Why does it happen that people who seem to be intended by nature to have profound, fulfilling, beautiful, supportive, mutually enriching relationships either destroy each other’s agency and identity (the enmeshment model) or destroy the relationship and closeness (the distancing model)?
The entire process of growing up consists of different stages of separation of a child from the parents. The very first such stage is the moment of birth when a child emerges from the mother’s body and becomes a person. The second stage is weaning from the mother’s breast. The third stage is taking a first step. And so on. All of these stages of separation have to happen at the right time in as non-traumatic manner as possible. To give an example, if you try to make the child walk at the age of 4 months, you will end up hurting the child. But if the kid still doesn’t try to walk at four years of age, that’s a huge problem, too.
Among all these stages of separation, there are two key ones.
Stage I happens in early childhood when a child first begins to realize that s/he is an individual, a person who is not part of the mother and the father, a separate human being. If a child is not allowed to complete this stage of separation unproblematically and in a timely manner, s/he and the parents will end up in an enmeshed relationship.
How do problems arise at this stage? When the parents refuse to accept that a child is a separate human being, with thoughts, dreams, ideas, opinions, desires, personal space, and needs of his or her own, the child fails to pass through the stage successfully and remains enmeshed with the parents. Such a child has no idea where his or her identity ends and the parents’ identities begin. The desire to manage every aspect of a child’s life creates big problems at this stage of development.
Now, for the distancing model. People blame its prevalence in North America on how mobile people are geographically and how often they end up living far away from their parents.
This is a very stupid explanation. People who want a relationship will have a relationship even if one of them emigrates to the Moon.
An example: My sister and I have lived in different countries for the past 10 years. This does not prevent us from having the most close, supportive, phenomenal relationship ever. Distance has in no way prevented us from being a crucial part of each other’s lives. We discuss everything on the phone, holding long conferences every night during which we discuss how to raise her daughter, how to enrich my tenure dossier, how to solve issues with her employees and with my students. Or relationship is very healthy because there is no enmeshment (we have families, careers, friends, and hobbies of our own and respect each other’s personal space) but there is no distancing either.
Distancing is so ubiquitous in North America not because of people moving to another location but because of how the North American English-speaking cultures handle Stage II.
Stage II happens when a child comes of age and integrates him or herself into society as an independent, self-reliant participant who is fully prepared to assume all legal, financial and emotional responsibility for his or her actions. This is a hugely important moment, but the North American culture is as likely to fuck it up as my culture is ready to fuck up Stage I.
The healthy way of passing through that stage is a gradual one. There should be some rites of passage that accompany this important process. Instead, what people experience when they turn 18 is that they are expected to turn from dependent children into independent adults overnight, move away to college (or to a job), and figure life out completely on their own from there on.
Of course, most people do manage to figure their life out because by the age of 18 they have every capacity to do so. However, what they feel towards their parents is subconscious resentment for what they perceive as a betrayal. This feeling is similar to what children feel when parents teach them to swim by throwing them in the water and turning away. As a result, the relationship grows cold.