Monday, April 12, 2010

Your Spouse's Secret Mission

On October 4, 2009, newspaper advice columnist Carolyn Hax printed a letter that said:

“Three years ago, during my senior year of high school, my parents divorced. My dad has quite a bit of money and I was worried that he might get involved with gold diggers. I go to college out of state, so I haven't had many opportunities to get to know Joan. But the other day, my brother told me Joan had, unasked, told my dad: "I just want to go on record that I don't think you should pay for your daughter's law school. I don't approve.

Unfortunately, this isn't her first comment like that. … More important, I think it's horrible that she would position herself to cause a rift between my father and me over issues that are none of her business. I don't care how my dad chooses to spend his money, but I'm furious that she is nice to my face while making these comments behind my back.

...I'm going home for a visit soon, and I think I should give my dad a heads-up. What should I say? He doesn't know I know about the law school comment, and I don't want to drop my little brother in the grease.”

Carolyn Hax wisely advised the writer not to pre-judge the matter before confirming what she heard.

I of course do not know what is true in this particular family, but I would like to share a pattern I have frequently come across as a therapist who works with individuals on family systems issues, and which possibly might apply here.

Sometimes a spouse "volunteers" to appear to be the villain in a family drama so parents will not be angry at grown children or vice versa in cases in which the parent and adult child cannot be honest with one another about their real feelings.

Using this family as a hypothetical case, perhaps it is Dad who is feeling overburdened financially - maybe he also plans to put the writer's brother through school - but feels too guilty to say no to her, or feels obligated to put her through law school.

Hearing her husband's complaints about this in private, and to shield the father, the step mother makes it sound as though she is the one who objects. She says this in front of the writer's brother, knowing it will get back to her. This way, the writer gets angry with her and not with the father, and if he does decide not to pay, it appears as if he is not to blame but that he is totally under her gold digging thumb.

It may be hard to believe anyone would sacrifice themselves like this for a spouse, but I find it happens with surprising frequency. I e-mailed Ms. Hax about this, and she replied that she did not find it surprising at all, as she has done it herself.

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