Monday, February 28, 2022

Hidden Altruism in Repetitive Family Interactions


In a recent Dear Abby advice column from 10/26/21,  a mother who had been an addict when her daughter was young complains about the guilt trips the daughter always seems to lay on her. Abby’s interpretation as to the possible motives for the daughter’s behavior is the seemingly common-sense one that most people – and most psychotherapists for that matter - would come up with: that the daughter was acting out of selfish needs.


Being the contrarian that I am, I discovered that selfishness is often actually a cover for altruistic self-sacrifice, and that the daughter is giving mom what mom seems to need from her. The mother’s obsessive guilt and her repeatedly and nearly constantly trying to fix her daughter might very well be the reason the daughter is doing this.


Now of course, from just a paragraph description in a letter I can’t be certain of my interpretation in this particular case, and there might be several other issues operating simultaneously that might be making this situation far more complicated than my formulation would suggest. The daughters’ brothers being perceived as the favorites, which is mentioned in the letter, might be one of them. The mother may have gender issues which might conceivably be involved.  And we don’t know anything about Mom’s former behavior, let alone her family dynamics

But if we could get the truth out of these people – always an iffy proposition -  I’d be willing to bet that I am at the very least on the right track. I have put in italics the part of the letter that I think gives it away. My hypothesis would be my starting point as her therapist in trying to understand what exactly is going on, and why.


ABBY: I'm the mother of a 36-year-old daughter. She claims I treat her younger brothers better than I treat her. I am a recovering addict -- clean for 20-plus years. I was in active addiction for nine years when she was a teenager, and she has never let that go. She constantly tells me how "unfair" I am, that I never make time for her and that I don't validate her feelings. I have apologized many times and tried to show her I don't treat her siblings differently. I schedule "us" time, but this is an ongoing battle, and I'm at a loss about how to fix it. How do I show her there's no difference in the way I treat any of them? How do I reassure her that her feelings are validated? This has caused me many tearful nights. -- WANTING SERENITY BACK


In reply Abby says she thinks this mother “created an emptiness in her daughter “that the mom may not be able to fill,” and that the daughter is “punishing” the mom for her former behavior. I submit that the daughter is actually giving Mom what Mom's endless guilt seems to be begging for: More and more guilt! Mom’s obsessive apologies would then trigger this pattern again and again, leading to the daughter heaping on more and more guilt leading to more apologies and so on in a vicious circle.


Each member of the duo thinks the other one needs this interaction while discounting their own contribution to the pattern. They have to cover up their own role in order to continue playing it effectively, both for the stabilization of a parent. Mom’s history of substance abuse and neglecting children would, under this scenario, be a role she was playing for her parents.

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