Is “Divorcing” a Toxic Parent the Best Strategy?

Unfortunately, we carry our parents around with us in our heads.

Posted Feb 02, 2018

A couple of years ago, I received a very interesting letter in response to my posts that make the recommendation to adult victims of abusive families that they find a therapist who can help them confront their abusive parents about the family dynamics in ways that get the parents to stop any ongoing dysfunctional interactions. A therapist actually fired the writer from his practice because the patient did not want to divorce her mother!

As I have said repeatedly, I never recommend that patients continue to be abused by their families. However, I do not think that divorcing your family is the only other option, and it is certainly not the best option. This is because, unfortunately, you continue to carry your parents around with you in your head for the rest of your life. 

Fear tracts and other tracts in the brain's limbic system that determine the way we all normally respond to the interpersonal environment — and that are highly resistant to fading away through the normal processes of neural plasticity — come from, and respond more strongly to, one's parents than to anything else in the environment. 

It does not take much parental contact at all to reinforce them — even once every few years might do it. Contact from other family members in which messages about the parents are provided also works quite nicely in this regard. In fact, anyone else who behaves in any way that is even somewhat analogous to the way the parents behave will also trigger and reinforce them — and the pathways are very powerful in shaping our usual behavior.

Not only that, but they tend to determine what sort of partners we choose. We are more likely to be attracted to the familiar but uncomfortable than we are to the unfamiliar even if comfortable.

Additionally, even if you stop interacting with parents altogether, if you have children of your own you will remain at very high risk of passing on repetitive dysfunctional interactions to your own children despite your best efforts. Often people try to go to the opposite extreme from their parents in the way they interact with their children, yet end up with kids with exactly the same problems, as described here.

Other children from abusive or neglectful households just decide never to have children themselves for fear that they might turn out acting just like their own parents.

As mentioned, divorcing a family and continuing to be abused are not the only two options. There is a third: the one I mentioned in the first paragraph above. It is certainly not an easy thing to accomplish, or patients would have done it themselves long ago. It takes a lot of patience and persistence. And doing it badly is worse than not doing it at all. Nonetheless, with one's family of origin members, where there is a will, there is a way.

Briefly, the process involves first coming to an understanding of why parents are acting in the way they do. The development of problematic patterns usually takes place over at least three generations in response to rapid cultural changes which makes the rules by which a family had been successfully operating obsolete.

Families who have become stuck with the now dysfunctional family rules have not been able to keep up with new cultural demands. The individual members then become conflicted over following the family rules in their own heads, and in response start giving one another mixed messages about what behaviors are expected from them. The psychoanalytic concept of “intrapsychic conflict” is only partly correct. Said conflict is actually shared by the other members of the family

Understanding the family’s particular history of developing shared conflicts is achieved through the construction of something called a genogram. Patients are coached on how to research the family history in order to put their parents’ awful behaviors in a new light. (I will go into detail about this in a self-help book due to come out in November). This understanding can then be used to develop strategies designed to get past the parents' defensiveness and usual ways of getting their adult children to shut up. This eventually allows for real changes in the repetitive dysfunctional family interactions which trigger a patient’s problems.

Unfortunately, the majority of therapists these days do not really understand family dynamics at all, are unaware of the above risks involved in recommending a "divorce" from parents, and do not know the techniques for helping their patients overcome multiple resistances and invalidation from family members when the patients attempt to discuss family dynamics with parents in a constructive way.

In fact, just after I received the letter from the reader mentioned above and went on to answer it, I got an extremely nasty missive from a psychotherapist on this very subject. Perhaps it was even the reader's prior therapist. The letter read:

As a therapist, I can say you are an awful therapist; truly terrible. The best thing a person who has been abused as a child can do is get away from their parents, make peace with it. Suggesting that someone that has been abused goes back to the abuser and does the work to try and repair damage is abusive and shocking. I am shocked.

This therapist apparently thinks patients who were abused as children are just too weak and damaged to stand up to their family members. How invalidating! That's probably what the abusive parents think of their adult child as well.

Of course, I make sure that my patients have a safety plan for themselves (and their children) if the strategies we develop start to take a wrong turn, in which case we try to figure out what went wrong and how to get things back on track. I almost never give up. However, if a patient is putting their child in danger (like leaving a young one with a grandfather who had sexually abused the patient as a child), we have to work on that issue first.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of therapists who still believe that divorcing one's family is the best course. My recommendation in such a case is to find another therapist. Problematically, therapists familiar with dysfunctional family dynamics are getting harder and harder to find.