Detaching With Love: Setting Boundaries in Toxic Relationships


When the family member we are trying to care for is impossible to please, long-standing family dynamics are often to blame. I’m not talking about an elder who is suffering from chronic pain or has little control because of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In those cases, we often need the help of professionals to find a solution, like palliative care for symptom relief or a memory care unit that is better equipped to handle a dementia patient’s difficult behaviors.

Many members of AgingCare’s Caregiver Forum talk about caring for parents who have abused them for a lifetime. Aging, and the problems that come with it, often makes this abuse more intense. A frail parent may no longer be able to lash out physically, but that loss of control sometimes makes their tongue 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. The little kid inside of us most likely still wants our parents’ approval. When we can’t get that, even as adults, it hurts. If you had a difficult childhood and troubled relationship into adulthood, how do you care for abusive parents without incurring additional harm? How do you persevere in spite of their ongoing criticism and abuse?

Caregiving with Personal Boundaries

Many counselors would suggest “detaching with love.” Detaching is a method of setting boundaries to protect yourself by creating emotional distance from the actions of another. By giving up the notion that you can control an abusive person’s behavior, you stop allowing them to control your emotions and behaviors. It is hard and takes practice, but detaching works for many.

When you acknowledge that you can’t control or satisfy a toxic individual, you stop trying to do so. Conversely, the person who has been pushing your buttons starts to see that these triggers don’t work anymore. Detaching with love means that you affirm your love for the person, but also make it clear that you will no longer tolerate being treated with cruelty or disrespect.

Arranging Care while Setting Boundaries

You must be clear and steadfast when setting these boundaries. If your loved one continues to complain and act out just to test your resolve or manipulate you, tell them you will make other arrangements for their care until you both cool off.

Detaching from someone you provide care for is significantly more complicated than other situations. Because you cannot simply walk away without potentially endangering their welfare, this takes some planning, especially if they require a high level of care. You may need to arrange for adult day care, in-home care services or even a temporary stay at a long-term care facility. Once you have back-up care in place, you can call and check in on an as-needed basis.

The main objective is not to waver. If you tell this person that you are setting boundaries, arranging for outside help and leaving them for a time, then do it. A marked absence and clear commitment to your own wellbeing may be enough of a reality check for your loved one, but in some cases, their behavior is too deeply ingrained. You may need regular respite care to get away often enough to see to your own physical and emotional health.

Know When to Remove Yourself from the Caregiving Equation

One thing to be aware of is that this damaging cycle causes many abused children to become abusers themselves. Put an end to this problem by setting clear boundaries, calling in reinforcements when you need them, and recognizing when it is time to let others take over the caregiving role, either temporarily or permanently. You don’t want to be a person who “loses it” after enduring life-long hardship.

Returning abuse is never the answer. If you recognize these feelings surfacing in yourself, get help immediately. Stop the cycle by arranging for someone else to take over. Work out a solution with another family member or a professional caregiver, or consider placement in a long-term care facility. If your situation is truly intolerable and you are reaching your limits, social services or a guardianship organization can step in to ensure your loved one’s safety (and your own).

In severe cases, it is best for a non-family member to be in charge of providing care and making decisions. You can visit and assist as much or as little as you see fit without subjecting yourself to additional mistreatment. This is a difficult step, but in some cases, it’s the only way to protect yourself, get your loved one the care they need and end the cycle of abuse.

Seek Counseling for Help with Past and Present Abuse

Therapy can help enormously if you find yourself in this situation. Toughing it out or placing your parent in the care of others and then feeling guilty about it won’t help, but discovering the roots of these problems may. A professional can help you work through past trauma and learn to handle current and future issues in a healthy manner. They can also guide you through the detachment process.

Following through on your personal boundaries could help you weather caregiving in a safe and sane manner or enable you to step back and let someone else take over these responsibilities. Caring for elders is hard enough when they are just cranky or demanding because of advanced age, loss of independence and mounting health issues. When they are truly abusive, caregivers should not expect to embark on this journey without emotional and practical supports.

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.

Minding Our Elders

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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.