How much do we know about love? Enough to understand that love is not an obligation—we cannot love by force, nor be loved in this way.

Love has many facets when it comes to parent-child relationships. We may be inclined to believe that, when bound by blood, these relationships can only be affectionate; that the power of family ties can rise above any misunderstanding or impediment. But it’s not like that.

Just as it does not occur naturally in other relationships, harmony does not automatically occur in a family either, between adults burdened with substantial emotional baggage and their children, with their specific needs and desires. When a parent-child relationship gets off to a bad start, the chance that things will turn around later, especially without conscious effort on the part of both parties, is almost non-existent.

The test of time

Not all relationships survive the test of time. In some cases, the past weighs too much, and parents become hard-to-love beings in the eyes of their children. Even maturing doesn’t help them see through a different lens.

Maturity often makes us question the abilities of those who gave us life. It might makes us reject them gradually, imputing to them many shortcomings: lack of wisdom, tact, involvement, sacrifice or unconditional support. We categorise them as hard-to-love parents.

What does a hard-to-love parent mean—a parent who does not offer understanding and affection, one who is immune to the child’s well-being, the parent obsessed with criticism and control, or just the one who meets all of the above criteria? The answers are certainly subjective.

What we do know is that, in adulthood, we evaluate the behaviour of our parents differently. We measure their defects differently: harsher, more determined, more vindictive. Whether we blame them for not sending us to the right school or for leaving us either too much or too little time with our grandparents, whether we feel that they restricted our freedom or deprived us of the discipline of well-chosen rules, once collected in the soul, dissatisfactions erupt in adulthood, suggesting to us that maintaining the connection with our parents is not an imperative; that love is not mandatory.

The beginning of understanding

Still, it is up to us to make our emotional lives better. It is up to us to live in harmony with others and, more importantly, with ourselves. It is in our power to make efforts toward a fulfilling relationship with our parents, aware that love requires respecting the needs of both parties. As harsh as the label of “hard-to-love” parents may seem, we could begin to change our perspective by admitting how we feel about them.

Dissatisfaction is usually born from the difference between expectations and reality. Many live with the idyllic image of the infallible parent.

Indeed, the quality of parenthood, in addition to the fact that it implies the assumption of huge responsibilities, also means the transposition of special inclinations into practice: patience, courage, a spirit of sacrifice, devotion, and empathy.

However, parents are ordinary mortals. They have limitations and flaws, and the fact of having brought a child (or several) into the world does not turn them into superheroes that are in control of any situation.

Evidence of love

On the other hand, we can love our parents—despite their imperfections—understanding that the errors committed speak about them, and not about us; they betray their inner struggles and not our real or imagined shortcomings.

Someone recently told me that his mother calls him almost daily just to complain: about the neighbours, the government, or the health issues of old age. Therefore, their phone conversations always revolve around maternal anxieties, without any interest in the son’s daily happenings or his everyday joys and concerns. For a long time, the son was affected by the situation, until he finally accepted the mother’s selfish way of communicating, identifying the evidence of parental love in other forms: in a well-made meal, in a gift given for his birthday, in a visit announced in advance.

The moral compass

It is never too late to learn to love people as they want or as they need. Ideally, parents would teach us this valuable lesson at the right time. When they can’t do it, don’t know how or don’t want to, the solution is to let ourselves be inspired by other role models around. Alternatively, we could seek to be self-taught, entering the path of emotional and spiritual maturity that suggests that it is better to give than to receive.

Regardless of this moral compass, there is a need to maintain a balance between what we give and what we receive. Even though, in certain situations, adult children show more wisdom than their predecessors, being willing to make major compromises to save the relationship with their parents, the void left by the lack of a symmetrical response from the parents can erode the soul. Every relationship is based on reciprocity, so in our effort to love our hard-to-love mothers and fathers, we don’t have to completely abandon expectations, ignore our needs, or play the role of martyrs without a cause.

Masks or improvisations

We should not seek constant validation from our parents either, always trying to please them to show our affection. One of the indicators of healthy family ties is the degree of independence and authenticity of its members.

When we love our parents, we feel comfortable around them and do not resort to masks or improvisations to be accepted. If we feel rejected for who we are, there is a risk of either displaying behaviours that do not represent us or paying back in the same coin: by rejecting the person, defensively and repeatedly, trying our best to keep the “attacks” at bay to prevent ourselves from being hurt.

The strategy of forgiveness

In an open discussion, another acquaintance told the story of estrangement from his family, which resulted from his parents’ rigid expectations. He feels that he cannot be himself, that he cannot express himself freely and remain true to himself, which causes him to withdraw and show indifference to those who conditionally offer him love, acceptance, and help.

How could anyone, in such a situation, rebuild their love for difficult parents? One of the answers could be by learning to forgive them. No matter how old and worn-out it may be, the strategy of forgiveness is always relevant. And how could it be otherwise, since, without the ability and willingness to forgive, we risk becoming mere possessors of resentment, negativity, and rancour?

Research has repeatedly shown that forgiveness benefits physical, mental, emotional, and relational health. No matter how many solutions we try to repair damaged relationships, we cannot endlessly bypass the road that brings us face to face with the need for forgiveness, a road that, although not simple, is full of benefits and liberating rewards.

Easy or hard to love

Like the weather, people are of many kinds. Some are easier than others to love. It is uncomfortable when experience forces us to include our own parents in the second category, and not knowing what to do next. How do we continue—with indifference, with resignation, with the desire to verbalise the accumulated grievances, and then closing all the doors behind us?

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hard-to-love parents

Parents are the ones who should teach us the ABCs of love, to cultivate love in us; to offer it unconditionally and let themselves, in turn, be touched by love. Unfortunately, parent-child relationships often follow winding paths that disrupt harmony, leading to conflicts and distancing, to the inability to find real solutions. What can we do from the position of adult children whose incompatibility with their parents, their way of being or childhood disappointments create relationship problems? We can try. We can strive. And we can dream of change. Our effort can result in either a simple attempt only, or in achieving what we actually set out to do.

Genia Ruscu believes that any child who has reached maturity has the necessary tools to improve their relationship with their complicated, difficult or incompatible parents, generically identified as “hard-to-love parents.”