My Escape from Child Abuse
Setting boundaries with abusive (or difficult) parents.
My parents announced they were coming to stay with us for an extended visit. That would be fine except that I'm barely speaking to them. My father is abusive both verbally and physically. He took every opportunity, privately and publicly, to insult me and humiliate me. If I fled to my room, he would grab me and pull me around the house, continuing to rant at me. He had to have the last word, and he had to make sure I was listening. My mother is a passive abuser, an enabler. She made empty threats to my father whenever she reached the limits of what her own psyche could tolerate. She never once took action to defend me. I lived in constant terror. When I finally went away to college, the thought of going home for the summer gave me six weeks of migraines and bouts of vomiting. I moved far away from my dysfunctional childhood home to build a new, healthy, Jewish-oriented life (I am now happily married with three wonderful children).
I moved to escape my parents, but now they were making demands. It felt like an invasion.
At first, I tried to convince them not to come, and tried my best to be respectful. "We're sorry, but it's not such a good time for us." That didn't work, so I tried to persuade them at least to shorten their trip. But they were unstoppable. I felt like I was being steamrolled. I sought advice from a Torah coach who is an expert on abuse. She made everything sound ridiculously simple:
We were not willing to discuss money, politics or religion.
"They respect no boundaries. As a child, you were unable to set boundaries and enforce them. So now you need to work on this. State your limits and boundaries very clearly: 'Due to the circumstances, we are unable to visit with you in our home.' And for yourself, decide what to do if those boundaries are violated.'"
With my husband's help, we sent them a letter that clearly stated our limitations: "Due to our circumstances, you will have to find other sleeping accommodations during your visit. We will only be able to meet with you a few times, and only for a few hours each time, only outdoors in public places. We are not willing to discuss money, politics, religion, or the details of our private situation."
Yes, their feelings were hurt. But with people who are overtly controlling and abusive, our only healthy choice (short of shutting them out completely, which we hope never to do), is to place our own safety, and especially our children's safety, first.
I thought their reaction might crush me, but instead I felt empowered. I couldn't make them be more reasonable; they are free to make their own decisions. But I don't have to passively stand by and be victimized. Instead, I can set up my boundaries and defend myself. I never realized this before. Also, I don't have to waste my time and energy worrying, "What will I say if they say this..." My answer can be simply, "I can't discuss this right now. If you continue, I'm going to hang up the phone." This was a new level of freedom for me, a new level of emotional health.
In doing all this, however, am I being disrespectful to my parents? Do I still have to honor them? Abusive parents know this part of the Ten Commandments: "You must listen to me because God says so! Ha ha ha!" Hard to argue with that, isn't it? Especially if you're a child; you really want to do what's right, to do what God says.
I have now learned that this (and every) mitzvah is much more sophisticated than I thought as a child. From the moment of infancy and beyond, the way a parent acts toward their child forms in the child's consciousness a paradigm for how God relates to us. The primary role of a parent, therefore, is to communicate to the child: You are loved and cherished. You are unique and special, creative and talented. You are cared for and protected. You are never alone.
The emotional handicap can be difficult to overcome later in life.
If a parent is untrustworthy and uncaring, it subconsciously sets into the child's mind that God must somehow be the same. This is an emotional handicap that can be difficult to overcome later in life.
I don't have to reimburse or compensate my parents for raising me, I don't need their permission to follow my dreams, and I certainly don't have to put myself or my children in danger, physically or emotionally, because of their insensitivities. To the contrary, I need to protect myself and others. In short, I could be guilt-free for the first time in my life.
As a child, I felt trapped by the abuse and insensitivity. As an adult, I can learn to cope differently. I yearn to have a relationship with my parents on adult terms, on healthy terms. Someday, with God's help, this will be possible.
This article was prepared in collaboration with Yaffah daCosta-Sacks, a director of a Jerusalem high-tech firm who has been a business coach and management consultant for 30+ years, and more recently has been involved with Torah Life Coaching and Torah Transition Coaching (for the terminally ill).
The author is writing under a pseudonym.