Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Themes of This Blog Seen In Newspaper Advice Columns – Part III

This is the third in an occasional series of posts showing how several of the issues I discuss in this blog show up in letters to newspaper advice columnists. In order to assure themselves a wide readership, advice columnists must bring us problems that resonate with a fairly wide demographic, and they therefore provide us with another source of information about human behavior and cultural trends.

I follow Jeanne Phillips (Dear Abby), Carolyn Hax, Amy Dickinson (Ask Amy), and Marcy Sugar & Kathy Mitchell (Annie’s Mailbox).

Of course these letters leave out a lot of what might really be going on with the writer, and I will be admittedly speculating about how the behavior described in the letters may be examples of covert issues that are not being directly discussed.

Before each letter, I will discuss the blog subject that seems to be being discussed. I will also include a link to a related post. I am not including the columnist’s responses to the letters. 


In the following letter, a father pushes his son away by constantly telling him what a disappointment he is. The son has rejected the trappings of what the father considers successful living. It is quite likely in such situations that the "disappointing" son might be acting out the father's repressed or covert rebelliousness against the very standards the father seems to embrace. 

In such situations, the father probably does things on rare occasions that indicate to the son that the father is "getting off" on what the son is doing - but then the father rejects him as a way of rejecting that part of himself that he finds unacceptable. In actuality, those parts were unacceptable to his own family of origin.  The son then obliges by keeping his distance. Thus, this could be a possible example of the role of Avenger.

12/6/15, Carolyn Hax.  Dear Carolyn: Through the years, my husband has learned to let go of the hopes and dreams he had for his son, that he would achieve financial and social success as my husband defines it: white-collar job, nice house, nice cars, wife and family, membership to country club, all the trappings that he has achieved for himself and that represent success to him. His son, on the other hand, works in the restaurant trade (not in management), lives a pretty bohemian lifestyle but has neither been in trouble with the law nor abused drugs... Husband has never made it a secret that he feels son could have done better. Son has never married at age 40 but now finds himself the father of a child (he plans to take responsibility for the child). We want to be a part of this child’s life. At this point, the only expectations my husband has of his son is that he respond to his efforts to contact him. To no avail. Son responds on his own timeline or not at all despite repeated requests. My husband wants to draw a line in the sand over this. I think we should go with total capitulation for the sake of the future grandchild. How can I be supportive of my husband (“Yes, I understand how frustrating this communication thing is for you”) but still make it clear that I will not take part in any “line in the sand” stance? This is creating tension between my husband and me. - The Step Mother


In the States, we tend to think people are basically selfish and don't care what other people think, especially family members. We think kids growing up are more influenced by their peers and the media. Of course, the questions of which media a teen looks at and with which peers he or she chooses to associate with - and there is a large variety to choose from - is ignored in these formulations. The choices people make are no accident. Also, as I've pointed out many times, kids who appear to be oppositional to their parent's wants and values only do that because that is what they think the parents expect of them.

I believe people really are willing to sacrifice their own opinions and desires in order to please their parents. Of course, how much one can challenge parental values depends on how conflicted the parents are about them. In the following letter, a woman performs summersaults trying to both be her own person and please her parents at the same time. 

12/14/15. Ask Amy. Dear Amy: I have been with my partner for five years; he rents his own place and I live with my parents. My parents are old-fashioned and believe I can only live with him when we are married (I used to share this view, but now I don't). I have finished college and have moved back home to pay off my debt and save for a house (or wedding!). My partner's home is five minutes away from my workplace and my folks' house is one hour away (in good traffic), so I do frequent "sleepovers" at his place. This is causing tension in both households. I pay rent to my parents and I help out my partner by cleaning up after myself and buying bread, milk and eggs regularly. But he says that I'm using him, and that I'm just doing the minimum. He says I should be preparing dinners for both of us when I am there, doing washing, or helping by paying rent or at least one utility bill. Now I'm broke, tired and grumpy. I'm at his house cooking and cleaning, and then when I'm at my parents, I'm doing exactly the same thing to appease them because I've slept over at my partner's house. I've gone cold turkey and have slept only at one home, but then money is wasted on gas driving back and forth. I can't afford to move out and I don't want to get married just so we can live together. HELP!!! — Betwixt


When someone is playing a dysfunctional role within their family of origin, it can be difficult and painful. When seeking a spouse or partner, such people will often pick someone who will help them to continue to play the difficult role. They, in turn, help their spouses play a difficult role within the spouse's own family of origin. This is what I refer to as mutual role function support. It can be thought of as a form of mutual enabling.  

It is important to remember that the alcoholic enables the "co-dependent" to be a co-dependent as much as the co-dependent enables the alcoholic. The whole process is bidirectional - it goes both ways simultaneously. In the following letter, the son of a controlling mother marries a spouse who is also rather controlling, as even the advice columnist recognized. In a variation on this theme, the mother and the wife start competing with one another over who will have the most control over the poor guy. If the mother's need to control men were a bigger issue for her and her family, he might never have even become engaged in the first place.

12/15/15. Ask Amy.  Dear Amy: I have a controlling, manipulative, guilt-tripping mother-in-law-to-be! I know that each time I hear from her she is just trying to trap me into saying yes to something. These traps include trying to get me to change our wedding plans, and roping me into a jewelry party hosted by her friend (repeatedly pushing on that). She just can't understand the word "no." When I did say no she whined to my fiancé, saying it felt like a slap in the face (can you say "manipulation"?). This has to stop. My fiancé tried dealing with it by telling his mom that I will say no to some things, but I felt this was really his way of calling me "pushy." My fiancé tried the kid gloves approach and it didn't work. I decided to take matters into my own hands and texted her three examples of her overstepping her boundaries and letting her know it would no longer be tolerated. She had the nerve to say it made her "sad." Now he is having a hard time because his mom is upset. He doesn't understand that we have to back each other up, especially in situations like this. His mom is so bad that she needs a copy of his shift schedule at work because she wants to keep track of him. Maybe my approach is too direct, but so what? We are in our 40s and don't need to be under her thumb. I don't let my mom get away with this kind of behavior, and I'm certainly not letting a MIL do this. What is your opinion, Amy? — Upset


One of the most read posts on my Psychology Today blog, and the one which generated some of the most heated responses from reader, posed the question of whether parents who had been cut off by their adult children were really as clueless about the reasons that happened as they portray themselves to be in public. With my patients, unlike the followers of many psychotherapy schools, I always presume that people are never too stupid to notice that their repetitive behavior leads to bad outcomes - yet they continue to engage in it anyway.

The following letter is remarkable in that, while ostensibly asking advice, the mother of an alcoholic woman, who is also what I refer to as a Minnie the Moocher, admits as clearly as imaginable that "I know I've enabled my daughter for her entire life."

12/28/15. Annies' Mailbox.  Dear Annie: Our oldest daughter is married to a nice man and they have a sweet 2-year-old daughter. My son-in-law makes good money and my daughter can afford to stay home, but they never seem to have enough to get ahead. My daughter has been known to spend foolishly. They only have one car and it doesn't run half the time. They can't afford another. We let them live in our home for a year rent-free, so they could save enough to purchase their first house. I know I've enabled my daughter for her entire life. She is very spoiled and self-centered. We argue a great deal and exchange hurtful words. Regularly, I surrender to her selfishness and give her money or run errands for her, even though I work full-time. I do these things because she is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, and I fear she will otherwise return to that life again. She doesn't attend her meetings anymore. I don't know how to handle her. I'm either forced to defend myself or give in to her whims. She never appreciates anything I do for her and she never does anything for me. Her husband is no better. He is selfish and spoiled by his mother, and he also enables my daughter. She's a good mother, but I babysit a lot. Her husband doesn't complain when she gets together with her friends, but he works long hours and they don't have much time together. I think he feels neglected. How do I know when to do things for her and when not to? How do I tell the difference between enabling and being a good mother? When she gets into one of her horrible, blaming moods, how do I handle that? This child has become a bitter pill to swallow, but I love her so much.  — Mother of a Narcissist


  1. I know you've advised in the past that the best way to address maladaptive family relationships is by communication within the family. However, my experience has been that the deeper the issues, the more resistant the family is to address the issues. In some cases, the wounds are so deep that some members, in fact, the key members, of the family are incapable of addressing them. How does the individual, when locked out of resolution with the rest of the family either through their deep unwillingness or incapability to discuss the pertinent issues, deal with it by themselves? And of all the therapeutic modalities available, i.e., Gestalt, modern psychoanalysis, Jungian depth psychology, etc., are best suited to the task?

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      You are absolutely correct. In fact, almost all families are somewhat resistant to talking about their own family dynamics, but the deeper the issues or the more chaotic the interactions, the more resistant they are.

      Fortunately there are techniques that most people are not aware of that can be used to get through even the most formidable family defenses imaginable. (No one believes me when I first tell them that!) They are different for every family and for every family member and have to be individualized, so I can't just list them.

      Most people from severely dysfunctional families are not going to be able to do this on their own without the help of a knowledgeable therapist. Unfortuanately, such therapists are getting harder and harder to find. You can find a list of the type of therapists I recommend near the end of my blogpost

      If dealing with the family is either too scary or not feasible for logistic reasons, the most effective therapies to help individuals deal with them by themselves are, IMO, Schema Therapy and Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT).