Detaching With Love: Setting Boundaries in Toxic Relationships

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When the family member we are trying to care for is impossible to please, it's often because of long-standing family dynamics. I'm not talking about someone in intolerable pain, or someone who has little control over their brain because of dementia or Alzheimer's. In those cases, we often need to get the help of professionals, whether it's hospice care for end-of-life pain or a memory unit for Alzheimer's patients who may not be safe at home.

However, many caregivers on this forum talk about caring for parents who have abused them for a lifetime. Aging, and the problems that come with it, has only made this abuse more intense. No, your parents may not be able to hit you anymore, but that loss of physical control for them sometimes can make their tongues an even stronger weapon.

Yet, it's natural for adult children to love their parents and even want to care for them as they age. If your parents abused you when you were a child, how do you care for them without harming yourself by being subjected to ongoing criticism and abuse?

Many counselors would suggest "detaching with love." Detaching is a method of setting boundaries to protect yourself. It can also mean that you give up the notion that you can control their behavior, and you stop allowing them to control yours. It's hard. It takes practice. But for many, detaching works.

One thing that can help is to realize that the little kid inside of us most likely still wants our parents' approval. When we can't get that, even as adult caregivers, it hurts. To cope with those needs, it often helps to learn the techniques of detachment.

People detach by learning to understand that they can't control their parents (or spouse), so they stop trying. Sometimes, just this step makes a difference, as the person who has been pushing your buttons - making you angry because he or she knows your triggers – starts to see it doesn't work. Detaching with love means that you affirm that you love the person, but will no longer tolerate being treated with meanness or disrespect.

You set boundaries and make them clear. If the parent continues to complain just to see your reaction or to manipulate you, criticize your every move and generally abuse you verbally, you tell them you will get someone else to take care of them until you both cool off.

This takes some planning, especially if the parent is truly in need of constant care. You may need to set up an in-home service for few hours a week, then see what you can do to call them on an as-needed basis. This can be tough, but if you call around you may find a service available.

How to Get Help for Critical or Abusive Parents

If your situation is truly intolerable, Social Services may have to step in. The main thing is, don't waver. If you tell your abusive elder you are setting boundaries and you will call for help and then leave them for a time, do it. It may only take one or two times before the cycle is broken, though if the dynamics are life-long, it could take much longer.

You may need regular respite care to get away from this behavior often enough to take care of your own needs. One thing to be aware of is that many abused children become abusers themselves. This can carry over into elder abuse. Putting an end to this problem by setting clear boundaries, calling in reinforcements, and carrying through by letting others take over the caregiving role when you need respite, could be vital to you and your elder. You don't want to be a person who "loses it" after being pushed too far by a life-long abuse situation. You don't want to return abuse. If you recognize abusive feelings surfacing in yourself while you are caring for someone, get help. Stop the cycle as soon as you can by having someone else take over.

Occasionally, the situation is so severe that you, the caregiver, may need to turn your parents over to a guardianship organization. In that way, a non-family member is in charge. You can visit and see to as much care as you can without letting yourself become a victim of more abuse. This is a difficult step, but in some cases it's the only way out of the abuse cycle.

Counseling can help enormously if you find yourself in this situation. Turning your parents over to the care of others and then feeling guilty about it won't help you. Discovering the roots of the problem may. Caring for elders is hard enough when they are just cranky or demanding because of aging, loss, and health issues. When they are truly abusive, and the situation is long-standing, caregivers really do need help.

Detaching with love doesn't have to be this dramatic, but it can be. Either way, following through with detachment and setting personal boundaries could help you weather caregiving in a safe and sane manner.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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162 Comments

Good and realistic article. My mother (finally at age 97) was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. I had made that diagnosis myself years ago. Life with her has always been a challenge and more so in the past few years as her needs change. She is 98 now and I have moved her twice in the past year at her insistence. The work of this has affected my health -I am 73. I told her I would not move her to another seniors residence - the next move would be to a nursing home (which she does not want but if she cannot manage where she is that is the next alternative). The demands and criticism from her for one thing or another are continuous. My sister either uses mother for a cheap holiday or does nothing. You have to let the criticism and demands slide off your back - the problem is her - not you, This is not easy but can be worked on, The article mentions the "child within" who still wants mother's approval.Yes, that is there, but has to be recognized for what it is and dealt with. As long as your parent's needs are cared for - not their whims but needs - like shelter, food. medical care etc you can learn to separate yourself from the constant fault finding. I remind myself periodically that life for her cannot be easy either. however that does not have to drag me down. Her continual crises do not have to be mine. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries - with some compassion, but avoid getting "sucked in". This is not easy. Someone on this site recommended the book and workbook "Stop Walking on Eggshells". It is helpful. Good luck to everyone.
I think we must all reread this article. My mother has always been a neurotic matyr-finding fault with her daughters, trying to pick fights and make our lives miserable in subtle ways(because hers is). Mind you, she is healthy and independent at 80-thank God. My sister has immersed herself in yoga & is busy, busy, busy all the time and has learned to set boundaries-big time. Believe me, I'll be the one left holding the bag if anything happens to her. I have made poor decisions in my life wanting to please her. It's not worth it-it is my LIFE. I still have some learning to do and should have seeked counseling yrs. ago. I am trying to deal with her in my own way-like my sister has.
I'm single and caring for my mother. My mom has a lot of healtcare needs that require continual supervision. Initially, I was overwhelmed with the resp., but I eventually contacted an in-home healthcare agency to help out during the day, which has been an enormous relief. My problem is that eventhough my mom has a decent retirement income, instead of contributing towards the household expenses, she chooses to spend her money buyig needless things off the cable channels. I mean, she still has purchases in unopened boxes that have been sitting around for several months. And when I tell her to stop buying needless things, she tries to put a guilt trip on me by saying things like, "I'm dying soon, so let me enjoy myself while I'm here." This is extremely nerve wrecking. First of all, this is very manipulative, given the fact that she is fairly healthy despite her ailments. And second, she tries to make me do things for her that she's fully capable of doing, just for the sake of trying to make me think she's too feeble to do it herself. Yet, she can remember to dial the 800 number to order needless things. I'm at my breaking point.
I mean, I do a lot for her, but it's never enough. She lives her life as if I owe her something in return for raising me. And although I'm appreciative for what's she done for me, I don't I should continue to dedicate my life to her in such a way that depletes my own emotional stabiliity.

Well, I've come to the conclusion that I can only do so much. I'm only one person, and I need to live my life, just as she chose to live her life. I know I'm responsible for her well-being, but it doesn't mean I have to give up my life to take care of her. Although I'm grateful for the life she's given me, I don't think anyone should forsake their own livelihood for someone else, including a parent. So with that said, I've been in the process of emotionally detaching from my mother and not allowing her to continue to manipulate and make me feel guilty when things don't go her way. And if worse comes to worse, I will find a facility that's capable of caring for her needs. I think this would be the best for everyone involved.

This is all a work in progress, but I'm at my witts end.

So, to all of you who believe you have an obligation to endure the abuse, please keep in mind that you have options. I know it's easier said than done, but you have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others.

Your feedback is greatly appreciated.