That Catastrophic Expectation: Cut-offs

If you don't remember what this is, I'll remind you. Sometimes there's something that's driving your anxiety, turning the motor unconsciously or consciously. It's whirring around in your head, that worst possible outcome, the catastrophic expectation.

If it concerns the outcome of a relationship, it can be the elephant in the room, the thing you don't talk about. One of the elephants. Most of us have a few elephants to feed daily. There have to be elephants if we tread carefully with people. There are many things we don't talk about to avoid conflict or because we fear rejection or intimacy.

I like them. They're cute, they take up very little real space in the living room, and although they do threaten to step on our heads if we wake them up, we usually let them sleep. When they wake up we deal with them. We have to.

If you're a mother-in-law it's very obvious what your catastrophic expectation might be. Try rejection, abandonment. There's a fear that your in-law child will take your son, your daughter away.


A therapydoc like me sees it happen. We see situations where one side of the family can suck in an adult child and his or her spouse, sometimes infantilize them, own them, buy them monetarily or emotionally, or worse, poison them against the other side. One family of origin can be perceived as truly toxic and dangerous to the other, and sometimes it is. You have to protect your kid. This is the rationalization.

On the other hand. You don't kidnap. It's a huge crime.

We family therapists have a rule. Avoid cut-offs. We keep relationship doors open, try not to let them close. Surely it's inevitable in certain cases, that the doors close. The courts rule this way only after a small army of experts have determined that this is in the best interest of the child.

This only happens rarely, permanent door shutting, if family therapists are given the time, and it can take years, sorry, to work the magic. But even then sometimes the door is shut, and next come the accusations, parental alienation for one, and all kinds of threats. It can be scary.

More often, family therapists hear about doors that are open too widely. Too many people have keys to the house and they don't always call before they come to visit. It can be a little weird, sometimes, seeing a mother-in-law or even your mother at your table having coffee if you didn't know she was coming. This happens.

Sometimes you don't want to look out the window to see Dad mowing the lawn.

When the doors are closed, locked or triple locked, family therapists try their best to make sure parents and grandparents still meet with their children and grandchildren, still get together to talk about things, to see one another, often at a neutral place, like a park or a StarBucks. This is very hard on families, when it gets to this. But it can be done. It's a process, healing, and takes time.

Therapists know that sometimes children do need a little mental break from parents, a little time off. This is hardest on the parents who feel left, vacated. It's hard to feel a child's need for space. It's hard not to take it as rejection. What is it, if not rejection?

Ah, time for healing, working at relationship repair. Surgery time. Hopefully the therapist is working at both ends, or consulting with someone on the other end.

If someone like me is a part of this sort of intervention, and it's rare, believe me, there's a letter or a call from the child to the parent, even a meeting if possible, that explains the situation, a discussion that isn't blaming, one that says,
Think of this as me needing to run away, needing to be on the North Pole for a little while, in a cell-free zone. It's temporary.
The goal is, We'll all be in touch soon. You won't lose your children. Your grandchildren will know you.

Sometimes the logistics are negotiated in the process. The child puts it in writing. You'll hear from me. I'll call you on Sundays, around three.

These are extreme situations, at least they are in my practice. The more common situation is that in-laws are psychologically healthy; they're not drug addicts, they're not in prison; they're not sociopaths and they are careful in life, about what they do and what they say. Or they think that they are. We have to work with or around them in any case.

Parents don't want to be rejected by their kids. They know that their young marrieds are hard at work at acquiescing to one another, pleasing one another, accommodating, keeping the peace, or at least they hope so.

In-laws know that in the quest for a peaceful, happy marriage, that they themselves might be the card that's tossed back into the deck if they say or do the wrong thing. That's the catastrophic expectation.

The story:

I let my guard down.

My daughter-in-law is here visiting with my son and their little one. And it's hot outside, really hot. And the Rac isn't feeling all that great and she's uncomfortable, never really wanted to go downtown in the heat, which is where we are. We're in the underground garage, wondering how to get to Millenium Park and how, once we're there, we'll meet up with the others

I'm stressed because I know Rac isn't feeling well and I just want to get to where we can sit down. We find our way up to the sunlight. The heat is disorienting. Rac makes a suggestion, "Isn't the fountain this way?" And because I'm not thinking, somehow, I say You don't know what you're talking about.

This stings her, but she doesn't say anything. I'm thinking I was inconsiderate, that it was the wrong thing to say, but by now someone is talking to me, giving me directions, and it's so hot and I forget that I insulted her.

Until. The next day, the next faux pas, something else I say upsets her. She's upset there's no runner on the stairs and I say, "I'll get to it. It's not so simple, getting a runner for the stairs." But my tone is a little sharp. She doesn't let the second slip go.

She looks me in the eye. "I have to talk to you about something."

This is never a good thing. When she confronts me, it's me she's going to discuss, our relationship and and I'm really worried about the confrontation.

I think, This is it. She'll never visit me again. She hates me. She needs space. She's going home to her family in another city and she's taking my son and granddaughter with her, the one who now loves it when Bubbie shings, who wakes up and says, Where's Bubbie? She"s the one who tells me, doesn't ask, insists when I talk about how she's getting back on that airplane, You come, too, you come on the aiwpwane.

So Rac and I sit down on the sofa, put up our feet. My son has taken his granddaughter outside to play. The house is silent.

"So what's up?" I ask.

And she tells me. I'm mortified, of course. I remember saying it, You don't know what you're talking about. I give over my rationalizations, apologize sincerely. I do totally respect her, especially how smart she is, how talented, what an amazing mother she is (and patient spouse). I never meant to hurt her feelings or snap at her, so I say all or maybe most of this. I had thought she meant Buckingham Fountain, which is way out of the way, and I always referred to the Millenium Park fountain as the waterfall why, I don't know. I didn't want her to walk a single step farther than she had to so . . .

And as I'm talking and she's responding, I begin to lose it, and tears are welling up as they tend to do under stress and she doesn't understand what the big deal is, really, because this is nothing to cry about. She just doesn't want me speaking sharply to her, which, by the way, isn't my habit to begin with, but we generally don't see ourselves honestly, right, and what if it happens again? We all have to watch what we say, can't ever be too careful, really, and blast that heat, anyway.

No big deal, Mom, just thought you should know. I didn't want to resent you for it, hold it in, and all.

Assertive. Not aggressive. We're good. Why are you upset, therapydoc?

And I tell her about the catastrophic expectation, but I first tell her that I know, I know in my heart she would never do this, reject me this way. I tell her I know this because I think she'll be insulted just hearing I'm thinking this because she's never given me reason to think this way, never, ever intimated such a thing. It's totally in my head.

But Hey, Sweetie, you have to live in my world, hear the things I hear, see the things I see, to really see why I think like I do.

And in that moment, in that confession of the fear, it dissipates, the abandonment anxiety. It dissipates just a little, but enough.

Today, I'm pretty sure, while her Mommy chills with a good novel, we're going to be building some castles in the sandbox that FD made for her, just for her, with new sand and real cups from the kitchen, and sure, the ubiquitous plastic sand toys you buy at Target.

They're here for one week, friends. Be patient with me if I don't return your calls.



Clueless said…
I really loved this and it made me cry. What a lovely example of how "real life is" even for a therapist. It shows that everyone has those irrational thoughts and fears. But, in your experience and telling it, you demonstrated a healthy way to deal with it. I am sorry that it was painful, but glad you got it out. Thank you for sharing with us.
April said…
Interesting topic---my husband and I moved in with my parents until we can get our tiny house built and it's quite an adjustment living in such close proximity to them. First, my husband and I are childfree and are really used to having a lot of time alone together...hard to do that now, for a while at least. And also, when I graduated from HS 11 years ago I went halfway across the US to get out of my small town and have new experiences, but my parents saw this as a form of abandonment (and were very vocal about not wanting me to go). Since then all they've wanted is for us to live closer. Now that we do they seem pretty happy about it... but it is still a balancing act.
cordeliadarwin said…
Thank you for this. It is comforting for me to learn that even peeps who I admire in part because they have it together struggle with moments like this.

The anxiety that builds from the foundation of the catastrophic expectation...I know that place. I am not often brave to talk about it.

Thank you for being humble enough to share how truly human you are.
Isle Dance said…
Well done. I'm pretty sure sincere apology solves everything. Mortification seals the deal. When I see another feel/do that, I automatically empathize with THEM. I'm guessing we're supposed to. :o)
Jack Steiner said…
Dealing with another family is always tricky. There is a real art to it.
I'm really impressed with your DIL speaking up so assertively. She obviously trusts you enough to do so. And even more impressed with your honesty back to her.

Maybe it was your anxiety driving some of the sharp retorts to begin with.

Whatever, it sounds like a very workable in-law situation. Bravo.

An aside, I do know there are in-law kidnappings but there are also people who willingly gravitate toward their inlaws because its more comfortable and rewarding there. An escape hatch. In which case, the abandoned parents must work at becoming easier to be around. I've seen more examples of these scenerios than the kidnapping variety.
Anonymous said…
I loved this - in-laws are one of my greatest anxiety, worry, and fear.
I didn't marry someone my type of the woods, I married an italian, only son of an italian mother. There is NOTHING that I can do right. And yet, one day after the death of my FIL, my MIL asked that I be the one to stay with her during the day. I asked her why me, why not your son or your daughter - and she said because they don't understand my pain...
It seems that we are kindred spirits who don't recognize each other, and would prefer to pretend that we have no pain - it only shows in each other.
Your DIL was awesome - she has a great MIL and neither of you have to have anxiety about the relationship - you have hearts for each other.
therapydoc said…
Wendy, that is such a hopeful one, so cool.

PhD, sure, the anxiety has a mind of its own.

Isle, right-o about apologizing, and

Jack, the art is usually timing, right?

LinRob, wish I were more humble

April, keep telling them that you're there, they don't need more than that

Clueless, we love crying around here. It's so real.

I did feel vulnerable, friends, writing this. Every time I push "publish" I lose a little weight.
Unknown said…
Wow, this post totally hit home. I definitely need to work on my assertiveness (or lack thereof!)with my MIL. She's great, but I think our relationship would be a lot better if I confronted her more often instead of ignoring my feelings or avoiding certain subjects- though I realize that there's a place for those things too. I commend Rac for broaching the subject with you- she's an inspiration to me!
therapydoc said…
To me, too, Julie. It's a What have I got to lose, thing. She wants you happy, (I'm assuming) and you want to be happy.
Anonymous said…
What an absolutely beautiful post! To be able to discuss your feelings so openly with each other. Having my dad stay with us for the past six weeks was such an eye opening experience for us. And of course "communication" and "perception" errors occurred.
My husband handled the situation beautifully as well, his greatest joy was being able to go into his bathroom and spend as much time as he wanted in there (you don't know how important this is until you have an elderly parent living with you who could, at any moment, need to use the bathroom RIGHT NOW!!! in a one bathroom home!) And I swear, the two cats could feel the tension level go down enormously once dad went back to his home! Once again, BRAVA!!!!!
Anonymous said…
Here's a good visual.
the Bag Lady said…
Sounds to me as though you are lucky to have each other in your lives!
It's even harder to be a step-parent in this sort of situation. The in-laws have 'kidnapped' my step-daughter...
Life can be so complicated.
therapydoc said…
Thanks Anon, one day we should discuss the throne, right? I don't know why I can talk so much more easily about sex. Makes no sense.
therapydoc said…
Christian, thanks.
Anonymous said…
you mean I'm not the only one that goes thru the "fear thang"? Wow thanx doc :)

gp in montana who'll remember that the very next time GaZI (endurance arabian) and I hit the trails.. right after the perfunctory reciting of the Shema, of course
Anonymous said…
Just started on your site, and I think I'm going to be an addict. You have helped me love my mother-in-law a little better with this post. And she was great to begin with. Thanks for being an honest person, and for writing about it.
April_optimist said…
It says so much that your d-i-l felt safe telling you how she felt. It says so much that you had the courage to tell her your fears. I cried a little as I read it.

I did have to separate from my parents. It was not a step I took lightly and to this day I wish there had been another choice. I did work to make sure that there was no separation with my husband's side of the family because I do know those connections matter.
therapydoc said…
It's not me, then. This family stuff really IS moving.
Anonymous said…
It's good to be moved. And better when it's our nearest and dearest who do the moving.

Such a simple thing, to take the care and translate it for each other but such a powerful thing. And oh my, not an easy thing. No, ever far from that.
Jack Steiner said…
This family stuff is so easy and so complicated. When I think of the narishkeit that we have had to deal with it makes me want to tear my hair out.

But, sometimes the simple things are so very difficult. I suppose that the underlying problem is one of fear and insecurity.
Unknown said…
This is my first time here and I just loved your post. I married an Italian, only son and there was just him and his mother. After we were married, of course she wanted us to save money by living with her, and I said NO, right off. But she turned out to be a wonderful mother-in-law. I guess I'm one of the lucky ones. Thanks for being so honest and for a great post..Mary
Syd said…
The fear of rejection is the thing that gets me. I can feel the rejection in the sharp words about the fountain. The "old" me would have built a resentment. Good for your DIL that she recognized it and had a talk. That took a lot of confidence on her part. And it took honesty and humility on your part to discuss it without being defensive. Sounds like a healthy discussion.
therapydoc said…
Defensive is a waste of time. No one wants excuses, we just want to know we're heard and understood. So I'd like to say, I'm never defensive, but I didn't think I ever spoke sharply, either :)
Juggling Frogs said…
I'm blown away by both of you: your maturity, honesty, vulnerability, assertiveness, sensitivity and awareness.

Thank you so much for sharing this, for your honesty and courage, and for being such an effective role model.
Scraps said…
I wish I could have such an open relationship with my mother. Unfortunately, we're very good at pushing each other's buttons, and previous attempts at reopening channels of communication have not gone too well. Or rather, whatever I have said in an attempt to be more open has always been thrown back in my face at a later date.

Therefore, I just try to keep things light when we talk on the phone, and I don't go home too often. We talk and everything, and I make the occasional visit home, but we don't really talk about anything emotional or meaningful. It works out better that way.
Anonymous said…
Thank you SO MUCH for your blog!
therapydoc said…
tb and the rest of you, too,

Huge smiley emoticon here. You're welcome.

Now, that was a great post.

I've seen this in shul, in counseling, and in my own life, so many times over, but I have never thought of it this way. Thank you.
AnnD said…
I wish my mother-in-law was a counselor, then I feel like I could talk to her about some of the things she has done to upset me. Good lord, I would need your phone number to describe some things! I love that your D.I.L. felt free to share how you affected her. You should be proud that she is able to talk with you like that!

P.S. The beginning of your post reminded me of a quote from Carl Whitaker: "There is no such thing as a marriage-merely two people sent out by their families to perpetuate themselves."
therapydoc said…
Oh, I love Carl Whitaker. He also said, Flirt with every baby you see, and I do.
Anonymous said…
This was so interesting! My mother-in-law and I have a much better relationship than we once did and it has gone through some changes even after it got better (if that makes any sense). My husband is an only child and that makes things somewhat complicated. The time where I got the strongest vibe that she thought I was rejecting her was when we announced we were having our second child. It was as if we were denouncing their choice to make my husband an only by having this second baby. It seemed like she was thinking, "Are you having another baby because you think my son missed out on something because he was an only child? Do you think I made a bad decision?" It was hard for awhile, but I think she has since gotten over it.
therapydoc said…
There's a perfect example of where flipping the question back (answering a question with a question) might work with someone.

So a person might say, in this kind of situation, "Do you?"
Anonymous said…
This is so timely for me. I just spoke about "family feuds" and "cut outs" (that's what Paula called it a cut out, I see you refer to it as a cut off).

Anyway, I have cut myself off from my family of origin for the last seven months now. The story is much too long here in a comment. But I have to say that family is truly toxic to me and I have functioned MUCH better without them.

My parents are elderly in their early 80s and I have already told them I think there will never come a time, before they both die, that I will want to speak with them.

They are unyielding and defensive. Will not listen to what I say and minimize and discount everything. I have told my older daughters (8 and 5) that Grandpa is extremely disrespectful to me and I will not allow him to treat me that way. It is unfortunate but that is how it is. This is why I try to treat you (my kids) with respect and listen to what you tell me. Even if we don't agree."

But I still found your post very intriguing and thought-provoking.
therapydoc said…
See, I'd go with never say never in that situation. Of course, you never know.
Anonymous said…
Well, after 11 years of marriage, we are moving 600 miles away from here, my husband's hometown, and I couldn't be more thrilled!

What's sad is, my kids are not all that sad that they won't be near their grandparents anymore. They are excited about the move and our new lives in a new place!

I have never interfered with the IL's seeing the kids, but they have treated me so horribly that if I never see them again, it just wouldn't break my heart.
therapydoc said…
Ima2, change can be good, great sometimes, right?
frumhouse said…
This post did make me cry! Beautifully written and a happy ending to boot!

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