Can We Fix Our Relationship With Our Parents?
Illustration by Mr Gastón Mendieta
The connection with our parents is the most influential relationship that we will experience. They brought us into this world – we were physically attached to one of them – and then, well, you know how Mr Philip Larkin’s poem goes. Even though we now have more contact hours with the neighbour’s dog, resolving conflict is not quite as easy as hitting the block button on Instagram.
Arguing with the folks is nothing new. We’ve been at their throats since bath-time was invented, but how we relate to them has more weight in 2023, connected as it is with a contemporary search for happiness. The nature of our support network is considered vital to our sense of identity and wellness. You cannot scroll through social media or scan a bookshelf without being served up therapy-speak concerned with self-preservation or tips to eliminate toxicity in your “family of origin” and incubate “allies” who bring out the best in you. What’s more, the sanctity of the traditional family unit, if such a thing still exists, is being diluted. Never has it been more acceptable to call out your dad on his bullshit. Even the royals aren’t too polite to have a pop.
Dr Joshua Coleman is a psychologist who works with adults and parents who are in conflict and is the author of Rules Of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties And How To Heal The Conflict. He believes the way in which different generations view family values to be an important factor in assessing the relationship with our parents. “There has been a shift away from honour thy mother and father, respect my elders, to this much more relationships-based egalitarian framework – communication, protection of mental health,” he says. “Often parents are confused by the turning of the tables on the authority structure. You have to know what it’s going to feel like to a parent.”
A 2021 study conducted by Cornell University found that about 30 per cent of adults were estranged from a family member, most commonly a parent. This figure is surely conservative. Not everyone wants to admit that they can’t sit down at a dinner table with their mum and it doesn’t account for less extreme examples, those of us who battle on in a never-ending game of tit-for-tat tennis where the scores are kept diligently, but the rules never agreed upon.
If I consider my friendship group, about half are either estranged from or have a set of unresolved resentments against a particular parent. It’s a veritable choose-your-fighter of parental discord. One friend doesn’t speak to a parent because they abandoned them when they were a child. Another because they were abused. One is constantly distressed when they interact with a parent because they are critical and/or emotionally withholding.
“You can try and change your parents, but the real work is in understanding”
I have spent several thousand pounds trying to unpick my relationship with my father. I don’t think it’s particularly useful, fair or edifying to go into the details. I have had talking and group therapy. I’ve had cognitive behavioural therapy. I’ve done hypnosis. I’ve meditated, taken cold showers, done gratitude lists, journalled. And I’ve swallowed 22g of psilocybin truffles with a blindfold on while listening to Celtic songs. I’ve turned lots of corners, too, but none of them alongside the person concerned, whom I see about twice a year and speak to mostly over email.
Conversation usually covers food, travel or the weather and is always encased in a protective layer of humour. Feelings, or anything that happened in the past? Not on the menu. I am conducting reparations in absentia. It’s a one-man relationship counselling. A drunk setting the world to rights in an empty pub.
“Healing seems to assume that there was something healthy, or at least functioning, in the first place,” says Ms Brigitte Friedrich, an existentialist therapist. “Sadly, some parent-child relationships are so dysfunctional and damaging from the start that healing cannot happen. The relationship would have to be established first.”
I spoke to three therapists about parental relationships and the concept they all talked about most was acceptance. You can try and change your parents, but the real work is in understanding. “I think that it is part of growing up to see one’s parents as individuals apart from oneself,” says Friedrich. “People with their own history and their own existence before my own and independent of my own. Part of that work eventually will need to be an understanding of where one’s parents come from, what their own history is, what might have motivated them to act the way they did.”
Ms Sally Baker, a senior psychotherapist, is less diplomatic. “Don’t hope that parents will see the error of their ways,” she says. “It’s who they are. If you keep going to them and saying, ‘These are my hopes,’ and they piss on them, that’s about you exposing your inner child to further abuse.” She is a believer in thriving despite your parents. “Let it go. They’re not in the room.”
Understanding or acceptance does not mean shrugging your shoulders and talking to your parents through gritted teeth regardless of your feelings. If there is trauma or anger there, you ought to clear it, but in a therapeutic setting, not after drinking a bottle of mezcal at your niece’s birthday party. A therapist might do Gestalt chair work with you, or inner child healing. You can write a letter and burn it, if you like. And when it comes to being with your parent, you need boundaries.“A healthier relationship may be one in which no actual relating takes place, or only relating at a distance,” Friedrich says.
Dr Katie Rose, a British Association For Counselling And Psychotherapy-registered therapist, suggests planning how you want your relationship to be. “Ask yourself, do I speak to them on the phone every day? Do I just speak to them at Christmas and Easter? Do they have a part in my children’s lives? Then set some very clear boundaries – what you will and won’t tolerate. If they talk to me in a certain way, I’m going to make an excuse and get off the phone.”
“You might feel worse if your parent is angry or rejecting. Have realistic expectations”
You might prefer to be a little more proactive. If there’s a problem at work, we call a meeting. If a friend is being intolerable, we tell them. Why can’t we do that with a parent? Coleman’s work is dedicated to direct, measured communication in this dynamic. He says the most common issues are about contact, parenting ideals and acknowledging childhood abuse. He has some tried and trusted methods, but they come with a warning. “You might feel worse if your parent is angry or rejecting,” he says. “Have realistic expectations.”
Ask your parent if they have some time and begin by saying that your motive is to improve your relationship. Show gratitude for the things they have done for you (outside the psychology profession, I think this is called a “shit sandwich”), then make clear what you want that parent to think about and address. “They might say you’re being too sensitive,” Coleman says. “Say, ‘Maybe I am, but I’d love for you to work on [for example] being less critical – it’s a small ask.’ They could say no.” In this case, you can suggest that it will negatively impact your relationship. “It’s fine to say there is a consequence to this.”
Any attempt to confront a parent should be informed by non-violent communication. He emphasises the need to focus on “I” statements. Talk about how you feel, rather than the actions you think they are perpetrating. So, it’s less, “You’re narcissistic, controlling and selfish. Please be reasonable for one fucking minute.” And more, “When X happens, I feel like Y.” You can also avoid extreme language such as “always” and “never”, which is probably factually inaccurate, and can make any parent become defensive.
Fronting up can be scary, especially if you’re still trapped in the same power dynamic you had as a child, or you’re worried about losing whatever strands of connection you still have (or access to the timeshare in Marbella). Whatever you choose to do, and whatever the result, there will be no miraculous recovery or total resolution. Even if your parent apologises, or they change, they will still have the unique power to say something to trigger you, whether they mean to or not. You probably do the same to them.
It’s good to have a wild card in your back pocket, such as the ancient Polynesian family healing mantra, the Ho’oponopono, which you can say any time out loud or in your head.
“Ho’oponopono asks us to heal [negativity] through forgiveness,” Baker says. “You can send them love, ask for forgiveness for holding onto negativity, say I’m sorry and allow yourself gratitude for this opportunity to move forward. I love you. Forgive me. I’m sorry. Thank you. Just say it over and over again. It’s very freeing to forgive our parents because it raises our cortisol levels when we’re stuck in that cycle of angst. So send them goodwill in the ether. Go kindly, go softly, just be.”