Family articles

How to Forgive When A Parent Breaks Your Heart

Unresolved issues with family members will affect all other relationships

Mike Woodard October 14, 2016

I was sleeping on the couch. At least they thought I was sleeping.

My parents, both drunk, were having a fight.

My father pushed my mother with enough force that she broke her pelvis and ended up in the hospital. This was one of many crazy memories I have of my family. Even to this day, some of the drama and carnage of alcoholism remain untold.

At another time I, along with my two brothers and sister, were called from our beds in the middle of the night. My parents, drunk again, announced that they were getting divorced. We were asked to choose which parent we wanted to stay with. Despair and sadness moved into my life like a fog. Even thoughts of suicide lingered for a season.

My “theory of primary relationships

I am a survivor (and many would even describe me as a success).  I graduated from high school and university with honors. My survival has not been without some baggage. In particular there was a deep-seated anger and bitterness toward my father. That anger also affected other relationships.

This effect I have now come to call “the theory of primary relationships” is an intuitive theory. I have no scientific proof. The theory goes something like this: When there are significant unresolved issues in the family, it will affect all our other relationships.

I will never forget a conversation I had with a roommate at Colorado State University. He asked lots of questions, and the topic of home life came up, centering on my relationship with my father. He said, “Mike, you need to love your dad.” I knew that I didn’t, and I was not sure I could. At best, at that point my anger had been mingled with pity.

Reaching out to my father

Months later, I looked my dad in the eyes and told him, “I love you.” He cried.

That was the beginning of a restoration work in our relationship. I’m not sure my father ever understood how his actions had affected me, but I do know how my actions affected him. I chose to give love as a gift to him. On Father’s Day I wrote him a letter telling him the good things he had done as a parent.

I never heard back from him, but my mother wrote me and said, “Your dad got your letter. He sat in his chair, read it and cried. I think it is what he needed.” (This was a significant note from my mother because her relationship with my father was fractured. I was afraid that she would feel betrayed if I was kind to the person who caused so much pain in her life, but she didn’t seem to resent it.)

Somehow, dealing with the relationship with my dad set me free and taught me lessons the have made other important relationships better. As my father came to the end of his life, I had the satisfaction of knowing we were okay with each other.  I had done and said what needed to be done and said on my part.  There were no regrets. For that I am thankful.

Understanding forgiveness

I’m sure you are wondering how I could go from anger and bitterness to love. It was only when I experienced love and forgiveness myself that I could understand how to give love and forgive others. This experience came through a journey in personal faith, which started when my sister began attending a youth group.

Through her influence I began to understand that God loved me and had in fact sent Jesus Christ to die to demonstrate that love. Christ’s death was not only to demonstrate God’s love, but to provide forgiveness of all my sin and to give me eternal life.  God promised that once I asked Christ into my life, he would never leave me.

As I understood this love and forgiveness, and experienced God’s presence in my life, I seemed to have new resources to love and forgive others.

A significant test of this was the relationship with my father. If God could love me and forgive me, how could I not do the same for my father?

I realized through this and other relationships that there is a circle of “primary relationships” in my life. These are significant for good or bad. Pain and hurt in these relationships can be carried for a lifetime like the proverbial “ball and chain,” resulting in multiplied misery. The process of dealing with the relationship with my father has turned the “ball and chain” into a building block toward health and greater capacity in my relational world.

You can receive Christ right now by faith through prayer.

Praying is simply talking to God. God knows your heart and is not so concerned with your words as He is with the attitude of your heart. Here’s a suggested prayer:

Lord Jesus, I want to know you personally. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life to you and ask you to come in as my Savior and Lord. Take control of my life. Thank you for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Make me the kind of person you want me to be.

Does this prayer express the desire of your heart? You can pray it right now, and Jesus Christ will come into your life, just as He promised.

If you invited Christ into your life, thank God often that He is in your life, that He will never leave you and that you have eternal life. As you learn more about your relationship with God, and how much He loves you, you’ll experience life to the fullest.

Used by permission, first published on

To learn more, read the Washington Post’s article, “How Decades of Divorce Helped Erode Religion.”

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