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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Distancing: Early Warning

A letter writer to the advice column Dear Abby, an adult woman, complained about her mother’s clinginess. The writer said that the mother had had “no time for me when I was growing up” and had been verbally abusive, having even told her daughter that she wished she had aborted her.

After the mother’s husband (presumably the writer’s stepfather) died, the letter writer explained, the mother would call the writer at work at 8 a.m. demanding that she drive 20 miles on her lunch break to bring the mother food. Mom would also make frantic phone calls at 2 a.m. demanding the daughter come sit with her because she was "lonely,” but when the daughter arrived, Mom would be asleep! Mom would call the daughter at least four or five times a day.

An adult male patient of mine told a somewhat analogous story. His mother was constantly calling and demanding that he come and wait on her hand and foot. She would almost always call at times that she knew were the most inconvenient for him – as if he had nothing else to do- and was incessantly criticizing him for not paying more attention to her. The things that she wanted him to do for her were tasks that she could have easily done herself, or that she could have easily afforded to pay someone else to do to.

When the son did things for her, however, the mother was never satisfied. Either the jobs were not done quite right, or there were more to do than he could finish. Oddly, the mother was also constantly criticizing herself for taking up so much of his time.

Yet another adult male patient was constantly “on call” for his hypochondriac mother. Earlier in her life, she had been able to run several businesses behind the scenes (there were male figureheads), but now she could not seem to do anything for herself. One of her favorite pastimes was getting “sick” just as the patient had packed up his family to go on vacation - her son would then dutifully cancel the whole trip.

Both of the patients described above just assumed that their mothers were absurdly dependent and too crazy or stupid to realize that their “dependent,” behavior, by being extremely noxious, was in fact very close to driving the sons away from them completely. Of course, for this to be true the mothers would have to be extremely crazy or impossibly stupid. At least with these two patients, there was no evidence that their mothers were either.

In fact, all three of these mothers were sending a very mixed message: I badly want you to be here but I’m going to drive you so batty you will never want to come see me. When parents act in an obnoxious manner like this that pushes their adult children away, this is referred to as distancing behavior. I am often impressed by how much of this crap my patients are willing to put up with before they finally say, “enough!” – if they ever get to that point at all.

So what is going on here? In families where distancing like this transpires, I usually find that the mothers’ (or in somewhat fewer cases, the fathers’) behavior can be explained by one or both of two common patterns.

In the first pattern, as seen in the case of the two male patients described above, the mothers have a dependency conflict which really stemed from a gender role conflict. The mothers were both bright, capable and ambitious women who had been raised in families that valued exactly none of those traits in females. Females were supposed to get married, raise a family, and be totally dependent on men. In today’s culture, such earlier mandates sometimes lead older females to acquiesce to male dominance while at the same time seethe with secret resentment over being infantilized.

Such a situation, depending on other factors, can lead to a variety of different behaviors between women and their children. In the cases under discussion here, after the women’s husbands died, there was no man around left to “take care” of them. They acted as if they needed someone to take care of them but really resented anyone who dared try. Their poor sons would then receive the fallout from the conflict. The mothers engaged in distancing behavior in order to appear “dependent” while really trying to discourage anyone from actually taking care of them.

The second pattern might be the one that applies to the Dear Abby letter writer. Parents who know they were abusive, even if they do not admit it, may secretly believe that their children are better off without them. Hence, they engage in distancing to push their children away, thereby protecting the children from themselves. However, the parents also secretly long to have a healthy connection with their children, so they cannot seem to bring themselves to just cut off all ties directly. Their own conflict causes them to give off the double message inherent in distancing behavior: come here but get the hell away from me. Or as the singer Pink so aptly put it, “Leave me alone, I’m lonely!”

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