"Letters, we get lettersWe get lots and lots of letters"
Yet another interesting letter came to me in response to my posts that make the recommendation to adult victims of abusive families that they find a therapist who can help them confront their abusive parents about the family dynamics in ways that get the parents to stop any ongoing dysfunctional interactions. A therapist actually fired the reader from his practice because the patient did not want to divorce her mother!As I have said repeatedly, I never recommend that patients continueto be abused by their families. However, I do not think that divorcing your family is the only other option, and it is certainly not the best option. This is because, unfortunately, you continue to carry your parents around with you in your head for the rest of your life. Fear tracts and other tracts in the brain's limbic system that determine the way we all normally respond to the interpersonal environment - and that are highly resistant to fading away through the normal processes of neural plasticity - come from, and respond more strongly to, one's parents than to anything else in the environment. It does not take much parental contact at all to reinforce them - even once every few years might do it. Contact from other family members in which messages about the parents are provided also works quite nicely in this regard. In fact, anyone else who behaves in any way that is even somewhat analagous to the way the parents behave will also trigger and reinforce them - and the pathways are very powerful in shaping our usual behavior.Even if you stop interacting with parents altogether, you are very likely to pass on repetitive dysfunctional interactions to your own children despite your best efforts. Often people go to the opposite extreme from their parents in the way they interact with their children, yet end up with kids with exactly the same problems, as described here. Other children from abusive or neglectful households decide never to have children themselves for fear that they might turn out acting just like their own parents.As mentioned, divorcing a family and continuing to be abused are not the only two options. There is a third: the one I mentioned in the first paragraph above. It is certainly not an easy thing to accomplish, or patients would have done it themselves long ago. It takes a lot of patience and persistence. And doing it badly is worse than not doing it at all. Nonetheless, with one's family of origin members, where there is a will, there is a way.Unfortunately, the majority of therapists these days do not really understand family dynamics at all, are unaware of the above risks involved in recommending a "divorce" from parents, and do not know the techniques for helping their patients overcome multiple resistances and invalidation from family members when the patients attempt to discuss family dynamics with parents in a constructive way.Interestingly, just after a received the letter from the reader mentioned above and went on to answer it, I got an extremely nasty missive from a psychotherapist on this very subject. Perhaps it was even the reader's prior therapist. I mean, who knows? I won't mention the therapist's name, but she even signed it. The letter read:As a therapist I can say you are an awful therapist; truly terrible. The best thing a person who has been abused as a child can do is get away from their parents, make peace with it. Suggesting that someone that has been abused, goes back to the abuser and does the work to try and repair damage is abusive and shocking. I am shocked.This therapist apparently thinks patients who were abused as children are just too weak and damaged to stand up to their family members. How invalidating! That's probably what the abusive parents think of their adult child as well.Anyway, here is the letter from the reader complaining about a therapist just like her. My answer is written below in amber color.My parents abused me, physically, sexually and emotionally. As a result Ihave a traumatic brain injury. I was put in foster care when I was 13. I amnow 35. I have gotten help. I am getting help still. My last therapist firedme after I reconnected with my mother. My mom has apologized and she has changed! It took awhile as in years but we now have a great relationship. I have a new therapist. I am scared because over Christmas I reconnected with my father who has also apologized and changed for the better. I have closure.I have my family. I am scared that if I tell my therapist she is going tofreak on me, shame me, guilt me and or fire me. I am seeing her for help formy own bad choices and the resulting trauma. I know she hates my family but Idon't understand how a therapist can tell me that I can change while insisting my family who they have never met can't [right on!]. It doesn't make any sense. I am not sure how to tell her.I can't comment on your situation specifically without personally evaluating you and your family extensively, and without knowing a lot more about your experiences with your therapist, so the following are general comments that may or may not apply to you:As you may have guessed from my blog, I am a firm advocate of my patients reconnecting with their families, even if the family had been abusive, as long as the abusive or invalidating behavior has been stopped and has been openly discussed by the involved parties, with the result that everyone has some idea of where the dysfunctional patterns came from and what purpose they had served. Before that goal has been accomplished, I coach my patients on how to get through the family’s often formidable defenses against having such conversations, so that they can get to that point. Of course, I make sure that my patients have a safety plan for themselves (and their children if any) if this process starts to take a wrong turn, in which case we try to figure out what went wrong and how to get things back on track. I almost never give up. However, if a patient puts their child in danger (like leaving a young one with a grandfather who had sexually abused the patient as a child), we have to work on that issue first.Unfortunately, there are a lot of therapists who still believe that divorcing one's family is the best course. My recommendation in such a case is to find another therapist. Unfortunately, therapists familiar with dysfunctional family dynamics are getting harder to find. Also, if someone is afraid to be honest with their therapist, that in general ties the therapist’s hands, so there is almost no point in continuing. A good therapist may certainly question a patient’s decision but should never attack them personally for having made it.