“You are allowed to terminate your relationship with toxic family members. You are allowed to walk away from people who hurt you. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for taking care of yourself.” ~Unknown
You might think I’m a monster because I don’t have a relationship with my parents. I don’t spend holidays with them; I don’t call them and reminisce; they don’t know pertinent details about my life, my friends, my family, my work, or even the person I have become. Do these facts shock you?
It is possible that you have only known loving, supportive parents. Parents who were open to discussing and negotiating your relationship, respecting your boundaries, and truly being a part of your life. That’s probably why you can’t understand how I don’t feel the same way about my parents.
When you learn that I don’t have a relationship with my parents your instinct is to deny my reality. You try to tell me that my parents love me unconditionally, that my mother still cares about me, and that my parents acted out of love for me. You assert that I should try and reconcile with my family, and tell me over and over that I will regret it if I don’t.
I don’t agree that they love me unconditionally, that they still care about me, that their actions are based on good intentions, or that they abused me in order to make me a better person. I am sorry if this upsets you or challenges your understanding of what a family looks like.
You become aggressive telling me that I should try harder, that I should adapt and be accommodating and compassionate toward my parents. You tell me that I should forgive them for the things I claim they have done to me and tell me over and over that forgiveness will lead to peace and healing.
But you don’t get it; I have already healed by not having them in my life, by accepting my painful reality.
You think that I should call my parents and have a reasonable conversation that would magically lead to a Hollywood ending filled with apologies, validation, love, and reconciliation. You believe that if I do this, I will have the family I have always wanted, and our relationship will be stronger, healthier, and more supportive.
I need to stop you and be firm. Your lack of understanding about my situation is re-traumatizing me. I cannot contact my parents and reconcile with them. Do you think I didn’t try to have the conversations that you’re suggesting? Don’t you realize that I tried so hard to adapt, to do what they wanted, to apologize and accommodate my parents, yet nothing ever changed? I was never enough!
Each interaction affirmed how much they despised me, how little they thought of me, and how reluctant they were to listen to me, get to know me more, or even to take the time to understand where I am coming from. Over and over, I tried harder and harder, my heart breaking each time. The picture of the perfect family shattering off the wall and the reality of my family becoming clearer and clearer.
These were not parents who loved me unconditionally the way parents should love their child. These were parents that might love me if I was better at school, did more for them around the house, and accomplished something they could brag about to elevate their own social position.
These were not parents who could be bothered to get to know the person I had become, because they believed they knew the flawed, evil monster they had conjured up in their minds. Yet I was not the evil monster; I was an adult child desperate to have a healthy relationship with my parents. I was a teenager who made a few mistakes, and finally I was an adult who saw and understood the family dynamics clearly and accurately.
Cutting contact with my parents was one of the hardest choices I have ever had to make in my life. Contrary to what you may think, I did not wake up one morning and decide that I did not want to have a family anymore. Rather, I woke up one morning and realized that if I didn’t end the relationship, I would continue to get hurt by my parents for the rest of my life.
Cutting contact with my parents, formally known as estrangement, allowed me to accept the reality of my situation and build a life that led to self-validation and healing.
This path has been painful, and there are times when I question whether I did the right thing. However, there are also times when I realize how much better my life is without my parents’ lack of compassion, respect for my boundaries, or willingness to work with me to have a healthy relationship.
Each time you cling to the Hollywood notion of reconciliation, you traumatize me. I know that I can’t have a relationship with my parents because this relationship will never be healthy. Yet each time you suggest I reconcile you cause me to question myself.
Questioning myself is something I have grown good at over the years because society does not affirm my choice as socially acceptable, nor does it condone the reasons I chose to cut contact in the first place.
Questioning myself and my own self-worth is something my parents helped me to become very good at over the years. You see, I couldn’t be doing what was best for me because to them, I was wrong, I was a bad person, and I never remembered situations and events accurately.
Maybe you don’t mean to cause me to question myself, but each time you bring up reconciliation and the notion that the relationship with my family could be fixed it takes me back into that space. I’m forced to remind myself of all the reasons why I had to cut contact. I’m forced to relive the painful conversations and the intense, overwhelming longing for apologies, validation, and love I know I will never get from my parents.
Before you tell me I need to see things differently and that most relationships can be fixed, I’m going to stop you. I’m going to remind you that it is hard for people to change. It is much easier for people to say that they have changed in order to save face or absolve themselves of any feelings of guilt and anguish.
People don’t change for others; they change for themselves because they realize that there are benefits to adjusting their behavior. An uncaring, disconnected parent is not likely to change for a child they never really could love.
I know that my choices make you feel uncomfortable. I took your family picture and I broke it into a million pieces, pieces that can never be put back together. I challenged your notions of the loving, supportive, forgiving family because that is not my reality, although for your sake, I am glad if that is yours.
Don’t tell me that time can heal all wounds or that time fixes relationships. Time has taught me that I made the right choice.
Incredible longing still washes over me when I see some of you interacting with your parents. You have support, love, and mentorship from your family that I will never know. Instead, I will look through the window at the seemingly perfect family, at your family, longing to know what it feels like to be loved and supported the way that you are.
I will always feel the pain of not having that picture as my own. Part of me will always question why I was not worthy enough to have it in the first place. A piece of my heart will ache with pangs of longing, longing I have learned and accepted is a natural part of life when you don’t have parents who are loving and supportive.
Don’t downplay my pain or deny my lived experiences. Don’t tell me that how I feel now will not be the same way I feel six months or six years from now. I don’t mean to be harsh, but you have not lived my life or walked in my shoes, and I am relieved for you.
Don’t remind me that my siblings have a great relationship with my parents, so therefore, I might be able to improve my relationship with them.
Let me remind you that in families like mine, not all children are treated the same way
Some children are the golden children, showered with love and support, while others are the neglected children who are barely noticed yet continue to maintain contact in the hopes that one day the relationship will improve. Other children within the toxic family system are scapegoats. Scapegoats are not really loved, and are blamed for things beyond their control.
In adulthood, some children in these families choose to deny the reality of the dysfunction because society teaches us that everyone needs a family. They choose to hang on and stay in touch with uncaring parents because the alternative choice is so stigmatizing and painful.
Stop! Don’t remind me of the way my mother acted when you were over at my house growing up. Don’t tell me that she treated you well over the years and was very interested/invested in your life. Please don’t tell me she asks about me every time she sees you or that she has no idea why I cut contact with her.
I don’t want to hear about how kind my father was. I don’t want to relive backyard barbecues where my parents acted kind and hospitable. You see, they acted.
Toxic parents can often be kind, compassionate, and caring to everyone else except for their own children. Behind closed doors, when you and the rest of the world were not watching, they were very different people.
You may have seen them treating me with kindness or pretending that they cared. This was all an act. I don’t want to show you who they really were behind closed doors because I doubt that you will believe me. I know this makes it harder to understand my perspective, but I don’t want to live in the pain of the past. I want to dwell in the present and look to the future with an open heart and an optimistic mind.
Let me reiterate this: the choice not to have family is both stigmatizing and painful. The pain and stigma flow from not being understood. From assumptions that there must be something wrong with me for cutting contact, that I must be inherently bad or have done something catastrophic to deserve to be cast out of the family.
Let me shatter that picture again. The only thing I did wrong is challenge your understanding of a loving supportive family.
Let me ask you something: If your friend criticized and judged everything you did and did not accept you as a person, would you stay friends with that person?
What if I told you that after interactions with that friend you were anxious, your entire body hurt, you felt like you did something wrong, you couldn’t sleep, and you questioned your judgment? You replayed the interaction over and over in your head each time, remembering more of the abusive comments, the judgmental actions, and the dismissive words you had endured during your visit.
Could you really stay friends with that person? No, you couldn’t. So why are you encouraging me to reconcile and stay in contact with my parents given that this is how they make me feel? Is it so hard for you to grasp that an unhealthy relationship can occur between family members?
Hold on tight to your family picture, but don’t ask me to repair mine. Instead, understand and accept my shattered picture.
Don’t ask me to cut myself with the shards of glass through forgiveness, reconciliation, and false hopes of unconditional love and acceptance. I’m sorry if what I’ve said makes you feel uncomfortable. Society makes me feel uncomfortable each time I am asked to deny my reality, pick up a piece of glass, and expose my family wound that you could easily help me heal by accepting it.
About Jen Hinkkala
Jen Hinkkala is PhD student, researcher, and teacher of arts education in Canada. She strives to understand what factors and experiences lead to higher levels of wellness, resiliency, and self-care among arts educators and students. Jen is also a life coach and specializes in self-care, well-being, time management, performance anxiety, estrangement, overcoming abuse, career paths, and anxiety. Jen runs a support group for estranged adults and a group to support personal development. Follow her on Twitter here.