Can therapy fix my parents?

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 6, 2005

We’ve been in counseling for about six months now, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting them.

Dear Cary,

You and other sage advice givers often recommend that people seek therapy for their problems, especially when a couple or family needs a mediator to help settle their issues. I’m a big believer in the power of talking it out with a disinterested third party. My question is, how do you know when it’s time to quit?

I’m 24 years old, and have a college degree, a good job and enough friends to keep me from getting lonely. I’ve been in individual therapy for a few years now, and it’s really helped me deal with some self-esteem and emotional issues, many of which are connected to my difficult family situation. I’ve been in family counseling with my parents for about six months. My parents probably seem to strangers like very pleasant people, but they are in massive denial over all sorts of deep-seated psychological issues, and they don’t want to take the risk of trying to deal with them, so they’ve basically shut down emotionally. Being raised in an environment where people were afraid of their feelings has had a profound effect on me, and I have a lot of buried anger toward them for raising me in such a repressive, unhappy environment.

When I was in college, I dealt with them as little as possible, pretty much only when I needed a check for my tuition. Once I graduated and no longer needed their money, they got upset that I wasn’t interested in continuing a superficial, dishonest relationship with them. We started counseling, at my request, because I was hoping I could explain to them why I’m so angry, so that we could be more honest with one another and move forward. However, it’s clear to me that they’re not interested in honesty — they just want me to go back to pretending that everything is nice and happy. They don’t want to deal with their own issues because they’re afraid, and they don’t want to deal with my issues because that would mean they’d have to admit that something might be wrong with them.

My therapist seems to think that they might eventually come around, but he has never met them. The family counselor says I can quit anytime I want, and that I should leave if I don’t feel the counseling is productive, but she has demurred when I asked whether she thinks continuing could be productive. I don’t want to give up on my parents, but at the same time, being around them drives me absolutely crazy (to the point of literally needing to spend two days curled up in the fetal position crying after spending the weekend with them) because either I have to pretend to feel something I don’t, or we end up fighting and they tell me it’s my fault for being “irrationally hostile.” We go around and around and never get anywhere, and I’m constantly upset about it. I feel like I’m wasting my time and energy trying to fix a situation that’s out of my control.

So do I quit? Is there any good reason to stay? And if I do quit, should I just cut them out of my life entirely? Is there something to be gained from putting myself through the pain of dealing with them? And can I fix a relationship with people who don’t want to fix themselves?

Thanks for listening. Even if you don’t answer, it feels good to have been able to ask.


Dear Daughter,

Nice to hear from you. It sounds like it’s too painful for you to deal with your parents right now. Why not take a break from them and focus on other areas of your life? At age 24, I imagine you are entering the workforce and establishing yourself socially and professionally, and perhaps beginning to look for a mate. The kinds of changes you want in your relationship with your parents may be impossible to obtain at this time, while other achievements may be well within your grasp.

So if I were you, I would continue in therapy but put your parents on the back burner. I would define some other goals therapy could help me with, like getting a better understanding of myself, clarifying my purpose on earth and finding out what might be holding me back from truly purposeful action.

If, however, you do come to feel that it’s your relationship with your parents that is holding you back, then try this: Ask yourself not how you feel about your parents but what you owe your parents. What are your obligations at this point in your life? They have put you through college but now you’re on your own: How can you fulfill your obligations?

This is different from asking what your parents want from you. Our parents may want us to fulfill certain unconscious wishes they retain from childhood, from their own relationships with their parents. We cannot help them with that. You can determine, however, what your concrete obligations are. And I think you can probably fulfill many of those obligations.

So what are our obligations to our parents? In general terms, you might come up with a list something like this: To speak with them or visit at least once a month. Not to cause them undue pain. Not to shame them. Not to steal from them. To treat them kindly and with respect. To help them when they become no longer able to take care of themselves. To be a comfort to them when possible.

Beyond fulfilling such obligations as these, we can get into trouble. For not only do you have obligations to your parents, but they have obligations to you. One of their chief obligations is to provide an environment in which you can become who you are. So if you betray yourself, then you betray your parents as well. For instance, suppose you conclude it’s your duty to your parents to become a plastic surgeon. If you are not suited to be a plastic surgeon, then in trying to become one you undermine your parents’ chief duty to you.

So the best you can do, as an adult, is to fulfill your concrete obligations to your parents. The rest — the emotional tenor of your relationship, your compatibility, your taste and politics and ideas, their projected wishes for you — is chancy.

If you can satisfy yourself that you are doing what is right and necessary as a daughter, perhaps it will ease some of the pain that arises when you see your parents. Perhaps it will also allow you to limit your contact with your parents without an undue sense of guilt.

It’s hard at 24 to imagine how a lifetime of experience has molded one’s parents, and harder still to keep in mind that time will continue to change them, robbing them of both their acuity and their rancor. If you simply go about living, you will find that these things take place, slowly but surely, seemingly without anyone’s effort.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

We fight like crazy but I love her



Hello Cary,

I’ve been reading your columns for a year or so. In fact, it was my ex who introduced me to your column. She also introduced me to lots of other wonderful things, like the benefits of going for a walk in the woods and how therapy can be helpful to people who don’t particularly think they need it.

I loved her and I do love her. She is beautiful, and she is in love with being alive. She is talented and self-motivated. She is affectionate and tender-hearted. She expresses her feelings in an unselfconscious way that I’ve never seen before or since. She is a wonderful human being. The thing is, we just didn’t work. Our now-ended relationship was fraught with conflicts and disappointments, but now that it seems to be over, all I can think of is when–that’s when, not if–we’ll get back together and how we can fix things when that happens. How can I stop thinking this way?

We’ve broken up and gotten back together before. Even after I moved out this last time, we’ve seen each other for no less than 3 separate periods, which were always bittersweet and beautiful, and ultimately abruptly ended. She would text when someone she knew passed, or I would see her at a music festival and call her sounding like the saddest boy who ever lived, and we would see each other again for a time. This most recent time, she broke her foot and I spent about 3 weeks taking care of her, and our tentative “I love you’s” and nervous closed mouth kisses break my heart to think about them now.

The way that ended was when we talked about how something of mine was still left in her apartment. She asked me to come get them, and we set a time for this. I recently received a promotion of sorts at work, with increased responsibilities, a change in hours, and a raft of new people to help train. A couple of these people were my own friends whom I had referred to the position. I really want to keep this job and be perceived as a valuable presence, so I’ve probably been working too hard and taking on too much responsibility in order to make an impression. Between the long hours of work (and worrying about work when I wasn’t there), recent car troubles, and taking care my ex, I felt really worn out the day before I was supposed to go get my things. I texted her to reschedule. She asked why I was canceling so suddenly, and I explained, to which she responded that she didn’t like that I had time for everything and everyone else but not for her. She mentioned that I’m working so hard to make sure everything goes right in my life, but don’t have time to clean up the messes I left her with. I ended up telling her that she can’t lay this guilt trip on me considering how much I have helped her lately, and told her to leave me alone. She was on the mend and in much better shape than when she initially hurt herself, so I thought it was “right” for me to assert my needs and tell someone who was bringing me down to leave me alone. I haven’t heard from her since.

Keep in mind, I was just asking to reschedule, not trying to cancel. I really just wanted a day of rest. This was how many many many of our fights would play out. It’s like we don’t even hear each other. I think, now, in retrospect, that though her words were saying that I was inconsiderate and selfish, the meaning was that she was lonely and needed reassurances from me.

The thing is, even if we talked again and I approached her with this knowledge in the back of my head, I think it would eventually descend into the same situation. Because I’ve been there before, again and again. Even so, I can’t help but want her, and miss her, and feel like I abandoned her. I can’t help but think about the time we read one of your advice columns together, where you urged someone in a bad relationship to stick it out. The metaphor you used was of a partially-constructed house, and how, if they left now, they’d be driving by that half-built home every day for the rest of their life, never knowing what it would’ve been like when it was completed.

She is genuinely one of the most caring, understanding, and loving people I have ever known. Each fight–and there were many–felt shocking and surprising. The speed at which we would distance ourselves from each other makes my head spin just to think about it. I know that we didn’t work together, but I feel like if I just accept that we will never work, that we can never be together, I will fall apart. So I go day to day anticipating the time when we will, by some magic, be together and happy, because the alternative reality is too harsh for me to bear. I’m driving by our half-built house thinking “it’s almost finished” and ignoring the fact that the budget is depleted, the workers have all fled, and that each day that I’ve seen it since construction ended it has fallen further in on itself. I don’t want to think this way. I want to be realistic. I know that if I hang onto this hope, I only set myself up for even more crushing disappointments. Help!

It’s Still Good


Dear It’s Still Good,

Yes, it’s possible that this pattern will happen again. But it’s also possible to change what you do when this pattern emerges, to acquire a repertoire of words you can say that is well-learned enough that you can access it when you are stressed and upset, and then taking a minute to think of what to say before you lash out. It’s about being extra considerate.

What happened is behavior. Behavior can change. You can’t stop the emotions but you can learn to avoid escalating; you can learn to give when giving is the only thing that will work.

Wow, that’s a nice metaphor you remember. It is relevant. Because you bring to the relationship a set of stuff that is good enough to start with but it’s not enough to complete the relationship. You have to learn new behaviors specific to this person and this relationship. That includes learning to navigate through these difficult situations when each of you is at a low point and each of you needs something from the other and neither of you feels like it’s right that you should be the one to give in. One of you has to give in. One of you has to be selfless and not get what you want for the time being. In this conversation on the phone with her, in my opinion, that person was you.

You have to hurt for her sometimes. That’s as blunt as I can be. She will make you hurt. You have to be the bigger one at that point and accept the hurt. Until she herself learns to moderate her own selfish needs, you will have to be the one who hurts. That’s the price of keeping her.

Maybe you don’t want to pay that price. That’s up to you. What I’m saying is that it’s within your power to keep this relationship, and keep her, if you can just put your feelings and your pride aside now and then and meet her emotional needs, however unreasonable and ill-timed they may seem.

Yes, you were tired and yes more than anything in the world you wanted things to go your way and they didn’t. Yes, you needed some attention and you weren’t going to get it from her. Yes, it sucked. But that’s how relationships are sometimes. You were both at a low point and you were both needy and one of you was not going to get what you wanted.

It was unfair and will be unfair in the future. It’s not going to even out. When she’s low, she’s maybe not going to make the noble gesture just to make you feel better.

But you can learn to shift gears and buck up. You can ask her to hold on and then you can take a deep breath and think it through and let your emotions settle. You can say, “OK, I understand this is a disappointment and you know what? I don’t want to disappoint you. I love you and I want you to be happy. I do have a lot to do and it is a little inconvenient but I am coming over and I am bringing flowers.”

Or something like that.–ct