Time to “Divorce” your Toxic Parent?

Almost everyone has whined about their parents at some point.  We blame them for everything that’s wrong with our lives, for all the bad decisions we’ve made and more.

We forget the simple truth: Our parents are human, just as we are. They err, have failings, don’t have the right tools for the job but do the best they can.  We often find them lacking and generation after generation believes they can do it better than those that came before them and that they/we have all the answers.  We swear up and down that we “…will not do/say that to MY kids!” only to find that we had no idea what the pressures of parenting were really all about and had grossly underestimated the task or rearing young.  Whining about parental mishaps keeps the therapeutic community employed. 

That having been said, this is not what this post is about.  

No today’s post is about something more insidious.

What if you have a parent who makes life truly unbearable? You can divorce an abusive spouse. You can call it quits if your lover mistreats you. But what can you do if the source of your misery is your own parent? What if over the years you have tried everything to have a relationship with them, but only ever encountered pain, mind games, abuse (verbal or other) and upset.  What if they bring more harm to your life than good?  Do you put up with it out of loyalty, or take the painful decision to cut them off?

It is a well propagated myth, and as such a commonly held yet mistaken notion, that adults are not vulnerable to emotional abuse. The concept of mental harassment or torment was born in the offices of Dr. Marie-France Hirigoyen.  Very early on, she was interested in this particular form of violence that had, until then, been impossible to spot and, most importantly, to name.  In her first book (not yet translated into English) Harcèlement moral, la violence perverse au quotidien (Mental harassment, the perverse day-to-day violence), she named the psychical sufferings bringing to light this real social phenomenon.

Her book explores the very real facts behind this most insidious form of abuse.  She tosses out of the window any truth to the old adage “Sticks and stones my break my bones but words can never hurt me” – It IS possible to destroy a person with just words, looks and innuendos: it’s called perverse violence or mental harrassement.  In her book she analyses the “how it’s done” and its effects on the victims and cautions against treating any of these claims with banality or triteness.  She illustrates that it’s a slow form of murder, whether within a couple, a family or in the workplace and that the victims are dragged into a depressive, even potentially suicidal spiral. The perpetrators do things this way as a method of getting rid of a person without “dirtying their hands”. It’s specifically perverse behavior in that it is masked.  It is the weapon of choice for perverse narcissists. 

That is the façade that needs revealing in order for the victims to find their footing again and stop being under the influence of the aggressor. As a Victimologist, Dr. Hirigoyen places herself squarely on the side of the victims and the aggressions they survive and gives them a voice.  She has also started a call to arms in the legal world (for now mostly in Europe) to have this “true murder of the soul” recognized in the courts, going so far as to say that suicides may not all be “death for no reason”. 

If you live with this – you will no doubt notice that friends, family and even therapists have a bias to salvage relationships, even those that might be harmful to a person. In addition there is a second assumption that adds fuel to the fire: that parent’s are predisposed to love their children unconditionally and protect them from harm.  Unfortunately this is not universally true. Add the sense of embarrassment and failure that comes from not being on good terms with a parent, and you have the reason why the vicious circle often remains intact.  

Confronted with this, we think that it is crucial to be open-minded and to consider whether maintaining the relationship is really healthy and desirable.

It may be time to consider divorcing your parent(s).

Is it a drastic measure?  Yes it is, just like a divorce from a spouse should be, perhaps even more so.  We would even suggest it may be akin to amputating a gangrenous limb – but it can save your life or at the very least your sanity.  You still can’t erase the damage done, or escape from all the negative feelings that will come with the fallout (guilt, anger, betrayal) but you can protect yourself from further harm, find real freedom and a chance to heal.

Dr. J. L. Herman, a trauma expert who is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said she tries to empower patients to take action to protect them without giving direct advice.

“Sometimes we consider a paradoxical intervention and say to a patient, ‘I really admire your loyalty to your parents — even at the expense of failing to protect yourself in any way from harm’ ”. 

A complete and permanent split? Easier said than done, because relationships are rarely all good or bad; even the most abusive parents can sometimes be loving, which is why severing a bond is so tough and even feels “unnatural” – because in many ways, it is unnatural.  We are social creatures, basically pack animals.  Research shows that attachment in the form of relationships through bonding, both in humans and in nonhuman primates, is something we are hard-wired for – yes, even to those who aren’t very nice to us.

Attachment is the sense of security, stability and comfort which people derive from their relationships. Attachment is designed to keep people together. The first attachment partnership we form is with our parent (s) so when that relationship comes to an end, people suffer a tremendous sense of loss. The loss of an attachment partner takes away one’s sense of security and stability. As such, this type of loss is one of life’s most negative experiences.

Attachment partnerships help create stability, but there is a downside. Attachments are less concerned that you are happy and more concerned that you stay together.  In addtion, love and attachment do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.  In fact, many people form an attachment to someone who they do not like as a person. It is quiet possible to form a deep bond to someone who is less than an ideal romantic partner for example – this happens everyday.

Interestingly, science has proven that prolonged stress can kill cells in the brain area critical for memory (hippocampus). The good news is that adults are able to grow new neurons in this area thanks to therapy and some of the new anti depressants available on the market today.  So, it’s no stretch, then, to say that having a toxic parent may be harmful to a child’s brain, let alone his or her feelings; but the great news is that the damage need not be permanent.

We believe that, sometimes, as drastic as it sounds, living a well balanced, healthy life means letting go of a toxic parent … or two. How you go about doing this should be looked at on a case by case basis and we recommend you include a professional (yes – a shrink).  Don’t do this alone.  Loss is loss and a support system is crucial for the divorce to work.

 If this is you – we wish you strength, self love and perseverance.

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Filed under Mind, Soul

5 responses to “Time to “Divorce” your Toxic Parent?

  1. Silia

    This is a fantastic article. I, for one, am very familiar with parental toxicity. I didn’t have to completely divorce but I have learned what trigger topics I should avoid and what behaviors I have to ignore. I found keeping my father at a healthy distance is better for my own peace of mind. So often I would allow things to bother me but when I realized that these problems were his shortcomings and not mine, it made my life a lot easier and happier. In my case, however, I am lucky. My father lives far enough away that I don’t have to deal with him day to day. I can see how it would be far more difficult to remove yourself from someone who is deeply involved in your life by being there physically – this is where a “divorce” might be necessary. It’s a hard call. We’re always so eager to please our parents and sometimes its the basis of our attachment. I know mine was anyway. When I figured out I don’t need to please him because he doesn’t strive to do the same for me, AND it is a one-sided power bond anyway (ie. one person has the upper hand), I just let go (although sometimes there’s still a mental tug of war). It took me nearly 40 years though to figure it out. Maybe your excellent article will help others figure it out sooner. I hope so.

  2. unburden

    I kept seeing similarities to my life and your article. A parent playing a mind game for multiple decades is how I feel. Truth be told I feel as if I am playing the game right back.

    I write a blog and am revealing all the horrible mental and physical abuses she inflicted upon me in graphic detail. I will not let he sick game we play die either.

    She is an old woman now. Rapidly approaching 70 and yet my rage still burns as hot as it ever did when I was 12. I begrudge her a good life. Mine is in tatters and she can say to me nothing that can fix mine.

    I am feel bitterness and shame at my own thoughts.

    Thanks for posting your article and I will link to you. If you wish you may do the same.


  3. Shirley

    I totally agree with this article and I hope the book will soon be translated into English as I long to read it. Few counsellors or anyone else understand the games played by toxic parents on their offspring. In my case I also chose a father for my son who treated me the same. I have finally cut both my parents and my ex off (my son still sees him) and I have embarked on the journey alone. I will see my parents on formal occasions and I am preparing strategies for that. My life too is in tatters but I feel so much better for having some peace and less stress- I am becoming more organised and my memory is improving. I can’t afford therapy and use a free councelling line – not as good but better than nothing. I just don’t want to see them any more. The cruelty has just gone on too long, its too much and its over. Many councellors mistake my reaction for feelings of rejection. I really think they should stop this because its actually about the GAME these people play. My parents arn’t rejecting me, they are perpetrating mental torture and sadly so does my ex. These are control games.

    If you are in my position, my advice is, don’t play. Stop the game and leave – mentally – physically move away too if its possible. Just go and never look back. You can make another life and create a new family of friends – I believe it and have to start doing it too.

  4. I believe this is true in more families than we are comfortable as a society accepting.


    We must let those emotions go – otherwise, even if we have physically left them – they still hold us.
    We physically move, then …let go.

    Forgive even if you can’t forget and let it go. That is real freedom – that is a real divorce.

    We can’t control what they have done – but we can choose how we live with it. The real power is in gratitude, freedom and living your life well.

  5. I agree with your article. I’ve been working with ACoAs for 25 yrs & I hear about this every day. (Adult-children of abusers, alcoholics, abandoners…) We have to let them go & accept that we can’t get our needs met from them – ever!

    Forgiveness is NOT the first step in the journey – only the last! First comes understanding & then acceptance of what did & may continue to actually be happening. Then learning what terrible toxic messages we had to swallow and change them into life-affirming ones. Also, feel all the painful emotions, in safe ways, so they don’t corrode our body & mind.
    Self-esteem is hard won when our parents can’t love us, but it’s the only way out.
    Thanks for your post.

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