Friday, December 24, 2010

Leave Me Alone, I'm Lonely

When I discussed the concept of distancing in my July 6 post, Distancing: Early Warning, I described parents who distance their adult children thusly:  The parents act in an obnoxious manner that makes their adult children wish to avoid them. However, the fact that the parents are indeed pushing their children away is often somewhat obscurred by the fact that the parents keep demanding contact with their progeny.  The kicker in all this is that the  parents even do that in such a way that it has the opposite effect.  Still, the adult children frequently come back over and over again for more abuse.

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). 

Dear Abby
Dear Abby
Tell Me About It by Carolyn Hax, Advice Columnist

Ask Amy
Amy Dickenson
Harriette Cole

Now of course the writers of advice to the lovelorn columns are not trained therapists, and their suggestions to the readers who send in problems vary widely from the very psychologically sophisticated (Carolyn Hax) to the often naive, all too obvious, and glib (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.

Another writer had been physically and sexually abused by her father when she was a child.  After he died when the writer was an adult, her mother would go on and on endlessly about what a saint he had been.

A mother constantly blamed her daughter for the mother's divorce from the writer's father, although the mother would gush to complete strangers about what a wonderful daughter she had.

One mother was a real Cassandra; everything she talked about was gloom and doom about the future.  However, if her adult daughter was not all sunshiny about everything, the mother would berate her.

Another writer's parents always gave expensive gifts and money to the writer's older siblings, but never gave her anything.

When a writer and her husband generously took in her elderly and apparently agorophobic mother-in-law, Mom expected them to stay in the house with her 24/7 and would never want to go out herself. She also made huge messes in the house and constantly henpecked the writer's husband about what he was and was not doing.

One writer's mother repeatedly lied and gossiped to the other siblings about each of her adult childen behind their backs.

A writer complained that her mother had always treated her like crap, but doted on the writer's daughter.

A mother who was overprotective of her children when they were kids still expected a writer to check in with her every single night.

Another parent constantly embarassed her daughter in front of the daughter's friends; if the daughter did not do everything the mother told her to do, the mother would curse at her and call her names.

The parents of another writer consistently favored one of the writer's daughters over the other grandchild in a highly ostentatious way.

Finally, when one writer was literally dying of cancer, her mother made plans with a single friend to find a way for the friend to marry the writer's husband after she died.

That last one may seem over the top, but believe me, I've heard far more bizarre examples from my patients.   The parents described in these posts were pikers in comparison. It never ceases to amaze me how creative people can become in devising ways to annoy other family members.  Every time I think I have heard it all, boy am I ever in for a surprise.

1 comment:

  1. Other therapists don't believe elderly parents can be obnoxious to their adult children? That's incredible. They must have unusual patients, or they're not listening to the patients they do have.