When it's time for holiday gatherings or family reunions, do you cringe at the thought and go anyway? Your mom will find fault with your hair or the way you are bringing up your kids. Your dad might pick a fight with you or boast about how much money your brother makes while you are barely getting by. You know you'll have a terrible time and perhaps eat too much or drink to dull the pain, so what do you do?
When I ask clients who in their lives has had the most negative effect on them and who is still a problem, the majority answer is either mom or dad. I have lost count the number of people I have met who were beaten, sexually abused, abandoned, vilified, threatened or harmed in other ways, yet they still go back for more. Are you one of these people?
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Growing up, you may have experienced some awful incidents when your parents continually acted unloving or downright terrifying and there was no one to protect you. Afterward, you tried to rationalize their behavior and made decisions about yourself and how to act so it wouldn't happen again.
Perhaps you decided that it was all your fault, so you had better be good. If a parent was dangerous, you may have decided to keep them happy so they wouldn't get angry and hurt you again. You learned to put up with drunken or outrageous behavior, and you saw it as normal.
As a result, you may be triggered by parents who harmed you physically or emotionally in the past, and you've turned into a three-year-old in a grownup body. Your grown-up self watching your Mom get drunk was once a toddler afraid of getting hit, so you've learned to just grin and bare her insults. You go home feeling depressed and angry, yet are unable to turn down future invitations to family get-togethers, even though you dread them, because you're supposed to love your parents.
After nine unhappy years of marriage to a man who was unreliable, critical, angry and addicted, I finally got a divorce. As my children grew older they began to realize how wounded they had been by their father's failure to keep his promises, his unloving attitude and rages, and how I was unable to protect them.
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Despite years of therapy, my adult daughter was still coming to terms with the unhappiness of her childhood. She thought she should have a relationship with both her parents just because we were her parents. The only problem was that every time she had dealings with her dad, he let her down in some way, criticized her or became angry.
One day as she was sharing the latest unpleasantness, I realized that society has created divorce to allow incompatible adults to separate and go their own ways without guilt, but children of divorce don't have that right. I told my daughter about my observation and suggested she get a divorce from her dad, and that's exactly what she did. Not only did she cut off all communication or ask people to not give him her phone number or address, but she even changed her last name!