Monday, February 04, 2008

Connecting the Dots

In this wonderful land of opportunity, many second generation Americans have parents who prefer to speak their native tongue, the language of the old country.

When I was little my parents did that but only at particular times, when they didn't want us kids to understand.

And to curse, which was very, very rare. They certainly cursed in Yiddish.

Under one's breath. Gey in dr'erd. Drop dead.
But they didn't mean it.

If they called someone a name, it was in Yiddish. A schleper (one who doesn't get anywhere). A mishuganah (a lunatic). A shlamiel (one who is down on his luck, never seems to have any luck).
If they gossiped, they gossiped in Yiddish. We kids didn't know the language, and it was insinuated that we shouldn't know the language. How else could they speak their secret language?

Which brings us to our first picture of the day.

Diagram #1 Healthy Families

What you see here are three healthy couples in committed relationships. The two couples in the top ellipses to the left and right have one child each. The first, a boy (rectangle-below, left); the second, a girl (circle- below, right).

These three couples are all heterosexual, all rectangles and squares, just to get that out front right away. We could have used ellipses with committed double circles, double squares. There are no differences in family systems of gay and lesbian couples.

The parents and kids are either married or in committed life-partnerships, or they have spouses, husbands, wives. We'll use married for convenience sake in this post.

Notice that nice solid lines make up the ellipses in this diagram. If you remember from previous family diagrams, nice, solid ellipses around couples increase the odds that they'll make nice, solid executive decisions about their children or other things.

What's this got to do with speaking Yiddish, Spanish, German, or Portugese?

Well, one of the more common types of family dysfunction starts with dotted ellipses (see Diagram #2 below). And many times that particular type of dysfunction begins with dependency, parents dependent upon children of all things.

Immigrant families, no disrespect intended, can be prone to such role reversal. Middle-aged newcomers to a country can have some difficulty with the new language. Their children, however, pick up language quickly (see that post on neuroplasticity). They use their children to translate and mediate with the culture at large.

This can be a set-up for marital conflict when that second generation commits to raising a family of its own.

When a child has the role of cultural liaison, i.e., talks to doctors, beaurocrats, cable guys, bill collectors, school teachers, in lieu of his parents, the job doesn't necessarily terminate under the chupah, at city hall, or in the chapel. A son or daughter may not resent this liaison role. It's the least he can do for the people he loves, the people who have struggled for him.

Parents do, by the way, generally speak some English, sometimes very good English, enough to benefit from family therapy. A therapist need not be bi-lingual to respectfully work with this population. The important dialog, after all, is between family members.

Sometimes when a dutiful son marries a girl who does not speak his family's language it can be a problem at family dinners or at coffee in the sitting room. (We could be using "dutiful daughter" married to a boy who doesn't speak the family language, or a girl, for that matter).

The in-law child is left out of the conversation. In this case, his parents may or may not like their daughter-in-law, but it's not usually about that. It's most often about communicating more comfortably in the native tongue.

The daughter-in-law, after a time, tires of this. She will mention feeling left out to the son.

Why can't his parents speak English when she's around? They know enough English to converse fairly well.

At first she suggests this quietly. Then her reminders become something of a rant as she gets used to nagging. Then a big complaint, a serious complaint, building to a roar or even a tantrum. She doesn't like not knowing what's going on, reading magazines while they're talking, perhaps about her for all she knows.

He says, "What am I supposed to do? They're my parents. Teach them English?"

She says, "They know English. I can't stand this. They have to try a little harder. Do it for me. Or have them do it for me."

And around and around. In the end someone sees a therapist like me, usually her, then she brings him in as soon as possible (that's how I do it, at least). The games begin. Diagrams like you see in this post end up in every chart at some time or another, assuming you have a family therapist.

It's not only about psychoeducation and pictures, obviously. The couple therapy here is mostly about empathy and communication. But for this post, let's focus on the psychoeducation piece.

"THIS is healthy," I say, roughly sketching Diagram #1 (above), emphasizing the nice, bold boundaries.

"THIS is not." I'm sketching Diagram #2 (below).

"You two are working Diagrams #2 and #3 (most probably). My crystal ball does not bode well for the two of you. Change this system and pay at the door.

Diagram #2, Not good. Now you should know that when the couple on the left captures their son (note the larger ellipse with the three of them in Diagram #3), when they steal him away from his primary dyad (wife, main squeeze, significant other), it's not usually intentional. But it can be.

And the reason for enmeshing him doesn't have to be because they need him to chat about the weather in Swahili. It can be because he functioned in their marriage on numerous levels. A different lesson for a different day.

Here his parents have become one point of a triangle that leaves the daughter-in-law out on the fringes (see Diagram #3 below). The daughter-in-law is effectively triangled out. Notice that the distance between the son and his parents is shorter than the distance between him and his main squeeze.

Diagram #3, Really not good at all.

They might operationalize this procedure by having him come over to watch the Super Bowl while she stays home to putter around the house. They might do this by having him come over to change a light bulb. Or they might do this by simply not including her in the conversation.

In this case he has to tell his parents, in any language, that they have to make the effort to speak English when his girl is around. If they refuse, he says, he will take her home. He has to tell them that he thinks it's impolite to leave her out. He feels badly for her, and they should, too.

Then, when the four of them are together, he has to sit with her, show his parents that they're a tight couple. Or they won't be. Not forever. These marital grudges don't go away and as the years go by, they can get stronger and angrier, and there you are, at fifty, living with your parents because she's told you, as she forced that pen into your hands,

"This is what you wanted anyway."

And you know, she didn't say it in Yiddish.

Copyright 2008, therapydoc


Anonymous said...

Guess who's reading this when he gets home from work tonight?

I want to cry.

therapydoc said...

Crying's good. It makes the point nicely. Much better than shraiying (screaming).

Anonymous said...

What would you tell a group who comes in and they have the following story:

Man meets woman - Married/2 kids/divoice kids live with dad

Woman meets man -Married/1 kid (maybe more/unknown)divorced

Son of man marry daughter of woman
good time bad times substance abuse/trust/fidelity issues a few toxic relationships (family and not family)- no kids (but wanted) divorced

Man likes woman-good times and bad
man wants marriage but woman has fear of marriage breaks up with man after 5 years.

Son of man remarries to single mom with kids and good times/bad times continue

Daughter is steady with new guy but afraid of marriage.

Man wishes that woman (or someone else) would love him. Worries about Son (1) and his life and problems. Also struggles with life problems and sub abuse problems of his own.

therapydoc said...

I'd need a diagram for that, for sure. It's never so simple, this follows that, that follows this, so this should happen, or someone should do that.

I do think, however, that a person has to do a really difficult assessment, take stock and decide if, indeed, it is time for a change.

We all deserve to be loved.

Anonymous said...

i think if i were the girl in this post and my inlaws disrepected me by speaking a language i didnt understand even though they didnt need to . I would, as a matter of principle and just for fun , learn enuff spainish or whatever to be able to do nothing but babble back until they got the point .

therapydoc said...


AnnD said...

Dang you got systems theory down pat therapydoc! I'm a MFT by trade and still feel like I have soooo much to learn! Love ya!

Anonymous said...

I've seen some families in which everyone seems to be speaking English, but it's as if various dyads (mother - son; father - daughter) had there own unique version of English which excluded the other family members.

Anonymous said...

I'd just make them into balloon animals, because anything else is illegal, and they're not worth sepnding the rest of my left in the clink for.

therapydoc said...

Ah, have we discussed the trap door concept on this blog?

Esser Agaroth said...


I saw this kind of "parentification" (for lack of a better word), working in San Diego as a school psychologist, with many children of Spanish-speaking parents, new in the US.

There was also the issue of parents believing it was in their children's best interest to speak only English to them, even though they did not have much English themselves.

We encouraged continued communication in the native tongue of the parents, including the reading of bedtime stories. Otherwise, there would be a communication breakdown, potentially resulting in more serious relationship problems.

Parents were referred to other bilingual parents who had been in the country longer, to function as resources and social network, a bridge to the outside, shall we say, and taking some of the pressure off of the children.

I allowed the children to vent about the pressure they were under from parents, etc.

Of course, you are right to point out that the child may be serving other needs of the parents' marriage.

Anonymous said...

My family is loaded with enmeshment!!!!! In fact, sometimes I think it's that enmeshment that is so painful.

I recently moved from my hometown 4 years ago, and I was astounded by the relief I felt. It wasn't until I moved 12 hours away from my home that I realized exactly how enmeshed my family is.

Anonymous said...

I lead a therapy group with adolescents where part of the focus is on healthy family dynamics. I've used similar charts for parents and children, focusing on parentified childrens' interactions with their parents compared to their siblings. I've never really thought about it's application to adults and esp. first and second generation immigrants. Thanks for the new perspective!

Bernadine said...

LOVE IT! You just described my in-laws to a T. Man, that enmeshment stuff is bad, bad mojo.
Yes, they are immigrants. Though someone failed to tell them that coming from an English-speaking country meant his mother didn't NEED to emotionally incest her son.

therapydoc said...

And even if they had told them, probably wouldn't have sunk in.

Critically Observant Jew said...

Other than the fact that my spouse shares the native tongue, everything you described was my situation to the "T". That is, until 2 months ago when I cut the ties. There was no other way to do it.

Critically Observant Jew said...

Other than the fact that my spouse shares the native tongue, everything you described was my situation to the "T". That is, until 2 months ago when I cut the ties. There was no other way to do it.

What's Going to Be with Our Kids?