I also pointed out that in these situations the parents may secretly believe that their children are better off without them. Hence, they engage in distancing to protect the children from themselves.
I would like to provide readers with some real examples.
However, if I used examples from my practice, other therapists who do not like my family systems conceptualization (and there are many who do not) might accuse me of inducing my patients to make up this stuff just to please me. These therapists do not believe this sort of odd behavior ever really happens. So instead, I will use examples that I have been collecting from several different newspaper advice columns. The columns are written by Jeanne Phillips (Dear Abby), Carolyn Hax, Amy Dickenson (Ask Amy), Harriette Cole, and the team of Marcy Sugar & Kathy Mitchell (Annie's Mailbox).
Nonetheless, in order to be successful at writing such a column, all of them have to be adept at writing about issues that resonate widely with readers. They have to pick out a few letters that pique their readers' interest from the hundreds that they typically receive every day. And it is not just females who read the advice columns, as was the case back when they first started. (In England, advice columnists were once called "agony aunts" because they dealt with female letter writers who were always agonizing about something).
Academic psychiatrists and psychologists tend to look down their noses at the popular press, and are often dismissive of advice columnists as well as op-ed writers who author columns on psychological issues - as if non-professionals cannot make valid observations or have informed opinions. That just shows how short-sighted the academics can be. What they see in their offices and read in journals is frankly a highly skewed view of human nature. They ignore the popular press at their peril. And they need to get out more.
The problem of what I call distancing parents comes up quite frequently in the letters advice columnists choose to publish; what follows are a whole bunch of examples culled from recent columns. (Of course, there are also a whole litter of letters by parents denouncing the dastardly dreadful dirty deeds of their ungrateful a-dult offspring, which not only allows me to alliterate but gives me material for another post later on. Distancing is often a two way street).
According to one writer, her parents insisted on monopolizing most of her and her husband's social time. When the couple moved out of state, hoping to solve this problem, her parents literally bought a house a couple of blocks away from theirs in the new state, and moved into it.
A father, after divorcing the writer's mother when the writer was small, would rarely show up to spend time with his children when he had promised to. These no-shows had always been a crushing disappointment for the kids. Nonetheless, after the kids grew up, he constantly complained about how they refused to visit him.
The mother of one letter writer always cried to her about how awful she, the mother, was being mistreated by the writer's husband. From the writer's perspective, however, it was actually the mother who was consistently verbally abusive to the husband.
Whenever another letter writer disagreed with her father, he would reply, "Maybe I'll just kill myself."
When a writer's father became chronically ill, her mother constantly asked her to come over and help take care of him. If she could not make it for whatever reason, the mother would launch into a long teary rant about how she, the mother, never got to go anywhere. No matter how much the writer helped, Mom would constantly describe her as the "unhelpful sibling" when discussing the situation with the writer's sister.