think so many people were faced with this ..I have had to put distance on my aging parents..as Iget older the memories keep surfacing of all I endured...long surpressed memories..and it becomes harder to deal with how they are...Years of my excusing them due to the hard upbringing they themselves had when younger...I have had to release that and only look at how they make me feel now..and what is acceptable and what is not..I can choose that now...its a tough tough call to distance yourself..a very tough call..It was a confort to read the comments here..and not feel alone in this. thank you.

Marguerite said...

This post makes me very thankful that I grew up with loving, kind parents. However, if the reverse were true, I would agree with everyone here. Hugs to all!

California Girl said...

As one of my only effective therapists once said,

"We don't choose our parents."

On that basis, we aren't necessarily obligated to like them.

Nancy said...

Otin - A common refrain, unfortunately.

Joanne - I truly believe we should teach parenting in high school. It should be mandatory. One class every year. I often wonder how much pain could be avoided if people understood their children developmentally.

Marlene - No, you are not alone. We just don't talk about it. We want grown children to just move on and forget their pain. I think that was how it was handled in past generations. But we have an aging population, and the pain and anger just doesn't go away. I'm so sorry that you are remembering past issues, but it is common once we feel safe to remember things hidden in our subconscious. Children are so vulnerable.

Marguerite - I, too, was lucky. Not a perfect upbringing, for sure, but not abusive. So glad you had a good one. It makes life so much easier, don't you think?

California - Good point!

Lori ann said...

It's just so sad. I think it's much like ending any relationship, a divorce or partnership. Only you yourself know when you've tried enough or when you've had enough to sever ties. Then I don't think it's hard anymore (not too much)because the relief of not being hurt anymore is a much better feeling.

Also,I've tried to be the best parent I can to my own children, I hope it's been good enough.

Meeko Fabulous said...

btw . . . you inspired me to bake bread today . . . I'm going to write a post about it tomorrow. :)

Nancy said...

Lori ann - I can only imagine you as being a wonderful parent! Children want desperately to love and respect their parents. Even children that are abused will want to stay with the parent, if it means going to a place that is unknown. They are incredibly resilient. I can imagine an adult severing the relationship with a parent only if that relationship continues to be destructive. It is when they become adults that they have have a choice

Meeko - Fabulous! I will stop by to get the particulars - have fun!

Nancy said...

I have minimal contact with my dad, he is 72 and still hurts my feelings every chance he gets, so that means, he gets less chances. He is also scary religious, talking about Abraham willing to kill his son because God commanded it...I dont want to be around him. He might hallucinate God telling him to kill me!!!!
I dont know if I have any responsibility to him, he never cared for me and spent my childhood beating me. I guess if need be, I'd sign papers for him to be in as good a nursing home as possible. But thats all.

GooseBreeder said...

No-one needs to keep suffering from a toxic relationship who ever it is with.As an adult,once you've had that insight you find the courage and strength to remove yourself and make the decisions you need to for your own safety and wellbeing.
Good wishes to all who have suffered, hope you're finding your new life.

Paula said...

Like everyone said here before, very thought provoking. My mother allowed ym step father to abuse me and I have lost trsut in the figure Mother very early, extending this to all females including myself. With 14 I registered myself at boarding school to get away. I announced that my move to boadring school shall be the last contact ever. Well, later during therapy it was suggested to reconnect to heal comepletely, yepp, 25 yeras ago that was the part of therapy very often. Anyway I found that my mother had died meanwhile and I wondered as broken as I was if now my healing never will be complete. By now I know my healing was independent of reconnecting with my mother. You post reminded me how far I have come and that I fully understood that my decision with 14 was the right one to save myself. I so much love oyur blog as you very often voice what Iam not able to articulate. Mill of hugs to you.

whalechaser said...

Very difficult subject because it involves so much suffering. But see, we are not alone; there is SO MUCH of this stuff going around. Thank you for a very well done post and all the fabulous comments. This is all part of the healing process.

Gaston Studio said...

I agree with you that each case is an individual one, must be "judged" individually, and a decision reached based on the individual findings.

harmony said...

For the last few years, my relationship with my mom has been extremely strained. We were talking, avoiding some hot topic conversations and in a lull of sorts.
A year ago, this changed. My mom said something that I feel deserves an apology. She called my other sisters to apologize to them about what she had did to me. Still no call to me.
I know that it is beyond ridiculous at this point and in her mind, the blame has shifted to me.
I know that I will be the "adult" and eventually call her. I need to be in a neutral place to be able to say everything that needs to be said.
Yes, I believe in the importance of forgiveness and no, I am not ready to cut her off. But, I am unwilling to continue this b.s. relationship of me forgiving her to only have her hurt me again, in a few months. I feel it is an overlooked issue because most people assume you should love/cherish/forgive your parents or siblings. I think there is more to the issue and no, it isn't a simple solution.
In all honesty, I ran a marathon last weekend and I hoped she would call me to bridge the gap. But, as usual, silence.

Mental P Mama said...

Unfortunately there are plenty of mentally ill people who procreate. I would hope I could find the strength to move on and not feel obligated...blessings to all who struggle with this.

Nancy said...

Nancy - Wow, I can see your point. Scary religious has always made me uncomfortable.

GooseBreeder - It is never an easy decision. I feel for anyone that has to do it, but you are right, as adults we can decide what to keep in our life.

Paula - How terrible that you didn't have your mother stand up for you, and at 14 your were on your own. But you did what you needed to do to save yourself. Great big kudos to you!!

whalechaser - My intention is to help understand some of these issues. It's funny, because I sometimes found myself in opposition to some of my professors who taught from books, and books are not real life. (I went to school as an adult.) When it comes to family issues, preserving the family at all costs is really not conducive to healing for all. Sometimes it means the abused are still being abused.

Gaston - You are absolutely right.

Harmony - Is there any chance of a heart to heart talk, just the two of you? Sometimes we mothers really don't understand things with our adult daughters, especially if we did or said something wrong. We forget they are not our chldren anymore, but adults, dealing with adult issues, deserving of adult respect.

Nancy said...

Mental - Wow, you are right about the mentally ill procreating. It should be considered in the process.

ellen abbott said...

I had to totally withdraw from my parents for a number of years. I went so far as to not even have a phone. Eventually I moved back into the family sphere but I was not close to either of my parents.

harmony said...

I wish there was, but, I think my mom might have a chemical imbalance of sorts...she is never wrong.
I plan on calling her, soon, and asking her to listen, not interrupt and lay out how our relationship will continue after the apology. I miss her. I do. And you are right, in some ways, I don't think she realizes how she hurt me. It's been too long and now, it's her hurting, too.
I know that it is time to resolve it. THank you for the suggestion.

Nancy said...

Ellen - Glad you were able to resolve enough of the issues to be back with your family - but some hurts just cannot be mended it seems.

harmony - Best of luck to you!

robert said...

Due to the lack of words, allow me to bow silently in respect of you and the way you write.

A wonderful Friday for you all !

smiles4u said...

There was a time, I had to walk away from my most of my family of origin for a time because of it being toxic. For my mental stability and emotional wellbeing I had to seperate from most of them. It hurt like hell. It forced me to deal with my own issues and not focus on theirs. I learned to be independant from the disfunctional way of living and it felt like going through withdrawl of a drug. I always hoped it would be different some day. After years of being a part, we have reunited. It is so much better now. Yes, there are still issues but they no longer affect me like they once did. I am thankful that I had the courage to do what I needed to do. Walking away is never the easy way to go but sometimes it's the only way. Great post!

Nancy said...

Robert - Thank you!

smiles - I am so happy you were able to reunite. I have taken short breaks from my family at times. Sometimes you just aren't on the same page - a break gives everyone time to work on themselves - just as you said.

Phoebe Miriah Kirby said...

That's a tough one... It arises a thought in me... If my father were to call me to his deathbed, would I go?

I think I would.

Sailor Star Dust said...

I have to deal with toxic parents (controlling, over-protective, overbearing, emotionally/mentally abusive) of different degrees (my mom back in the East Coast who I moved away from at age 18 and my stepmom and dad who I currently have lived with for the past 5 years in the West Coast) on both sides.

It's difficult as hell with how controlling they have to be AND that I've never gained independence (despite being 24 and already having my AA) from ether group. I just want to get away from all 3 of them, but I don't see how I can. My mom has more or less stopped her controlling behavior over the years, so maybe I could move back with her... But I just don't know what to do anymore with any mental or emotional abuse from them. If this economy was better, I would have had a job and gotten out by now.

I honestly feel that depending on the situation, it's best to just break off ties so you can become your own person already.

Thank you so much for your blog with discussing this "taboo" issue, and thank God for the New York Times for discussing this as well. (By the way, if my username doesn't make that clear, I am female.)

Adeleine said...

It would be so wonderful if you made a revival of this post, but instead focused on a way of dealing with this subject with the people who don't understand the decision to sever ties with one's parents, and even deride that decision.

Cutting off my parents started with my father in 2005, being forced to change my phone number in 2007 after intermittent harassment, the realization that same year that my mother was just as toxic and abusive (though the signifiers looked and sounded much different, they felt the same, and though I wanted to believe I had a good parent so badly, no dice) and finally ending today in a restraining order against the woman since she, out of "love", has refused to stop contacting me, and instead creates new email addresses to escape my spam filter and disrupt my finally happy and healing life.

Finally, this will all culminate in an in-depth memoir that I can finally point people to and say, "Read this, I'm done talking about those miserable 19 years. I'm fortunate enough to have a new family now, and a new life full of freedoms and enjoying the optimism I didn't even realize had gotten me through that time."

The most painful things about cutting off my parents are a) the unbearably sad realization of it's necessity all the time, especially when I have to explain it to people I've befriended or started dating when they become curious about my past, as all people do when they like each other and b) realizing that I'll probably never be able to have the relationships I've longed for with my siblings, particularly the younger sister I raised from infancy. My parents made damn sure to instill rivalries between us all, imagined or otherwise, so we wouldn't overthrow their authority. Even though we're all older now and much healthier than our parents were, I am not sure any of us will ever be close. Sometimes the damage of distance cannot be undone. Sometimes distance is the only healing balm for damage.

Even though I love the person that I have become and I am strong, decisive, morally/ethically unyielding, dignified, full of integrity and consideration and love, my life would be so much easier and simpler at every moment if I'd had loving, healthy parents who took responsibility for themselves and acted like adults. I suppose the next thing to get over is that bit of knowledge, eh?

Sometimes I even wish that I had distanced myself more when I was a child growing up, that I would have spared myself the waves of hope and grief that I had as a youngster, desperately trying to bring together my almost completely dysfunctional, neglectful, and horrifically abusive family. But at least I know that I did every single thing that I could and it didn't work. That helps a lot. Studying neuroscience and psychology also help a lot; I have the comfort that, even though I may have to learn a lesson over and over again, or train myself into new synapses, in the future I will remember that I did everything I could and cry only tears of joy, especially when I as a parent get it right.

Cloudia said...

thank you, Nancy for saying what needs to be said and empowering those of us in similar situations.



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