An old one:

3 middle-aged women are having coffee one morning. Naturally, their talk turns to their children and grandchildren. Each tries to one-up the others.

The first woman says, “My son loves me so much. You know what he did? He sent me on a cruise last winter!”

“Oh, please!” the second counters. “My son is such a good boy that he bought me a new Cadillac!”

The third woman sighs, smiles, and wags her finger at her two best friends. “Oh, girls, you don’t even know what devotion is, do you? My son loves me so much, that every week, for the past 10 years, he’s been in psychotherapy…where he talks about nothing but me!”

Since Sigmund Freud first theorized the ways that parents cause their children’s lifelong neuroses, we’ve by turns blamed, absolved, and joked about the ways mothers and fathers might be responsible for their kids’ problems.

And, nearly 3 decades ago, psychotherapist Susan Forward PhD popularized the idea in her groundbreaking book, Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. It’s a great book. I recommend it. But for today, let’s just get to the point:

The #1 way that a toxic parent can affect your love life is this:

A toxic parent is needy.

I’m not talking about the parent who needs you because she’s elderly, sick, or disabled.

What I am talking about is the mother or father who needs you emotionally. You are a primary or overwhelming or somehow inappropriate source of emotional support for this parent.

I’m not talking about the parent who loves you with joy, takes pride in you, and is grateful for your love.

A toxic parent needs you emotionally because she or he doesn’t know how to get emotional needs met in healthy, adult relationships with spouse, partner, or adult friends. This parent therefore makes you responsible for his or her emotional fulfillment (or pain). No child or adult child should be in this position.

You see, a child must rely on the parent(s) or primary caregivers for love and security, in addition to fulfillment of physical needs like nutrition and shelter. Recent science has shown that unconditional love, security, and emotional well-being from prenatal to age 3 are fundamental to lifelong well-being. Giving is a primary job of parents. The baby’s primary emotional job is to develop healthy attachment.

But if the parent is the taker who relies on the child to be the giver, that can be quite toxic. It is not the child’s job to be the parent’s source of unconditional love, security, and emotional well-being–neither during childhood nor adulthood.

How do you know if the neediness of a toxic parent has affected your relationships?

  1. You’re attracted to people who might be emotionally self-centered or narcissistic, volatile or emotionally insatiable, or just plain abusive.

  2. You can’t seem to get your own needs met in a love relationship, either because you don’t understand them or you are attracted to people who just can’t meet them.

  3. You are exhausted from dealing with the toxic parent, and this keeps you from having the space in your heart for healthy love.

  4. You just don’t know what normal is. You didn’t experience healthy love and didn’t see it modeled by the adults in your life.

So, what can you do?

  1. Recognize it. If it’s a frustrating relationship with a toxic parent, or painful memories of the toxic parent of your childhood, recognize and accept its existence. This doesn’t mean that you are accepting it as okay or normal. You’re just accepting its reality.

  2. Understand that it doesn’t serve you. Say to yourself, “this doesn’t work for me.”

  3. Create boundaries now. You may not be able to halt the toxic parent’s behavior, but you can change your own actions and affect your own emotions. Perhaps this means screening your phone calls, or scheduling your interactions for when you only have 5 minutes.

  4. Do something concrete in place of the emotionally draining interaction. There is a reason why people send cards and flowers on Mother’s Day and birthdays–it’s a tangible expression of love, while offering a way to minimize the interaction. If your parent needs real help, offer to deliver groceries, for instance, but do it before another commitment, so you have an excuse to depart quickly from the parent’s presence!

  5. Speak the truth. Either to your parent or to yourself. “I cannot be your best friend or emotional support. That’s not my job as your adult child.” Or, “It doesn’t feel good to me when you speak to me like this. So, I’d prefer to end the conversation.” Then, keep your word.

Of course, there are other ways in which parental behavior can negatively affect your love life. For instance, parental criticism, verbal abuse (and other abuse, of course), and distancing behaviors can be painful. And harmful. But you can use the same tactics to create boundaries and break the uncomfortable patterns.

Believe me, I get it. You see, my childhood was so challenging. My parents had a great deal of conflict, and after they divorced (when I was 12), my mother poisoned me against my father–which kept me from having a relationship with him for many years. Until I learned to separate emotionally, I didn’t spend time either of them. Once I had created appropriate boundaries, I could feel empathy and was able to resume a relationship with them–albeit, one with healthy limits to it!