Parents? Who Needs ‘Em?

Jeremy Sharp, PhDrelationships Leave a Comment

You can divorce an abusive spouse. You can call it quits if your lover mistreats you. But what can you do if the source of your misery is your own parent?

This is a quote from a New York Times article on toxic parental relationships. In it the author talks about his own and other therapists’ approaches to helping a client decide when to “divorce” an abusive parent. I like the approach the author takes, as he brings up many good points on attachment and neuroplasticity in the brain, or the idea that adult brains can heal by rewiring pathways that withered from traumatic attachment relationships in childhood.

As the author states, most therapists have a “bias to salvage relationships.” I know that I certainly default to this approach rather than advocating for a divorce, whether it’s with couples, parents, or platonic relationships. I think it’s just in our make-up to be in relationship with others, even when that relationship may be a toxic one. It’s rare to find someone who’s not interested in fixing a relationship that they’ve already invested time, energy, and emotion into.

And divorcing a parent?! From an attachment perspective, it goes completely against our nature to sever ties with the individuals who gave birth to and raised us, even when they let us down in terrible ways. These are supposed to be the individuals we count on most, the epitome of security in our lives. When they treat us badly, it sends the most mixed of signals; “I love you, but I’m not afraid to use my power to hurt you.” So many of my clients struggle with the attachment wounds created by parents or caregivers. It often creates a sticky loop where clients want to set boundaries or take care of themselves by limiting contact with parents, yet they can’t escape the notion that it’s somehow their fault that the parents mistreated them.

I admire the clients (and therapists) mentioned in this article for the strength it takes to cut ties with an abusive parent. It takes a strong sense of self to know when enough is enough. The article certainly has me reevaluating my approach with each of my clients who are dealing with potentially toxic relationships. Not to say that I’ll be full-on advocating for parental divorce, but it is worth looking at the idea that not all relationships are salvageable.

I welcome any thoughts or personal experience, either as a therapist or client, with this issue. Thanks for reading 🙂


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