An letter which brings up a couple of interesting issues concerning family dynamics appeared in Carolyn Hax's newspaper advice column on 3/12/15:Dear Carolyn: My son came on a family vacation alone and confided to his parents, siblings and friends that he was unhappy in his four-year relationship. He is 34, and she is 31. They never talk, she is very needy, she does not like his family or friends and she discourages him from seeing or calling us (we live a few hours away). He said she wants all his time and all his attention. She thinks they should “be enough” for each other not to need others. I think that’s a hallmark of an abusive relationship. He decided to ask her to move out. She can’t afford to live on her own and does not want to move in with her parents, with whom she has a bad relationship. The day after he got home he called and said they are trying to work things out. But his family and friends can see the relationship has taken all the joy out of him. How do I support him when I think the relationship is toxic? I read the letter from the 24-year-old whose family hates her boyfriend; guess I need to dial it back and not become like her family. Trying Not to Interfere, but. . .
On the surface, this letter seems to relate to a question I posed in a blog post on May 1, 2012, about how and when parents should stop giving advice to, and trying to guide, their adult offspring. It does relate to that issue, but it also brings up a frequently-seen situation that is far more complicated. Say adult children come to a parent complaining in the strongest of terms about a spouse or boy/girlfriend, and describes behavior by that person that borders on being abusive, or even that is unquestionably over that border. The parent naturally gets upset with the children's significant other, and starts telling their children that said other is bad for them and should be dumped post haste.And guess what happens next? The adult children get furious with the parent about being so "judgmental" about their significant other, and begin to loudly defend him or her.Of course, if the parents were to keep their traps shut, the adult children would conclude that the parents were unconcerned with the fact that they are being abused. I have seen many families in which an adult child is being severely abused, the adult child's parents know about it, and yet they do and say nothing at all, let alone offer to help their offspring escape from their dangerous environment. That sounds a lot worse to me than their just being "judgmental."Before I explain what I think is happening here, there is an important side issue that is alluded to in the letter to Carolyn Hax. The adult children are apparently doing a version of this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don't double bind tap dance with their friends. Perhaps you know someone like this yourself. They complain and complain about someone, but if you criticize the person they are complaining about, or tell them to speak up to or even leave the person, they defend the person and get mad at you.What should you do? Not being in the same position as the parents, a mere friend can in most instances get away with saying things that the parents could not without digging themselves into an even deeper hole. I'll provide some recommendations on how to handle that at the end of the post, but first I would like to address the question of why it is that you, as the friend, are the recipient of this behavior. The answer to this question goes right back to the issue with the parents.When confronted with seemingly bizarre, but clearly non-psychotic, behavior such as this from otherwise intelligent people I always ask myself, what made the person this way? Why did they get into an abusive or highly problematic relationship in the first place, and why on earth are they staying in it? The answer almost invariably lies in repetitive dysfunctional family-of-origin interactions that I have described in many posts on my blogs.When adult children put parents in the position described in the advice column repeatedly (this whole discussion usually does not apply to one-of-a-kind interactions), the real reason they do so is most frequently for one or both of the following: The parents are in abusive relationships themselves, and/or they seem to somehow get off on hearing about the relationship trials and tribulations of their offspring. Of course, the parents will deny this vehemently if they are asked about it, but therapists have ways of making them open up and tell the truth. In the first case, the reason the adult child gets angry when the parent attacks the child's significant other is that the child is thinking some variation of, "Well, you're putting up with abuse. How dare you criticize me for doing the same thing? Why the hell don't you follow your own damn advice?!" The latter question is in fact a very good one indeed, and must be answered in psychotherapy, usually by constructing a genogram with a therapist, before this whole problem can be solved.In the second case, the adult child gets angry at the parent because they are covertly thinking, "You need me suffer in a bad relationship; you're miserable if I don't, and you are gleeful when I am. How dare you insincerely ask me to end the relationship?! That isn't what you really want, is it?"In the case described in the letter to Ms. Hax, the parent signs it, "trying not to interfere, but." This, if accurate, implies that the parent is making a great effort to hold his or her tongue. In some families, the opposite situation occurs: the parents lecture the offspring incessantly about their awful choices in romantic partners. In this situation, the adult child is possibly getting angry for a third reason: The child is thinking about the parent, "you need me to be in a bad relationship so you can continue to lecture me. If I were in a good relationship, you wouldn't know what to do with yourself!"Keeping the right facial expression while attacking your parents when they are ostensibly showing concern for you, and not saying what you are really thinking when they do this - because you are protecting them from feeling bad about their own craziness and yourself from being completely invalidated - takes practice. Suppressing the real reason for your anger and putting on this kind of a show isn't all that easy. So how does one get some practice before attempting to do this with one's parents? Easy: practice it with a friend, who is far less threatening and necessary to one's mental health, and probably far more forgiving as well. Therefore, people in this predicament enlist friends with whom to practice their moves.Doing this is not necessarily a "conscious" decision, but is usually done automatically and without any deliberation. They also do the very same thing with therapists. So how to respond?My favorite psychotherapy supervisor as a resident, Dr. Rodney Burgoyne, suggested responding with some version of, "Well, what would you tell someone to do who was telling this story to you?" The obvious answer is that the complainers themselves would tell that person to either change that relationship or get out of it. Or at least quit complaining about it if they plan to do absolutely nothing to fix their situation. This question usually does stop patients in their tracks, and hopefully leads to more fruitful explorations of the main issue: why they are with the problem significant other in the first place.That usually takes some time however. The patients can sometimes dig in their heels and refuse to answer the therapist's question or address the obvious implications. Sometimes they pretend that they cannot see what the therapist is driving at. I have recently found a response that leads to an even quicker and more effective way to get out of the bind. It involves putting the judgmentalism where it rightly belongs: on the person complaining about the significant other. This is the response that I would recommend to the friends who are being covertly enlisted to help someone practice their moves. I would say, "Well, you certainly aren't painting a very nice picture of (insert name of the significant other)."Of course, this statement will not in most cases help the complainer get out of his or her dangerous and/or self-destructive situation. But it probably will induce the complainers to stop putting you in this position, and go look for someone else whose responses more meet their needs. To strenghten your position, you might then add something like, "Of course, I am only getting your side of the story." This statement presumes that the patient is indeed complaining about the other, and most people will not then put up an argument which subtly accuses the other person of being controlling or judgmental. It almost forces someone to explain further why they are complaining about someone but continuing to allow that someone to mistreat them. As a friend and not a therapist for such a person, however, this is not really your job. Of course, if you do try to become their therapist or in any way continue to allow them to put you in the double bind position, then it is very likely that your friend will think that you need to be in the position they are putting you in, so they are also doing this for your benefit as well as that of their parents.