I was raised in an abusive home—both physically and emotionally—and after many years of estrangement, my abuser would like to have a relationship with me. Now that I am expanding my own family, she is very interested in doing what it takes to be part of my and my children’s lives. I don’t know if she has truly changed, but if she has, I would love for my children to have a grandparent in their life. I am well versed in Crucial Conversations, but I honestly have no idea where to start. How do you rebuild Safety and Mutual Respect that has degenerated to the point of non-existence?
To Forgive or Protect?
Dear Forgive or Protect,
I am so sorry about the pain of your early life. No one should have to endure that kind of torment. Which is why I am confident you will step up to the advice I have to offer for the sake of your children.
When you were younger, you were completely vulnerable. You needed someone to protect you—and no one was there. Our primary duty to our children is to ensure their physical and emotional safety. Next comes love and nurturing. But basic safety is foundational. Grandparents are great—but safety comes first. You know what it’s like to look to people in your life and be unable to trust them for this most basic of needs. You now have the chance to get that right for your children. Every decision you make needs to put their safety first. If gaining a grandparent introduces even a small chance of preventable harm, the grandparent goes. With that in mind, here are some thoughts about how you might approach this situation.
1. If you can’t talk about it, it’s not over. My first question is, have you been able to thoroughly discuss the abuse you experienced with this person? If not, then you can have no confidence that the behavior you saw in the past will not repeat itself. Do not offer your trust until there is acknowledgment. This conversation may open your eyes to emotional trauma this individual struggled with as well. You may feel deep empathy for them as a result. But don’t equate empathy with tolerance. A healthy and open conversation is a good start. In fact, it is a prerequisite for building trust—but it is not the end.
2. Use yourself, not your children, as the guinea pig. Even if you are able to honestly discuss the past, you must still test the present. Don’t allow this person to connect with your children until you have sufficient time to rebuild your own trust with them. This could take a year or more. This investment in time might give you a chance to heal from your trauma as well. If she pressures you for access to the grandchildren sooner, but is unwilling to invest in rebuilding trust with you first, I would be concerned she is still in denial about the scale of her challenge and the reality of your abuse.
3. Set boundaries to test for reform. If the time comes that you feel very confident that she can honor you and your boundaries in your relationship with her, I would slowly introduce her to the grandchildren—and do so under controlled circumstances at first.
In summary, I would begin the process of building a new relationship by:
a) Letting her know you are open to it—in fact, are grateful for her interest in kindling it.
b) Giving her a picture of the kind of time and investment you will need from her in order to create it.
This will likely be a tricky conversation. She may well feel hurt or defensive by your requests. And I’ll emphasize again, you should judge the likelihood of a healthy relationship in the future by her capacity to engage well with you in this first conversation!
I wish you the best as you care for yourself and your precious children.