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When Do You Divorce Your Parents?

September 15, 2013

His last beating was as a teen of about 15 years. He stood between his parents to protect his mother. When his father swung and stumbled, he grabbed and shoved. With his father on the ground, he put his boots to his dad as his dad had done to him. His mother, angered at him the boy, told him to leave the house. That was his leaving home experience. Now married with a child, his wife seeks for their son to have a relationship with the grandparents. The now father advises that his father is bigoted and alcoholic. His wife though hasn’t seen such behavior. However, she has heard the stories from other extended kin. She can’t fathom what she has been told although she has caught glimpses. This creates distress between him and her.

From another family, a young woman seeks to forget about her mother’s abuse. This woman was never good enough to a mother whose attention was more drawn to the different men in her life.  Having been molested by one such man in her mother’s life, she had felt blamed by her mother as a co-suitor for that man’s affection. She was 7 at the time. However, she still seeks her mother’s approval and validation.

She now brings her daughter to visit her mother who would otherwise complain bitterly about her granddaughter being withheld. When visiting, the grandmother always makes comments to the granddaughter about the granddaughter’s mother. Grandmother casts aspersions with sarcasm and innuendo creating distance and behavioral issues between the granddaughter and her mother. The woman continues to take her daughter to the grandmother with the belief that in so doing, she might curry favor for herself with her mother. Despite the insidious behavior, this woman thinks that one day she will be appreciated by her mother. Her husband is at odds with their daughter’s exposure to this grandmother.

Is blood thicker than water? Do we retain toxic and damaging relationships that continue to be inherently abusive, if only emotionally or psychologically and no longer physically or sexually? Do you put your children on the alter of hoping for validation from parents whose behavior may yet prove damaging to them and certainly yourself?

The objectives of counseling for those who have yet to come to terms with their abusive upbringing include:

  1. Developing a realistic appraisal of the family from which they hail;
  2. Finding peace in themselves despite the wounds inflicted from those on whom they were dependent;
  3. Finding their own sense of validation, now as adults, from their own choices and behavior;
  4. Separating emotionally such that decisions about contact can be contemplated;
  5. In view of contact, developing plans to address and manage abusive behavior should it arise.

When going to a poisoned well looking for refreshing water only to be poisoned yet again, it may be time to stop drinking from that well and seek other sources to quench one’s thirst.

It may indeed may be time to divorce one’s parents and even siblings and even other extended kin.

Despite best efforts, hopes and dreams, it is OK to separate, take care of oneself and family and certainly keep oneself from further abuse. The real challenge in doing so is to let go the fantasy of the parents you had hoped for while coming to terms with the shortcomings of the parents you had.

When banging your head against a wall, it’s so good when you stop.

By letting go and moving forward, you can then concentrate on the needs of your children to thus be available for them in a way your parents weren’t for you. In letting go the past, you can then change your legacy for your children’s future.

From this, draw comfort and validation.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.


Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

(905) 628-4847

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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One Comment
  1. Comments from another thread about this blog:


    Thank you Gary, it is refreshing to hear these things especially from a Social Worker. In South Africa the overwhelming majority of Social Workers seem to push people to maintain their ties with their parents even when they are ‘toxic’ and at times one feels alone as a therapist having a completely different opinion. I agree completely with your perspective Gary. I think that to keep ties with certain families of origin falls into the category of self-destructive behaviour.

    Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW:

    Hi Elisa,

    I wholeheartedly agree with you and have had similar experiences with other clinicians.

    I have also helped people manage concerns from a religious perspective, when they feel duty bound to take care of parents who remain abusive, even whilst given exemplary care. I advise that it is still OK to distance oneself for personal wellbeing, yet find other strategies to provide care for one’s parents. Those strategies include using third party helpers/services in lieu of the abused family member helping directly.

    If in these circumstances an abusive parent still demands the direct care of the adult child, I do view it as reasonable for the adult child to decline, having offered an alternative to be assured of meeting the parents needs. In this case their parent is making choices and is free to do so and the adult child has discharged their duty of care.

    So you can provide for your parent’s care without being the direct care provider and thus meet a felt obligation from a religious perspective.


    I agree Gary, I have offered similar advice as well. What makes matters difficult at times is when the emotionally abused children are still relatively young (teenagers) and Social Workers insist with them that they will regret having forsaken a parent because ‘they are the ones who gave life to you’ and ‘blood is thicker than water’ and similar common places. As a psychotherapist I see the conflict and the damage done by the parent and by these Social Workers who just increase the intensity of the child’s guilt in a way that is not conducive to their emotional health.

    Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW:

    Yup – Not just an issue for social workers though as many in the helping professions confuse their issues, needs and wants with those of their clients. Further, many in the helping professions are ill-equipped to even believe the kinds and extent of abuse endured by others at the hands of family. What also riles me are clinicians who don’t even explore for those issues, but that is a topic for another blog….

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