Featured Image by Alisa Dyson from Pixabay
Helen is struggling. Her son, whom she always relied on and felt closest to, married two years ago. He and his new wife live a few hours away, and she greatly misses her son. They still talk extensively on the phone twice a week, and about once a month, he comes for a visit for the weekend. Lately, it has felt to Helen that he is mainly doing this out of a feeling of obligation. In the beginning, his wife Jen used to come with him, and they even went on a family holiday together the first summer. Then Jen got upset about a few things; she retreated and completely stopped the interactions with Helen. Helen feels judged and hurt that she hasn’t been invited to the couple’s new home. She wants to help with this situation.
As Helen and I unpack the family dynamics, an interesting pattern becomes clear. Helen and her husband, Ross, have three children, her son Christopher, the oldest, and two younger daughters. Ross has been addicted to alcohol for the past 35 years. Helen has compensated by working a lot. She also used to get away for the weekend by visiting her son, who she had always relied on as the “man in the house” when he was growing up and as her emotional support. She is not close to her daughters and doesn’t trust women, including her daughter-in-law.
When I look at family dynamics, I always ask, “Where does the energy of each family member go?” and “Who is bonded into whom in this family?”
At its core, a strong functional family system has spouses who are bonded into each other and interact with the other family members as a team. They appropriately manage “thirds” (family, friends, substances, or any competing forces) together, as Stan Tatkin would say. The energy goes first and foremost between the spouses. They are each other’s confidants and people to rely on for emotional support. They problem-solve together. However, just like in Helen’s family, that is often not the case.
But, everybody in a family unit usually is bonded into somebody or something, even if it is the family dog, a substance, or another addictive behaviour like overworking or overexercising. Alcohol or any other addictive substance is like a third party. It dominates our behaviour and decisions. It ultimately comes before our spouse and their needs and feelings. Ross is bonded into his addiction and is unavailable as a supportive partner for Helen. When Christopher was born, he became the partner substitute and shoulder to lean on for Helen. When the sisters, who are close and bonded into each other, came along five and seven years later, Helen and Christopher parented them together because Helen couldn’t rely on her husband to be a strong parental figure or supportive partner.
It might seem so harmless when a son or daughter supports the parent emotionally. Perhaps it happened to you that you had to be the emotional support for one of your parents when you were a child. And you might still find yourself in that role, like Christopher. Or perhaps you are repeating this familiar family pattern with your child, like one of Christopher’s sisters, a single mom who has bonded into her oldest daughter as her shoulder to lean on.
Why is it problematic when a parent is bonded into one of the children rather than into their spouse? By “bonded,” I mean the main energy between a parent and a child. Perhaps that child is “the favourite,” the confidant, or the shoulder to lean on or cry on for one of the parents.
This dynamic is hurtful for the other siblings, who aren’t considered the “favourite,” but it is even worse for the child who is put in this position of replacing an adult partner. Managing your emotions and needs is a heavy burden for any son or daughter. Your child deserves to have a childhood. They need the space to address their own emotions and needs. As an adult, they need to live their own life with their partner or spouse.
The parent creates an experience of false empowerment of the child who is the “chosen one.” False empowerment is as harmful as disempowerment. The child has to be mature beyond their age. Being offered the very tempting position of superiority prevents the child from having healthy relationships with the other family members, for example, equal relationships with their siblings or a respectful relationship with the other parent. They are stuck in grandiosity (Tery Real) while often being riddled by the fear that this job of being the problem solver and soother of emotions is too big for them to handle. A situation like this often fosters anger and resentment at the absent parent and the parent who puts them in this inappropriate position.
I have experienced what it is like to be a parent’s confidant and how challenging it is not to be able to establish a relationship with the other parent. I wasn’t able to build a relationship with my father until my mother passed. But not everybody gets that opportunity or realizes that the family dynamics are dysfunctional and limiting.
All it takes is to recognize the pattern and not judge yourself or your parents for it. Everybody is doing the best that they can. We can only parent with the awareness we have at a given moment in time. Once we realize that the dynamics are potentially harmful, we can change them.
Helen must let Christopher live his marriage, establish a respectful friendship with Jen and focus on who she can lean on. Ideally, she would be strengthening the relationship with her husband, but he has been in a love relationship with alcohol for a long time. Unless he is ready to quit drinking, little will shift. However, Helen can focus on rekindling friendships and other adult-adult relationships. She can still have a healthy relationship with her son as long as she stops perceiving her daughter-in-law as a competition and leaning on Christopher as if he were her spouse.
The first step Helen took after recognizing the dynamics and developing self-compassion for making the choices she did was to have open conversations with her son and daughter-in-law. In a one-on-one, she apologized to Christopher and began building a friendship with Jen. She also wants to be closer to her daughters. To do that, she had to work on her general mistrust of other women, originating in her family history with her sister, mother, and mother-in-law.
Changing our patterns and healing our wounds requires time and commitment, but the rewards are enormous. To understand the dynamics in your own family—or maybe a family you just married into—look for where the energy and affection go. Any family member can have the realization that the existing patterns do not meet everybody’s needs and initiate shifts.
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