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“The parent who is overwhelming the relationship”
I’m listening to an online interview with Diane Rehm; the topic is a book of essays about in-laws that the interviewee has compiled.
The phrase above is one that I gleaned from the interview. Very interesting…it seems a fertile subject to write about today—or at least use as a jumping point.
I listened with some apprehension at first because I wondered if something in it would renew the self-accusation that my dislike of Darlene is indicative of a personality flaw in me. Or there’s an element of an improper agenda about it. Or the idea that I need to correct something in myself to try to build a warmer relationship with her.
I suppose it’s a positive thing that I do approach my behavior and motives with skepticism: do I approach it with enough?
Interesting that Diane asked if there were incidents where the MIL asserts her primacy with the son, and the answer was only in phone interviews; no one is willing to put it on paper.
I just had one of those flashes of insight that kind of summarizes the particular dynamic that underscores our relationships within the families. It has to do with this sense of bedrock fact that underlies the dynamic: there are people in the families that have their own agenda, that is unacknowledged, but skews everyone within the relationships. And there’s a prohibition on talking about that agenda, or referencing it, and certainly on denying it. The underlying demand is for the family members to meet that person’s unspoken and unacknowledged agenda.
And the presence of that agenda sucks the oxygen out of a room—it’s the elephant in the room. The fact of the peculiarities of my parents’ marriage makes the environment uncomfortable after being within it very long. It’s nothing specific that can be pointed at, it’s just insidiously in the air you breathe. Nobody seems to notice, though, and that adds to the weirdness. Or, people around them get weirder, as in Gary’s behavior often deteriorating when my parents are guest—where he gets even more passive about offering help, more likely to accept being served—willing to let me do all the extra work myself.
I guess that’s something else I had a thought about: about an issue of loyalty that was an example of one of the stories in the book—in this case the husband objected to the pleasant relationship his wife had with his father, because this father had scarred him so growing up. Diane framed it as a latent struggle about loyalty, and who is more important—is the relationship with the husband primary, or the one with the FIL? What I thought of was about how the relationship with the HUSBAND remains primary, but not the relationship with something that he needs to deal with inside of himself. There’s an agenda at work: the husband is imposing the undealt-with fact of a horrible relationship with his father on his wife—despite the fact that his father is a super grand-father and amicable with her. His agenda is that he will have nothing to do with his father to punish him, and he wants his wife to present a united front with him.
Do I have an agenda? Something I’m trying to advance at others’ expense?
It’s easier to peg Darlene’s: “Do what I want so you don’t’ hurt my feelings”. I suppose mine is that I want people around me to behave reasonably. Reasonably as defined as keeping within appropriate boundaries, keeping your agreements, not imposing your own agenda on others and then expecting them to not acknowledge that they’re acceding to one’s agenda. I want people around me to JUST BEHAVE, and behave well, and I think my conception of what behaving well means is fairly universal. It’s just what I wrote above: keeping agreements and boundaries, not imposing something at someone else’s expense without direct and clear acknowledgement of that. And being able to take clear steps to repair any damages that might happen along the way.
Part of my father’s agenda is that he’s unable to apologize, or just be wrong. So his agenda is, “don’t do anything to imply I’m wrong about anything.” The trouble is, that then gets in the way of being able to be truthful with him, and having to bend myself into contortions around any fact that might IMPLY some sort of wrongness. So that’s uncomfortable for me to have to do all that to avoid offending his desire to not be wrong. My mom’s agenda is for people to take care of her without acknowledgment that it’s unusual for an adult to need this kind of care: she simply doesn’t have the resources to be capable of doing something on her own, like driving the van down to the store to get something. The illusion we’re supposed to maintain is that she’s fully functioning and very helpful. (In fairness to her, when we went down at Christmas the hospitality she showed me and her willingness to be the executor of Christmas was VERY helpful to me.) As well as to act as if the amount of alcohol she drinks is a normal, moderate amount.
Behaving reasonably in such a situation, from my perspective on MY behavior, is to be polite and courteous: one does NOT point out to a guest that they’re not doing their fair share to assist, one does not underscore a guest’s bad habits, but merely tolerates them for the duration of the visit. What results though, is feeling unengaged in the visitor because of all the stuff that cannot be acknowledged—because the VISITOR is NOT BEHAVING WELL: which in this case would be making an effort to help and make the visit be as un-burdensome to the host as possible.
That negative tone I’ve had in the company of my parents, that I’ve tried to describe—it feels so thick as to be palpable to me, even though they don’t acknowledge it—I’d thought it was a general air of familial disappointment and resignation; I suppose it’s possible it could be from ME. After all, I DO feel disappointed that conversation doesn’t flow freely from us, and we don’t engage ourselves with each other except in the most superficial of ways. Are they REALLY happy to be in the position of not having much to say to the people you’re supposed to love the most? How can that possibly satisfy them?
Back to the dilemma of if what I’m “asking” for is something reasonable and fairly universal, or if I’m merely imposing my OWN way onto others.
It’s just that it seems reasonable to me that there is lots of opportunity for conflict, and if we as a family have an underlying agreement that NOTHING is going to separate us and make us quit talking to each other forever—and if we have as a sort of first aid kit for any tears or abrasions in the relationship the skills to address it honestly and make things right with each other—isn’t that optimal? Isn’t that optimal for keeping relationships alive, and fresh? I guess I have an agenda of wanting to share more of myself with others; is that a self-centered-at-the-expense-of-others agenda? I don’t think that’s a trying-to-bend-others-to-my-will sort of thing; although the consequence of it is a deep sense of sadness and alienation that is oppressive to me when I’m around them for very long. (Is that just imposing my moods on them?)
Interesting where that thought leads to: that in light of the fact that they’re not ever going to relate to me in that way, the only other option is to OVERLOOK IT. Overlook the fact that things are interpersonally so weird in our families to prevent feeling a genuine desire to be around them instead of general dread. Overlook it and act as if we’re the kind of family that wants to be present, and very often in each others’ lives. And that’s an interesting parallel with my relationship with Gary, is the onus is on me to overlook the things that he does that are unreasonable. The implication is that I’m the cause of the friction in the relationship because I don’t overlook his trespasses, or irrationalities.
Perhaps that ‘s the agenda of MOST people: “Overlook my mistakes and flaws and we’ll overlook yours.” (And being frank about trying to heal something that was a result of someone’s behavior is NOT overlooking something. It breaks the pact.) (“Let me do my weird things without calling attention to them—even if it’s at your expense.”)
My family’s interpersonal dynamics are not lively and interesting and fun. Generative instead of regressional.
If we have understanding of why someone did something weird, it makes the bad feeling about the weird thing they did go away; or lessens it at least. When we can’t say anything about the bad feeling that results from the weird thing they did, it puts up a block against being able to be oneself with that other person.
And therefore sits the dilemma I’ve had my whole life: the only way to work in that system of relating, is to be able to suppress your feelings. Make it a moral issue—there are BAD feelings and a GOOD person will use willpower to banish them. So when feelings differ from what you are SUPPOSED to feel and do, you banish the feelings and do what you’re SUPPOSED to do—like “love God”, or “wear a coat outside”, or “children need meat”, or “respect your elders”.
The truth is, I love my parents, but it’s a complicated and difficult love, because it’s not based on really knowing who they are, because their own agendas keep themselves from being able to reveal themselves beyond the most strictured of ways. And similarly, it can’t be reciprocal because I can’t let them know who I really am, because some of it includes facts and feelings their agenda would find very offensive and threatening.]
Is all this to imply that I think I have NO FLAWS WHATSOEVER? I can imagine that it would seem to some people who would read this or know me…I think I do speak sometimes with a kind of certitude that might imply that—it’s just that in those instances I’m referring to a sense inside of me of having lived within something and have experienced its truth. A sense of knowledge born out of experience—and there are some, many instances of having learned something that I feel I came by honestly, through experiencing it honestly.
Gary said recently that he thinks I’m controlling. Darlene said it once, too. I suppose that’s a hard one for me to respond to with any objectivity—of course it’s very negative to be controlling, and so it would be hard for me to see my behavior as controlling, since our behavior often appears to us through the filter of its best light. However, the way it appears to me is that I’m objecting to behavior that doesn’t seem reasonable. Or I’m challenging ideas that seem irrational. I think Gary would use my insisting that he use a wet cloth to clean up a spill as trying to control his behavior; to me it’s rejecting the fact of his cutting corners to save himself trouble and it’s going to be at my expense later when sticky residue is left that then gets tracked through the house. It’s tinged with a feeling of irritation that he doesn’t “do it right”. But it seems reasonable to me that dabbing at a sticky spill with a paper towel is NOT an adequate solution, because it doesn’t prevent complications later—although like as not it won’t be HIM that has to deal with those consequences. It seems to me that he cuts corners sometimes in ways that are at my expense later, and I object to those instances. I suppose those are the kinds of instances he’s thinking of when he says I’m controlling. (It occurs to me that there is something we’ve touched on: the idea that he has a subconscious notion that since I’m the stay-at-home mom that EVERYTHING relating to the house and cleaning falls to me. So there is no imposing on my time and efforts—I’m SUPPOSED to do it. That’s why it makes a difference when HE doesn’t feel like something, but doesn’t make a difference when I don’t feel like something.)
But it seems like the very act of not overlooking someone’s behavior, (even if the behavior is at your expense) and illuminating it is considered to be controlling.
I think I can concede to some controlling impulses, when I want to influence the framings of a situation that I fear will be unpleasant if the frame goes one way and to me it seems desirable that it go another way. An example would be this summer going to Jeannie’s wedding. The scenario I fear the most is that we’ll all have to fly together, go in on renting a car, and rent a hotel room. The way I hope it goes is that our getting there and method of transportation and place where we stay is independent of her. But I have a sick feeling inside that it’s going to be the first way. And not only that, that we’re going to have to include her in any side expeditions as a family we go on. Because in the world of happy families that we’re trying to emulate, that’s what we would do—it would be fine, even desirable, welcomed for her to be included as a part of our plans, especially since we have the same destination. My only hope is that either our method of travel (if we decide to drive and take the ferry, say), or particular schedule doesn’t fit with hers, so we just all end up there at the wedding, but don’t feel obligated to do stuff with her. The demand here is to act like a happy family, and not betray that it really isn’t. Same demand as with my family.
Agendas, I think, are always at somebody else’s expense. It’s a demand that someone do what you want, but not let on that it’s jumping through their hoops.
But I think I’m on to something when I identify the notion that a widely shared agenda is to overlook when someone disappoints you. And that to most it feels like a huge betrayal of trust to acknowledge when something they’ve done HAS disappointed you. What’s not entirely spelled out, though, is what’s overlook-able, and what isn’t—the boundaries of that are unclear.
Part of my problem with Gary and his mother is that though the agreed-upon story is that I am number one in Gary’s life, when it comes down to a real-life situation where she’s demanding that her agenda be fulfilled and it’s in conflict with what I want, he will probably accede to her; without even considering it.
For me that’s a problem, although I’m letting go of it, I think, as I get more emotionally distant with him. It’s like I don’t care as much. We’ve been in a bit of a truce, lately, of trying to be pleasant with each other, and operate from more of a spirit of good will, that is, offering to help each other more. So the atmosphere has been much lighter. I don’t know if it’ll go any farther than that—but even if it stops there at least then we’ll be able to coexist in the same house together while not disrupting the boys. I may still consider my earlier resolve to look outside of this relationship for getting needs met that aren’t being met in the relationship with him.
Another basic truth I think I’ve stumbled on is that people want different things—and what determines whose wishes prevail? I think another unspoken agreement that we grew up with is that our parents’ do, even when we’re grown, because when we’re grown they’re getting weaker and so we give them what they want out of indulgence: that is, we let what they want be the prevailing desire. I happen to not agree with that unspoken agreement—I think that in order for someone to get what they want, in the first place their want has to be reasonable and not unnecessarily impose on other people’s boundaries. And, I also have a wish, though I know that this one is not realistic to hope for (because it asks from people something they’re unable to do)—that that want is articulated honestly. So that there can be understanding and therefore the one being wanted of can maybe permit some imposition on boundaries—because understanding takes away the feeling of trespass.
A thought just now: that I suppose it can be said that I have an agenda in how badly I want to NOT travel with Darlene to Alaska. However, I’m going to do my best to control myself and not try to steer the direction this goes in any but the mildest of ways. It’s a short-term prospect, and once it’s over it’ll be done; I suppose I can put up with anything for a week or two.