#914: “I broke ties with my abusive parents as an adult. Now what?”

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

Dear Fleeing,

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.


95 thoughts on “#914: “I broke ties with my abusive parents as an adult. Now what?”

  1. LW, I’m sorry your parents were rotten to you. Mine were as well and I broke up with them when I was close to your age. It was a decision I never regretted. I wish you health and happiness as you navigate your new arrangement. I agree wholeheartedly with all the Captain’s advice. The only thing I might add is gather your chosen family (or spiritual family, if you like) close. Spend the time that would have otherwise gone into your parents on being good to yourself and nurturing other relationships that actually work. Best of luck to you!

  2. That’s such a lovely answer, Captain ♡
    LW, I have this box of fuzzy kittens here for you in case you’d like a bit of softness right now: http://maben.homeip.net/static/humour/cats/a%20box%20of%20kittens.jpg
    You’re going to be okay. It will take time, but you will get there. And the good place you’re carving out for yourself, emotionally and physically, is one you’ll be able to share with your little brother through letters, skype calls, and visits, when the circumstances allow you both to. You’re not abandoning him.
    I wish you the best.

  3. One other thought — to build on what the Captain and B. said — you’re not abandoning your little brother. You are SAVING YOURSELF. This is important, so when the time comes, you will be better equipped to help your brother. Jedi hugs, if wanted.

    1. In a lot of ways, I was that little brother, and while I was sad when my sister left, I was happy I didn’t have to listen to my mother say mean things to her.

      I’m an adult now, and my sister is the only family member I talk to regularly and have a good relationship with. Going 7 years without seeing her didn’t damage our relationship very much.

    2. you will be better equipped to help your brother.

      I was a lifeguard for my summer job in high school and college. One of the first things they taught us was how to escape from a drowning person who was trying to pull us down. You cannot save your brother unless you are saved first.

    1. Maybe, maybe not. Sibling relationships in toxic families, especially where siblings have been pit against each other and “weaponized” the way the LW mentions, make for a lot of very difficult emotional baggage and deeply damaged relationships. The strategy of an abusive parent is to divide and conquer. Coming from a similar background, I can see how camaraderie between the LW and their sister may just not be possible *because* of the abuse. (My sibling and I are close again, but it took us 10 sustained years of working through shit to get to that point. For a long time trying to be closer than we were ready for just made things worse.) (Or it’s possible that the LW already knows what is up in that relationship, for good or bad, and left it out of the letter for space restrictions.)

      1. Right. If forming an adult relationship with the sister feels like walking over broken glass, it’s okay to cut ties there, too.

      2. Yep. Out of three siblings, in a similar situation I am close to one sibling (the youngest, who was 10 when I went NC). I am NC with the other two siblings. Youngest sibling is NC with our brother and limited contact with our sister.

    2. Yo, LW here – sister relationship is complicated by lots of Stuff – it’s another letter, really. I’m keeping things open at the moment because it’s in the ‘hard but worth it’ category and my aim is to keep it there.

    3. I have a mentally ill/toxic mom. I’m very close to one sister, who was also an “all bad”, but we barely speak to our youngest sister, who is the golden child and doesn’t get the abuse directed at her. It’s better for us. Youngest Sister doesn’t believe that our mother was a true momster, because she always treated YS well.

    4. Honestly it really depends on where the sister is at in her process. Sometimes your sibling didn’t get it as bad as you, or didn’t mind it as much as you, or has the “faaaaamily” button permanently depressed. It can be really great to have a sibling to commiserate with and be validated by. It can be really crushing to have a sibling who insists everything was fine or who takes your confidences and then uses them to throw you under the bus to advance their own Golden Child agenda.

  4. About your brother – if you aren’t allowed to see him or call him and you suspect he is not getting your letters, set up an email account in his name and email him on his birthdays, at holidays, and any other time you like. Your father may tell him you don’t care about hin anymore. You can’t really do a lot about that while he’s a minor. But when he grows up and you get the chance to reconnect, you can give him the login details for that email account, and the proof that you loved him and missed him all those years will be right there, being a powerful antidote to your dad’s bullshit. I hope it doesn’t come to this, but if it does, it’s something to consider.

    1. Another thought along these lines. I hope you won’t be completely separated from him, but if it really comes to that and you can’t even get a Christmas or birthday present through … keep marking Christmas and birthdays for him. Set up a bank account in his name, and every year, take the money you would have spent on him and put it in that account. Even if you can’t afford much, you’ve got nine years till he’s eighteen – and by that point, he may appreciate having a get-out fund. It’s long enough to save the price of a ticket to your place, at least.

      Also: if it really looks like your parents will keep him from you, can you stand/manage a final visit to them so that you can quietly explain to him that whatever he hears, you’ll always love him, that you’ll keep in touch any way you can (secret e-mail account he can check at school, friends’ houses, library etc?), and that if he ever needs you, you’ll drop everything and come?

      1. Just adding – of course you should only offer to be available to him if that’s realistic; no point making a promise you can’t keep.

      2. Brilliant!! You can also buy savings bonds or certs of deposit, to get more bang for your buck.

  5. LW, it is totally OK and reasonable to be angry about how your parents treated you. The intensity of that emotion will probably fade with time. The Captain’s advice about getting a therapist is great, especially if you feel like the anger is taking up too much “space” in your head/heart.

    This might seem weird, or childish, or escapist, but one thing that’s helped me at times when my parents were not what I needed them to be is making up imaginary parents. Visualize someone bigger and wiser and older than you saying “I love you,” or “I think you’re great,” or “I trust you to make the right decisions about your life.” I have found this to be calming in moments of self-doubt.

    If you are the type of person who likes poems and stories to help deal with feelings/life I recommend “The Journey” by Mary Oliver.

    1. I’m in the same boat as lw, cut ties with my abusive parents at 23, I’m now 25 but I’m still devastated/feel responsible for all my younger siblings that i can’t contact anymore. Hate to know what my parents are telling them about me.
      This might be silly but it works for me – I generally adopt my favorite fictional characters as my parents, depending on what I’ve been watching/reading/playing lately. Not in an overly attached way, more like an injoke with myself that makes me smile rather than miss having ‘real parents.’ This also helps because when people start going on about how great their parents are, you can smile and nod rather than cringe thinking about your abusive parents.

    2. If it’s alright to do a little bit of self-promotion, my NaBoMaMo project is a Mom Bot (@YourBotMom on Twitter) and I made it for exactly this reason. I’m not in contact with my mom, and there’s really something about having those supportive tweets pop up in my feed. ❤

  6. Wow, I am also 25 and also cut ties with my abusive mom earlier this year (dad left when I was 10). Guess 25 years is the quota for dealing with parental bullshit. Although I would echo the advice to see a therapist (I am currently), I haven’t spoken to my mom since April, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Life isn’t perfect, obviously, but for the first time, I feel like I’m really and truly *free* from the abuse, even though I moved out of her house at 17. Hang in there and don’t feel guilty about taking care of yourself.

      1. 42, and hitting the wall Right This Minute. Dear lord, the guilt, but also the relief that I won’t have to deal with manipulative, narcissistic bullshit over the holidays.

        1. Have spent last couple of Xmas holidays at home alone (various reasons, but mostly due to old vehicles and not enough expendable income or time off). It was really bad the first year, but great since. I do my own thing. It’s not bad.

  7. Of great importance is not allowing others to push you into having a relationship with your parents that you don’t want. There are people outside of the relationship who will try to tell you it’s extremely important, or you should have a better relationship with them, and will try to push or guilt you into doing that for their own reasons. Don’t let them.

    Other people don’t get to decide this for you. Only you get to decide.

  8. Dear LW, my heart is with you! II removed my abusive father from my life at 25, too, a couple of weeks before my wedding— but it doesn’t matter if there’s a big event going on or not, doing it is never easy. If you don’t already have a therapist, I can’t recommend finding one enough. It can be hard to find a good fit, but having someone open and endlessly supportive to help me work through it has been amazing. I hope all of the great suggestions re: your brother provide a way for you to stay connected.

    While I’ve never written in, this blog has been life-changing for me, too. So thank you, dear Captain. And LW— you’re strong and inspiring, and I wish you all the best.

  9. That plan about what to do when/if they try to worm their way back into your life: Decide on some strict boundaries, and stick to them. For example, you might decide that you’d be willing to listen to your father’s apology if he calls you when he’s not drunk. It’s unlikely that he will call to apologize drunk or not, but just deciding ahead of time what you will and will not put up with can bring you a great deal of peace of mind. It can be a plan of action so you’re not stuck figuring out what to do if he calls drunkenly and starts slobbering an insincere apology along the lines of “I’m sorry you won’t visit your brother, but I’ve done all I can, and now you’re just being stubborn.” Think about what you need the apology to consist of. It’s not your job to tell him what a real apology consists of, but having it in your head can be a great help. Similarly for your mother’s guilt trips, decide in your own mind what sort of topics you wouldn’t mind if she brought up. Fantasize a little. Think about the long list of rages and guilt trips and things she might say that you will not put up with. Write them down if it helps. Then, if you run into her somewhere and she starts in on one of the boundary-breaking behaviors, you’re that much quicker on your feet to recognize them, and make your exit. You can rehearse saying “Excuse me. I have to go now” the second she starts.

  10. A great stock phrase my spouse and I have to use about his abusive parents is “We don’t have a relationship with them”. It’s neutral without giving details. We’ve had to use it many times over the past 20 years and only a few times has anyone asked for more info. It even worked well when their grandchildren came along, and people asked about that set of grandparents.

    It’s hard the first year or two to say a phrase like that, but eventually it feels empowering.

    1. Having been on the receiving end of that phrase, I can confirm it really does shut down further enquiry.

    2. I use this phrase myself, and it really does work. The vast majority of people don’t ask for any additional detail. For the few who say “why?” I just say “oh, it’s a long story” and change the subject.

      (Occasionally I am in the mood to give a one-sentence answer that actually answers the question, and I have one for that, too, but I refuse to go further. The last line you can always say is “I really would rather not talk about it.”)

    3. My parents are more-or-less estranged from all of our extended family, so when people ask I just “we’re not close to our extended family” and that usually shuts it down pretty effectively. If they press I just say that my father’s parents disowned him when he married (true) or that my mother and her mother have never gotten along (also true).

  11. One thing I’d like to add about the Captain’s suggested scripts to outsiders. Telling people “they (your parents) were abusive so I stopped talking to them” may draw one of several negative replies. #1: “But you should forgive your parents because they’re faaaaammmmillllyyyy!” #2: “You should make up with them, because what if they die alone and you regret it forever?” #3: “Oh my god, you were abused? What did they do?” In other words, disclosing abuse can result in other people trying to guilt trip you and/or pry into your private life. These same people can also whisper and gossip about you as well. I would strongly recommend sticking with some variation of “We’re not close” to all but your very best friends.

    1. [TW: Alcoholism, drug abuse, parental abuse of children, death, suicidal ideation/psychiatric hospitalization.]

      The “what if [your abusive parent] dies alone and you regret it forever” guilt trip makes me see so fucking much red that I could scream. I went NC with my alcoholic, drug-abusing, abusive father when I was just shy of my 12th birthday (my mother and stepdad had primary custody and bio-dad lived in a different state 2000 miles away). Out of feeling that sort of “what if you regret it forever” guilt, I attempted to rebuild a relationship with him in my early 20s (around 2000). He was still abusing substances and still being an asshole, and the experience landed me in a psych hospital because it made me suicidal. That was when I went NC for good. He died in 2011, and when the news made its way to me, I barely even had a reaction, because I’d long since grieved him and the relationship I wish I could have had with him, the father I wish he’d been.

      And yeah, he DID die alone. Neither of his ex-wives, none of his four children (I have three older brothers), and not even his nearly-eternally-patient, damn-near-living-saint of a sister (whom we all thought would never give up on him) were speaking to him when he died.

      But you know what? That was HIS choice. HE burned those bridges with his behavior. We tried. My brothers all tried (to varying degrees of detriment to themselves). I tried to my detriment. My sweet beloved aunt tried, I think, hardest of all. But you can’t make someone stop being an asshole and after a certain point, you just have to cut the asshole loose and let the consequences of his assholery be what they are.

      I regret that he wasn’t a better person and thus a better father. I’m sorry it ended the way it did, in a way. But that is a situation not of my making, and I DON’T, not for a nanosecond, regret saving my own sanity and indeed my life by going permanently no-contact with him.

      1. Thank you for sharing this story! Your post was so good and pinged so hard for me, a simple like didn’t seem sufficient.

        1. Thank you for the compliment. I’m sorry that you went through something similar such that my story resonates with you, but I’m glad it helps, if that makes any sense. *Jedi hugs if welcome and also kitty snuggles which my cuddly cat is distributing to me right now and making it hard to type, LOL*

      2. I’m really, really glad you had the courage to go no-contact with him. I never believed in the whole “you must forgive abuser,” and have since learned that can be, in some cases, enabling said abuser.

        1. I’m not a Christian anymore, but when I still was (choir member, Sunday school teacher, whole nine yards), I was struggling with feeling pressured to forgive him as “my duty as a Christian” (grr on that!), and I went to my minister to ask his counsel. He said something that I thought was brilliant and that has stayed with me. “God’s forgiveness is freely given, yes, but not even God forgives people who don’t ASK for forgiveness. If he never apologizes to you and asks you to forgive him, you’re not obligated to forgive him. Beyond that, it’s up to you. Do what gives you peace of mind.”

          He was a good egg, that minister.

          1. I also like looking at forgiveness as being different from reconciliation, which it is often confused with. The way I’ve heard it described (YMMV) is that forgiveness is deciding that you are going to choose, as much as you can, not to let painful or hurtful things from your past continue to wound you, and reconciliation means that your relationship with the person is repaired and at a level of closeness similar to what it was before. Doing the first does NOT mean that you have to choose to do the second.

            For me that means that if I have someone close to me who hurts me and then responds appropriately — apologizes, has genuine remorse, does their best not to hurt me like that again — then reconciliation is what I’ll choose. If someone can’t or won’t recognize the painfulness of what they did, keeps doing it, or otherwise shows that they are not trustworthy, then I won’t consider the reconciliation option. Perhaps I’ll cut them out of that part of my life, perhaps I’ll cut them out of my life entirely, but there will be relational consequences for what they did. At the same time, I’ll also work at forgiving them, i.e., trying to work through my anger and hurt , facing the grief and pain that they caused, and trying to move on. (That last bit may take a really long time; I don’t want to make it seem like I think this is easy.) So maybe 5 years later I’ll find that the person is no longer in my life, or no longer a significant part of my life, and what they did is still there, still left a scar, but I’ve been able to heal and keep going.

          2. @Jackalope: Thank you for posting that. I’d never thought of it that way, and it makes *so much sense*. It also makes me feel better about not trusting people who’ve hurt me again, even though I ought to forgive or have forgiven them. So thank you 🙂

          3. In addition to Jackalope’s very good point about forgiveness vs reconciliation, for those of us who have a kneejerk rage reaction to the word “forgiveness” (for me that translates as “how about you shut up about all those inconvenient feelings you have and make nice so none of us have to think about how you were wronged”), the word “acceptance” is a really useful substitute. For me acceptance doesn’t imply that I have to be okay with what happened or tell anyone who harmed me that it was okay to treat me terribly, it just means that a shitty thing happened and that’s what I’m working with.

    2. My favorite (not) response to mentioning that my mother has mental healthy issues and/or was abusive is “BUT YOU’RE SO NORMAL!”, as if being mistreated and abused as a child means that you’re going to grow up into a maladjusted, criminal adult. (I similarly hate people crowing on about the cycle of abuse, and how people don’t know better because they’ve been abused. STOP.)

      1. Thank you! I’m sick of the idea that we cannot judge abusers because they’ve been abused. At the same time, I thought I had to pretend to agree with that idea or be called a judgmental bigot (yay ultra-liberal Facebook feed!)

      2. Co-signed. I’m an abuse survivor. I have chronic mental health issues because I was abused. But I’m not an abuser. Why*? Because I reflected on my parents’ behaviour, decided I didn’t want to be like them, and took steps to learn how to build healthy, or at the very least non-abusive, relationships.

        Abuse is devastating. While I can accept that at least one of my parents came from an abusive background, that doesn’t mean they weren’t responsible for their behaviour. Particularly not their behaviour towards young children in their care.

        *I’m not saying everyone needs to do this or anything. Personally, however, I had a tonne of work to do to be able to have normal relationships, study without debilitating anxiety, be employed without major depressive episodes, etc. I’m pleased to say it’s paid off 🙂

        1. This. A good chunk of my mental illness is genetic depression that I inherited, but a heaping helping of my problems on the anxiety spectrum are from being treated like shit by my primary caretakers as a kid. I don’t want to say being emotionally / verbally / mentally / financially (etc.) abused made me a better person, because it wasn’t so much the abuse as the fact that DESPITE the abuse, I had the capability/capacity to feel empathy, and it wasn’t abused right out of me. It certainly has made it easier to put myself in other people’s shoes and avoid behaving abusively like I was taught by example. I haven’t been perfect, and some of my deepest regrets have come from ignorantly aping some of my mom’s behaviors because I had no other role models to learn from, but I could have done a lot worse.

          Someone once said that depression is anger turned inward rather than outward toward the source that deserves your anger. That’s probably partially true, though, as noted, I definitely have some crappy brain chemistry and remember being depressed even as a very little child (before pre-school). I think the partial truth is that a child isn’t safe expressing anger toward an abusive mother, but forbidden feelings have to go SOMEwhere, and often they get turned inward.

          1. Thank you for this! Reading your comment was almost eerie, because I felt like I could have written it – right down to the genetic depression and acting out maternal behaviours. I’m so glad you’ve been able to move past the behaviours you were exposed to as a child.

            Like you, I regret some of the ways I acted towards others in the past, which I now recognise were co-dependent and lacked boundaries. At the time, I thought I being virtuous and loving… a martyr, even, which is my mum’s preferred role. I wish I’d done things differently, but I’m glad I’ve been able to move past that time and build healthy relationships and friendships. And that, while I am far from perfect, I have never been an abuser.

            On the second paragraph, my psychologist says something very similar – that because young kids can’t safely express their distress/anger/fear toward their caregivers, they often internalise their stress response, which can lead to depression (or other things, depending on the child).

            I used to think I was good because I had survived the abuse, which I think was my mind performing gymnastics to justify what my parents did… it had to happen, so that I could become a good and loving person. But now I agree with what you said – I’m a good person DESPITE what happened.

        2. Yes, Elektra, kudos to you! It’s hard work because we do learn things from our families of origin, but it’s not impossible to learn better and be better. Essentially the cycle of abuse narrative says it’s impossible for anyone to be better than their parents were, and we have ample evidence that that’s not true!

          1. Thank you so much! I like your way of looking at it – acknowledging the impact of the past, while maintaining the possibility of positive change. Nice 🙂

      3. I am heartened to observe how many members of our cohort of (our term) “screwed-up people” have entered helping and healing professions. They may be post-traumatic and triggered, but they’re reflecting the way things ought to be rather than the way they were.

  12. LW, I had to go totally NC in my 20s (whilst a single mother on welfare) and I had to walk away from three siblings – the youngest of whom is 10 years my junior. When we finally made contact again (in her teens) there was recrimination because she had no idea why I just abruptly vanished from her life. But perhaps it will give you some comfort to know that we became incredibly close in her 20s, and now she’s the only sibling I have contact with. She, in turn, has gone NC with my brother (who always took my mother’s side) and whilst she’s still in contact with our parents (our mother has Alzheimer’s and my sister is our father’s main support, our brother and our sister being worse than useless), she fully understands why I had to go NC and holds no ill-will towards me for it.

    Your brother may not understand now, and it may hurt now – but you have to protect yourself right now. I second the recommendations to get a good therapist to be on Team You – I didn’t, I had to do it the hard way, and my mental health suffered badly for it. Right now you have to look after yourself. You are grieving – not just the loss of the relationship with your brother, but the relationship with your parents you SHOULD have had instead of the shitty one you DID have. Trust me that in time, that grief will fade. Having good people on Team You who will let you process that grief in your own time will help so, so much – and a good therapist should be one of those people.

    And one day, I hope you and your brother will have the close, supportive relationship that I rediscovered with my sister. Because believe me – you deserve to be happy.

    Jedi hugs, LW. It’s never easy going NC.

  13. I’m sorry that you’re going through this right now. It is a really hard decision to make but it sounds like it’s the best one for you.

    I cut off communication with my abusive parents when I was 24 after a series of terrible interactions with each of them. I realized that it was either them or me. I couldn’t have a good relationship with myself while trying to maintain relationships with them. It’s been five years since I’ve seen or communicated with either of them in any way. The first year was definitely the hardest but now it’s just normal. For a while it helped to think of it as if they disowned me instead of me cutting ties with them. My thinking was that by not accepting me and loving me for who i was or taking responsibility for their actions towards me, they disowned me. I think there’s lots of different ways to frame it.

    I feel like all my life events since then have been a little different from everyone else I know which is hard and it can feel kinda isolating. Like… I’m planning on starting a family soon and I’m not sure what to do about that. Anyway, it definitely helps to have a therapist and chosen family too 🙂

      1. Oh my goodness. I find this website breathtakingly steeped in misogynistic terms and stereotypes. YMMV of course but while some thought-provoking points are made here, they are overwhelmed by a flood of ideas about women under patriarchy which are simplistic and drawn from the same tired talking points since Freud. Check out the personality types of moms (“domineering” or “waif”).

        There are so many important investigations to make about women’s role in perpetuating patriarchy. And then there’s this site…

        1. My mileage… certainly varied from yours. I had never seen the linked site before but I have just read quite a bit of it and am so glad I did. It seems absolutely apt in its descriptions of the psychology of my own abusive/estranged mother and others I’ve known. Every article I read was front and centre saying that the patriarchy was to blame. I did not see any tired talking points from Freud other than the idea that childhood wounds, especially from parents and especially from mothers, have a formative effect on personality, which is like the whole basis of the field of modern psychoanalysis, so hardly tired…?

          1. My mileage also varied, I found it quite insightful. I didnt see the part where mothers were categorised into “waifs” or “domineering” but I think if you have a narcissistic mother then those archetypes resonate a lot more. Not that all women fit into those stereotypes, but there was a whole lot of truth in there for me as well!
            I can actually draw a pretty clear line between my own mothers damaging behaviors and the patriarchal society she was raised in (1950s with European background, tres patriarchal!) It’s been interesting for me as she has been seeing (or was) a psychologist who was actually a forward thinking feminist and whenever my mother would run to her with tales of woe about her crazy daughter (who didnt want to be judged by the application of her makeup or the whiteness of her home) , the psychologist would back up my point of view and gently point out to my mother that it is a different world and we dont need to play by the same rules any more. My mother would ring me up to tell me in horror how crazy her psych was.

            My mother no longer sees that therapist! Lol, she prefers the doctors that fill her with worry and a million different prescriptions….

            I guess maybe you need a mother who resembles the mothers described in the articles for it to make sense? I hope when my daughters read these things they can say “Pft, that makes no sense to me!”

  14. LW, congratulations on making that choice. It will be almost 30 years since I last saw my living parent- the other one is dead. My sibling’s after the inheritance still defends our parents to me and tries to shame me. They’re neither happy nor healthy. No money’s worth that.
    Some things that trip me up today are the “Happy Mother’s Day” greetings from strangers, and the related advertising. I’ve found staying at home on Mother’s Day is better self-care for me. Some friends are journeying through hospice and lingering death with their parents. I’ve found a therapist (finally!) to help hack at my knee-jerk hard-heartedness.

    1. I find Mother’s Day to be a hard day too (although I had a great relationship with my mom; she died when I was young, and that was the problem for me). I’ve found that for a couple of weeks beforehand, I: listen to pre-recorded music in my car instead of the radio; skip church that morning (I love church, so this is the only day I skip just cuz, but even though my church is really laidback about it [“Thanks, Moms!” The End] I still can’t deal with it); and come up with a plan to Do Something that day (usually with a good friend — I have a couple of them who look out for me and will between them make sure I have someone to spend the day with).

      And I agree with you on the inheritance. An inheritance handed down with a side order of guilt and manipulation isn’t worth it.

  15. The grief will sometimes sneak up on you. My adult daughter and I cut off contact with her mother about five years ago. Our pet recently died, and on top of the loss of that relationship, my daughter also feels the loss of a connection with her mom who acquired it.

    When people ask, where’s your mother?, we usually answer with the city she currently lives in, 1000 miles away; it’s a very literal reading of the question, but it works.

  16. I’ve been in the position of the LW’s younger sibling. My sisters ran away when I was 7 and 9 years old, and I didn’t get to speak to them again until I was 15 and my mother and stepfather separated. I treasured every letter and stuffed animal and memento they left behind or that got through the mail to me. I carefully doled out stickers from one pack of heart stickers for 8 years. Whatever contact you can have, whatever objects you can send, keep doing it! But even when I didn’t understand everything that was going on, I never blamed my sisters for getting away from my obviously screwed up and abusive parents. It was wonderful to be reunited with them and to grow closer to them as adults.

    I also cut off all contact with my parents, the last when I was 27. I didn’t do it on my own; it took about 6 months of therapy before I realized that part of why I was so sad was my mother’s unrealistic, self-centered, unachievable demands of me. Every so often I go over my reasons and remember, yes, there is nothing there for me in that relationship. It is tough when I hear other people talk about being glad they reconciled with their parents, but I’m slowly learning to not hear that as a judgement on me. My parents are my parents; I’m me; every situation is a little different. 11 years later I have zero regrets because I am realistic about my parents’ capacity for loving others (effectively zero). Like another commenter said, I feel like I’ve already gone through the mourning process for my parents, just while they were still alive.

    Keeping being realistic, keeping reminding yourself of why you’ve made the decisions you’ve made so far. And go to that therapist!

  17. LW jedi hugs if you want them. I also broke up with my toxic parents and while most of the time I felt relief, some moments were really painful.

    What I did, besides getting an awesome therapist, was to allow myself to feel whatever I felt without punishing myself. I also wrote all the reasons why I wasn’t going to have a relationship with them in case doubt would creep in and I wrote letters to my past self to let her know that we were going to be fine after some really bad shit we went through, because I needed to feel that someone loved me and cared for me for who I was, even if that person were myself.

    Whenever things got scary, I recited the Lethany against fear, when people got pushy and wanted to get my parents and I on talking terms, I only explained what I wanted and needed once and then got into boundary setting mode. I did my best to enforce those boundaries.

    It’s been two years since then, and after a rough patch of 8 months that seemed forever things keep getting better. It really feels that I made the right choice for keeping myself safe.

    Best of luck in your journey

  18. That’s a really tough situation with your brother. One thing to plan through: your father the knife-twister is going to use your brother as bait, guaranteed. “Brother misses you so much and wishes you would come for a visit, I promise I’ll stay out of your way” just to get a foot in the door, and with the threat that Brother will know you said no, as interpreted by Knife-Twister. I wish I knew what to say to this, except: there is no good answer. Whatever you do will hurt badly, even when you’re doing the best anybody could, and it’s not you making that.

    I think the Captain’s advice is fine if Knife-Twister doesn’t choke those channels of communication, which I’m afraid he will just out of habit, and control them as a currency for manipulating you. There may come a time at which you have to give up trying to communicate, and if that happens it is *not* giving up on your brother. A parent can have a terrible amount of legal power over a child, and there are times when you can’t fight that directly, only wait. As long as he comes through okay, he will remember you, and he can probably find you, depending on your mutual contacts and your online presence. And again, no matter what your father tells you, you are not creating the harm here.

    1. I must say, the recommendation to always make sure little bro has a way of contacting LW made my hackles rise. Any way of contact open to a 9-y old is open to Father Knife-Twister, and would require LW to keep doing the emotional work of, eg, checking emails from Knife-Twister’s address (a 9-y old probably doesn’t have his own email; and if he does, Knife-Twister can send from it just as easily as little bro).

      LW can’t *do* much for little bro, even if they are in contact (parental involvement will neutralise any useful contribution LW can make to, eg, untangling bullshit – or make it worse), at this age. I would recommend, instead of remaining open to receiving contact, something like sending postcards with no return address, at least until little bro is of an age where it’s likely he’s using the internet alone and has learned to wipe his browser history and so on. Postcards are good – you can send them on a steady schedule (literally set up a reminder in your calendar), you can make them cheaply from iphone photos using touchnote.com or similar and thus mask your location if needs be. You don’t have to put your return address on them.

      As I understand it, the most useful thing LW can do for little bro over the next few years is keep reminding little bro LW hasn’t forgotten him and loves him consistently. Periodic postcards could do that, without opening up channels for Knife-Twister to abuse. (Context: I did something similar for my little sister when I left the country – not because I’d cut off contact, but because she was too small to really understand why I’d gone, and why skype was no longer supplemented with visits. A postcard is something she can hold, and look back on over time.) In 3-5 years, when Little Bro is of internet age, either he’ll look the LW up, or LW can try giving him an email address to correspond with (NOT LW’s primary one), in the full knowledge that Knife-Twister might abuse it.

      Obviously Knife-Twister might block little bro’s mail. Thus a consistent supply of postcards – something that you never *expect* a reply to, so LW’s heart doesn’t break every time it goes unanswered. Eventually, the kid will check the mailbox himself on the right day (this happened to me with a childhood friend – we’re pretty sure his mum hid my cards/letters for about three years, but I was a stubborn small child, and eventually one got through). If it would help LW, there’s also the option to photograph the cards before sending – save an album of attempts to correspond. Even if little bro gets them, he may lose them or they might be ‘lost’ for him over time: a digital archive of them would be something LW can offer to him when they’re back in contact.

      1. I’m intrigued. What was the deal with your childhood friend? Why on earth would his mom hide your letters? Obviously only answer if you’re comfortable with it! Otherwise, ignore me.

        1. ahah, well. His mum hadn’t realised when we first met that my family were an air force family. When we got posted, we had a couple of terms’ warning, and she cut him off from associating with me outside of school.I had no idea anything was amiss, because I was seven and also believed people were basically nice. So I wrote to him! Initially every month or so? And then cards every Xmas and so forth. Heard back from him after three or four years, and he was like ‘wow it’s ages since I heard from you!’, no mention of the previous letters or cards. My mum reckons his mum hid my correspondance to ‘protect’ him.

  19. I went through this about 20 years ago. You need to go through a grieving process of sorts, because you’ve lost your parents just as you might have if they’d died. Having a half brother does make it a bit more difficult for you, hopefully your father doesn’t poison him against you.

  20. My parents are/were emotionally abusive and neglectful (my relationship with my dad is so much less stressful and hurtful since he died, which says a lot), but I’ve been super lucky with my mother in law (and it sounds like yours is good?).

    Something that’s helped is letting her parent me a little bit around the edges. I tend to be super avoidant/resistant and powerfully painfully sometimes-self-damagingly independent, but getting a little bit of that positive affirming stuff that my own mother wasn’t able to give me – like when she came over this weekend with a spare battery pack and the gift of a brand new set of jumper cables when my car was having battery trouble – has been healing. My own mother would have opened with a list of reasons why I’d almost certainly caused the problem myself (I didn’t – it was a six-year-old dead car battery that needed to be replaced) plus some taunting about my ability to solve the problem. I am just so unused to having a parent-figure who will help me solve my problems as much as she can rather than prioritising telling me why they’re all my fault.

    I’m trying to stop, look, think and feel more – when she’s being supportive of me and my partner in creative shit we do (my own parents weren’t), when she’s being positive and kind towards us even though we’re not perfect all the time (my own parents weren’t), when she always seems genuinely happy to see my (my own parents weren’t). That this is what love and positive parenting is supposed to look and feel like. And letting myself get a little of the shine and the happy feeling from it, instead of rejecting-it-first-before-I-inevitably-get-rejected (like my own mother taught me).

    You don’t have to have competent parents to get to experience bits of good parenting here and there, even as an adult – take advantage of whatever support you can get.

    1. “My own mother would have opened with a list of reasons why I’d almost certainly caused the problem myself…”

      Yup. My narcissist mom still does this. She also tells me I’m lying about things I report from my own POV, such as event she was not present for; this isn’t a case of saying “you might be mistaken because it happened so fast and you were emotionally distraught,” it is a case of telling me I am deliberately lying for nefarious but unknown reasons about something that happened to me, and which she did not witness. And I’m beyond tired of that sort of bullshit.

      It occurred to me recently that she had been doing this since I was a very little girl. She, in so many words, told me that if I ever had a problem with an authority figure at school, she would take their side in the conflict, no questions asked, and I would be punished for causing problems. I am very fortunate that none of my teachers ever tried to molest me or otherwise mistreat me*, because my mother made it clear she wouldn’t stick up for me.

      My mother is not on my side. I don’t know why. 95% of the time she has said something positive about me, when I am around to hear it, she is doing so to preen in front of witnesses and use my accomplishments to make herself look better and act like we’re best friends. When there ARE no witnesses, she says and does some heinous things, and my friends have noticed a dramatic uptick in my personality / mood since I have kept my distance from her since March of this year. Like, an EXTREME improvement. I’m clearly happier.

      I like your advice to accept parenting from well-meaning surrogates. Even people your own age can parent you a bit now and then. It does seem to help when someone gives a shit that you might get cold if you don’t take a sweater, but doesn’t make you feel like a stupid asshole if you decide to go without and end up getting chilly later. Know what I mean? Caring without being controlling and/or condemning.

      * True, except for an incident where a teacher who was also socially friendly with my mother took me into a closet to shake me like a maraca because I was a bored 5 year old who already knew how to read, and read the encyclopedia for fun when at home (!), and I was crawling under the table out of boredom because the rest of the class was stuck on “the fat cat sat on a mat” and I didn’t do well with having my time wasted or being bored for no good reason. I had crescent-shaped scars under my arms at least until I was a freshman in college, because my roommate saw them and asked about them, though they have faded since.

      1. Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s shed light on something I’ve been trying to understand for a very long time.

        I’m so sorry that your mother wasn’t more of a mother to you. I’m so happy that you’re trying out getting a little distance from her. Best of luck! I hope you figure out exactly how to have exactly the amount of contact you want to have with her (up to and including none at all if that’s what works best for you).

    2. Thanks for sharing. I’ve had a similar experience with my partner’s parents, so your story hit me in the feels.

  21. My parents are emotionally abusive and there are many years of hurtful words and deeds between my childhood and my adulthood. I haven’t cut them off yet. However, I am in therapy and one of the kindest things my psychologist did for me was help me imagine a “perfect parent” that lives inside of me. Full of unconditional love and understanding for my inner child. When I get upset or emotional or I am experiencing something that I would seek support from my parents that I just cannot have, I imagine that inner parent loving me, and they are there for me, supporting and validating my experiences.

    Imaginative therapy may not work for you, but if you are suffering from having parents that you could never trust with your feelings, perhaps this will help.

    1. Thank you for sharing, I’m so glad this imagined parent has been helpful for you.

      I wondered if I could ask you a question: do you have a clear idea of who your inner parent is? Are they are a part of you, or do they feel like someone else?

      Please only share if you feel comfortable. The reason I ask is that my therapist has suggested this as something I try down the track, but I find it a pretty scary idea, because it makes me feel so vulnerable. I would be interested in any insights you feel comfortable giving 🙂

  22. I just want to state my best wishes to the LW and to all others who have shared their stories about breaking up with abusive parents. It is a special type of pain, and I hope you are able to honor and mourn that loss. You don’t have to get over it all at once.

    I am not particularly religious, but I find that sometimes performing a little ceremony or ritual helps me acknowledge how… cosmic things feel sometimes. Like, maybe you and your partner can find something symbolic of your bad relationship with your parents (a letter, a gift from one of them, etc.) and burn it while saying a few words of hope and healing.

    This approach helps me because sometimes the thing that hurts most is that nothing seems to change; how can the world go on like normal when this loss is twisting me up inside? Ritualizing it is my way of saying, “Stop, Universe! Now I make space for my pain, so that I can heal.”

    I’ll end my comment by saying: congratulations! I know that seems like a weirdly optimistic thing to say, but honestly setting healthy boundaries is incredibly difficult, and you’ve shown great strength and self-awareness, which will only serve you well in the future.

  23. I had a major falling out with my parents five years ago, at 41. One thing I found vital was to remind myself that there is no deadline by which you have to feel better. If you find yourself suddenly feeling super-angry and defensive, that’s okay. (The most valuable thing my therapist ever told me was “You feel what feel. It’s not wrong”.) Counseling is great because it gives you the tools to cope with that sudden raging fire of “Why the fuck did you DO that to me?” Once you know how to cope, then feeling what you feel is fine, and Lord, does that decrease the exhaustion. No more policing yourself. It’s wonderful.

  24. First of all, YOU ROCK. You have all my best wishes and hopes.

    Second of all, I’m going to get into that Oscar Wilde quote about losing both parents: It’s from his play “The Importance of Being Earnest”. It’s spoken by Lady Bracknell, the quintessential overbearing heartless Victorian dowager.

    This is important: this is NOT something that Wilde actually said himself, and it’s not something he believed. It’s a line that he put in the mouth of a character in a play. Lady Bracknell is NOT a sympathetic character: she’s harsh, judgemental, and callous. In the context of this line, she’s bullying an orphan for not having any parents.

    Properly delivered, the line is hilarious; it’s the kind of joke that makers you wince when you think back on it and realize you’ve just laughed at victim-blaming an orphan baby, in the name of propriety. It’s intended to point out just how fucked up the advocates of propriety can be.

    The natural internal response to that line is basically expected to be “If you’re one of those parents, good riddance and how fast can I lose you?”

    In other words: when your father quoted that line at you, he thought he was delivering a snide put-down . . . but the joke is on him. Sometimes, losing both parents is a double blessing.

    1. True indeed. If you want advice from Wilde, try De Profundis: ‘To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.’

  25. Dear LW,

    All I can add to the Captain’s brilliant and compassionate advice is that it is possible that you’ll change your mind more than once, and that that is fine.

    Jedi hugs if you want them.

  26. LW, I’m so so glad for you that you’re trying out living your life without these toxic people in it. I think it’s super brave of you to do that. * applauds *

    One idea for keeping in touch with the little bro: in addition to setting up one or two ways for him to stay in touch with you on a regular basis, would you also be able to set up one or two ways for him to reach you in an emergency? Ideally these would be ways of reaching you that he could access either from his father’s house or from elsewhere — say, one e-mail address with no ties to the rest of your life; and one burner phone whose area code/country code is not revealing, and whose number only your bro knows. (These are only examples. I trust you and him to know what methods are surest and most secure.) I believe you that your father is not given to sudden, ill-thought-out strikes; but if he should become aware that you’re in contact with your bro and that the two of you are talking covertly, and get angry about that and decide to do something unexpected, it might be good to be prepared for that.

    Best of luck!

  27. I am going through an estrangement process with my father, whose most recent email was a vitriolic screed where he really threw the kitchen sink at me. This included his hatred of my weight, my friends, my ex-boyfriends, and he also threw in a bizarre accusation that I had said something (utterly false) about my mother, and a condemnation of my beverages from many years ago based on a misunderstanding of tabloid headlines.

    Anyway this is how I set up my email filter, in case it’s of use. I set up a new folder, and directed all email from him to be marked read and to go directly into that folder (I called it “Deplorables”). That way, he doesn’t get to disturb my equilibrium whenever an email arrives because I won’t know of its existence then; instead I can check every few weeks, but only when I have the mental strength and energy to deal with what I might find.

  28. LW — I was in my 40s before I got to the point where I could set reasonable boundaries with my folks. I have little advice to add to the Captain’s but I would like to voice my admiration that you made such a smart and thoughtful decision in your 20s. Fist bump.

  29. Now? You breathe.

    You’ve gotten your small quiet room that you can decorate as you like with a door you can lock to keep all the negativity out.

  30. Thank you LW for sharing your story and thank you Captain for your useful and kind advice. I’m going through something similar.

  31. Hi LW, Captain’s advice is really good. I broke contact with my abusive father in my twenties too, and it’s been a very liberating, if sometimes painful journey since then. I want to echo the Captain’s recommendation of getting a counsellor – when I found the right counsellor on the third try, she helped tremedouosly to process all the decades of abuse and toxic family dynamics ingrained in my mind. Also helped to acknowledge and try to make peace with feelings of loss and grief for the few good memories that I had with my father, while knowing that those can’t/didn’t exist in a vacuum without all the shit parts, and ultimately it was WELL worth breaking the abusive relationship. I hope you’ll find your peace with the situation, and can start to spend your liberated energies on what makes YOU happy in life.

    1. Also Captain, I’d like to echo LW’s sentiment about that your column has been profoundly life-changing to me. I learnt SO much here about boundaries and the “each person knows their own life best” philosophy ❤

  32. Hi, first time commenter, not sure I found the right words. I am training to be a therapist and reading this blog for the fantastic insight and advice.

    Maybe LW will find an insight I had lately helpful, too. It might not be relevant to you and you are probably not at that stage, yet. What I get from your letter, is that next to grief and sadness there is also disappointment and anger. This can be an incredibly hard mix of feelings to overcome. We had a patient, who struggled for years to come to terms with the fact that a close friend abandoned her. The therapist I train with suggested, that, at some point, she would have to forgive her friend in order to put disappointment to rest. Bear with me. I am still struggling with the unfairness of it all, too. What I took from this session is, that I had a very limited idea of forgiveness (This could be due to the fact that I feel the German equivalent also implies absolution or pardon). You don’t have to tell the person you have forgiven them. You can let them suffer, make peace with it with yourself only. It does not mean you forget, or act like it didn’t happen, it does not mean it was an OK thing to do. I still do not know what it really does mean (yeah, terrible at giving advice!) and if you have to call it forgiveness. But I know, because I have seen people do it, that there are many ways to get to a point where you feel somehow OK about your parents and you will find your way. I wish you all the strength and support you need and I hope you find a way to keep in touch with your brother.

  33. My parents separated – or rather, my father left my mother for another woman – when I was just 21…and I’d been married less than 4 days. The final breakup had been a good 10 years in coming. My father had worked abroad since I was 10, and from the age of 15 my mother was forced to stop following him on his jobs around the world as the education of myself and my two brothers was being badly affected. She still deeply resents it.

    Neither of my parents had wanted to be parents in the first place. My mother told my father when they got together that she couldn’t have children (based on no medical diagnosis) 6 months later she’s pregnant with my older brother, and as she was (still is) a practicing Catholic (and hypocrite) he HAD to marry her. I followed barely a year later, then my younger brother 2 years after that. My father finally had a vasectomy when I was 4.

    Frankly, they were both crap parents. Their hearts just weren’t in the whole experience at all. We were fed and educated, but that was it. There was no love and affection between them, and none shown to us. From as far back as I can remember, we were made to feel like burdens.

    When my father left, my mother ‘weaponized’ (love that term) us straight away. I got back from Honeymoon at 12am…at 4am she was on the phone telling me my father had left, and then spent the next 3 hours on the phone to me, telling me every single dirty, personal and just TMI aspect of their whole marriage. Demanding that I have no further contact with my father…etc . It was awful.

    That was 27 years ago and she’s got worse in that time. I moved to the other side of the world to get away from her when I was 25, after a bad nervous breakdown. I cut contact with my older brother 15 years ago because he was becoming too like my father.

    You know that your parents are probably going to try and turn your younger brother against you. Captain Awkward has given excellent advice on how to try and keep in contact.

    I’ve had problems with ‘others’ – usually those who can’t even begin to understand what having a rotten childhood is actually like – trying to guilt trip me with ‘you’ll miss them when they are gone’ type crap. After 27 years of that type of rubbish, I don’t pull any punches now. If ‘my family situation is not up for discussion’ doesn’t work, they get the truth: ‘As far as I’m concerned they died 20 years ago, I did my missing them/ mourning then’

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