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Healing Our Relationship With Our Parents

    Many years ago, Joyce and I learned how important it was to heal our relationship with our parents, to especially confront the memories and experiences of our childhood and adolescence, and then open communication with them. If we don't do this, we place at risk every relationship we currently have. Unresolved issues with our parents have a sneaky way of invading especially our close relationships.

    Joyce and I feel it is very important to be vulnerable ourselves when we lead workshops. How can we expect participants to be vulnerable if we are not? In a recent workshop we led in New Jersey, I shared a difficult memory from my childhood. When I was perhaps twelve or thirteen, I remember walking into our TV room to watch a favorite program I had been anticipating. My father was there watching a different program. I changed the channel. I may have let him know why, but I'm not sure.

    Predictably, he got angry and changed the channel back to his program. I switched it again, and he got angrier as he changed it back. When I changed it the third time, my father snapped. His hands slapped at me. I remember that while he was hitting me, I still had my hand on the TV dial. I remember running upstairs after the initial beating, my father following me, and being more severely beaten up there. I even remember the blood on my clothes.

    Afterwards I slipped outside. It was cold and I wore only my pajamas without shoes. First I released the emergency brake on one of our cars, letting it roll down our driveway (just a few feet) and crash into our second car. Then I gathered rocks in the backyard and threw them at the side of our house, breaking those old-fashioned asbestos shingles. Given my age, this was the only way I knew how to express my anger over having been beaten. I have occasionally told this story to groups over the years. Just a few months ago, while Joyce was holding me in one of our parent/child practices in a workshop, I remembered an important detail of this event. My parents had a second, older, black and white TV upstairs in their bedroom. I had run upstairs to watch my program on this TV. The severe beating upstairs, therefore, was no longer about my changing the channel. Now it was simply about my father's uncontrolled rage. This realization reinforced for me the truth that, no matter how defiant I was, I did not deserve to be pummeled by my father. Angry words, perhaps. Non-violent consequences for my behavior, perhaps. An actual dialogue, how nice that would've been.

    In the New Jersey workshop, someone asked, "Where was your mother while all this was happening?"

    I told the group I didn't know. Was she cowering in another room, afraid of what she was hearing? I knew I needed to ask her. All these years, there has been no mention of this incident by my parents. I never brought it up with my father before he died ten years ago. And I haven't spoken of it to my mother.

    I realized in the workshop that I needed to talk with my mom about my father's violence, and specifically, her role and position in it. It just so happened that Joyce and I would be visiting my mom in New York immediately following the workshop. How convenient was that. I made a commitment to the New Jersey group to have a serious conversation with my mother.

    The next day found me sitting with my mom on her couch in her new apartment (she had recently moved back to New York from a 28 year sojourn in San Diego to return to her roots) while Joyce sat on a chair facing us. I pushed through my own awkwardness and began telling the TV story. When my mom initially focused upon my defiance and stubbornness, and what a difficult child I was in that pre-adolescent period, I had to stop her and remind her that no child ever deserves to be beaten, or even hit. My mom understood and apologized, then proceeded to tell me that this was the first time she had heard about this incident. She added, "Barry, whenever your father started to hit you, I would immediately tell him to stop. And he always listened to me." I had to ask, "Mom, were you in the house that evening when dad beat me so badly?"

    She looked sad, but answered, "If I were in the house, I would've stopped it. He wouldn't have had the chance to beat you. I'm so sorry that happened to you." Just hearing these words allowed me to feel closer to my mom. I leaned over and hugged her, feeling a resolution of an unexpressed doubt that had been in the back of my mind.

    Then she continued, "You know, Barry, your father was jealous of you when you were a child. Donna and Richard (my older sister and younger brother) were closer to him than to me, but you were always closer to me and he resented that. I was sad and missed all you children when you grew up and left for school, but your dad was finally happy to be alone with me."

    At that I thought about other, fonder scenes in the same TV room. In the evenings we often watched TV. We had two couches in that room. My dad sat on one couch with Donna on one side of him and Richard on the other side. My mom sat on the other couch with me near her, often laying with my head in her lap while she stroked it. Now that I think about it, how very jealous he must have been, wishing it was him lying with his head in his wife's lap. A classic Oedipal scene. I understood then how much more was involved than a simple power struggle over TV channels.

    In that moment I actually felt closer to my dad through understanding him. I only wished I could have spoken with him before he died. I glanced across my mom's living room to a self-portrait of my dad. (He was an artist.) I realized it is never too late to have these conversations. All I had to do was imagine him sitting right in front of me, and then I could say to him anything I needed. My father was severely beaten as a child by his father.

    Though he was often a loving and caring father, he unconsciously passed down this legacy of physical abuse to me. Once, when our son John-Nuri was a small child, I lost my temper and hit him. I immediately apologized and later sat him down and promised that, no matter how angry I felt, I would never hit him again. And I never have. I feel so grateful to have broken this legacy of father-son violence. It has given me so much more power and effectiveness as a father.

    Is there a conversation you're needing to have with one or both of your parents (whether they're alive or not)? Perhaps you're afraid they won't be receptive, or it will disturb them too much, or you feel too angry to even attempt it. There may be a huge amount of healing and understanding available to you, but you'll never know unless you try. Joyce and I hope you do.

    � 2006 Shared Heart

    For a powerful guided meditation on forgiveness as well as three other healing themes, "Help in Time of Need," "Knowing Your Beauty," & "Living Your Purpose," Joyce has just finished a new tape (or CD) called, Four Paths to the Heart. Call TOLL-FREE 1-800-766-0629 (locally 831-684-2299).

    Joyce and Barry Vissell have been a couple since 1964. A nurse and medical doctor, their main interest since 1972 has been counseling and teaching. As a result of the world-wide interest in their previous books, The Shared Heart, Models of Love, and Risk To Be Healed, they travel internationally conducting talks and workshops on relationship, parenting and healing. They are the founders and directors of the Shared Heart Foundation, a non-profit corporation dedicated to the healing and integrity of individuals, couples and families.

    Call TOLL-FREE 1-800-766-0629 (locally 831-684-2299) or write to:
    The Shared Heart Foundation
    P.O. Box 2140
    Aptos CA 95001

    � Copyright The Shared Heart Foundation
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