A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

Does One Need to Forgive Abusive Parents to Heal?

Forgiveness is impossible if someone is still hurting you.

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One of the most frequent questions I get when I start working on altering ongoing dysfunctional family dynamics with patients who have had previously abusive parents or other primary caretakers is, "Do I have to forgive them?"

"Well, no, you do not have to...," I answer."...but if this goes well you will probably want to." Forgiveness is not an end in itself but a byproduct of the process of reconciliation.

My patients also tell me, when I am encouraging them to re-establish contact with abusive parents, is that they do not want their parents in their lives. I reply, "That's because of the way that they treat you now. I don't blame you. However, if they stopped treating you like that, you probably would want them in your life." Having no loving family to call our own is not a predicament that we are naturally built for.

Although we may not want to or be able to forget past misdeeds, most of us could readily find it in our hearts to forgive family members for bad past behavior if only they would let us.

But if the offending family members are still mistreating you, acting as if the abuse never even happened, or are in some other way invalidating you if you even bring it up, how can you possibly forgive them?  If they blame you for their past misdeeds, how on earth can you possibly forgive them? If they demand you leave your children in the care of an abuser and act as if you are unreasonable for refusing to do so, ditto. Forgiveness in these situations is impossible.

The most difficult and time-consuming part of doing the type of psychotherapy I do, called unified therapy, is convincing my patients that it is in their interest to find a way to metacommunicate with their family of origin members so that these horrible interactions in the present can be stopped. That means attempting to get past everyone's formidable defensiveness, denial, and resistance and talk about their family dynamics. This reluctance is especially acute—and understandable—if the parents had been severely abusive to the patient when the patient was a child. 

Patients think I am asking them to somehow change the past. That is obviously impossible.  However, we can change the effect the past has on us. The goal of the process is to change how things are right now, in the present. The problem is, in fact, not in the past at all. Dysfunctional family patterns, in modified forms, usually keep going on long after children grow up. Unless something is done, they have a strong tendency to go on and on until the parents die, although the patterns often do mellow somewhat as time goes on. 

In order to "get over" the abuse and move forward without passing on negative family interactional patterns and conflicts to future generations, I believe it is extremely important to come to a mutual understanding with major family of origin members. Whether you want to continue having a relationship with them after metacommunication is successful, or whether or not you decide you want to forgive them, is in a way besides the point. But you probably will.

Another point is that the job under consideration here is not to "fix" one's parents. That is not possible. What people can fix is their own relationships with their parents. The parents may still go on and have the same problems with other people. However, if anything is going to help the parents with their other relationships, metacommunication about family dynamics stands the best chance. But that is not the goal I am advocating for here. 

In most cases, I would not recommend that people who come from violent, severely abusive, or extremely discordant families attempt to reconcile with other family members without the help of a therapist. There is a major risk that a person can fail in an attempt to alter current dysfunctional interactions that concern the history of family relationships, and this can be devastating. Attempting to do so and doing it badly is far worse than never trying to do it all. 

Although some people may naturally be very good at researching their genogram—a sort of emotional family tree—in order to try to understand and empathize with their parents, and then finding ways to gently get past family resistances in order to metacommunicate in a way that successfully changes problematic patterns, most are not. 

Of course, even if done under the guidance of a therapist, there is no guarantee of success, and my patients know this going in. In therapy, I always prepare patients for the worst responses, and plan with them what to do if and when they get them. Fortunately, patients are very good at predicting exactly how family members are going to react to various strategies. After all, they've lived with them all their lives. 

I use a therapy technique called "role reversal" to see what they are up against. They play the targeted relative and I try out various approaches to see which ones have the best chances of success.

The patient and I also extensively explore the parents' backgrounds using the genogram, so I generally have a pretty good idea about why the parents react the way they do. 

After we find a workable strategy, I switch roles with the patient and the patient practices the strategy we decided on with me playing the parent.

When I play the targeted parents, I play them as worst case scenarios—as bad as the parents are likely to act—to prepare the patient for the worst. Luckily they seldom get it if we work out the strategy well, but sometimes they do. If that happens, I tell the patient to back away immediately and say something to the parent to the effect of "Let me think about this and get back to you." The patient is told to write down the conversation as close to verbatim as possible and bring it back to me. We then figure out what went wrong and revise the strategy. 

To be successful, individuals often have to tackle a family member's multiple levels of denial one after the other, and weather outside attacks from well-meaning relatives or even family friends or clergymen. They must be prepared for vicious counterattacks, guilt trips, feigned outrage, and a host of other maneuvers. If this were an easy task, they probably would have done it years ago.  Usually the help of an expert who has more knowledge about the reasons for odd human behavior and how to counter it is needed.

Often, other family members have multiple strategies for defeating efforts at metacommunication. Take the whole issue of denial, for example. Barrett and Trepper, in an article in the Family Therapy Networker (now the Psychotherapy Networker) in 1992, pointed out that families have multiple layers of denial, which often come out in the same order. As one breaks through each of these resistances, the next one pops up in its place.

The presence of multiple resistances represents multiple problems to be solved, not multiple reasons for giving up. 

Forewarned is forearmed. Knowing that these maneuvers may be forthcoming from perpetrators helps former or even current victims steel themselves in order to maintain an empathic stance throughout what may be a lengthy process.


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Barrett and Trepper's predictable stages of denial are as follows:


1. Denial of facts ("it never happened; you're a liar!"), followed by:

2. Denial of awareness ("I was drunk," or "I didn't realize I was neglecting you; you should have told me"), followed by:

3. Denial of responsibility ("You were the one who was seductive," or "If your mother didn't deny me, I wouldn't have to have turned to you.") and finally:

4. Denial of impact ("It only happened a few times," or "It was only fondling," or "OK, so I beat you. Why do you always have to dwell on the past? You're just too sensitive; get over it!").

Finding a therapist who does this sort of work well can be a daunting challenge, but they are well worth searching for.

In addition to my own treatment paradigm called unified therapy, I would recommend therapists who are familiar with techniques from Bowen family systems therapy, Lorna Benjamin's interpersonal reconstructive therapy, Paul Wachtel's relational therapy, Jeffrey Magnavita's personality-guided relational psychotherapy, Anthony Ryle's cognitive analytic therapy, or Jeffrey Young's schema therapy.

Many therapists will just tell you to divorce your family, but I don't think that is the best possible outcome (although getting a restraining order and doing whatever it takes to enforce it might be better in many cases than continuing to be abused—if one is unable or unwilling to obtain the help one needs).

Other therapists who do help with efforts at family reconciliation make what I consider to be two basic mistakes that can lead to a bad outcome. The first is using what I refer to as an ambush interview. 

Bringing unsuspecting family members to a session with the patient and then revealing or bringing up for the first time some past misbehavior of a family member that the patient has told the therapist about is hazardous and counterproductive. In this situation, the family members feel cornered as well as humiliated, and their reactions are not pretty. In fact, springing this on a family can scuttle future attempts by the patient to metacommunicate, and may also lead to a malpractice suit against the therapist. 

The second error is the related problem of not allowing formerly abusive parents to save face.  Some therapists even advise their patients to take legal action against abusive parents or go public with their accusations. My advice is that if a therapist suggests that you do that, find another therapist. Publically humiliating your relatives is no way to try to make peace with them. Both public revelations and ambush interviews do not allow the parents to save face.

Some popular authors who write self-help books that advise individuals who were sexually abused as children about how to discuss the issue with the abuser say that a parent who has done such awful things has forfeited the right to save face. I completely disagree. The object of discussing past injustices with parents should not be to make them eat crow for what they have done. Crow tastes terrible, and asking them to eat it is not likely to lead them towards a conciliatory response. 

One last question involves a situation that may develop after a successful reconciliation. The question often comes up about leaving grandchildren alone with a previously abusive grandparent.  Certainly people can and do change and mellow out as they get older. But leaving children alone with them? Answer: Hell no.

If your parents cannot seem to understand why you would take that position, then they have probably not come to terms with what they did to you in the past.

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

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