Family Dynamics

I was talking with one of my cousins about the relationships we each have with our parents, and with her older sister. During the conversation, she talked about the treatment she receives from her family, and wondered if she was making a big deal out of nothing...

Having recognized this same behavior myself, I attempted to reassure her that her perception was right, and the situation was wrong. She is the go-to scape-goat for whatever is wrong in her family. If her sister is upset with someone, she picks a fight with my cousin and pours out her frustration on my cousin's head, intentionally misunderstanding her efforts to help. If my aunt has a concern about the youngest sister in the family, that person's decisions were obviously the result of my cousin's bad influence. If she is cold and curls up under a blanket, the blanket is too big and must be put away. If she buys her mother a trip to Europe, the source of the money and decision to spend it in that way are highly suspect, and subject to "not-going-to-judge-you" criticisms. I was getting angrier and holier-than-thou by the minute, let me tell you!

But then my cousin made an astounding observation. It really stopped me in my tracks. She said that she has a choice. She can interact with her older sister and 62-year-old-mother in the way they are willing to interact with her, or she can not interact with them at all. But they are not going to change the way they relate to her. And she has decided that she does want a relationship with them.

She loves them, and she knows they love her (even under all that criticism). She understands (without excuses, evasions, or false hope) that this means she will have a relationship in which they fail to apologize for hurting her, and consistently find fault. She told me that she feels bad complaining about a relationship when she knows what it will be like, and has decided to have it anyway.

And I thought to myself... She's right. Some people want to change, and will put in the hard work it takes to make a change in a long term relationship... but most people just don't. They don't want to change, they can't admit there is a problem with their behavior or habits, and/or they are too afraid of the pain and hard work and self-evaluation it would take to make those changes. So they stay the way they are, even if this way makes them vaguely unhappy. Even if it hurts the people around them. And my cousin's older sister will never admit she was wrong. About anything. It's just too scary for her.

I started to wonder how that applies to my relationship with my own parents, which is often marred by unconscious or unintended hurts, and lots of frustration, on both sides. My parents are getting old. 60+. How likely is it really that they can or will change they way they look at me and interact with me at this point in their lives? Is it worth having a relationship with them to do it on their terms? Even though those terms are often hurtful to me?

Do I stop maintaining my healthy adult boundaries because I know my parents will always see those boundaries as me rebelling, and intentionally hurting my parents by keeping them in ignorance of large parts of my life? My mother's unconscious efforts to manipulate me and our interactions to what she wants them to be without ever directly saying she wants anything at all will probably never go away. It's her survival mechanism, and she is still in survival mode after all these years. Do I go back to my childhood coping mechanism of figuring out what she really wants so I can give it to her, and we can move on with our lives, or do I continue my campaign of refusing to acknowledge hidden messages and hidden agendas, in favor of honest conversation? I know honest conversation is right... but is it possible?

I suspect that I, too, need to face the reality that my parents are not going to change. That if I want a relationship with them at all, I will need to find ways to relate to them as they are, and that my current efforts to have a "normal and healthy" relationship with them are always going to cause friction and pain. They may not be worth continuing. Of course, I also believe that if I don't take good care of myself, no one else will either. So I'm not just going to let my mom manipulate me and ignore the reasonable boundaries that I've set... But what does a realistic balance look like? Not exactly what I want, not exactly what they want, but something we can both live with, and actually enjoy the relationship we do have. I wonder.

And since I know that we all have some form of crazy in our family dynamics (or just in our family members), I thought I'd pass on this honest observation. Just in case it makes a difference for you. We always have a choice about how we interact with the people in our lives. Mostly, we can choose to acknowledge the problem ourselves, and ask the person involved to help us change the relationship. If they don't, won't, or can't do that... we still have a choice. We can learn to live with them as they are, or we can stop having a relationship with them at all. Believing that what is best for me is more important than what is best for someone else-- it's called self-respect. It's a very good thing. Even if what's best for me is continuing to have that imperfect relationship.

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