While I made the decision to cut off contact with my parents and brother four years ago, it is only recently I've begun to find books that broach this topic, and do so from a perspective that it is a healthy and sometimes necessary choice. I have been drinking in these resources as a way of validating the path I've taken and also partly to ensure I've taken the proper steps so that it is a path of healing and starting over.
I recently finished Beverly Engel's Divorcing a Parent: Free Yourself from the Past and Live the Life You've Always Wanted. At the time this book was published, the concept of divorcing (as in terminating a relationship with) one's parents was an extremely radical and unpopular one.
Fifteen years later, it is a somewhat more acceptable idea than it used to be. But unfortunately many people in our society still believe choosing to limit or eliminate contact with toxic family members is taboo without wishing to understand why it is the best and sometimes only option.
America is Mom and apple pie; to divorce Mom is to desecrate what is American in some people's eyes, even if it is done for one's survival. I unfortunately have dealt with people on all levels of acquaintance who've made it their business to let me know they disapproved of my choice when they learned about it. As well-meaning as some of these critics were, it was still hurtful to be invalidated that way and I always felt stuck, not knowing how to respond to that without getting defensive.
That said I really do wish I'd found this book four years ago. Beverly Engel wrote Divorcing a Parent after having made the decision to divorce her own abusive mother a few years earlier, and counseling countless others who were struggling with this dilemma in their own lives. She took her personal experiences, anecdotes from various patients, and her expertise as a counselor, and rolled them into a very helpful guide towards making a rational decision about whether to divorce one's parents, and in some cases, entire families.
At the same time Engel's book is intelligent, in that it does not hold bias towards what the decision should be for the individual. She respects that some people may want or even need a relationship to continue, and therefore she explores all the options, including limiting contact, emotionally separating oneself, and even attempting reconciliation if someone changes their mind down the road. Engel also states that it is possible to divorce one parent and maintain a relationship with the other if one so wishes. But Engel remains reverent of the fact that the choice must be the individual's alone above all.
I also appreciated that Divorcing a Parent does NOT advocate remaining stuck in victim mode. In fact, Engel states that in choosing to alter or eliminate a relationship with one's parents, a person is also making a simultaneous commitment to grow up, shed the dysfunctional dependency on their parents, and not allow their past to determine who they are anymore.
Engel also points out that divorcing one's parent(s) is never an effective way of getting back at them, and should never be used to make them "pay" for their sins in the hopes that they will see things your way. Divorcing a parent should only be for the sake of healing and self-preservation, for one's own mental and emotional health, especially if the parent(s) have not acknowledged the past abuse or continue to perpetrate it at some level.
Divorcing a Parent does a wonderful job as well of guiding the reader through various exercises for releasing anger and working through grief. Engel describes options for both physically and emotionally detaching, including trying a trial separation, or formal rituals a person can perform to stand by their choice, such as writing a letter to one's parent(s) or drawing up a formal divorce decree for yourself if you decide to make the separation permanent.
It also addresses the guilt that almost inevitably comes about as a result of hearing criticism over the choices made, be it from others or within. I especially found it a relief when Engel provided suggestions for responding to subtle, "well-meaning" responses that can undermine a vulnerable person who is sharing about this part of their lives. It makes me wish I'd had these responses available to me so many times, and grateful I have them now in the event I hear them again.
Finally, Engel has sections at the end of the book addressed to various people who may be involved in the life of the reader, including friends, spouses, therapists, and even the parent of the reader. She poses questions and challenges to each of these parties without being preachy or condemning, rather instead choosing to shed light on possible reasons why someone may struggle with accepting or supporting someone else's decision to reduce or eliminate association with an abusive parent.
My one small criticism of Engel's work is that she advocates it's necessary try to find some good in an abusive parent as a method of moving forward. She states healing will not happen unless we do.
The reason this is bothersome for me is because I believe there are people who really are unredeemably evil and sociopathic, who are sadistic and deliberate in their abuse. History, psychology, and even some religious circles openly admit this.
My opinion is that yes, some people who abuse are good people and are just sick or hopelessly caught up in a cycle they don't realize they're in. Those are people for whom perhaps it's worth spending time and energy finding good in them. But there are yet others who operate on a permanent mean streak because they were born without a conscience. When this is blatantly obvious, I believe trying to see them in a sympathetic light is counterproductive.
I think in such cases it should be respected that it may simply be overly difficult if not impossible to try to find good in such persons. I don't agree that looking for the good in someone who did horrendous things to you is necessarily therapeutic either. I wish in a way that Engel had acknowledged this as a possibility and left a door open for an alternative way of working through this if it is a possibility for certain people.
Nevertheless, I still consider that to be a minor point of contention in light of how helpful and validating the rest of this book is. It's a resource I would definitely have turned to a long time ago if I'd known of it. I'd probably have still come to the same decision as I have, but reading this before or at the same time I did I believe would have made the transition easier, helped me through the emotional process, and possibly with less false guilt all these years. I highly recommend this for anyone seeking a better way of dealing with a dysfunctional family.
By the way, it is interesting to note that after Engel's book was published, her own mother read it and experienced a change of heart. Engel and her mother have since reconciled and reportedly enjoy a better relationship today; this later inspired Engel to write the book The Power of Apology. This is a rare outcome, and in that respect it is an especially heartwarming and happy ending.