Parents and Children: Towards a Healthy Relationship, Part I
There are two prevailing models of relationships between parents and children that I have seen first in my own culture and then in North America.
The model of my culture is that of complete enmeshment. The North American model is that of extreme distancing. Here is what these models are like in practice:
A. Enmeshment. In this model, adult children’s only true partners in life are their parents. As a psychotherapist I know told me, “It is shocking how often Russian-speaking clients mention their mothers. It’s like they have no other issue, problem, or topic of conversation. You ask them about the weather, and they manage to find a way to bring the discussion back to their mothers.” These enmeshed relationships are always very intense. Parents and adult children engage in passionate fights, scenes of jealousy, constant bickering, endless criticism of each other, unceasing attempts to control each other’s lives. No other relationship can compete in importance and intensity.
The results of all this are quite sad. Here are some stories (completely real one, like all stories in this series of posts) illustrating where such enmeshed relationships lead in their more egregious manifestations.
Story 1. A 37-year-old man lives with his mother. Neither of them has any personal life or has had any romantic attachments for at least a decade. The man never managed to make more than a minimal kind of living. His mother pays the bills, cleans, cooks, and takes him out for walks. The man is in no way disabled, in case you are wondering. He spends all his time playing on a computer and fantasizing about a family he will one day build and a great career he will most certainly have.
Story 2. A 35-year-old woman lives with her parents. She has never in her life been on a date, even though she is strikingly beautiful. Her parents accompany her wherever she goes, so she never finds herself alone outside of the house. Hence, the absence of dates. These are not religious people, in case you are wondering. They have a shared budget, go on vacations together. The woman has no friends. She makes a decent salary and could easily afford to live alone. But it never even occurs to her because she would feel too unsafe and too lonely.
B. Distancing. The North American model (and please understand that I’m talking about broad trends. There are exceptions and overlaps in both cases) is the opposite extreme of the Russian-speaking enmeshment model. In it, adult children and their parents behave like complete strangers. They meet two or three times a year and speak on the phone maybe once a month out of the sense of obligation. There is no real closeness or communion between them. The happy feeling of “I just had this brilliant idea for an article let me call my mother” or “I’m not sure about this new hair-cut I got, I need to discuss it with my father” is unknown to them. Here are some stories illustrating this model:
Story 1. “I need to call my father,” a 40-year-old woman sighs. “I haven’t spoken to him in 6 months. And I haven’t seen him in. . . let me see. . . was it 18 months? Or more like two years? I’m not even sure.” This father didn’t abuse her or abandon her in childhood, in case you are wondering. In fact, she doesn’t have a single complaint to make of him. He is a good, decent man who raised her, took good care of her, was always present, always attentive to her needs. But still, there is no relationship between them today and the lonely old man just sits there alone, away from his daughter.
Story 2. “My mother was an exceptional woman!” a man of about my age tells me. “She was a true intellectual and a phenomenal mother, too. I was very lucky to have her raise me.” “When did she pass away?” I ask with compassion. “Oh no, she’s alive,” the man explains. “But she lives on the West Coast, so we never get to see each other any more.”
You have to agree that something is deeply wrong with both models. In Model A, adult children are adults only in name. They never manage to grow up completely and form identities of their own. In Model B, this is not an issue but the absence of a profound relationship between parents and children is hardly something to celebrate. People in this model are emotionally and intellectually orphaned while their parents are still alive.
I have thought about all this long and hard, folks, and I have figured out what causes these two models to develop and, more importantly, how they can both be avoided in order to create a healthy, mutually enriching relationship between parents and their adult children.
[To be continued. . .]