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I can remember that particular tone in my mother’s voice when she told me to clean up my room. Perhaps you can too. And yet she hasn’t said that to me for more than thirty years. Perhaps your parents are even dead. And yet when we remember our parents we often react. Our emotions are affected, perhaps even our actions.

When our parents aren’t around, years after we’ve left home, we still carry our parents around with us – inside our brains. It is these parents we need to divorce. I want to stress this – it is the parents we carry around in our heads that we need to divorce. Our physical parents who exist outside of us are another story – they may even be dead – and so are well beyond us doing anything to them.

So by parents I mean those figures we have in our heads. These may be different (a little or a lot) to the parents who are and were outside us. Here’s an example of what I mean. I am quite comfortable with young children. My mother did and does adore them. I thought my father was quite comfortable around them. It wasn’t ’til my mid-20′s – when he said that he found them intimidating – that I realised this wasn’t true. The father in my head, who was comfortable with children, wasn’t the same as the father outside me. I’m still quite comfortable around children, by the time I realised that my father wasn’t comfortable with children it didn’t matter to me. This is a small example. For those who grew up in places where their life was in danger it will much more difficult to sort out. They will, most likely feel that their life is in danger because it was when they were children, even if it isn’t now (and it there may still be danger now too). So this is what I mean by “parents”.

What do I mean by “divorce”?

I mean being separate from and independant of our parents. Some people speak of the need of ‘killing our parents’ but the violence of this language can lead to the message not being heard. So I prefer to speak of ‘divorce’ than ‘killing’. A divorce has more options too – how much relationship you choose to maintain is up to you. The divorce means that the relationship doesn’t claim you, or define you, any more: you are now your own person. You can choose to listen to your parents when they have wise or useful things to say and ignore them about the stuff they are just weird about. My mother is weird about alcohol. This is not surprising – her brothers came back from WW2 being functional alcoholics. She thinks that if someone has a drink of alcohol they are likely to become alcoholic. This isn’t my experience. Most of the people I know who drink alcohol aren’t alcoholics. And I do on occasion drink alcohol. [Btw the best definition I know of alcoholism is: if it's costing you more than money it's a problem.] My father is very different to me on gender issues. He is decidedly of the old school marital roles – fathers are the breadwinners and mothers are housewives. With my adult relationships with women, the money-making and other tasks have been shared, I hope equitably (though this is tricky – if I hate doing one thing is equal time doing it equitable? So the sharing out of tasks has included what we like to do with equal shares of what we both hate to do.). On these issues my parents and I are happily divorced.

How to Get a Divorce from Your Parents
So how can we do this? Being our own person, not automatically following the prescription of our parents, is something most of us probably desire. But how?

In general it means thinking through our own way of life. And, possibly the biggest part of this, is working with the emotions. The reasons we do what our parents tell us is because of the emotions we have. All those things left over from childhood.

Divorcing our parents means becoming our own parent. When we look after the child like part of ourselves – our vulnerabilities, emotions and needs – we are becoming our own parent or divorcing our parents. Very roughly speaking there are two roles for healthy parenting – support and limit setting. Support means nurturing, meeting our needs (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and social), getting all the things we need for a healthy life. Limit setting means some discernment. We can’t have everything (or at least not at the same time. If we do things one after the other we can achieve a huge amount in as little as five years.). And some things we want to do have negative consequences. Being our own parent means not just indulging our emotions (or thoughts or sensations) but also prioritising, and following through on commitments (to both ourselves and others).

Let’s take an example of looking at one need we have. A primal need: food. Food is a life and dealth issue, so there are lots of strong feelings attached to it. And most of us have feelings about food left over from childhood. (Part of this is often messages about body shape, but that’s another story. [Note to women: most men don't particularly care about thinness. Note to men: most women aren't turned on by the body builder physique.]) To divorce our parents means to know what food suits us, what we like and what fits in with our life. These things don’t necessarily fit easily together.

Here’s a little of my story about food. The hardest part for me has been finding what foods suit me (its pretty basic, baked potatoes are my favourite food); I find it much easier to be in touch with what is going on in my head than what is happening in my body. It wasn’t ’til my 20′s, and I was living out of home, that I figured out that eating mostly bread would lead to constipation. At home my mother had always provided a reasonably healthy diet and so I just hadn’t paid much attention to what I ate.

What to do? How could I eat healthily? My main meal was at night, so I went through a phase of having all the food groups for my evening meal. Vegetables, grains and protein in every meal. (At this stage the protein was meat – at the moment I mostly eat vegetarian.) Pretty much back to what my mother had cooked. From here I started trying out different foods. Asian vegetables, cooking in a wok, using sauces and spices, and eating out at different places. (Currently my favourite cuisine is Thai.) I went through a stage of eating lots of chilli and trying out many other tastes too. Gradually I figured out that lighter foods, with enough protein, is what suits my body. Within this I choose the foods that I like (potatoes and so forth) and stuff that doesn’t take too long to prepare. I don’t mind cooking but it’s not a major joy for me, so when I cook normally it is usually quick and easy. With food I now know how to care for myself. I do really enjoy what I eat, I don’t just indulge in the comfort foods of my childhood – vegemite on toast (an Australian delicacy) and lemonade (what is called “lemonade” in Australia is called “7Up” in America), I don’t follow any particular way of eating – though I learned much from Macrobiotics, and I have found a way to cook that fits in with my other commitments. This is what it meant for me to divorce my parents around food. I hope this gives you an idea of what it means to divorce our parents and start looking after our own needs.


Where have you divorced your parents? If you would like to let me know please leave a comment, I look forward to hearning from you.

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28 Comments to “How to Divorce Your Parents”

  1. Lightening says:

    Those “parent voices” inside our heads can do a lot of damage can’t they? I was absolutely stunned when I realised I’d been carrying negative voices inside my head for so many years when I didn’t need to be talking to myself that way. The process of “divorce” can be long and painful though. I wish it were easier.

  2. Evan says:

    I wish it were easier too Lightening. Good friends and intelligent supporters sure helped me.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. There’s no question, no matter what age we are, we are always the children of our parents: for better and for worse. I think the trick lies in knowing what parts of that relationship to ‘divorce’ ourselves from, and what parts are of enduring value. Having lost my father in the past year, I’ve come to be grateful for the ‘parent’s voice’ that is still here in my head as it gives a sounding board for my own ideas and a framework for decision-making. That remembered voice and I don’t always agree (!) but hearing it helps me to define and understand what I think, feel, believe myself.

  4. Barbara says:

    Hi Evan,

    I think it can be like Jen said, a comfort to hear the voice of a parent when what the voice said helped you. Even if at the time you originally heard it you my not have felt that way. But often it is more as Lightening reports, damaging.

    I do struggle with the idea in my own life because I have idealized those moments. Wanting for that special time when a parent might be congratulatory at an accomplishment or share some wisdom, kindness, comfort. I search my memory for the times when those things helpful or positive were actually said. I have spent too much time wishing their presence.

    The reality is more the recollection of the things I would rather not relive or repeat at this time. I do understand that those figures in my life beleived that the warning messages carried more value. The truth really is what you said Evan, they simply carried more weight and became etched.

    Even just reconciling the thought that at times there was more absence than anything to recall is a challenge. And when I do hear my mother’s voice, I almost always want for it be saying something else.

    As a result, I fight the idea of self parenting. I have deemed it all kinds of names I won’t repeat here! It can seem like a replication of what I have railed against my entire life. I do however take steps in the self parenting direction, but they can be among the hardest steps than any other work I have undertaken.

  5. Raymond Chua says:

    I have divorced with my parents. :)

  6. Evan says:

    Hi Folks,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Hi Jen. Yes, the metaphor of divorce is a bit too all-embracing: we can divorce our parents on some things and not others. For those of us lucky enough to have a good enough up bringing there are voices and memories we treasure.

    Hi Barbara. Once again thankyou for a great comment. Well expressed and, as always, very articulate about your own experience. Maybe self-parenting isn’t the best way to put it. We could talk about change in terms of learning skills in the here and now. I tend to speak from what has helped me and this may not be what relates best to others. It certainly can be very hard work. I was fortunate to have the space and support to be able to do it – and it took me some years. Perhaps other people won’t take as long. I don’t want to set up my experience as something ‘normal’ (whatever that could mean).

    Hi Raymond. Great to hear!

  7. Barbara says:

    Evan,

    By this time we all know there are no coincidences. Everything comes to each of us for a reason. Sometimes we are fortunate and the reason is blatant.

    My therapist has been diligent in fending off my fight to care for myself. Altough I did so for many many years, I did reach a point of exhaustion. I had parented my mother from the time I was a small child (3) until I was about 30. Even though we were physically separated at that point, the relationship never changed. At the same time caretaking was so natural to me, I did the same at my jobs, with friends and other family members as well.

    All the therapist has to do is mention the self parenting and the possibilities of how I’ll react are many. I stop listening. I’ll argue. I’ll whine. I’ll even agree. As an additional form of support, the therapist thought I would be helped by attending ACOA meetings, a 12 step program.

    The main healing premise in this group is to become “one’s own loving parent”.

    I think your article was for me to really understand there has been no mistake, I have been handed my reason for now!

  8. Evan says:

    I’m very glad, thanks Barbara.

  9. Quinn says:

    Hi,
    I’ve moved away from home to go to university, but my parents haven’t quite let me go yet. I love them to pieces but I just want them to leave me alone and let me do my own thing. When I’m home and I want to just relax they’re always prying with everything, finances, uni work, friends.
    I suffer from Bi-polar and sometimes all three are non existent so I always end up lying to them. I’ve tried so hard to make them understand what I’m doing through but it doesn’t seem to work.

  10. Evan says:

    Hi,

    Yes it’s hard. I know in my family us kids protect our parents from knowing some of the reality of what our lives are like.

    I don’t know if its the same with you but with my parents worrying (which is what the prying is about) is the way that love is expressed. It’s nice to be loved but the way it’s expressed can certainly be annoying.

    In many ways my parents still don’t understand me. They are in their 80′s and very committed to traditional sex roles and so forth. It often seems I live on a different planet to them.

    I hope you are doing OK with the bi-polar, it can be a very challenging way to live (I’ve never had it but have known well people who have).

    Thankyou very much for taking the time to comment so personally.

  11. emilia says:

    is it possible to just Divorce from one parent becuase its just my mu that is the problem

  12. Evan says:

    Yes, I think so. If the instructions from your father were pretty helpful then you won’t need to re-do these.

  13. Divorced Guy says:

    You can’t divorce your parents by any means.

  14. Evan says:

    Hi Divorced Guy,

    Not sure what you mean.

    Thanks for your comment.

  15. pissed n sad says:

    Would like to divorce my parents
    am currently 16 in perth australia
    abused, told that “Iam going to die” “one day i will kill you” being hit with anything they find, hangers, torch, book, knife, a little plastic lantern thing, getting hair puled,nails embedded in skin, punched in face got swolen lip once and havent spoken to anyone cept best mates, dont have guts to run away

  16. Evan says:

    Alisha, you can go to the police or social services – though if you do this I recommend you lining up mates that you can stay with. It is best if they are in another city. Relatives may be a possibility depending on the situation. I hope you do everything you can to get out as soon as you can. My thoughts are with you.

  17. pissed n sad says:

    Im a bit afraid to, i dont want to upset anyone..
    somedays are okay but somedays i cry myself to sleep.. im a bit confused

  18. Evan says:

    See if you can talk to friends that can help you think straight. Make sensible and practical plans. My thoughts are with you.

  19. wade carter says:

    I know of a 16 year old boy with very abusive parents. We got D.H.S. involed but the parents tricked them into thinking he is a bad kid and needs more disapline. His step dad is a drunk that has acutualy shot him in the leg with a gun, broken his arm several times and has beaten him until he has been unconscious. This behavior has been going on for years and I want to do somthing about it. Scince D.H.S is now involved his parents have taken everything away from him that he enjoys for punishment. He has to sit in his room and stare at his white walls. Like being in a prision. He has know talked about killing him self because he is becoming so depressed. This is not right and somthing needs to be done before his step dad kills him or he kills him self. This is know way for a 16 year old child to live. He needs help and we don’t know what to do. PLEASE HELP US.

  20. Evan says:

    Hi Wade, yes it shouldn’t be like this. And yes government agencies can be conned, I know intimately of similar instances, where I am (Australia). All that can be done is get the child to a safe place, ideally in another city. In Australia the police are often far more sympathetic and useful than other government agencies, don’t know what it is like where you live. It really is only others around who can take action in awful situations like this.

  21. ria constable says:

    i hate my dad i wont ot devourse him asap.but i wont to keep my mum.I hardly get to see my dad cos he has a new girlfriend and her son plus another 3 which are both of theres, me and my brother live with my mum.is there actualy any age limit on devorecing your dad because im only 13 and my brothers 16. plzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz tell me how i can get a devorece and quick

  22. Evan says:

    Hi Ria, The divorce is a metaphor. If you can find some relatives or friends that will take you in. In another city if need be. Good luck with it, Evan

  23. bea says:

    i am 16 and my dad is a pastor , and my mom works for a teen pregnancy organization. im going to be a junior this year and my whole life ive been moving around switching school because of my dads work i recently moved to my new school where ive made friends and joined a dance team ive warmed up and finally made freinds i have 1 more year but this year my dad got a call this he is being moved to dallas not only does this hurt bevause i ve made friends but because ive met my highschool sweet heart and my dad and mom know this and still press on about dallas because they dont want me to settle down. but i know that in my heart he’d wait for me but i dont want to leave my family and my amazing boyfriend for my dads work not this time around. is ther anyway i can get out of this ?

  24. Evan says:

    It doesn’t sound like there’s a simple way. It depends how far you are moving and if you can visit. If you have internet access – and video – this might make it easier.

    Hope this helps.

  25. Tessa says:

    Hello,
    I’m an Australian and have only just begun to think about divorcing my parents (my dad in particular), is it possible to divorce just one person? I am growing sick of his constant verbal abuse but I’m not sure if that is a valid reason to want a divorce and I’m not sure if the rest of my family members would turn against him.

  26. [...] someone better. How to Divorce Your Parents, Minors Emancipation, Can You Divorce Your Parents? How to Divorce Your Parents wellbeingandhealth.net How To Divorce Your [...]

  27. Penny says:

    Hi Evan…

    This was a really interesting article thanks! I am currently living in Australia, I have never had much of a relationship with my dad, my mother has early onset alzheimers and living in a nursing home has no real role in the family. This leaves me (the eldest and only girl), my dad and brothers, I am devastated by their misogynistic attitudes towards me. My mother in the later stages of her disease became a hoarder and the family home basically disintegrated around her, with my father too depressed, lost, unwilling and unable to clean or care for it. I have spent the last 18 months cleaning this house, I have asked for help more times than I can remember, neither brother has ever helped, claiming a myriad of excuses though the overwhelming feeling I get is that they just couldn’t give a shit. So here I am 18months of my life has been spent scrubbing and sanitising and removing rubbish, and not one word of thanks has been offered, all three males just treat me like dirt, there is no respect, no love, just this ruthlessness where there are out for what they can get and nothing else. I am lost, I am gutted, depressed and no longer able to deal with this, I can’t even believe that family would treat you like this particularly when there are only four of you full stop on this planet. I would be so grateful for any advice you could offer, whilst there is no longer any physical element to this abuse, the emotional and psychological abuse is unbearable and unlikely to stop. I feel like my heart and soul are just shrivelling up on the inside…. and some days I just want to die… what have I done that they feel this behaviour is justified…?

  28. Evan says:

    Hi Penny, I don’t know your brothers, so this is based on my experience of similar situations.

    You haven’t done anything that justifies their behaviour. They were taught by your parents to ignore you and your needs – and probably other individuals and groups as well.

    When people are in abusive situations it is usually best for them to leave – at least temporarily and to consider making this permanent. It is usually the case that the perpetrator of abuse doesn’t change until the situation changes. This may mean involving outside authorities or the abused person leaving.

    Is there anything stopping you from simply not doing the work?

    If you are doing this from loyalty to your mother and/or father then you need to find a way to do it for them and exclude your siblings.

    It is likely you will need support to make changes. If you have friends they may be best. If not you can employ those ‘professional friends’ counsellors. In Australia (thankfully) we have Lifeline that are free to talk to (though most use in a crisis) and several other services (usually religious in funding but usually not in orientation) that offer a sliding scale of fees. If emailing me would be of any help please feel free to do so – you can contact me through the contact page or via email directly livingauthentically [at] gmail [dot] com.

    It is likely you will need to unlearn some ways of doing things that you learned very well in childhood. This is best done in small and easy steps – picking off the easy stuff and celebrating every step forward. My view is that change should be more and more enjoyable whenever possible.

    I hope this helps. Please feel free to leave another comment or contact me via email. My thoughts and hopes are with you, Evan.

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