The Debt? (trigger warning)
January 25, 2015 10:09 AM   Subscribe

"In an essay in the New York Times, psychiatrist Richard Friedman writes that the relationship of adults to their abusive parents 'gets little, if any, attention in standard textbooks or in the psychiatric literature.' But Rochelle is not alone. I have been hearing from people in her position for years, adult children weighing whether to reconnect with parents who nearly ruined their lives. Sometimes it's a letter writer such as 'Comfortably Numb' who has cut off contact with a parent but is now being pressured by family members, and even a spouse, to reconcile and forgive. Sometimes a correspondent, like 'Her Son,' has hung on to a thread of a relationship, but is now fearful of being further yoked emotionally or financially to a declining parent." [SLSlate] (Trigger warning for descriptions of abuse.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (37 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
via (@wagatwe)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:11 AM on January 25, 2015

This a good, long, uncomfortable read.

I would love for people to keep this article in mind when chatting with others that they don't know well. When you ask someone what they did for the holidays, for example, and they answer that they visited their parents, maybe *don't* make assumptions by replying with things like "Oh, that's great! You must have had a wonderful time." For a lot of people, that's not just awkward; it's mortifying, guilt-inducing, saddening, enraging, heartbreaking.
posted by wintersweet at 10:29 AM on January 25, 2015 [25 favorites]

Also previously on MeFi in a comment on "Is Forgiveness Overrated?"

Worth mentioning that this piece is by Slate's Emily Yoffe.

Friedman's piece at the NYT.
posted by fraula at 10:29 AM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Key quote: "People who have the capacity to ruthlessly maltreat their children tend toward self-justification, not shame."

Aging often doesn't bring enlightening or remorse or reframing of events; it usually means entrenchment.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:37 AM on January 25, 2015 [52 favorites]

I had an enlightening conversation with my elderly, Alzheimer's-suffering mother a few months ago in which she said she didn't understand why I was holding on to what she clearly felt was an unfair grudge for what would now be considered a lot of emotional abuse as well as some physical abuse (hitting not in the context of spanking). She said that it wasn't like she ever broke any bones or anything so she didn't understand what my problem was nor why I didn't just get over it.

I never cut off contact or anything--the several months when we weren't speaking was solely because she said she'd never speak to me again if I moved in with my boyfriend (I was 30 and divorced)--but I definitely relate to a lot of what was said. I won't abandon my mother, but I keep her at the distance I need for my own sanity.
posted by immlass at 10:44 AM on January 25, 2015 [17 favorites]

From the Slate article
"In a 2008 essay in the journal In Character, history professor Wilfred McClay writes that as a society we have twisted the meaning of forgiveness into a therapeutic act for the victim: “[F]orgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards of justice without which such transactions have no meaning.”

I had never thought about forgiveness this way before, and this passage makes so much sense. In so many conversations, if you're not willing to forgive the person who hurt you, then you become the one causing yourself pain. The original transgressions get forgotten because your inability to move beyond them makes you responsible for your lasting trauma. And that's just bullshit.
posted by bibliowench at 10:45 AM on January 25, 2015 [80 favorites]

Great article. Reminds me of a couple of people I know who cut off contact with their parents and were vague about the reasons. At the time I assumed the adult children were in the wrong, but reading some of the more horrific examples of abuse in the article... ugh. Makes me wonder if some of those vague "Oh, they just weren't very good parents" explanations were glossing over something much harder to talk about.
posted by bunderful at 10:50 AM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is a good read.

My sister and I talk quite a bit about boundaries with our mother--how close we let her get without making ourselves vulnerable to her still-sometimes-emotionally-abusive ways. It's hard because we love her, will always love her, but the degree of parentification we weather on our contact with her even now can be staggering. She has good qualities, of course, but will never admit to the hurt she caused. Which is another hurtful thing piled onto the years of hurtful things.

Having a daughter now, the idea of hurting her in similar ways is just staggering. She is just a year old, dances and grins when I walk into a room. Yes, her needs can be overwhelming at times--part of what my mother always struggled with were our emotions--but I am never not aware of just how powerful I am and the potential for even small careless actions hurting her is huge, much less a potential for greater malice.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:26 AM on January 25, 2015 [22 favorites]

From the Friedman piece in the NY Times:
"But just as there are ordinary good-enough parents who mysteriously produce a difficult child, there are some decent people who have the misfortune of having a truly toxic parent."

I hate his framing here. Like we should only be empathetic to survivors of childhood abuse if they turn out ok in spite of the abuse? Horrid.

I'm not a huge fan of Emily Yoffe, but she wrote quite sensitively about the problem. I want to make everyone read it.
posted by stowaway at 11:35 AM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

It's seems to be an under-acknowledged fact that giving birth to a child is a morally fraught one. You're creating a series of demands with another person that had no ability to consent to entering into that relationship. I would argue a person who doesn't exist cannot owe a moral obligation to anyone.

If someone walked up to you and said "I entered us into a contract, without your knowledge or consent, where you have to drive me around at all times at my discretion" you would rightly reject that contract. Yet this is pretty much the same circumstance for the child. I strongly reject the thinking that children owe their parents anything. They did not ask to be born, they did not ask to be raised. The parental decision to birth a child is purely a selfish one (as opposed to adopting one, say); as such, the parent owes the child everything in terms of the moral duties and obligations. I would say the child owes nothing morally to a parent above and beyond the typical duties we owe to each other as human beings, especially forgiveness for maltreatment.
posted by shen1138 at 11:50 AM on January 25, 2015 [45 favorites]

I hate his framing here. Like we should only be empathetic to survivors of childhood abuse if they turn out ok in spite of the abuse? Horrid.

Not only that but the implication that having an abusive parent is simply a "misfortune," like the opposite of a lottery win, about which the abused child should just shrug his or her shoulders and move on, as though unscathed -- the sense seeming to be that the parents bear little responsibility and are simply to be labeled "toxic parents," like a bottle of floor cleaner underneath the sink that a toddler accidentally happens upon, opens, and swallows.

And then there's the sentiment that his patients who come in with unresolved issues from their childhood are "whining" about it, even though in the next breath he admits that their "whining" keeps him "dutifully employed." Absolutely repugnant.
posted by blucevalo at 11:57 AM on January 25, 2015 [19 favorites]

Yes. The ambivalence of abusive early attachment.

As a queer of a certain age, my distance from biological family is common, even though their distaste for my "lifestyle" is not the main rupture. Nonetheless, it's helpful to be in a community where chosen family is the norm and we take care of each other while trying to heal ourselves, too.

When I re-entered the Jewish mainstream, it was challenging to create social understanding of why I am not in touch with my parents/sibling. Why I will let clergy and friends know in my own good time if, ever, I want to reconcile with mean people who have not stopped being mean. And why we, as a religious tradition, need to use every metaphor possible to describe the relationships of people to each other, and people with deity, without privileging parent/child or heterosexual partners. Because every time time I hear those traditional similes, I feel as if even modern, egalitarian Judaism is just another way for abusers and bigots to justify intimate evil by making it godly.

I'm in my early 50s and my folks are in good health for their ages; they've long outlived their own parents. If I don't see them or talk to them again before they go, I'm currently fine with that. I assume my sister will inherit everything, which she deserves for putting up with those people (and presumably taking care of them in old age). Broke as I am, I'm fine with that as well. Because being middle-aged, queer, disabled and poor is still better than dealing with the a**holes who raised me.
posted by Dreidl at 12:07 PM on January 25, 2015 [21 favorites]

I have a warm, if somewhat-distant, relationship with my parents now, but it's one I had to reframe for myself after years of emotional abuse. I don't hate them or wish anything bad on them, but I also don't feel any love or affection towards them. I think of them as long-time acquaintances rather than family -- the kind of people I'd share news or a meal with, but our lives don't overlap any further. That is the legacy of their behaviour during my childhood and adolescence. They know this and they also know that they need to make end-of-life plans that don't rely on any help from me. Writing this out, I know I sound cold and unfeeling. I'm not, though. I'd just rather use my limited resources to help the truly wonderful family I've built for myself than the family I got by birth.
posted by atropos at 12:11 PM on January 25, 2015 [19 favorites]

BTW, Emily Yoffe is a particularly apt person to write the Slate take on the NYT piece, as she has publicly mentioned her father was both mentally ill and abusive. She also has some knowledge of the Jewish tradition of how to balance family duty with self-preservation - which allows (but does not encourage) offspring to stay away from inappropriate parents, as long as the kids do what they're able to help support the parent financially, if necessary.
posted by Dreidl at 12:14 PM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Not to hijack the discussion, but: what resources exist to help adults escape this kind of abuse (particularly for poor or disabled victims)? "Resources" in a very broad sense; possible social services, healthy habits, support groups and therapy, education and training, etc. Anything beyond useless motivational advice. Asking for way too many people.
posted by byanyothername at 12:19 PM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

I've always wanted to end a conversation with my sister—a narcissistic, emotionally abusive parent—like this.
posted by Knappster at 12:42 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

patients who come in with unresolved issues from their childhood are "whining" about it

that would be like calling my childhood memories of my father screaming as cancer broke his bones "Daddy issues"
posted by thelonius at 12:47 PM on January 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

We recently had a similar thread about cut-off parents. I would encourage anyone who is dealing with the issues mentioned here to go back and read it.
posted by almostmanda at 1:09 PM on January 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

previously (same trigger warnings as the OP here)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:09 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:09 PM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

How my mother managed to overcome a childhood of emotional abuse and raise human, fallible me with as close to unconditional regard as is conceivable is a wonderful mystery to me. I don't know what it takes to break the cycle, but it can be done, and I am grateful for it.
posted by thebrokedown at 1:19 PM on January 25, 2015 [28 favorites]

I wonder if I have an idiosyncratic definition of forgiveness, because I think of forgiveness as something that can easily coexist with estrangement, while this article seems to treat them as inherently inconsistent. I've always though "forgive and forget" was a useful phrase because it recognizes the separateness of forgiving someone and forgetting what they've done. I've forgiven my mother for the harm she's caused me, but I haven't forgotten it, and I'm not willing to allow it to resume.
posted by heisenberg at 1:21 PM on January 25, 2015 [24 favorites]

"Forgive and forget" - the mantra of those who want absolution without the effort of reform. It does at least recognize a distinction, but then urges us to ignore it.
posted by mmiddle at 1:27 PM on January 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

Loved ones and friends—sometimes even therapists—who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged.

For some of us if the perpetrator dies the most powerful feeling will be an enormous relief. For one thing, I could stop worrying about punitive filial responsibility laws further victimizing me.
posted by winna at 1:27 PM on January 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

How are those laws even remotely just? You decided to fuck, not me, I don't owe you anything.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:30 PM on January 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

I've known a lot of people who have had to cut off abusive family members, and no one I've known has ever done it lightly. It's a hard decision to make, it's embarrassing to talk about, and the pressure from other people to reconcile is frankly cruel and only benefits the abuser. For the friends I've talked to while they were in the process of trying to establish a minimum safe distance or make the decision to cut someone off, it's usually gone far past the point where my only question is why they haven't done it sooner.
posted by bile and syntax at 1:43 PM on January 25, 2015 [14 favorites]

The Family Structure can be an outdated bureaucracy that remains inane to participate in if your position is low on the totem pole. Sometimes you just don't see eye to eye. And sometimes our elders never learn/grow/change or have anything to teach us other than how NOT to be. Free yourself from traditional definitions of Family. Trust that because you decide your own rules within the traditional Family Structure you will not fall off the moral deep-end.
posted by Emor at 2:46 PM on January 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's a hard decision to make, it's embarrassing to talk about, and the pressure from other people to reconcile is frankly cruel and only benefits the abuser.

Good lord yes. As someone said up-thread, it's excruciating when people ask me whether I'm going home for the holidays and I say no. I imagine at the height of the Red Scare people got similar side-eye when they admitted having read Das Kapital. I could lie and say yes I'm going home it will be great, but sometimes I forget and tell the truth.

Also what is embarrassing is when people deal with the awkwardness by turning what bits of information you give them in explanation into a joke or a freak show. 'Ha! Yes, winn hates her family, they're all so terrible' is really not much better than 'oh my god you monster FAMILY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER' from a humiliation standpoint.
posted by winna at 3:03 PM on January 25, 2015 [9 favorites]

The notion that children owe something to their parents for their own conception, birth and early care is a pretty bizarre human trait to me -- always has been. All of that is outside of the child's control and decisions pertaining to them are made without their input. Everything is decided by the parents and assumes they raise their offspring in such a way as to provide the best head-start in life. Other species try to raise their offspring in such a way too -- never expecting any sort of reciprocation when the parents age. So why do humans believe our offspring 'owe' us something for it? Perhaps parents, aware of shortcomings in raising their children, resort to the concept of debt (and the guilt that comes along with it) in fear that no one will be around to care for them when they are elderly. Guilt is a potent method of control, manipulation and motivation, after all.

That said I have a fairly ambivalent relationship with my own parents. The ambivalence doesn't mean there's an absence of love -- on the contrary, I love my parents and wish them nothing but happiness; I acknowledge they did the best they could at the time as young, inexperienced people (both from poor, abusive households) with 3 unplanned kids. But I also recognize that there's a definite lack of closeness as a result of the turbulence I experienced growing up. I'm a transguy too and though I managed to transition while still living at home, my parents were controlling and largely not supportive. They had always been emotionally inattentive (focused on themselves; my siblings) but the emotional distance grew significantly during that time and seemed to widen further after I got tired of being treated as though I had died (or was a shameful secret to be spoken of/to as little as possible) and when we moved to opposite sides of the country from one another (my decision; they didn't approve).

I've now accepted that I will never have the relationship with my parents that other people seem to have with theirs. I am detached because I have to be... so that I can live my life and not be pulled into the familiar dysfunction of theirs. At first there was a sense of shame I felt, as many cultures place high value on the child-parent bond--- even if those parents are toxic. But now I firmly believe that an individual's well-being trumps archaic notions of blood-relation loyalty, even if it means establishing boundaries or removing the parental relationship from your life entirely.
posted by stubbehtail at 3:14 PM on January 25, 2015 [12 favorites]

This is an important thing for me to see right now.

I felt like it was strange to figure out that my childhood was abusive a whole dozen years after I left home. I had some weird assumption that abuse is a bright clear line that's somehow obvious to everyone including the abused. It's not. I was never sent to the hospital, I never had bones broken or had cigarettes put out on my skin, I had never been sexually molested, but there's no other word for it but abuse. And I know, just like I've always known, that it's wrong to hit children. That hitting people is not ok. But I figured out why I couldn't see the abuse as being abuse: when she would hit me, it made me feel like I wasn't a person. These rules of human conduct did not apply between her and I; I was loathsome and awful and deserved it.

At about the same time I realized I had been abused, I realized I had cut everybody out of my life except for my partner. All my friends, all the remaining family I had been contact with. Deleted Facebook and basically went to work, the gym, and on errands. I realized that I was consumed with toxic shame. My symptoms and coping mechanisms are pretty much synonymous with the definition of avoidant personality disorder. I don't much identify with it, because a lot of my avoidance these days is consciously chosen. While it's not... fantastic that I've cut myself off from humanity (excepting my lover and, uh, Metafilter. Hiya.), it's proven to be a self nurturing strategy, not a self-destructive one. I'm intimately familiar with self-destruction; I lost the entirety of my 20s to shame and anxiety and depression. While I figure out how to interact without internalizing and ignoring torturous levels of shame and fear, I'm not subjecting myself to it.

I haven't gotten much push back from others regarding cutting off my parents mainly because I've not told too many people. That whole isolation thing. However, it's a constant fear. I know what a cult the ideal of family connectedness is (even amongst people who have cut their own family members out of their lives!), and I'm always expecting pushback on my decision to be out of contact.

My mother almost certainly has a personality disorder of some description. She'll never give an apology for the abuse she committed; she won't understand it. I'm not actually mad at her, mainly because it's clear she herself was so abused that she cannot see anything in her emotional life without crippling fear and thus, rage. When I tried to tell my father how difficult living with my mom was, without siblings, with him at work until 9pm every night he wasn't traveling for business, without even kids within a 15 minute bike-ride radius, he told me "If you think it was hard for you, I was married to her!" Yes, it was much worse to be a grown adult with a job who could divorce his wife than it was to be a dependent child at the mercy of a deeply broken woman.

My dad keeps sending me emails. I can tell because occasionally they come up in gmail searches; I've had them automatically shunted into my email archive for quite a while, now. My partner just this week informed me that he was threatening to call in a welfare check to the cops, and honestly, I would prefer telling the cops that I'm safe than I would be telling him. And I really, really don't trust cops farther than I can throw them.

I'm just about happier and healthier than I've ever been, and I seem to keep getting better. Proper medication has helped. I've been through something like 8 different ones. Something like four different psychiatrists. At last count, I've had at least one session with 8 different therapists (one of whom is a treasure who really helped keep me afloat. Five years after my last session with her, I've almost paid off my bill from our sessions. I'm not complaining, she's charged me no interest). Writing in a journal has helped, and exercise has helped---for the first time in my life, i can jog over a mile without it ending in nausea and tunnel vision. I don't think I could've made any of these positive strides without avoiding re-triggering myself.

I'm not the only one of her children who's cut her out of her life, either. My half-brother disappeared last year. Stopped paying ruinous child-support to the wife who cheated on him repeatedly and ended up marrying a rich dude with a literal mansion. Stopped working. Stopped living in his bachelor apartment. Went off the radar. I should probably feel bad about it, he is my brother, but I think I've talked to him literally two dozen times in my life. We were not close. My maternal half-sister I was closer to, but she's not well. Last I heard/saw, she was a functional alcoholic. Hope her kids are OK. My dad's three daughters I haven't really heard from in 4 years; they're all successful and leading fun lives far away from our father's new wife and life. Cutting off contact with vast swaths of family is a family tradition by now. I've barely met any of my aunts and uncles.

I'm not sure why I wrote all this, but it felt good to do so.
posted by wires at 4:51 PM on January 25, 2015 [42 favorites]

For one thing, I could stop worrying about punitive filial responsibility laws further victimizing me.

Well that was a horrific, frantic 5 minutes of googling if my state was one of the 30.

I have some contrition of what I will do when my parents are old. My father, fuck him. But what if my mother wants emotional support when he passes? My mother, whom I only rarely talk to because I just don't trust her to be horrible. She never hit me like my father, but I'm coming to realize she treated me really terribly in her own way, and many of those scars were much deeper. I was the "bad" one and I could never do anything right. No; I don't think I'll be able to help when the time comes.

I often want to just pick up and move to another state; and not tell my family. My mother would be the only one I told anyway, but the idea of just disappearing and never having to deal with the icky end of life stuff with parents who I don't want in my life would be wonderful. Bonus, no more guilt-filled letters suggesting I reconcile with my abusive father from my super religious and lonely aunt! Downside, leaving behind the non-family support network I've built here.

It's a hard decision to make, it's embarrassing to talk about, and the pressure from other people to reconcile is frankly cruel and only benefits the abuser.

Seconding this. I dreaded this question for years and for a very long time would lie about my holiday "with my family". Sometimes I'd say the weather was bad and holiday dinner was at grandmas farm which was too far away to go (ignoring the local dinner with the other side of the family). Now I joke about it; and it's been a bit of a relief to be honest about it when asked if I visited family oh god no, they're crazy pants both answers it nicely without inviting prying questions, except for the really nosy. Or I just explain that my husband and I had a great holiday together (though this is more likely to get follow up questions.) Even with these "new" ways of answering, I still default to lying about my holidays with family when I'm feeling really insecure. And all still make me feel incredibly broken because I'm not like my peers.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 5:30 PM on January 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

I think what was worse than the emotional, verbal, and physical abuse and later gaslighting of it by my parents was the denial of it by sister who claims my mother was amazing.

My sister went to college and never came home again. The first summer break she told my mom she was staying on campus as part of some equine program and instead moved into a boarding house nearby and didn't fess up until my mom went up to visit part way through summer.

She never introduced her friends unless we were there and it couldn't be avoided. Never met boyfriends until they asked about us, etc. Once my mom was in the hospital for a month and then in medical rehab for three and she visited mom exactly twice, and with a friend present as a chaperone.

But I'm the dramatic, over-medicated loser who doesn't appreciate our sainted mother.

Nothing can screw you up like family.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 8:01 PM on January 25, 2015 [18 favorites]

Thank you for posting this article. I really needed to read it today.
posted by k_nemesis at 6:20 AM on January 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

This is a subject that has been on my mind a lot lately. My mother is narcissistic and passive-aggressive to the extreme. I'm not sure if it would qualify as emotional "abuse", but it skirts very close at times.

My brother, stepdad and myself all have to walk on eggshells around her for fear of provoking one of her passive-aggressive episodes, in which she will be so very hurt by our behavior, which will range on a scale from inconsiderate to intentionally hurting her. My stepdad told me once that he went to go have a workout and she didn't speak to him for two days because she felt he should be doing something else.

In her most recent episode, she decided that my wife had intentionally tried to hurt her by buying a specific toy for my son before my mother could buy it for Xmas. I only found out about it because my stepdad emailed me. Fortunately my wife is very diplomatic and called to give an apology, which seemed to smooth things over.

I have on multiple occasions in the past considered breaking contact with her. But her behavior is very Jekyll/Hyde. When she's in a good mood, she can be a pleasure to be around. She is wonderful with my son and dotes on him.

And also there is the issue of money. My parents are very well off, due to my stepdad's career as a heart surgeon. I stand to inherit a significant amount. In light of the fact that I will never make enough money to retire, I am resigned to just deal with her behavior to insure my future, and my son's.

I have recently been seeing a therapist to help me deal with the emotional stress of 40 years. I certainly can't blame anyone for cutting off someone whose presence brings only pain.
posted by Fleebnork at 7:07 AM on January 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

Just because you are related to someone DOES NOT mean you are obligated to have a relationship with them!
posted by Gwynarra at 3:22 PM on January 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

Thank you for posting this article. I really needed to read it today.
posted by k_nemesis at 8:20 AM on January 26 [2 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]

Seconded. After having a daughter I'm just coming to terms with the many, many ways my mother failed me, and as a BONUS I'm trying to help my husband understand that he is acting JUST LIKE his Narcissistic alcoholic dad and that if he doesn't knock it off he's going to lose another wife and daughter...
posted by polly_dactyl at 3:47 PM on January 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

This FPP ties in with some answers to a question a while ago on Ask. One of the posters there suggested a book on Complex-PTSD. C-PTSD is initiated through emotional abuse and neglect in the early years of child-hood. If some of you reading this thread are troubled in a complex way that you are reluctant to label abuse but it sure feels like something's wrong, then maybe have a look at the book or some of the articles, e.g.(pdf), on the author's website.
posted by Kerasia at 6:34 PM on January 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

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