You can’t pick your parents, but that doesn’t mean you have to have a relationship with them. Sometimes it’s necessary for adult children to separate themselves from their abusive parents, but finding support in the process can be difficult, says Lynn Beisner.
My mother-in-law, Joan, was best described by my brother-in-law as “casually cruel.” In other words, she did not devise cruel plots. Cruel words just sprung out of her in much the same way that a person with a dirty mind throws out double-entendres.
Joan was in especially good form at weddings. At the wedding of Debbie, her youngest daughter, Joan walked up to the bride just as she was about to walk down the aisle. In front of the entire bridal party, Joan said, “I can’t believe you are wearing white, but never mind that. I just hope this will finally put a stop to all your whoring around.” It took over half an hour to get my sister-in-law to stop sobbing and to repair her makeup. That knocked off the schedule, and effectively ruined Debbie’s $15,000 dream wedding.
At our wedding, Joan didn’t get a chance to see me before the ceremony. So she saved her delightful zinger for the toast: “Well, Pete could have done a whole lot better. But for reasons I’ll never understand, he chose Lynn. So, here’s to them having as good of a life as possible under the circumstances.” We had all exchanged awkward glances and were taking a quick sip when she remembered what she had really wanted to say, “Oh, I gave you guys a meat-cleaver. I figured that since she is going to castrate you anyway, she might as well make a clean job of it.” I laughed out of sheer hysteria, and everyone joined in assuming it was some sort of in-joke.
My husband reacted to his mother’s toast by giving me the best wedding gift I can imagine. He waited until his mother was leaving the reception, before pulling her aside. As he hugged her, he quietly whispered in her ear: “You are not welcome in my home, and you will not see me or my children until I have reason to believe that you will treat my wife with the kindness and respect she deserves.” Then he kissed her lightly on the cheek and said “good-bye.” That was the last time he ever saw her.
In the years that followed, I watched from a distance as Joan created havoc and pain in the marriages and lives of Pete’s siblings. And while I don’t know for sure that our marriage would have been killed by Joan, I am absolutely certain Pete did it and us a great service by excluding her from our lives.
Despite the hateful way Joan treated Pete’s siblings and their spouses, everyone was very critical of Pete for divorcing his mother. Even Pete’s step-mother, who had no respect or kind word for Joan, pressured Pete to have some contact with his mother other than the cards and gifts he sent for holidays and birthdays. Invariably they would say, “If you don’t make up with her, you are going to be filled with regret and remorse. One day she is going to die and when that happens you will hate yourself for having kept her out of your life.”
This week marks the third anniversary of Joan’s death. She had a stroke, and died a couple days later. I braced myself, but none of the predicted emotions followed. Pete felt sad for her and for himself that the only way he could protect his wife and his children from her cruelty was divorcing her. But Pete has felt no regret, no remorse, and no self-hatred. His siblings and extended family, however, consider him an unspeakably horrible person.
I was thinking about Joan this week when I read an article by Joanna Molloy entitled, “Daughters dump Demi in eerie repeat of her own troubled family saga; other celebs who broke up with mom.” In the article, Malloy blasted Demi Moore, her daughters, and Jennifer Aniston for the same traitorous sin: all had at one point or another cut ties with their mothers.
I will admit, I am no expert on Demi Moore’s personal life, but according to what Malloy reports, Demi is experiencing a relapse. Her daughters are distressed by their mother’s behavior and her overwhelming neediness. Malloy responds to their pain with a snarky and flippant “poor babies.” This is Demi’s hour of greatest need, Malloy asserts, and for her daughters to not be there is treasonous. But it is also the “Karma Credit Bureau paying Demi back for how she treated her own mom.”
In the past week, I have been reading a lot about parental estrangement. There is virtually no support for children making tough choices, not even online. A couple of books for adult children of toxic parents claim that divorce might be an absolute last option, or might be appropriate in cases of severe abuse. Of course, that leaves one wondering exactly what is “a last resort” and what comprises severe enough abuse for an adult child to walk away? Most mental health workers urge adult children to forgive and reconcile. Estrangement does not even help, according to some like Dr. Eleanor Mallach Bromberg: ”You can only be physically estranged from your parents; you can’t feel psychologically free from them.”
However, there is no shortage of books, support groups and online groups for parents deprived of something they believe themselves entitled to: a relationship with their adult children. Even in publications like the New York Times, parents are depicted as innocent victims and adult children are shamed and their pain is dismissed as “issues of pride…often minor, petty things.”
About six months after Joan’s death, I became estranged from my own mother. It was a difficult decision and it has been a very painful process. I have had very little support, except from my husband and children who actually asked me to separate myself from her.
Adult children are often warned that divorcing their parents will comeback to haunt them. We are told that we will pay in regret and self-loathing or that we will loose our relationship with our own children.”If you’re estranged from your parents, the odds are your children will become estranged from you once they become adults,” Dr. Gershenfeld said. ”That’s the model they’re learning.”
Having watched Pete go through his mother’s death, I no longer worry that I will be hit by waves of agonizing remorse. But as the parent of young adults, I worry about becoming alienated from them. I am especially concerned because they have watched Pete and now me become estranged from our mothers.
On the other hand, perhaps I am modeling more valuable lessons: No adult is entitled to a relationship with another person. There is no relationship so sacred that it cannot and should not be destroyed by abuse, cruelty, and backbiting. If we want to be loved, we must act lovingly.