Dear Souls and Hearts Community,
So often I am asked, in these or similar words…
“What do I do if my Mom and Dad really didn’t love me when I was young and don’t love me now? How do I love them anyway, Dr. Peter? They think they loved me and raised me well as a kid, and they insist that they love me now. But they don’t even know me. We can’t have a discussion about whether they love me or not – the slightest criticism makes them hurt and angry. And they think I owe them certain things now as a good son, and I’m finding that I’m reacting strongly and internally rebelling against them and their demands. I don’t want to hate them, Dr. Peter, but I think I do.”
I get calls and emails like this so frequently. Adult children from dysfunctional families of origin who are struggling to figure out how to be in relationship with their parents. Especially after those adult children have had some perspective and insight about their parents’ defects -- especially deficiencies in love.
When unloved children have their own children and are consider how to love them, it often casts a painful retrospective light on their own upbringings. At the same time, their parents are aging, sometimes in cognitive decline, and any veneers of social niceties may be wearing thin.
Unloving Parents: A Common Problem – Too Common
First off, I want to say that having unloving parents is extremely common. So many parents are self-focused. They don’t really see, hear, know and understand their children for who their sons and daughters really are. These unloving parents don’t really see and experience their children as separate persons on anything like a consistent basis. Rather, so many parents view their children, by default, as accessories to their own egos. Their children are in orbit around them. It’s not the parents are malicious. Malice isn’t necessary for love to be lacking.
And let me be clear. I’m not talking about the kind of abuse or neglect that gets noticed at school or by the neighbors and brings Children’s Protective Services knocking at the door of the family home. It’s not that extreme. The lack of love is more subtle.
The lack of love is more about omissions that commissions. And it can lead to so much tension and bitterness in families, so much sadness and anxiety, and the problems multiply when adult children of these families have families of their own and the sons- and daughters-in-law are wanting to limit contact with the toxicity of the parents’ relating.
At the same time, the parents are feeling entitled to connect with their grandchildren and to spoil them and even treat them with the same lack of attunement as they treated their own children. What to do then, Dr. Peter?
Two Mistakes that Adult Children Make with Unloving Parents
There are two primary erroneous courses that adult children make. The first one is enmeshment with the parents and the second one is estrangement. Enmeshment and estrangement. And it makes sense to me why in desperation, adult children choose one of these two courses.. It can feel like they are the only two options that the parents allow. It’s either “my way [enmeshment] or the highway [estrangement].
Parents can be very adept at undermining limits and boundaries that their adult children try to hold – they know what levers to pull and what buttons to push to manipulate children – they know how to weaponize guilt and shame and fear and approval-seeking and hope and so many other internal experiences of their children. After all, these parents had so many opportunities to practice when their children were small and wielded such huge influence in their children’s human formation.
And parents can be so out of touch with their own lack of attunement that they be sincere in their belief that their criticism, their punitive attitudes, their rejection of limits and boundaries, their demands are for the good of the children. So that parental sincerity adds to the confusion that children experience in relationship with them.
So often adult children of unloving parents either go along with their parents program in an enmeshed way that violates their integrity and enables parental dysfunction or they move to a position of complete estrangement – saying, in essence, “You are dead to me.” A third option is the “distant but superficially pleasant for the absolute minimum time possible in relationship” position.
Honor thy father and thy mother…
As I listen to the stories of those adult children struggling in their relationship with their parents, they often ask “What does it mean for me to honor my father and my mother in the relationship we have now? What is God asking of me in this really difficult situation?” The adult children experience guilt about feeling that do not love their parents, and are also at a loss about how to love their unloving parents, what loving their unloving parents would even look like.
Let’s be real about this. Loving unloving parents is really difficult. There might be no more difficult person in the world to love than an unloving parent. This is so important that I will repeat it again, later in this reflection.
Some guiding principles for loving and honoring unloving parents
But honoring and loving those parents who didn’t love is still possible. Let’s start with a high-level view and then later we’ll move on to more specific recommendations.
Here are some principles for loving unloving parents.
Action plan for honoring and loving unloving parents
So what can we do? I’ve pulled together the following action plan to help you think about how to love an unloving parent if you are in that situation. The order of the following points is important.
The merit in loving unloving parents
Unloving parents still carry out the will of God – you have the parents that are absolute best for you to have for you to work out your salvation. Your parents will bring up the very things you need to work on, even if that means being your tor-mentor. In doing that, they are offering you a gift, even if they don’t intend to or realize what they are doing. If you respond to the challenge of loving them, this pleases God. There might be no more difficult person in the world to love than an unloving parent. If that is the case for you, you will receive manifold graces from God to help you persevere in your love for them. And if you do persevere in loving your unloving parent, there are great rewards in store for you.
Calling all Catholic therapists, counselors, and graduate students in mental health fields…
If are a Catholic clinician and my weekly reflections and my Interior Integration for Catholics podcast speak to you, considering joining me in the Interior Therapist Community – we are enrolling for our fall groups now. Join 90 other Catholic clinicians and clinicians-in-training on this adventure of deepening and solidifying your own human formation, informed by Internal Family Systems and grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person. You can let us know you are interested by filling out this form.
You can actually see how I work with the human formation of Catholic clinicians by checking out my recent 3-hour webinar for the Catholic Psychological Association titled “Of Beams and Specks: Therapist-Focused Consultation” – the order form is here (only $30 for CPA members, $60 for non-members), and the description is here. In that webinar, you’ll see me work with three Catholic clinicians, all ITC members on their human formation issues. Catholic clinicians or grad students can call or text me on my cell at 317.567.9594 or email me at [email protected] with any questions about joining the ITC.
If you’re not a therapist, please forward this to some therapist, counselor or grad student you know who might be interested.
New podcast episode
Next week, on Monday, August 1, be ready – the next Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode will be released -- I am really excited about this one, it is titled “I Am a Rock: How Trauma Hardens us Against Being Loved.” So sign up for the IIC podcast on your favorite podcast player (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, etc.) and never miss an episode.
Thank you and keep me in your prayers! I will be praying for you as well.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,
P.S. Don’t forget – every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 to 5:30 PM Eastern time, I reserve for you and for all my other weekly reflection readers and podcast listeners. Those are my conversation hours. Reach out to me on my cell at 317.567.9594 or email me at [email protected] with any feedback, comments, questions, concerns, suggestions -- anything at all that is relevant to the weekly reflections or the podcast. This whole reflection was inspired by a call from a reader last week Thursday – so I do listen and respond. If I don’t answer the phone, I’m on another line. Leave a voicemail and I will call you back. I’ve never failed to return a call.
P.S.S. And forward this email. You know someone you would benefit from reading this. Forward it to him or her. Someone with a difficult relationship with their parents. Someone who might need to hear what is in this email. Discern a bit and then go with what you discern. Word-of-mouth and personal recommendations are the best way that Souls and Hearts has found to broaden our outreach. So send this far and wide to those who need it. And thank you.