How Much Do You Owe Your Abusive Parents?

Abraham Lincoln did not attend his father\’s funeral. When Abe was nine years old, his father, Thomas, left him and his sister for six months in their backwoods cabin in the charge of their 20-year-old cousin, Dennis Hanks. During that time, they often went hungry and barely scraped by. Later, when Abe became interested in learning, Thomas ridiculed his studies. When Abe sometimes neglected farm work to read, his father beat him. He also beat him for other minor infractions, although it\’s useful to remember that kind of punishment was common back then.

Still, there seems to have been no love lost between Abe and his father. Abe did help him out financially and visit when he was ill. But when Thomas took deathly ill, Abe decided not to go to his bedside, saying, “If we meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant . . .” (Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald)

What do we owe people who abuse and neglect us when they\’re our parents? There is certainly a bond between a child and parent, even when the parent is harmful. Many people, despite a difficult start in life, grow up to be successful adults. Often, they have worked with a therapist to achieve a satisfying life. Then the very people who may have caused psychological, physical or sexual abuse become needy themselves—old, infirm and sometimes broke. What\’s an adult son or daughter to do?

Should you reconcile?

Many well-meaning relatives and friends often encourage reconciliation. They say forgiveness heals and is more beneficial to the person who is forgiving than the one who is forgiven. They warn that the guilt of not connecting can be devastating, especially if the estranged abuser dies before the abused child has a chance to restore the relationship.

While that may be true for some, every relationship is different. It\’s important to consider the conclusion Abraham Lincoln apparently came to—that it\’s more destructive to reconcile than to remain remote. The psychological cost of reconnecting may resurrect memories too painful to relive.

Take Care of Yourself

A friend goes to visit her verbally abusive, elderly mother in Florida once a year for a few days. Her mother reminds her that as a dutiful daughter, she is required to visit at least that much, and she agrees. Weeks before every visit she feels mounting dread until finally her stomach is in knots. When she is there in Florida she goes for walks and shopping trips to escape her mother as much as possible. It takes her weeks to recuperate when she returns home. She is considering cutting out the visits altogether, as they take too much of a toll.

At some point, you have to take care of yourself first, and not let someone else\’s idea of parental love dictate your behavior. Counseling can help you come to terms with the extent of your responsibility. As an adult, you have the wherewithal to protect yourself from abuse, or even the memory of abuse. Your own well-being may well come before your duty as a son or daughter.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional.  If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch.  You can reach her here: http://www.nancyscounselingcorner.com/contact-us.

 

 

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