People have evolved many different ways of getting into and out of relationship agreements. We get into a marriage with a marriage license and out of it with a divorce. We start business partnerships with contracts and end debts with payoff certificates. For most relationships, we like to know where it begins and when it stops.
One type of relationship is not regulated so clearly, and that is the relationship between adults and their parents. In childhood, the law defines the obligations of parents toward their minor children. We also informally acknowledge a parent’s right to disown or disinherit an adult child of any age. However, we have no words for it when an adult child wishes to withdraw from contact with a parent.
Many people solve problems with their parents by simply moving away. But there are other situations where the relationship with parents becomes truly problematic because the parents insist on their right to interact with their child in a harmful way.
These are psychologically immature parents who have limited empathy for the feelings of their adult children. They especially resist their adult children’s attempts to set boundaries in the relationship. These parents are often highly emotionally manipulative, using guilt to force a closeness that the adult child does not want. The adult child’s requests for more space and respectful treatment seem to fall on deaf ears.
These parents act as if they are entitled to their adult child’s life as well as their own and seem baffled and offended if the child stands up for herself or himself. All kinds of boundary violations can ensue, from taking over in the adult child’s personal life to offering opinions when none is asked. Parents who enter without knocking, tell the adult child what to do, and even rearrange the furniture are examples of this sense of morbid entitlement.
Sometimes the adult child does not recognize these behaviors as disrespectful boundary violations and feels guilty for wanting to avoid his or her parents. Some adult children have been so strictly conditioned to believe their parents are well meaning—just wanting the best for them—that they think they must be the ones with the problem. In these cases, anxiety and depression are very common because the person is blind to the parent’s behavior because they cannot stand the thought of “blaming” the parent for anything.
Often these kinds of parents will discount their child’s distress by claiming there is no reason for the child to be upset with them. The parents see themselves as interested, loving, and only trying to help. But the fist in this velvet glove is the parent’s ironclad belief that the adult child still belongs to them, as if the child were an extension of the parent’s life. The parents feel free to try to correct their adult child with critical comments about anything that does not put the parent’s feelings first.
Many adult children do communicate their wishes clearly to these parents only to find that the parents keep doing the same thing. They refuse to take no for an answer or to change their behavior in any substantive way.
The adult child then can feel mystified and helpless. Stating limits is supposed to work. What is she doing wrong that the parent keeps treating her with dismissive, intimidating, or hurtful interactions? The answer is that modern communication skills are no match for someone who does not want to hear the word no.
Some parents do not see their children as separate people worthy of respect as adults. They mock such concepts are ridiculously formal or as psychobabble. They see their children as “satellite objects,” attendants who should treat the parent’s needs as more urgent, justified, and important. For these people, someone saying no to them is equated with emotional abandonment. They expect their adult child to respond like an attentive mommy (i.e., do what they want). If this expectation is not met, there is hurt, complaint, and soon anger, followed by a petulant sulk and talking about the “mean” person behind her back.
The adult child then feels dead in the water. Their attempt to communicate honestly about the relationship has made things worse, not better. The parent’s mood now radiates blame, not at all what the adult child had intended. The adult child feels punished for setting a limit and bad for causing the parent’s irritation.
Often the only way out of this round-robin of hurt is for the adult child to withdraw participation from the dynamic. The adult child can plainly set limits with the parent up to and including no contact. The parent is always welcome to approach and reconcile, but the requested boundaries need to be observed for the relationship to work. If the parent does not respect this, the adult child may need to withdraw again.
Sometimes people will feel guilty that they are not honoring their father or mother, without thinking about what this really means. If you read that commandment carefully, it does not say that we must love our father and mother, nor does it say we have to hang around them. It certainly is not saying that we can never respectfully say no to them. It just means that we should treat them with the respect any older person deserves. It could also mean that we should try to bring honor to them by making something good of ourselves. It is interesting that the people who feel most guilty about this issue are usually the ones who have been paragons of forbearance with their misbehaving parents.
DNA is not a life sentence. Our parents’ biological gift of life may have brought us here, but we do not belong to our parents for the rest of our lives. We all get to grow up and leave home. If parents are not willing to play nice, we don’t have to have them over. We can always honor them from a distance.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.