steps towards an angst free breakup with your parents
Yesterday, I remarked on twitter that I’d like to see more ppl who have current angst-free seperation from their parents. While I meant this to apply to fiction, the tweet makes it sound a lot more general. And I realized that maybe I could share how I came to this point and what worked for me.
First, though, the standard narrative in popular culture for abusive parents usually follows this structure:
- Parents are terrible in some important way.
- The abused child is now grown up.
- The now adult either continues to be abused via an ongoing relationship with their parents, or has ceased all contact.
- If the abused child has an ongoing relationship, then the narrative is usually confrontation, forgiveness, then reconciliation.
- If the abuse child has no current contact, then some crisis situation will force them into contact with their parents (or to confront their feelings if the situation is the death of the parents), then the narrative is usually confrontation, forgiveness, then reconciliation.
I hate this narrative. I think it contributes to abuse culture bc it sets out an expectation that if you had abusive parents, the ‘right’ thing to do is confront, forgive, and reconcile. And various tropes are deployed to ensure that these three things usually happen.
My least favourite stage of this all is the forgiveness one, because it instantiates so much abusive bullshit that I feel is hugely damaging to survivors/victims. But I’ll discuss why in the appropriate step!
Step 1: The only confrontation that matters
Perhaps my biggest issue with this step is that it usually means confronting the parents/abusers in some cathartic way that allows for healing/closer (ie, that allows the person to move to step 2). This is a problem because directly confronting your abusers can be incredibly dangerous, depending on the type of abuse. It is not uncommon for people to die when confronting/leaving their abusers. This is a real thing that happens.
Sure, in most of the narratives that I’m talking about (when the child is an adult, has survived, and escaped to some extent; rather than the narratives when it is ongoing or the character is still a child), this is somewhat less of a concern. But it still remains one. Because, yeah, I’ve read a lot of these stories where this final confrontation does lead to some physical/violent altercation.
So… fuck the idea that you need to directly confront your abusers. You do not. Fin.
However, what some narratives hit upon (usually the ones where the abuser has died and the character is forced to attend a funeral or whatever) is that confronting your feelings about the abuser is actually important. Of course, what I mean by this and what usually happens in books is not quite the same thing. What I’m really talking about is finally and really understanding that what you experienced was abuse and that it was wrong (about the only thing most pop narratives get right is enforcing the idea that being abused is not your fault – because it really really isn’t, fyi).
Why do I think this step is important? Because I really don’t think that much progress can be made in your own healing unless you really acknowledge the damage that was done. Maybe understand it (as in, how it impacted you, not understand why you were abused).
Further, as I discussed in my recent post about intergenerational abuse, where I quote a paper that states:
Child victims of maltreatment tend to blame themselves. The single most important modifying factor in intergenerational transmission of child abuse is the capacity of the child victim to grow up with the ability to face the reality of past and present personal relationships. (Oliver 1322).
So not only is truly acknowledging the reality of your experiences important for your own healing, it is perhaps the best way for you to ensure that you break the cycle of abuse (you know, the shitty one that pop culture also tells you that you are doomed to repeat).
I know from my own experiences, that I really really wasn’t able to adequately deal with my experiences of abuse (and how those impacted my contemporary relationships) until I was really able to say: “I was neglected and abused”. And this is literally something I couldn’t say until about four or five years ago (in my late 20s).
This step is really, really hard. Especially if your experiences aren’t the super extreme, sensationalized kind that most media characterizes as stereotypical abuse. This is other part of why popular media narratives of abuse can be so damaging. I know my own experiences weren’t really reflected much in the stories and media I consumed. I really thought that my childhood was mostly normal. Until I talked to someone who actually had a reasonably ‘normal’ childhood and seeing their reactions to the stuff that happened to me…
You basically have the idea that unless you were beat up every day by your dad (or mom) that you couldn’t have been physically abused. Popular narratives don’t really cover situations like mine where my dad hit us just enough when he was really angry, for us to understand that there was always a threat of violence, so we should never ever make him angry. This is still physical abuse (in addition to the emotional abuse re: constant threat of violence).
(tw: next paragraph for sexual abuse)
Or you have the idea that unless you were raped every day by your dad (or mom, uncle, family friend, etc), you couldn’t have been sexually abused. It doesn’t cover situations where your dad never touches you but makes inappropriately sexual comments about your body (none that denote a ‘desire’ for you, per se, but make it very clear that he does, indeed, view you in a sexual manner). This is also sexual abuse.
(tw for sexual abuse over)
So yes, confronting your abuse, naming it, understanding how it instantiated itself in your life, understanding how it has impacted you, recognizing your hurt and your pain, is hugely important.
Confronting your abusers? Meh. Do it if you really think you need to but you aren’t under any obligation to do so. Nor is it ‘necessary’ for your healing.
In my experience, it just gives them another opportunity to abuse you (often via gaslighting – ie, trying to convince you that your memories of what happened are incorrect or mistaken.).
Step 2: Never forgive and never forget.
Forgiveness is usually the most important part of the popular narrative around abuse. Most will usually say that forgiving your abuser is essential for your own healing. These same narratives usually frame being angry about your abuse as a ‘negative’ thing and something you need to get over.
Neither of these things is true. You do not need to forgive your abuser. You also can be as angry for as long as you want. Neither not forgiving nor being angry will make you as bad as your abuser. Nor do they mean that you’ll be doomed to become an abuser yourself (see previous section).
If you a part of a religion or adhere to some ethical code wherein forgiveness plays an important role? Great. Do that then.
But I even have an issue with the way that the path to forgiveness is usually shown in popular narratives, so perhaps keep this in mind if you decide to go this route.
The biggest problem with the popular narrative? That ‘forgiveness’ usually seems to hinge on justifying the abuse in some way. This is usally really subtle but is almost always a key component in the forgiveness step.
One of the clearest ways? Actually is the abuse cycle issue. Research does show that a high proportion of abusers have been abused themselves. So, in a lot of popular narratives, the victim will often get to a place of ‘understanding’ (in order to forgive) by some narrative revelation that your abuser was also abused. And this allows for the victim to understand and empathize… Which is fucked up and really amounts to a rationalization for why the abuse is, thus, ‘forgivable’.
The narratives that don’t do this, usually rely on the other indicators of abuse, the socio-economic ones. Class is the most common one (with the families usually being too rich or too poor – with an emphasis on the latter). So instead of the victim coming to ‘understand’ the abuser, they instead come to understand the circumstances, and thus are able to reach a place of forgiveness. This, of course, is still a rationalization.
You might be wondering why, exactly, these narratives to forgiveness are harmful. Especially since research has shown that a personal experience of abuse and certain socio-economic factors are actually highly correlated with abusers. Except these realities are useful for examining abuse as a sociological phenomenon. They should not be used in individual situations to ‘rationalise’ why the abuse happened.
Despite having knowledge of the above (knowing how either of my parents experienced abuse and knowing the socio-economic factors that were in play), I still cannot fucking understand how my parents could do what they did. Why? Because it doesn’t make any fucking sense.
Even more prevalent in pop culture than these abuse narratives, is the narrative and idea that parents should love and protect their children. A parent willfully not only not doing these things (neglect) but instead harming their kids (abuse)?
It. Doesn’t. Make. Sense. To. Me.
And it never will.
If you think that forgiveness is an important part of your healing process, than do it for yourself (which is present in some narratives).
Also? Forgiveness, imo, doens’t have to mean letting go of all your anger. In most narratives where victims are told that they should forgive their abusers for their own sake, it is usually because they are angry and that anger is shown to have destructive effects on their lives and relationships.
I’m not saying that anger about your abuse cannot be destructive in your life. If it is then, yes, it is probably something you ought to deal with. What I am saying, is that I don’t understand where this notion that forgiveness and anger are so intimately entwined that doing one necessitates the other. You can stop being angry and never forgive. You can also forgive and never stop being angry. You can do both. And you can do neither. Choose your own adventure.
Step 3: Peace is for the weak
Ah… the last step, reconciliation. I find it interesting that most of the examples in pop narratives of ‘forgiveness’ usually require some level of reconciliation. By this I mean, some allowing of the abuser back into the life of their victim (even if just concetually or emotionally). This step can also be represented by the victim coming to understand that there was some ‘good’ amongst all the bad.
To a certain extent, this step is predicated on the previous. Since it is unlikely that a person who hasn’t forgiven their abuser will actually want to reconcile (in any meaningful way). So if you’ve decided to never forgive, then you can likely skip this step.
If you do decide to forgive, then understand that this step isn’t necessary nor part of the forgiveness process. You do not, under any circumstances, need to continue to have a relationship (of any kind) with your abuser. This is the ‘never forget’ part of the previous step.
I don’t really believe in a forgiveness process which is basically wiping the slate and starting ‘fresh’. This really isn’t possible (and I think it runs contrary to the very crucial first step of confronting the reality of what happened). What happened, happened. You can forgive it, but it still happened and I’d think that if your abuser truly wishes for a reconciliation (that isn’t just more opportunities to continue to abuse you), that they’d also be willing to live with the reality that the past actually happened.
Of course… one of the key issues here is the ‘redemption’ narratives of abusers that are common in popular narratives. This narrative that your abuser will (maybe via the confrontation in the first step) recognize and take responsiblity for the harm they’ve caused you. And that they will then change a lifetime of behaviour and start doing what they should’ve done from the beginning (ie, not abuse you).
Does this unicorn exist? I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever communicated with an actual victim in real life where their abuser has done this. Yes, I’ve seen some abusers in real life claim that they’ve done this, but this step is about ‘reconciliation’ and is from the victim’s perspective. No victim I know (or have heard of) has actually had this kind of reconciliation with their abuser.
But. Yes. It could be possible. Unlikely, but possible. I think if you’re going to do this step then it really should be as detailed. There should be no ‘forgetting’ the past. You should be allowed to talk about it whenever and however you want, without your abuser accusing you of living in the past. All previous (and perhaps new) abusive behaviours should stop immediately. Yes. Immediately. I don’t think there should be any ‘wiggle’ room for the person to ‘learn’ how to not abuse you. Otherwise why bother if they are going to continue to hurt you?
An angst-free ending.
So my personal path was: confronting the reality, never forgiving, and never reconciling. And I feel great about it!
Part of getting to a place where I feel good about the fact that I will never ever speak to my parents ever again (or even go to their funerals to fulfill that popular narrative), was really getting into step 2.
I thought for years that it was important for me to forgive my parents. It caused me a lot of angst because I just couldn’t quite get there and it made me feel like a shitty person. But now that I truly understand that I don’t owe them my forgiveness? I’m at peace. And I have the space and emotional energy to actually work on healing from my experiences. Without the burden of spending my time thinking about my parents in the present.
And… for this, I talk about the justifications and intergenerational abuse this specifically bc this rationalization for why my mom abused me ensured that I prolonged my contact with her (thus, prolonged the time she was able to abuse me) precisely because I understood the ‘reasons’ for why she was the way she was. Heck, it fucked with my head to know that she was abused in more extreme ways than she ever did to me. My empathy for her experiences meant that she was able to continue harming me. And it prevented me from really dealing with the reality of my own experiences. Once I let this go too? This need to rationalize my experiences? A lot of my remaining angst disappeared.
Now? I don’t spend much time thinking about my parents (in real time, I think about my experiences but I focus on me and my feelings, rather than them). I have no desire to ever see my parents again. No feeling like I ‘should’ or that I’m awful for never wanting to. I don’t feel like I owe them an explanation for why I don’t want them in my life (re: no desire to ‘confront’ them about my abuse). No angst over being angry or not forgiving them.
Just me focusing on me and my own healing.