SOURCE: Leslie Vernick
This week’s question: I am 37 years old, happily married with three children living in a different state than my parents live. Bottom line, I’ve never had a healthy relationship with my mom – but last year we went through some terrible episodes to the point that my sister and I were concerned about her mental health and asked her to get help (she does have a history of prescription drug abuse).
Of course this only made her angry and she got very defensive. We begged my father to intervene and get help for her but instead he defended her, enabled her, and made excuses for her to the extreme. He ended up losing his job because of their behavior. His refusal to do anything about the destruction she was causing was perhaps the most hurtful thing. She was clearly unstable. Why couldn’t he see that? Wasn’t his relationship with my sister and me worth fighting for?
Having read about boundaries, I chose not to respond to her spiteful calls, emails and letters, except to say, “This is not Okay.” Or “You can’t talk to me like that and expect to have a good relationship with me or my family.” I prayed, I sought the advice of my pastor and with the support of my husband, we asked my parents to leave us completely alone until we were ready to initiate contact. They were reluctant at first but eventually did stop contacting us.
My plan was to begin a 3 week partial fast in January to discern God’s will on the best way to reestablish some sort of relationship with my parents, working toward forgiveness and trying to figure out how to “honor” them despite all the hurt they caused. I envisioned a calm confrontation regarding the way they had damaged our relationship, hoping that they’d see the damage they’d done.
Then the day before the fast, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. It is a pretty treatable form of cancer, but believing it was the right thing to do, I flew out to see them and spent a tense weekend with them. I bought groceries, cooked meals and tried to honor them without saying many words. I came home feeling worse.
So here I am. I’m angry at my parents for all the horrible things they did last year. I’m angry that they now act like nothing ever happened. I feel like I can’t discuss my hurt with them now because my dad is getting chemo and my mom is stressed out with that.
Would it be cruel to add a confrontation to what they’re currently dealing with? I am angry with myself because I have very little compassion toward them regarding the cancer (and I am a pretty compassionate person). I do call and check on them once or twice a week, but our conversations are brief and superficial. I email them photos of the children. When is it going to be okay for me to talk to them about what they did? I can’t pretend like everything is fine, but I also feel like I can’t talk with them about why things aren’t fine….so how do I move forward.
Answer: I’m sorry that you are experiencing this. It is so hard when we want to do the right thing but yet we have no opportunity to address, heal and reconcile a broken relationship.
I think it would be helpful to you if you differentiated honoring your parents from having a healthy or close relationship with them. You may have to settle for the former while letting go of the latter. You indicate that you’ve never had a healthy relationship with your mom so I’m curious why are you expecting things to change now? You envisioned sitting down with them both and having this constructive conversation over what happened last year but do you really think that’s going to happen? Do you have any history of those kinds of honest conversations with your mom or mom and dad before? Or is this understandable, but wishful thinking on your part?
You said that you never noticed how unhealthy your dad was until this latest episode when you expected that he would stick up for you and your sister and instead he sided with your mother, even to his own job loss. That deeply disappointed you but my guess is that if you look over your childhood; your father has probably always been passive and deferred to your mother’s emotional state. Again why did you expect something different this time?
So the question you’re asking is: can or should you bring up this messy relationship stuff right now? My advice would be no. Going through cancer and chemo is stressful enough and it may very well be that the stress from last year of trying to manage your mother the best he knew how has already taken its toll on your dad’s immune system. I remember speaking to a man recently at a conference I was teaching and he said he didn’t realize he was in an emotionally destructive marriage until he got cancer. His body couldn’t take the stress anymore. But his cancer woke him up.
So reconciling with them in the way you want – to have an honest conversation with them in which they would hear your anger and hurt about what they did last year and apologize to you may not be possible right now, maybe not ever. So where does that leave you? Can you honor your parents through your ministry to them – just like you did with meals, phone calls, photos of the kids and have no expectations of close fellowship or relationship? I think that is possible if you do your homework.
So I recommend that you talk with someone about your anger and hurts, you definitely need to process them so you can let them go (for your sake) and forgive your parents (for your sake) while praying that someday you can fully reconcile. I’d encourage you to minister to them as you are able and honor them as your parents even if you don’t’ like them or trust them right now.
If at some point they notice that you are not overly friendly with them and they bring it up, then that would be the time to invite them into a conversation about why. You might say something like this:
“I appreciate that you’ve asked me and it’s because of what happened last year. I know you’ve been under a lot of stress with the cancer diagnosis and treatment. I love you and I’ve not wanted to upset you or bring it up but It was very hurtful to me. If you’re ready to talk about it, I’d be more than willing to do that so that we can heal our relationship.”
That short statement puts your toe in the pond of relational honesty and invites them to have a respectful but difficult conversation about what happened. Their response will let you know whether it will be a good idea to proceed or not. For example, if they show any remorse or regret over last year and say something to that effect, then you can move forward and share your feelings – constructively.
However if they get defensive, blaming or shaming when you say you were hurt by last year’s stuff, don’t go there. You are just opening yourself up for more of the same.
But I’d encourage you to pray, prepare and practice what you want to say to them so that if the door opens, you can walk through it and say what you need to in the best possible way, so that as much as possible, you’ve done all you can do to be at peace with your parents.
For more help in preparing that kind of talk, see my book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship.