On family relationships that just don’t work

by Annie Kaszina on June 17, 2014

This week my mother died. After a slow, ugly decline into dementia, with all its horrible trappings.

It was not a good death – at least, as far as I can tell.

It was that much tougher because my relationship with her – with all my family of origin – broke down very badly many years ago.

And I ask myself:

“If I’d had the skills then that I have now, would it have happened? Or would I have been able to avert it?”

Would I have been emotionally and linguistically savvy enough to communicate in such a way that they would have listened to me? Would I have been able to behave differently enough from the way that I did to create a different outcome? Would I have been wise enough – kid that I was – to divert my parents off that collision course? Especially since they ran a very powerful scapegoating program.

Don’t get me wrong.

There were years of silence and estrangement, and years when things were patched up and swept under the carpet. But core feelings were never addressed. There were no apologies, or acknowledgement. And the time – almost inevitably – came round again when we would trip up over that damned carpet.

It wasn’t the kind of family where people ever said:

I love you”, or “You matter”.

There were reasons for that, of course. First off, my parents’ own experience had been no picnic. I don’t know exactly what they learnt. But this I do know: as a result of what they learned and experienced I – as me could not matter.

At the same time, my parents loved me as well as they could… In their own way. (Most parents do – love their children the best they can, in their own way.)

But that way came nowhere near to meeting my need for love.

My parents had grown up hungry for love and angry at the world. They expected us kids to fill the gulf in their emotional world.

The point came when I realized that I could only fill the gulf in their lives by creating a massive void in my own… where my life, and my choices should have been.

So, I walked away. That way, at least I got to choose the kind of hole in my own life.

We had, at best, a relationship at arm’s length.

I was fortunate enough to have some kind of reconciliation with my father when he was dying of leukemia. Although my brothers later did a lot to upset that feeling of reconciliation.

With my mother, no such luck.

I could not be the unconditionally devoted daughter she wanted, and she did not value too highly the person that I was… and am.

And that brings me back to the question that has haunted me for months: if I had known then what I know now, could things have been different?

In case you had not yet clocked it, it’s another reworking of the age-old question of all victims of emotional abuse:

Could I somehow have done more? Could I have been wiser, and better, and more understanding and made the relationship work?”

Because relationships in my family of origin were emotionally abusive. How could they not be? It is the common pattern that we fall into abusive intimate relationships because that is what we know. Not all emotionally abused women come from an emotionally abusive family, right enough; but a lot do, We start as just another link in the chain of emotional abuse. We’re taught to believe that we don’t matter – or don’t matter enough – from an early age.

And the answer to my questions?

Yesterday, I was having another martyr-ish moment as regards my mother. I called my dear friend Shoshana Garfield.

She said something to me that I didn’t quite take in.

And yet it is exactly the kind of thing that I say to all my clients, and emotionally abused women, generally.

You cannot do the work for other people. You cannot change other people. If they want to stick with a certain pattern of relating to you, that is their choice. It’s a poor choice, but it’s theirs to make. You have a right to honor it. And a right to walk away.”

You also have a right to forgive yourself and heal.

Another thing I say a lot to clients is that the damaging and destructive people in our lives often love us to the bet of their ability.

It’s a small ability. – I’m not being funny here. Truly, they have a very limited capacity for unselfish love.

And they have a huge need to feel good about themselves. The deal for them is this: you are obliged to make them feel good about themselves. You can only ever hope for a small return, from them, on your investment of love, time, and selflessness.

How is that different from what you and I ask of a partner?

Get real!

You really don’t ask for too much. You do want to know that you matter: we all do. But they won’t – can’t – give you that. You only matter when you’re servicing them.

And here’s the final piece, when you live in that world it takes you right out of connection: it takes you out of connection with yourself, with your feelings, and with most of your world.

Because they don’t do connection. Yet they hold themselves up as the norm.

That’s not the way Life works. Life is all about connection.

That’s not something I was ever naturally good at – for fairly obvious reasons. I was meant to feel ashamed and therefore not fit to connect with decent people.

Connection has become my mission, and where I find my meaning.

How about you?

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