Women in Abusive Relationships: Wave Goodbye to Your Parents

Women in Abusive Relationships: Wave Goodbye to Your Parents March 19, 2009

(Update: All the posts of this series have been collected into one piece, Seven Reasons Women Stay in Abusive Relationships, and How to Defeat Each One of Them.)

Last time we talked about … well, snarky rhyming leprechauns, actually. But pursuant to my series 7 Reasons Women Stay in Bad Relationships (and just before Christian Leaders: For God’s Sake, Stop Empowering Wife Abusers), we talked, in Women in Abusive Relationships: Like Everyone Else, You’re Guilty of Love, about the truth that if we are living in an unhappy or dysfunctional way, we can be sure it’s because, in one way or another, we are being as loyal as we possibly can to the ideas and values that our parents taught us about ourselves, the world, and how those two just “naturally” interact.

So let’s talk about that just a little more, because in the course of our lives there is no more important a subject for us to deal with. (As to the relationship between religion/God and our psychological well-being, it’s true, as I said in Women in Abusive Relationships: The Good Daughter Syndrome, that what stands between us and our psychological health also stands between us and the healing power of God.)

Our present and future is necessarily defined by our past. You can’t be who you want to be without understanding how you got to be the way you are. No one gets around that.

And how did you begin your journey toward the person you are today? As a  fully dependent child.

Now, let’s say that as a child you had emotionally dysfunctional parents. (Phffft. Like anyone didn’t. But I digest ….) What do emotionally dysfunctional parents do? They constantly teach their children all kinds of crazy, wrong, and eminently unhelpful things about themselves, others, and the world in general. They can’t help it. They do what they are.

And how do children respond to the Toxic Life Lessons taught them by their emotionally dysfunctional parents? They believe them, that’s what. They absorb them as absolute truths. They accept them before the conscious process of “acceptance” at all. What our parents teach us, especially and particularly about who we are (since that’s the information we’re most voracious about collecting), becomes, right off the bat, so deeply interwoven into our most foundational and bedrock conceptions of ourselves and the world that unless later in our lives we work very, very hard to discern between larger, healthier truths and the little, tweaked “truths” that our parents downloaded directly into our (so to speak) motherboards, then we end up stuck in the little, broken boat our parents fashioned for us, which can never do anything but float around in the same old limited loop their boat is forever stuck in.

Worse than all this: The real message dysfunctional parents send their children is that their children are in danger. That is the primary message received by children in messed-up families: You could die here. Things are crazy here. You are not loved here. Your survival is at risk here.

That’s not an exaggeration: it’s how kids feel if the primary message they’re getting from their parents is, “My craziness is more important to me than properly loving you is.” How else can they respond to that message? They’re totally dependent upon their parents’ well-being and love. And that’s not something they’re unaware of. They’re not. They know it. They know that if their parents are erratic, or hostile, or out of control, or crazy in any real way, they’re in trouble. On the most basic, animal level, they understand that means their safety is endangered.

They’re scared, man.

And here’s what scared kids in crazy families tell themselves about their parents: They really love me. Kids tell themselves what they must in order to secure for themselves the emotional security they need just to survive in their house, which is that underneath it all—underneath their anger, their selfishness, their fear, their passivity, their physical or emotional abuse—their parents really love them.

Sure, Dad hit us. But he loved us. Sure, Mom drank too much. But she loved us. Sure, Dad was never home. But he loved us. Sure, Mom refused to stand up to Dad. But she loved us.

We all do it. We all hold dear to the myth that as children we had to create for ourselves, which is that our parents are deeper, nobler, kinder, more thoughtful—that they’re just better people—than the people whom we in fact know them to be.

And besides that for our survival we must, do you know why else we cling so mightily to the Good Parent myth? Because we love our parents with a furious, instinctive devotion the power of which is unmatched in the human experience.

And there’s the package of our lives: We love our parents, and as children we must believe that underneath it all our parents are wonderful, enlightened people who always have and always will love us.

And then as adults we find ourselves allowing ourselves to be abused. Or we habitually abuse ourselves, with alcohol or drugs. Or we eat too much. Or we don’t allow ourselves to eat enough. Or we’re the ones hurting and abusing the people we’re supposed to love and protect.

And when your personal life has for too long gone too awry, you finally reach the point where you realize that you have to start reassessing knowledge that’s as core to who you are as your skin and your teeth.

That’s when it’s time to start that process by which, ultimately, you decide that it’s more important that you stand up straight and let your parents fall off your back than it is for you to continue your life hunched over from the weight of carrying them.

In the next post of this series I’ll suggest some practical tips for gaining objective perspective on your childhood and parents.

Related post o’ mine: Unhappy? Reject Your Parents.

Please forward this to anyone whom you think it might help.

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  • namesake

    John, I couldn't agree more. I have to admit, though, that the implied presumption that all of us had dysfunctional parents, or that all of us who are parents are dysfunctional, made me bristle a little as I read. Of course, though, I recognize you're not implying we're all dysfunctional to the abusive level, or that we've all been abused, but we are all dysfunctional at the human weakness, prone to wander, stumbling our way through life, kind of level. God, help my children!

    By the way, a interesting parallel article from Relevant regarding the poor responses of some church leaders to domestic violence at: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/features-reviews/

  • By "the implied presumption that all of us had dysfunctional parents," you must mean the "(Phffft. Like anyone didn’t [have dysfunctional parents])".

    It's a good point. I kept that little parenthetical because I think it's important that people who are hurting over their past know that just about EVERYONE is in the same boat. And, frankly, there may be people out there who DIDN'T have deeply tweaked parents, but I've never met … well, one of them, frankly. Maybe I just hang out with people with weirdly messed-up childhoods. But I … don't think that's it.

    But I'll go back and look at that parenthetical, because, as you say, I don't want to imply that virtually EVERYONE is an emotional disaster, or whatever. So lemme check out that phrase again…. Thanks for input, seriously.

  • Brenda

    Thank you for writing that. So true. I eagerly await the next installment.

    Hope your birthday was the best!