It’s a common cliché that there’s a lot of parent-bashing in therapy. But from my thirty-plus years as a therapist, I have found that most people actually view their parents positively, or at least they feel guilty expressing negative feelings. Even when their parents were outright negligent or abusive, many patients chastise themselves for feeling angry, unappreciative, or just not particularly loving.
What they fail to fully understand is that their feelings toward their parents are based in a deep pain. They may feel tremendous sadness, and even righteous anger, that their emotional needs were never met. Or they might turn this pain inward by viewing themselves as so flawed that they did not deserve their parents’ love. On some level, they think, My parents would have loved me if only I …
Though every child indeed deserves a parent’s unconditional love, it does not always feel this way to them. Hopefully, as an adult, maturity will help you reconcile a strained relationship. But if your relationship with your parent has lacked the warmth and love you want, it makes sense that you would be left with a less warm, more duty-bound kind of love and sense of obligation. But the truth is, satisfying your duty as an adult child does not require that you like or love your parents.
Even the Ten Commandments do not require that you love your parents. Instead, they direct you to “honor” your father and mother. Accordingly, being a good person is based on how you treat them, not how you feel about them.
Consider how you speak to your parents and your actions in dealing with them. As they get older, you can honor them by attending to their physical needs, such as driving them places or ensuring that their home is clean and has sufficient food. When you cannot personally take care of them, you might find someone or some institution that can. Honoring them in these ways shows that you understand, accept, and attend to their position in life.
Determine for yourself what it means to honor your parents, especially if you are feeling negatively toward them. Does it mean making a sincere effort to avoid nasty arguments? You might do this by committing to changing the subject or getting off the phone when they criticize. Would you be comfortable fulfilling your responsibility to them with weekly or monthly visits? What’s important is that you know your own values and decide on how you can live according to them.
Most parent-child relationships are far from perfect. Sometimes this includes adult children not feeling the love they wish they had. No one would want this or choose it, and so there is nothing to feel guilty about it. If you can nurture honest feelings of liking and loving your parents, you will certainly feel better. However, it’s possible to harbor negative feelings toward your parents and still respect yourself and live life with your integrity intact.