So You've Decided to Limit Contact With a Parent. Here Are 5 Things You Should Know.
One of the great myths regarding adult parent/child estrangement is that adult children are somehow impulsively cutting off their parents. This myth seems to stem from the fact that to the parent it may very well seem to be abrupt, but that’s because they have failed to see how frequently that adult child has tried to repair the relationship. And that failure is what ultimately has led the adult child to make this difficult and painful choice.
My story is no different. I can honestly say that my first attempts to repair my relationship with my mom began over 24 years ago. Prior to getting married, my husband and I sought pre-marital counseling to be proactive and one of the themes that had already emerged as a potential issue was my mother. We needed her to cut the proverbial umbilical cord and set me free so that I could be in a committed and dedicated relationship with my soon-to-be husband. So we brought her to a couple of counseling sessions to voice our concerns. She made some promises to back off and give us space and we left it at that.
As time went on, her involvement, nay insertion, into our marriage became more and more problematic. She simply couldn’t let go of the overly enmeshed relationship we had shared my entire life. It was the only way she knew to exist in this world and it was suffocating.
Over the years, I have tried practically everything to address the issue. I tried finding her a therapist numerous times and attended sessions with her to try to negotiate my needs for autonomy, but she always felt attacked and would stop going. I tried discussing her mental health issues and prescription pain medication addiction with her doctor on numerous occasions to no avail. I tried helping her financially, but it seemed like no matter how much money we gave her she was always in trouble. I tried establishing boundaries in every permutation that I could, but she didn’t understand that they were not negotiable, not flexible and permanent, and she saw them as punishment or a sign of my not loving her rather than a way of asserting what I need. I tried scheduling get-togethers, including taking her to concerts to see her favorite singer and even taking her to Vegas for a week for her 60th birthday to make her feel special, a trip that ended up being an exercise in my having to babysit her because she is a gambling addict and was impulsively spending all of her money on slot machines rather than enjoying any time with me.
Frankly, it became exhausting and I felt defeated and frustrated. By the time I finally had had enough, I had become her power of attorney and was completely managing all of her finances, including paying her bills. She was living rent-free in a house we bought, I was managing her and my grandmother’s affairs (personal and legal) and I was getting bombarded almost daily with lists of things that she needed that I was supposed to drop everything to do even though I was running my own business and trying to be at least a somewhat decent wife to my extremely patient husband.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when she started going behind my back and asking my personal friends to borrow money and to not tell me while spending her allowance playing slot machines at a local gambling facility. I had had it. I was having constant panic attacks, my stomach hurt nonstop, I was moody with my husband, and anytime I was around her I felt like my skin was crawling and I needed to immediately escape. My therapist at the time suggested I needed to take a step back from her, establish text-only communication for handling her financial issues, and ask her to not show up at my home uninvited. And that’s exactly what I did. Did she like it? Hell no. Do I for one minute regret it? Also hell no.
But the process of limiting contact with my mother came with a host of ramifications I had never considered and was not prepared for. Seemingly overnight, I went from being the best daughter in the world in the eyes of friends and family to being some kind of selfish demon child who was mean and had been brainwashed by her therapist. And messages from complete strangers weren’t any better. I was constantly bombarded by tropes like “You only have one mother,” “Anger is toxic,” “Forgiveness will heal you,” and “Blood is thicker than water.” They flooded me like a tsunami, overwhelming me and threatening to suck me out into the sea of emotional death. And finding supportive others who “got it” took time.
So, my dear reader, if you have also been on this roller coaster ride of a journey and have come to the conclusion that it’s time to take a break or permanently part ways with your parent, let me be the first cheerleader you have on making this tough decision. I applaud you, I admire you and I’m here to support you. But I have a few words of advice to share with you as you embark on this arduous journey.
1. You may lose friends and family because of your decision, but that’s about them, not you.
Often the adult child who limits contact will be vilified by the family of origin and extended family friends. They have existed in a system that has preserved a status quo for what has likely been generations. In fact, the somewhat toxic pattern of behaviors that your parent is exhibiting was likely born from and reinforced by the familial system. By challenging it, you are challenging the whole unit and forcing others to re-evaluate the system and themselves, something they might not be ready to do. And that’s not your problem. You are the brave one who dared to see beyond what has always been and have realized that there’s something much better that could be in the future. Give yourself a pat on the back for having the courage to do what nobody before you could do.
2. Some people will say harsh things to you and cross-examine you like you are a serial killer on trial for your choice… don’t take it.
I can’t tell you how many texts, emails, DMs, and calls I got from relatives with varying degrees of concern to what I’d almost call harassment for my decision. On the night of my grandmother’s death, as I was dealing with the hospital, coroner, and funeral home and attempting to take care of my grief-stricken mother, I had people telling me, “Be nice to your mother… don’t be mean… I hope you will take care of your mom,” etc., etc., etc. Hardly anyone inquired until much later as to how I was doing. It was all about her. I felt like I was completely alone in navigating one of the worst experiences of my life because I was the bad guy. I finally had to tell people to back off and that I was doing the best I could. It was the only way for me to tune out the noise, do what I had to do, and do so in a way that felt safe for me.
3. Navigating family events will become extremely difficult.
Weddings, holidays, baby showers, funerals… all of these events will suddenly become potential war zones. If both you and your parent are invited, you will have to decide whether or not you are able to be at the event together while upholding your boundaries. And, you will have to be prepared for the fact that at those events you will not only be scrutinized, but people will also make well-intentioned attempts to get you and your parent to talk. You may have to let your relatives know that you will only attend on the condition that they respect your boundaries and make every effort to assist you in upholding them.
There may come a time when you won’t even get an invitation to an important event because they decided to invite your parent and were uncomfortable about your decision to limit contact. I can tell you that when this happens, and it will, it’s going to hurt. It’s a kind of slap on the face that feels like it’ll never stop stinging. And you’ll feel rejected and alone and it sucks. But the alternative of re-establishing contact or making an exception for one day isn’t worth it. As they say, give them (the parent) an inch, they’ll take a mile.
4. Certain dates, like birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day will become triggering.
Especially in a world dominated by social media, some holidays can be excruciating to endure once you’ve limited contact with a parent. For me, Mother’s Day is particularly difficult. Seeing all of my friends post glowing, loving tributes to their mothers hurts in a way that I can’t even explain. It’s a gut-level hurt that feels like every organ in my body is being twisted up into knots. I can literally feel my heart hurt and the isolation and sense of loss/grief are all-encompassing. Then comes the wave of guilt because it’s my own fault that I feel this way for cutting her off, then the shame because I recognize that she must be hurting too and feel similar feelings. And finally, there’s the inevitable little voice in my head that gets progressively louder, trying to convince me to just be the bigger person and call or send her a gift just to make her feel special for the day. But I know that if I do that, it will act as an opening for her to challenge my boundaries and try to re-establish the status quo, so I remain steadfast in my decision and resist the temptation. It’s so so hard and these are the days that I have to be extremely cautious about limiting my media consumption, doing good self-care, and connecting with those others who make me feel safe and loved.
5. Get used to paying attention to your body.
It’s one thing to be aware of how you feel emotionally when you engage with your parent. That’s important, but sometimes our feelings are easily swayed by the opinions of others and by social norms. This is why paying attention to how you feel in your body when you are engaging with this parent is crucial. I know that even if I have to speak with my mother on the phone, my heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket. I feel sick to my stomach, often end up having diarrhea, and have a panic attack. That’s not a normal experience when you are engaging with someone who is healthy for you to be around. As my therapist constantly reminds me, my body is waving huge red flags at me to warn me that being around my mother isn’t safe for me and I need to honor those messages. You can love someone and know that their presence isn’t good for you at the same time, and you’re literally going to sense it in your gut.
Any level of estrangement with a parent is a monumental loss. Children, even grown-up ones, will always long for a parent, including one who was abusive, until the day we die. There’s a lot of grief involved with coming to terms with the loss of the idea of the good enough parent. Finally breaking ties can be simultaneously liberating and necessary while also feeling pretty awful. There’s no way around it.
And I wish I could say that it eventually goes away. While it may get easier, after five-plus years I still have moments where I can’t shake that feeling that I made a mistake or that I’m a horrible person. But then I see my mom at the grocery store from afar and I am overcome with anxiety and reminded that she is still indeed a trigger for me and that I deserve peace and happiness. You do too.
If at some point in the future your parent has taken the initiative to make an earnest apology and do the necessary work on themselves to re-establish any kind of relationship with you, you can always decide to re-engage. But do so slowly, carefully, and with the understanding that your relationship will never be what it was. It will necessarily have evolved into something completely new that you will have to negotiate cautiously, keeping your safety and well-being in mind every step of the way.
Getty image by thedafkish.