Your Adult Relationship With Your Parents Could Be Your Most Consequential Adult Challenge
Time passes; you get older and become an adult. You have gone to college or not, you have a job, you make money, perhaps you are very successful, you get married and have children. You still have parents. They are, if this is the case, the toxic parents you grew up with. They have changed little if at all as you grew from childhood to adulthood. You have a life of your own as an adult, but your parents are still part of your life, still in your life. How they are in your life, I suggest, may be the most important determinant of your adult life. You’d like to think this isn’t true. You’d like to think you are able to endure the old relationship with them now that you are an adult without being too negatively affected by the maintenance of the old relationship in your adult life. You think as an adult you can put a fence around the relationship you have with your parents and mostly segregate it from how you feel and what you do as an adult. In a way you know this isn’t really true, but you feel there is nothing you can do as a practical matter to further reduce the contact you have with your parents and the impact your parents have on you as an adult. You love them, or at least feel obliged to have a relationship with them. You care about their feelings and feel severe guilt about hurting them or disappointing them. You say to yourself they did their best as parents while you were growing up and you shouldn’t blame them for having personal problems and being human. Their own growing up experience hurt them, you tell yourself. You are trapped, but still you tell yourself that you can and should enjoy your life. Except you don’t.
In my view the child’s attachment to the parent (not the other way around) is the strongest emotional force in human life. Parents can and do reject their children (to say nothing of battering and killing them), but the emotional bond and depth of feeling on the part of the child for the parent endures practically anything. I routinely hear stories about growing up with their parents from adult clients that would lead a naive listener to confidently expect that the speaker has not contacted his/her parents for many years. This is hardly ever the case. Growing up with even blatant cruelty, hostility, neglect, etc. on the part of a parent does not in fact (as far as I can tell) usually lead to the child forsaking the parent once the child has become an adult. Far from it. Instead of rejection on the abused child’s part as an adult there is often a kind of bondage. The now adult child still wants what he/she did not get as a child. In addition, the adult child now displays solicitude toward the parent that he/she never received growing up.
I routinely discuss and work on the psychological legacy of growing up with noxious parents with clients (self hatred, poor self esteem, etc.); here I focus on the consequences of maintaining the old relationship during adult life, albeit in somewhat altered form because the client is no longer a child living with his/her parents and financially dependent on them. I emphasize I am talking about a parent-child relationship that is hardly emotionally altered by the fact that the child has become an adult, has his/her own income, residence, etc. The now adult child may recognize rather well, as I mentioned, that contact with the parent is emotionally harmful, but feels powerless to alter the relationship in a strongly self protective manner.
It is one thing to talk in therapy about the events and influence of what occurred during childhood, another to fully recognize the influence of the adult relationship with the parent on the course of adult life. The book on noxious parental influence is not closed because the child is now an adult and in many ways has assumed adult responsibilities. Here are some examples from my clinical experience: a woman says she drinks in large part because she feels obliged to call her mother every week, gets upset, hates her mother but feels overwhelmingly guilty about hating her; another woman says she never had children because she could not bear to share her children with her parents; a third woman says she can never lose the extra 100 lbs. weighing her down because the weight is a silent accusation and condemnation of her mother, but all the same she is in regular contact with her mother and cannot hurt her feelings; a man silently resents regular contact with his mother and giving her money, meanwhile he is in his fourth marriage and has maintained a frantic pace of extramarital seductions and cruel abandonments since the start of his first marriage. When his wife discovers his affairs his marriage and family life crashes, to be followed by the same pattern with a new wife.
In the above examples as well as many others, it is not only the influence of the formative years that prevents the person from fully having a life of his/her own; in addition to the burden of the past, the relationship with the parent (s) in the adult present powerfully constrains the person’s life and perpetuates unhappiness in both obvious and insidious ways. The feeling on the part of an adult that he/she must accept a harmful and hurtful presence in his/her life forever (until the parent dies, that is) is frequently so taken for granted that its impact on the feeling of being alive and what is possible in life escapes being fully appreciated.
The insidious effects of the adult relationship with a noxious parent can be brought to light in therapy. Once they are brought to light, via conversation between client and therapist, they may then appear rather obvious, but this is only in retrospect, once a certain amount of explication and clarification has occurred. I daresay just about everyone has had the experience of coming to realize something through conversation that prior to conversation, or a series of conversations, was far from obvious no matter how personally important and consequential it appeared once it came into focus. Therapy provides an opportunity, for most people a unique opportunity that cannot be replicated outside of the therapy setting, to as it were discover what in a sense was there to see all along but could not be clearly seen in the absence of a certain kind of conversation.
It is of course easy for a therapist to advise a client to have less contact with toxic parents. If it was that easy no doubt the client would have already spared him/herself the anguish that goes along with having an adult relationship with toxic parents. I have already suggested that the emotional bond on the part of the child toward parents is the most powerful emotional force in human life. I now suggest that substantially changing the adult relationship with parents in a more self protective direction may be the hardest emotional work a person undertakes in life.
The emotional capacity to alter the adult relationship with parents develops gradually, when therapy is successful, as part of the overall process in therapy of developing greater self caring, love, and respect. Self respect, self love and self care are incompatible with accepting a noxious relationship as a permanent condition of life. Nonetheless, attachment, guilt, obligation and other sentiments concerning parents are typically so powerful that a prolonged uphill struggle is to be expected. The motivation to engage in the struggle is precisely the growing realization in therapy (when this occurs) that the adult relationship with parents does indeed have a serious deleterious effect on living life as an adult, on living the one and only life you get. As suggested, the struggle to alter the adult relationship with parents may be the most difficult emotional struggle a person faces in life.
For most people, the goal with respect to altering the relationship with parents is harm reduction rather than cut off. I emphasize again that I am talking about adult relationships with parents that are quite deleterious for the adult child. Harm reduction aims at reducing harm, not eliminating all harm. The preferred model for most is harm reduction because even if a person’s parents are manifestly harmful to him/her in the present, most people it seems do not find cut off a realistic option. Practically speaking, harm reduction generally means less contact with parents, something I think can only be done if the adult child actually comes to feel more entitled to a life of his/her own, which in turn requires more self love, care, and respect. Perhaps the adult child will first have to make further efforts to demand or persuade his/her parents to change how they treat him/her . I will not say this is hopeless, but the truth is that the adult child has been trying to accomplish this for many years or even his/her whole life. The hard lesson is that trying to change another person who has no interest in being changed is usually fruitless. The point, the work of therapy, is to accentuate the client’s respect for his/her own life, not to continue to try to bring about change in his/her parents.