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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

My abusive parents won’t admit what they’ve done. How can I let go of the pain? | Parents and parenting

I’m 43 and father to a wonderful daughter, whom I co-parent. I live abroad now but am British-born. My parents were abusive, and this left me with PTSD; I no longer have contact and am happy not to be part of that toxic dynamic. I’ve done the work, given myself a shot at my life, and am a pretty good parent.

My ebullient nature was squashed by the dysfunction and violence I experienced when young. Substance misuse and suicide attempts followed and, while I was quite bright and talented, I would create opportunities then sabotage them. It wasn’t until I was 32 that I found a therapist who was able to help.

My parents will never own the damage they caused, and come from horrible backgrounds themselves. Any contact saw them continuing to create a dependent, dysfunctional and toxic relationship, with me as the listener and care giver, and when I refused, my name was mud.

I wish to forgive my parents, but what they did was child abuse. I do not like them as people, and have precious little in common with them. When they become frail and need care, I will be involved, my choice – but how do I let go of my resentment?

I’m very sorry for the abuse you suffered but confess to being confused by why, after everything, you’d want to be involved in their care. I realise children – even adult children – are endlessly forgiving of their parents. But you seem very strong in your resolve to avoid your parents. What do you think will change when they get older? Is it that they will be vulnerable and you will have power over them? Abusive parents don’t tend to change; they just get older and the risk of psychological, if not physical, abuse remains. I would tread very carefully.

I consulted family psychotherapist Lorraine Davies-Smith (aft.org.uk) who noted that it sounded as if you’d had a year of therapy a decade ago and wondered if this was something you might consider revisiting? She said: “You say you wish to forgive your parents, but to forgive, we need an understanding of how and why someone was able to do what they did. That may bring understanding, which can lead to forgiveness, but you don’t seem anywhere near that.”

The other thing to remember is that you don’t have to forgive – I personally think forgiveness is overrated. And you can’t let go of resentment as if it were a balloon; it takes a lot of work. But I think Davies-Smith is right that trying to understand why your parents did what they did may lead to a resolution for you.

“And are you really talking about forgiving your parents or do you want to separate from them without guilt or self-criticism?” asked Davies-Smith. “Consider why you want to forgive and if the process needs to wait until they’re about to die? Isn’t it better to work on it now? You’ve also got this idea that they’re going to need care; what if they don’t? Suppose there isn’t the period of caring?”

Also, it will be up to them if they get care and who looks after them. They may want professional carers; they may go into a home. And would you be prepared to leave the life you’ve made abroad, and your daughter, to come and look after them in the UK? Because it may not be in “20 years”, it could be in a couple of years that they need you. Think carefully and honestly, perhaps with the help of a therapist, about what you want and how, practically, to achieve that, in the near future.

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Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.

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