That Catastrophic Expectation: Cut-offs
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.
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.