Should I Divorce My Parents or Forgive Them?
My colleagues Rick Hanson and Elisha Goldstein have written sensitive and eloquent articles about the power of forgiveness. In my estimation, one of the major themes in both essays is the importance of forgiveness of oneself because anger and hate eat away at the very fabric of ourselves and our lives. No one can argue with them about the truth of these messages. Therefore, is it wrong if an adult chooses to "divorce" or sever all relationships with their parent? This is a question that is rare but it does come up for those suffering from continuing emotional abuse at the hands of one or both parents.
At the outset of this article, it's important to emphasize the fact that, taking the radical step of no longer speaking to a parent, should not be done out of revenge or hate. It's also important to state that adult children can be just as abusive and unreasoning as some parents. There are no perfect people. So, why would someone sever all ties with a parent? Relationships between adult children and parents are emotionally powerful. On the surface, it seems impossible that anyone would refuse to relate to mom and dad.
It is a well established fact that physical and emotional abuse of children is extremely damaging can lead to life-long depression, low self-esteem and troubled relationships. However, it is commonly thought that all forms of abuse must end once children have reached adulthood. In most cases this may be true. Yet, there are circumstances in which parents continue to mete out emotional abuse even though their sons and daughters are adult. A constant barrage of criticisms, disapproval, rejection, hostility and parental disregard continue to be harmful. I have come across several cases in which this type of thing happened. For example, it is painful for a daughter to call her mother and hear her disappointment when mom answers the phone. In one case, her father reported that he was well aware of the way mom was behaving. The borderline or narcissistic mother's problems are such that all problems center around her. This destructive dynamic is also directed at sons. Of course, there is also the narcissistic type of father who is equally aloof, cold, critical and rejecting. Let me add that there are adult children who can be the same way.
In my experience, it has been rare for an adult child to consider cutting off all ties with a parent. Generally, what happens is that the adult child distances himself from the parent, maintaining ties with conversations and visits that are few and far between. In even more rare cases, an adult child will end all contact in circumstances where there is too much ongoing abuse to continue to have a relationship.
In these very rare cases of "parental divorce," all attempts at discussion, even with a therapist, have failed. Ultimately, the adult child is left to feel that there is no other way. In my experience and in those cases I have read about, people felt relieved at no longer having to cope with such a parent.
To repeat what was said before, this step is taken not out of revenge but out of genuine self-preservation. In fact, it's important to be forgiving so that the adult child does not feel filled up with venomous hate. It is also important to forgive oneself because it is all to common for victims of abuse to blame themselves.
By the way, there are also parents who cut all ties with children.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD