4 Steps to Healing After Cutting a Parent Out of Your Life
Learn the limits of parental divorce and four steps you must take.
Posted December 11, 2017 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
When an adult child decides to cut a parent out of his or her life, the culture is quick to criticize, decry, or condemn the action as that of someone who is ungrateful, impulsive, or difficult; sympathy resides with the spurned parent, and when sides are drawn, it’s rare that the daughter or son will be able to count their allies on the fingers of one hand. Over more than a decade of interviewing women on the subject, I have never met anyone who took this drastic action without spending years thinking about it. It is a drastic action — and I say that as someone who finally cut her own mother out of her life after two decades of adulthood trying to find other solutions, not to mention spending thousands of dollars on therapy.
But it is also true that going no contact isn’t a "solution" in any traditional sense. It’s a last resort, usually preceded by repeated efforts at setting boundaries or establishing infrequent communication or “low contact.” It only solves one immediate problem — being emotionally wounded by close contact and demoralized, torn down and apart, and marginalized — and thus, presumably, gives the daughter or son some air to breathe and some freedom to think, without being reactive or trying to pull their self-esteem out of the basement.
Even though it provides momentary relief and feeds the sense that you are finally being proactive, going no contact in and of itself doesn’t make you heal from your childhood experiences. It doesn’t fill the hole left in your heart by the lack of maternal support and love. It does nothing to assuage your worry that you are broken in ways that matter. It doesn’t instantly endow you with a game plan or strategies to help yourself get happier and healthier. I know that’s counterintuitive, but it's true.
In fact, some of the painful feelings aroused by your lack of connection to your mother (or father) often intensify after parental divorce. Why is that? One of my readers expressed it with great accuracy and poignancy: “Going no contact marks the death of hope: The hope that this can be fixed. The hope that you can get the love you always needed. The hope that things will be better and normal and okay.” Among the many things that need to be mourned when someone goes no contact, the death of hope is one.
Again, even though the adult child may have initiated the parental divorce, it’s normal to have powerful feelings of loss and even anguish bubble up in times of stress, during holidays or on special occasions (when the absence of ties to your original family is hugely isolating), and during moments of crisis. It’s at those moments, even years after the fact, that a daughter may begin to doubt her decisions and consider reinitiating contact. That was what Deidre did:
"I hadn’t been in contact with my mother for five years, but when my oldest child was involved in a horrible car accident, I honestly thought that her reaction to me would be different. After all, my child — her oldest grandchild — had come close to dying and I had it in my head that with this crisis and my child’s long rehabilitation that things would be different. Well, she spent the time on the phone berating me for my disloyalty, and never said a word about Steve. Didn’t offer to come to the hospital, nothing. Foolish of me, because I threw myself in the old pit and had to start over crawling out."
Another daughter thought that her breast cancer diagnosis would inspire her mother’s empathy; instead, her mother lashed out at her for “only coming around when she needed something.” That was 10 years ago, the last time they spoke.
It’s not unusual for a daughter to go no contact and then re-initiate connection; I did it myself for 20 years. In fact, it’s so common that I’ve actually given it a name: Going back to the well. While the daughter knows intellectually that the well is dry — that she will never wrest the love and support she craves from her mother — her hopefulness that this time she’ll find the magic key to her mother’s heart trumps it all. Sometimes, too, the isolation of being cut off from her family of origin is just too hard to bear. Other times, the old habit of blaming herself for the failure of the relationship simply takes over, and she just doesn’t know what to do except try again.
Healing after going no contact
"I honestly thought I’d feel better cutting off, and I did. But then I didn’t. Even my therapist couldn’t help me somehow. I kept re-thinking the choice, and it got worse when my mother waged an all-out family war against me, calling me crazy, saying crap to everybody. But then a bell went off in my head: She wanted me back so she could play more games. That was it. My therapist and I doubled down."
So if going no contact itself doesn’t promote healing, what does? Adapted from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from An Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, following are four steps you will have to take to get on the path of recovery:
1. Mourn the mother you deserved.
That’s right — not the mother you had, but, the one you would have had in a fair world. This step is important because it underscores that you were always deserving of love to begin with, and that not having gotten it speaks volumes about your mother, not you. This is a process, not a single step.
2. Practice and become adept at self-compassion.
Again, recognizing the legitimacy of your emotional needs and the pain you felt when they weren’t met is a fundamental step in recovery, especially if you have rationalized your mother’s behavior to keep the peace or paper over conflict. Most daughters internalize the critical and mean things said about them, and having compassion for that vulnerable child and girl is another way of stilling your self-critical voice.
3. Recognize the predictable fallout.
Going no contact almost always involves the loss of other relationships, especially if the mother goes on the offensive to assert her truth about her daughter or son and works hard at co-opting others to take sides. Needless to say, this makes a painful choice — no one really wants to self-orphan or set him or herself adrift from family — even harder. It’s difficult not to fall into shame or old patterns of self-blame: “Maybe it is me; maybe I should have tried harder.” “Am I really too sensitive? Why don’t other people see her as I do?” This kind of truth makes many people very uncomfortable, and you need to recognize that it’s more about them than it is about you. Remind yourself of all the times you tried and failed to fix this, and work hard at exercising self-compassion and defanging self-blame.
4. Self-mother and build on the relationships you have.
Perhaps the most important thing going no contact doesn’t resolve or fix is what I call the core conflict. This is the tug-of-war between a daughter’s growing recognition of the toxicity of the maternal connection, along with its effect on her, and her continuing need for maternal love and support. Divorcing your mother doesn’t end that conflict inside of you; it can only be addressed by proactive behaviors, such as learning to mother and soothe yourself in times of stress and building on the sustaining relationships you have elsewhere in life to fill in that gap. Again, this can be done in time, but this too is a process (which I explain fully in my book).
Going no contact is sometimes the only choice to save the self, but it’s not a fix; it’s a start and possible first step to begin to grow and, yes, heal.
Copyright © 2017 Peg Streep