Our Parents: The Missing Piece to the Relationship Puzzle

Hands Holding Puzzle Pieces on Table

I recently wrote an article about relationships that spawned a lot of discussion on the internet. In the article, I stated that having a good relationship with our same-sexed parent is essential for having a good relationship with a partner. As I read people’s comments, I could feel the pain that this brought up in those who have experienced challenging relationships with their parents.

Some people feared that potential partners might not be interested in them because they didn’t have good relationships with their parents. Others wondered how to make peace with their parents from whom they were distant. Other people commented that their parents left when they were very young. Others mentioned that they felt mistreated by their parents and, in their pain and sadness, had cut the relationship off completely. Several people were concerned that, without a close bond with their parents, their relationship future would be grim.

We can certainly have loving relationships without being close with our parents. However, if we’re experiencing patterns of pain and suffering, we have to ask: Are we carrying unresolved pain from the past and projecting it into our current relationships? Are we projecting feelings that our partner isn’t adequately taking care of us, not sufficiently loving or supporting us, the way we felt when we were small? Did we go so far as to make the decision to cut off from our parents because the pain felt unbearable, only to discover that our projections intensified? 

Even when our outer relationship with our parents is distant or non-existent, our inner relationship with them continues to evolve. That being said, cutting off is rarely a viable solution. It actually protracts the problem. In cutting off from our parents, we cut off from a part of ourselves. When we negate them inside of us, the qualities we view as negative in them often express in us unconsciously. If, for example, we experienced our parents as cold or critical or aggressive, we can experience ourselves as cold, self-critical and even inwardly aggressive—the very qualities we reject in them.

The answer is to find some way to bring our parents into our hearts, and to bring the qualities we reject in them (and in us) into awareness. There, we have the chance to transform something difficult into something that can bring us strength. By developing a relationship with the painful parts of ourselves—parts we have often inherited from our family—we have an opportunity to shift them. Qualities like cruelty can become the source of our kindness; our judgments can turn the wheels of our compassion.

Does this mean that we jump back into a destructive relationship with our parents? Absolutely not. Not while the old triggers are still igniting explosions inside us. The goal is to be able to receive something internally from our parents. This can happen even if they have passed on, sit in jail or tread in a sea of pain. Is there one memory, a good intention, a tender image, the clarity of understanding, something nurturing, something that authentically opens a place inside of us? Letting ourselves take this in, even if there is only a small opening, can shift the old images we carry and can even begin to change our outer relationship with our parents. You can’t change what was, but you can change what is, as long as you don’t expect your parents to change or be any different than who they are. It is you who must hold the relationship differently. That’s your work. Not your parent’s work. The question is: are you willing?

Sometimes, it helps to know what happened in your family that made your parents hurt so much. What sat behind the distance, criticism or aggression in the first place? Traumatic events in your family forge residues that can pass down. Our parents are often the recipients of these residues. So are we. Knowing these events can open the door to understanding their pain, as well as our own. When we know the traumatic events that contributed to our parents’ pain, our understanding and compassion can begin to overshadow the old hurts.

Reconciliation is an internal movement. Our relationship with our parents is not dependent on what they do, how they are or how they respond. It’s what we do. The change occurs in us. In our strength and integrity, we need to open the door. Sometimes just a sentence like “Mom, Dad, I’m sorry that I was distant and pulled away” can open something in us that surprises us.

Rejecting our parents only brings us unhappiness and suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that when you’re angry with your parents, “You get angry with yourself. Suppose the plant of corn got angry at the grain of corn.” He tells us: “If we’re angry with our father or mother, we have to breathe in and out and find reconciliation. This is the only path to happiness.”

Ultimately, self-awareness and taking responsibility for our projections are essential for having healthy relationships. A good bond with our parents is only one ingredient in the larger framework. Equally important is our ability to have good boundaries, to be able to decipher our body’s sensations, to know when we need to take breathing space, to know how to self-soothe, etc. These skills, however, can become compromised when we have rejected our parents. That being said, it is essential that we continue to do our personal work. If we really want peace in our lives, being at peace with our parents is an integral part of the solution.