Hi excellent captain,
Firstly I wanted to say that your blog has been, like, profoundly life-changingly important for me.
I have two parents who are both, in their different ways, abusive. My mum has had a difficult past but can’t control her outbursts of destructive rage, and my dad is the more cool, calm, evil genius type of abuser who thinks really hard about how to twist the knife while appearing totally rational. They are divorced and used me and my sister as weapons in their proxy war for years.
Coming to realise that they were abusive was really important and useful for me, but it also drastically reduced my tolerance for their bullshit. Earlier this year my mum started some weird guilt-trip stuff about me moving in with my partner, and it was one thing too many and I ended up slow-fading her. This weekend, my dad and I got into a row about him being needlessly aggressive – I told him I didn’t want to hear from him until he was willing to apologise, and instead he sent me an appallingly offensive drunken rant about how insufferable I am – which he ended with that Oscar Wilde quote about losing your parents. I know, right.
So I’m now, for the moment at least, without parents. I’m 25. I’ve just started training in a career I love. I have a stable living situation and a caring partner (who incidentally has an absolute cinnamon roll of a mum). But I don’t know how to deal with this emotionally. There aren’t many protocols for how to get over a break-up with your parents. I feel relieved to be rid of them but angry they treated me so badly and it’s all a bit mixed up.
Can you help? Your guides for how to get over romantic breakups are so good, so real, so true, but I feel like they don’t quite apply here in the same way.
Oh, and one more think – my dad has a nine year old son, my half brother. I adore him and he adores me; he’s the only bio family member I have who just unproblematically loves me and likes to be around me. He lives in another country with my dad and doesn’t have a phone of his own yet. Every time I think about what I’m going to do about that, I cry. Can you give me a nudge towards knowing what to do?
Fleeing the Toxic Trash-fire
Sometimes severing ties with people comes with ultimatums & ritually burning your boats so you can’t ever go back there. Sometimes it comes more slowly, with a series of small decisions made over time. “Do I really want to answer this email? No? Okay then.” “And this?” “Still no. Okay, then.”
There’s no one right way to handle all of this, just what feels right for you. I think a therapist or counselor would be a good addition to your life if you don’t have one already. They can be a safe place to process the messy feelings that come up over time as you rid yourself of your abusive parents. Even when this is the right decision, it can come with a lot of anxiety and grief (like, for example, your feelings about maybe losing touch with your little brother). A therapist can help you mark the good days, too, and remind you why you did this for yourself. They can remind you to give yourself permission to enjoy the freedom from the toxic tug-of-war.
Some other strategies that come to mind:
- Make new celebrations and rituals for yourself, especially at holidays.
- Make a list of comforting things you can do to soothe & distract yourself when your parents won’t leave you alone or when you’re pre-occupied with feelings about them.
- Write letters that you don’t send and get your feelings off your chest somehow.
- Reclaim family history – the family members you do like, the memories & family stories that are good ones – they belong to you as much as they do to anyone.
- Practice a short version of the story to tell people when the topic of family does come up, from, “We’re not close/We’re estranged” to “They were abusive so I stopped talking to them.” You get to decide who gets the details of your situation, just remember, you don’t owe anyone a performance of a happy relationship with your family if none exists.
- Make a plan for when one or both of your parents tries to worm their way back into your attentions. Set up communications filters on emails, block/hide social media, etc. It’s easier to chuck cards in the bin unopened if you’ve decided in advance that that’s where cards from them go.
- Make room for grief. When you have big life events, and your parents aren’t there, and you feel sad because this is the kind of thing parents are *supposed to* be with you for, make space for that. Forgive yourself for feeling it. It’s normal to feel that little empty space where good parents were supposed to be. You’re grieving their loss while they are still alive. That’s hard and necessary work.
Keep the door open to your little brother by writing letters and cards, setting up Skype or phone calls if & when you can, and making sure he always has a way to contact you if he wants to. Assume his mail is being read, and keep your communications focused on him & not the situation between you and your dad. Write to him even if he doesn’t write back, even if you’re not sure that he’s getting the notes. He won’t be nine forever. Something will get through.
The rest is time. And being nice to yourself. And time. And enjoying the freedom of life without them.