As adults who were children of divorce know, healing does not occur through time alone. In fact, my research found that only 46% said they had a positive relationship with their fathers as adults.
This means most of you have been left with a feeling of isolation from at least one parent, and very often from both parents. It is the ongoing dream of the children of divorce, even as an adult, that their parent someday will finally understand and love them the way they’ve always hoped. Now that you’re an adult, you might have a relationship with a parent that is still strained. Perhaps you’ve considered expressing genuine feelings to your parent just to feel finally heard but don’t know how to go about it. Too often, these conversations end in acrimony and regret that you even tried to have them in the first place. In deciding to speak to your parent(s) today consider: What is my goal?
There are realistic and unrealistic expectations that go into the emotion of “finally getting it off your chest.” More often than not, our instincts and emotions take us on the wrong approach. Perhaps you’re angry and are just going to vent. This will end in a screaming match and likely not help you at all. Others are hoping their parents will say something that will provide instant healing and of course, then come to realize that there is no magic potion. Maybe you want to blame your parent and make him or her feel bad for the pain you were caused. Sadly, you’re likely to feel no better after that conversation.
The Right Goal: Being Heard
The best way to have a conversation about the hurt of your childhood is to approach your parents with the goal of being heard. It’s the most you can realistically hope for, and a goal that can be immensely satisfying. You want that one moment in time when your parent can listen and begin to feel what it was like to be you as a child. Here’s how to set up this meeting for success:
1. Tell Your Parent You Want to Talk About Something Serious: Don’t sneak this conversation in at the holidays or some unplanned moment. If you want to get the best response from your parent, let him or her know you want to have a conversation about something important to you. Express your need for undivided attention and set up a time and place that will allow both of you to talk privately.
2. Set Up a Place and Time that Works: Just because your parent says he or she can have the conversation right now, even though the grandkids are running around the house and Thanksgiving dinner will soon be ready, doesn’t mean you have to concur. You don’t want to feel rushed, hungry, or tired while having this conversation. Plan a time when all of you are as clear headed and calm as possible. You also need a time limit. Keep the conversation to 30 minutes, then bring it to closure. If you spend more time talking, the conversation is likely to meander and that can lead to other touchy topics that aren’t purposeful to your goal.
3. Take Control of the Conversation: You made the request and you should be running the show. If you’d like, be prepared with written notes on the points you want to make. You want this conversation to be heartfelt, but you also don’t want to walk away feeling you forgot to say something important. Begin talking from the start, so that it’s clear that you have an agenda and a purpose for getting together.
4. Set the Agenda On What You Want: When you request the meeting, your parent likely will be unsure of what it is you want to talk about. Start off the meeting by making your agenda known.
Consider something like: Dad/Mom, I have some difficult things to share and I want you to listen. It may make you feel bad, but please understand I’m not looking for you to do anything about it right now. I’m not looking for an apology. That’ll be up to you, but you don’t have to apologize. I don’t want you to even speak at all until I’m completely finished with what I have to say. All I want is that you listen to me carefully and know that I want you to understand how I feel. I’m not looking to make you feel bad. I’m not looking to turn this into anything about you. It would just be so meaningful and such a gift from you if, for this moment, you can really hear what I’m sharing so that I feel you truly understand.
Clarify what you want and don’t want from your parent during this meeting.
5. Stay on Task, Don’t Stray: If you’re feeling good about the conversation, there’s a tendency to begin sharing or discussing things that you had never intended. This meandering can lead to other touchy topics that aren’t purposeful to your goal.
There’s danger in this, because you’ll move away from your original agenda and get into a topic where the conversation may not go well. This moment of being heard is too important to be muddied with any other issue. Keep the conversation to about 30 minutes, then bring it to closure.
If all goes well, you can end by asking to do this again and have further discussion. But remember that much of the healing after divorce will be on your own. But it can be so helpful to hear an understanding, sympathetic word from your parents, often, for the first time.
About the Author: M. Gary Neuman is a psychotherapist, rabbi, and New York Times best-selling author. He is the creator of NeumanMethod.com video programs for marriages and parenting.
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