Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hatefulness as a Gift of Love, Part II: a Case Example

In Part I of this post, from 2/7/12, I described my belief that parents somehow still love their children even if they act out a hateful, nasty, and/or abusive family role.  This is naturally something people who have parents like this have a great deal of trouble accepting, and understandably so.  If I were in their shoes, I am absolutely certain I would have come to the exact same conclusions they do. 

Still, as adults from dysfunctional families tell their stories to me in psychotherapy, I always hear of those rare times when their parents were not hateful but actually loving.  Sometimes such parents even will unexpectedly express their love directly, although often in a way which undermines their own credibility.  But why would anyone believe the professions of love of someone who generally tends to treat them horribly?

I mentioned that I would describe some of the “maternal” behavior that a woman who has been corresponding with me described to me, and translate some of her mother’s behavior and verbalizations into what I think was really being expressed covertly.  So here goes. (I will not be discussing my correspondent’s childhood, but only what has been going on in the very recent past). 

Her mother was getting old and was no longer able to live by herself, but was driving everyone crazy with various demands about whether or not she should be placed, or where she should be placed if she were sent to a nursing home. 

She had given her daughter power of attorney over her affairs in the eventuality that she became incompetent, setting up a situation in which my correspondent (I’ll call her Mrs. T.) was in a position to make major life decisions for her mother. It was also completely unclear whether the mother was developing dementia or how severe it was if it was present, which meant it was also unclear whether or not she was competent.

Mrs. T described the events as they unfolded, writing at various times (reproduced with her permission):

She [Mom] reacts extremely poorly to anything short of immediate subservience and submission on my part, and yet, she has appointed me to be her "power of attorney" in the eventuality that she becomes incompetent.  She was turned down by the only nursing home that she agreed to go to and, as of yesterday afternoon, was turning down offers by the hospital social worker to set up any in-home physical therapy.  The county social worker fears that because of her intelligence she will not be found to lack decision-making ability. 

I want to keep loving thoughts towards her (after a lifetime of anxious helplessness, guilt and overt/covert hostility) [Mrs. T had been reading my posts on disarming borderlines and spoiling behavior]. 

Now I must decide whether or not I want to be the person who puts my mother in a nursing home and have her hate me or to decline and leave her well-being to chance.

I was told that my mother was angry and acting out for about an hour this morning.  She was ok when I came to the hospital this afternoon and we had a good conversation, including my explaining to her that the POA authorized me to "put her in a nursing home" and that I was resigning.  She actually said that I should "give it back" after I said that and she said it in a friendly way.  The hospital social worker showed up and tried to immediately serve me with the "activation" paperwork. . .  She left to make me a copy of the POA…  My mother started acting out again.  I eventually left.  I came back in the room briefly while she was on the phone with my brother "trashing" me and I told her that I just wanted her to be safe.

She called me tonight after I was home and told me that she never wants to see me again and that I am a bad daughter because I haven't confided in her and because I have shared information about her with the social services people.

Tonight she cited her Sicilian upbringing as a reason for being an unaffectionate parent… My mother called my husband yesterday to thank him for watering her plants and told him "good bye." My mother has told me that she never wants to see me again.  My brother tells me that she has also said "I do not have a daughter" etc. She has called here several times, mostly leaving messages asking for my husband, but I was home and did answer last night about 10:35 and she spoke to me but was clearly not happy about it, demanding that I send an attorney there because they were "killing her." 

She did not trust me to do the simplest thing correctly.  Even to be in her presence was to be under her dominion and control.  I could not wait to leave the minute I got there even though my intentions had been good in going to visit her.  She harangued me non-stop for bringing her groceries.  "I thought I told you not to...."  "Didn't I tell you not to...." She would write letters thanking for the groceries, and other kindnesses.

[After Mom leaves the hospital:].

Right now she is in a nursing home two blocks from my home.  She does not speak to me when I go there and bring her flowers or rub her feet.

My mother was on a hunger strike when she was in the hospital prior to the emergency mental detention/initiation of the guardianship process.  She is now refusing to eat in the nursing home, except for food which I bring her. I have told my therapist for a long time, and my mother's "thank you" notes in the past confirm, that she credits me with "keeping her alive."  I, however, see the other side of the coin, i.e., that if I cease my efforts, I will be a murderer. On Weds. afternoon she disowned me to my face and a day later is playing the "I'll only eat food you make me" game.

I left there assuming she still can't chew, as she told me that she had been to a luau the night before and ate nothing, not even water, not even the coconut cream pie....(I said words to the effect of couldn't you just mouth that and swallow it...???)  Anyway, very long story short.....b/c my mother dislikes me talking to people about her, I called the nurses station after I left and spoke to Ann and told her I had brought cottage cheese, yogurt and OJ and she tells me that my mom had eaten a pasta w/sausage lunch no problem....... one of the last times I saw her, she said "You need lessons, you need lessons" and when I asked why, she said my meatballs were too hard, then ate part of one and contradicted herself, said that one was ok.  shoot me now.

So, I am responsible for her survival.....just like I was always made to be responsible for her happiness (there is a no win situation for you with a woman who was constitutionally incapable of being happy...) So, I am trapped.  And, if I stopped bringing her food and she lost weight, and died, it would be "all my fault."

Without turning her head to look at me, my mother said to me "You didn't get any sleep at all last night did you?" Today, while talking to my husband about this feeling of always being under scrutiny, with his help, I made the following observations:

1) with her I was always under close observation......nothing I ever did went unobserved, nothing I ever did was free from commentary, judgment or mischaracterization
2) she did not ask as one might, "are you tired?" but instead she made a gross exaggeration  (any sleep at all)
3) she made her observation in the form of a leading question.

For most of my life, I would have 'taken the bait' and defended myself with an "Oh yes I did" kind of answer which would have just started an argument or occasion a global statement by her to the effect of "you never get enough sleep" "you don't take care of yourself" etc. OR a criticism of me along the lines of being a hot house tomato or thin skinned if I objected to the criticisms. 

This may seem like a small observation, and yet, it helps to describe the type of relationship I had/have with her.....she was intrusive, and yet, her intrusions did not feel like expressions of love or concern, they were simply opportunities for her to chide me, condemn me or make me feel inadequate or incompetent as a person.....I don't think I am ever going to "heal" from this.
 I do not remember her ever kissing me. 

She said, the other day, as I was leaving, words to the effect (and this is very very very rare) "You know I love you very much, don't you? You make life liveable."  This was after telling me earlier that she did not want to be alive this time next year, among other things.  I believe that by providing her with homemade food, so she doesn't have to eat the nursing home food, she feels cared about by me. 

In reading this, the things that jumped out at me the most was the fact that Mom is constantly giving off double messages to Mrs. T. about needing and loving her.  The positive messages, however, could easily be interpreted as having a negative ulterior motive behind them - like Mom is only saying them to manipulate Mrs. T.  This negative interpretation comes about for a number of reasons:

First, the positive messages are expressed way less frequently than the negative ones, and are rarely said directly to Mrs. T.  They are said to third parties or written in notes.  Second, expressions of concern are expressed as criticisms, and their frequency make it appear as if Mrs. T is constantly being judged in the negative.  Third, Mom seems to imply that Mrs. T. is responsible for Mom’s happiness, and that Mrs. T always fails her, making Mom’s misery Mrs. T’s fault.  So, of course Mrs. T interprets them in the way she listed above as her three “observations.”

I believe that the negative comments and the spin Mom seems to put on her positive comments represent Mom’s “role” of spoiler in her own family of origin – manifestations of a false self.  The positive comments and the underlying concern represent what is going on covertly, and are what I believe to be manifestations of her true self – the way she really feels.

For example, Mom complained bitterly about the groceries Mrs. T. brought to her, but would then write letters thanking her.  Then, to top it off, she refused to eat any food except that which Mrs. T brought to her. She even credited Mrs. T. with keeping her alive, although she “undid” this at different times by accusing Mrs. T. of “killing” her and by predicting that she will soon be dead.  She tells Mrs. T she needs cooking lessons – again while refusing to eat other people’s food. (Except occasionally. Just to throw everyone else off).

After a lifetime of avoiding kissing Mrs. T., again Mrs. T naturally discounted Mom’s statement, "You know I love you very much, don't you? You make life liveable." 

Mom “disowned” Mrs. T. several times.  Each time, Mrs. T. felt like Mom was going to do what she said, despite the fact that it never actually happens.

At one point, when the patient was sitting with her in the hospital, Mom said, "Sorry this was so boring for you." I told Mrs. T. that I would wager that Mom had said this with a tone of voice that was dripping with either sarcasm or hostility, as if Mrs. T. were an ungrateful daughter who does not appreciate all her mother had done for her, and who resented Mom for inconveniencing herself - or something like that.  

Alternate translation: "I know this is no fun for you and I'm a pill to be with, and I really do hope it wasn't as bad for you as I think it would be."   

Sounds insane I know, but when patients who are subjected to this sort of figurative insanity think back, they may find they can remember times when Mom was actually loving in some strange way. Double messages are the norm in the BPD family. 

Last I heard, by the way, Mom ended up in an appropriate facility, Mrs. T. retained power of attorney, and they are still speaking.

In my post of July 6, 2010, Distancing: Early Warning, I wrote: When parents act in an obnoxious manner like this that pushes their adult children away, this is referred to as distancing behavior.   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 their children from themselves

It's a version of self-denigrating sentiment expressed in the famous quote by Groucho Marx: "I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member."

Groucho Marx on "You Bet Your Life"

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 that are 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!

Mrs. T.’s mom obliquely refers to her own upbringing as the source of her difficulties being a good mother when she blames her “Sicilian upbringing” as the reason for her being an “unaffectionate parent.”  What transpired in that upbringing, and how much Mrs. T knows or does not know about it, is something Mrs. T. and I have not discussed in great detail.  I am willing to wager that the story of Mom’s background is powerful and moving.  Such stories always are.


  1. Dr. Allen, do you believe parents feel a biological imperative to love their children?

    Occasionally animal mothers do not seem to have the instinctual equipment for nurturing offspring. Is it not possible this might be true in humans?

    My mother has never been a constructive influence in my life. I might be able to read her behavior as distancing, but she has also stated she didn't see why her children should have advantages she didn't have, suggesting an intention to deprive -- or share the misery, if you will.

    Her history, which she dramatized incessantly, might be seen as powerful and moving if it weren't for her cruelty and selfishness. After many years of neglecting them, she finally drove all her children from home and turned to playing bridge and hanging out with her lover.

    In old age, she became needy as well as mean.

    I guess there's a gift of love in there somewhere....

  2. Altostrata,

    When not warped by disturbed family dynamics, the degree of the motherliness trait probably falls on the same bell-shaped curve as everything else. But yes, attachment of some sort to one's young would seem to me to be something that must be a biological imperative.

    Mothers can indeed be envious of their children, and distancing mothers often make it sound more like jealousy rather than envy (envy means they would like to also have something you have; jealousy means that they want to take it away from you).

    Speculation, not fact:

    "...she finally drove all her children from home and turned to playing bridge and hanging out with her lover." That sounds like it could be the Groucho Marx situation right there. She might secretly think you all are better off without her in your life.

    1. And she would be correct!

      Although it did seem like she got rid of her children (and her husband) for her own convenience. The attachment always seemed weak unto non-existent.

      Is your goal in working with those with borderline-type parents to understand the situation and defuse the emotional burden, rather than enable a relationship with the parent?

    2. Both, actually. Understanding the situation involves constructing something called a genogram to figure out what made the hateful parent so hateful.

      Empathy (which does not include approval of the parents' behavior - that's sympathy) is useful in what comes next: confronting the issues with the parents and putting a stop to the hateful behavior from that point on.

      You probably do not believe reconciliation and a healthier relationship with your mother is even possible - few of my patients from abusive homes do, so I don't blame you - but you would be surprised.

      Unfortunately, most therapists are not familiar with the strategies necessary to create this sort of reconciliation. Especially CBT therapists! (except schema therapists).

      By the way, many distancing parents are extremely well-rehearsed actors when it comes to this, so their children have no way of assessing the true state of their attachment.

    3. Dr. Allen, thanks for taking the time to respond to my comments.

      I don't doubt that reconciliation is possible in some situations. It probably depends on the degree of commitment by the designated meta-communicators, and if they believe such a relationship would benefit them. They're in the best position to know.

      How often do your clients have the will to build a relationship with a distancing parent?

      When you say the parents are "extremely well-rehearsed actors," do you mean they are hiding the extent to which they care for their offspring? Or do you mean they pretend to care for purposes of manipulation?

      In my particular situation, the hall of mirrors can go on and on....

    4. I mean they are hiding the extent they care for their offspring.

      It is the nature of language (the subject of a book of mine called "Deciphering Motivation in Psychotherapy") that any sentence in any language can be interpreted on several different levels, which makes it quite easy for someone to keep her motives ambiguous enough to make another person think they are being manipulated in the exact opposite way that they actually are being manipulated.

      I love your metaphor of a "house of mirrors." Exactly so. Hope you don't mind if I use it in a post some day.

      It's interesting that I'm giving your mother the benefit of the doubt while you seem convinced always not to. That's what I usually find with my patients at the beginning.

      Almost every person who was abused as a child secretly longs for a connection to their parents, and it's my job to convince them that a better one is possible. I often fail to convince them and they drop out of therapy.

      Those that see the process through are usually successful, or at least somewhat successful.

    5. Oh, I've had empathy for my mother from the start. She would be delighted at a rapprochement -- and then proceed to the crazy-making. I don't choose to spend any more of my life like that.

      If she were only cranky and unreasonable like Mrs. T....

      Feel free to use "house of mirrors." I look forward to that post.

  3. My mother was a narcissist and none of her three adult children shed a tear when she died. In fact, no one by my grandmother mourned her, which is sad, but my mother created her world, as do we all.

    I do not believe all parents love their children. What I do believe is that it is not the child's fault, it is the parents fault, but that it is imperative that the child as an adult accept that their parent did not love them so that they will avoid anyone who treats them like that.

    Letting go of the hope that there is anything you can do to make a narcissistic parent love you must occur for you to have a decent life.

    As for 'taking the higher road' or 'being a better person than him/her', that is more dancing to their tune which is playing in your head, more allowing them to manipulate you.

    Let them go, walk away, feel no guilt. They stole your childhood, your birthright, do not let them have the rest of your life too, as that is your choice.

    If they die alone, why should this not be what they wanted all along? Why should they be held to a lower standard of behavior that the rest of us?

    What you sow, so shall you reap and while I take no glee in their horrible, empty lives, they have the same opportunity as the rest of us to change, to grow, to become a better person, but they chose not to.

    So be it.

  4. I am trying to understand what you are trying to say. It is hard because there is no worst crime in my book than a parent who is the main emotional, physical and psychological source of a helpless, dependent child to abuse, neglect, play games in that child's brain at a time when the child is developing neurons/connections that would determine his success/survival in later life.

    No greater crime than to fail to do that. Abuse has no excuse. I came from an abusive and neglectful family but that did not give me any excuse to abuse my own children. On the contrary, it made me resolute to love them and equip them to be happy, healthy and secured children. All children should be allowed to be children in a safe, loving and mature environment.

    1. Hi anonymous,

      Of course I agree with you that abusive behavior by parents towards their children is, in varying degrees, heinous. Everyone agrees about that, even (secretly of course) the perpetrators. The point is to understand it, not to excuse it. That's the only hope for finding ways to put a stop to it. (Not in all cases to be sure, but it is often transmitted from one generation to the next).

  5. OMG I laughed so hard at "no winning with someone constitutionally incapable of being happy". My mother is Sicilian too and I imagine her to become exactly like this in another 10 or so years. LOL I can breathe a sigh of relief that she is very independent emotionally though.