Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Family, Responsibility, Guilt

Perhaps because my clientele consists primarily of gay men, I have often talked over the years with people who, as adults, are troubled by their relationships or lack thereof with their families of origin, especially their parents. That is no doubt due to the fact that sexual minorities often experience rejection by their families and often have to move elsewhere to fully live their sexual lives. It is also due to the fact that any therapist working with clients suffering emotional conflicts is likely to find that a significant proportion of their clientele has experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse within their family. Whatever the reasons for the abuse or rejection, few would deny that leaving the family is a healthy decision, especially if the abuse is continual and incorrigible. Usually, separating from the family is done as an older adolescent or young adult; the guilt, shame or sadness sets in as an adult, when the perpetrators are likely to be aged.

One way in which to conceptualize families is to see them on a continuum with close-knit, enmeshed family relationships at one end of the continuum and loosely connected, more distant relationships at the other. Most families fall somewhere between the two extremes and the patterns of relationship they exhibit tend to have characterized them for generations. Close-knit, enmeshed patterns are more associated with our tribal origins, though they still exist in tribal cultures today; times and cultures where civil society is weak or virtually non-existent; times and cultures in which kinship ties are paramount for survival in an environment of scarcity and for protection in an environment of risk. Such families are typically led by a matriarch or patriarch who keeps family members in line; assuring their allegiance and cohesion with the structures and values of the family through the exercise of guilt, shame and the power to punish and reward; at its most extreme manifestations, resorting to sanctions, such as so-called honor killings, to enforce family cohesion and loyalty. The concept of abuse is itself very attenuated in such societies because whatever is seen as necessary to assure family cohesion is seen as justified.

Sometimes you see enmeshed families in a public space, such as a shopping centre, and they tend to move in a mass, like an amoeba, somehow following a flow imperceptibly initiated by one of their members; often all three generations will live within blocks of one another. Often three generations of family members will spend their lives living within a few blocks of each other and almost all socialization is contained within the family.

Families whose members are more separated and loosely connected are largely the product of the industrial revolution in that people can only separate in significant numbers from their families of origin when there are the resources and safety to do so. They tend to be urban, rather than rural; secular, rather than more traditionally religious. Such families are often characterized by geographical, as well as emotional, distance, by breaking-offs and splittings, and by a high level of individualization amongst family members. At the far end of the distance continuum there is potential for abuse in the form of emotional neglect when parents are individualized to the extent that they don't adequately assume the responsibilities of parenting.

My own family of origin is somewhere on the distance/separation side of the continuum. When my father was still a boy, his mother was left by her husband; although my father knew where his father subsequently lived, he seemed not at all interested in having contact with him, nor did he assume his father's family name. My mother's brother, a naval officer, was cut off by her parents when he fell in love with a woman officer and divorced his wife; though my mother continued to be very close to both the new couple and the wife and son from the previous marriage. After the death of my father, my mother confided to me that they had nearly separated, when I was very young and my father had an affair with another woman. My mother had absolutely no contact with her own brother after a dispute related to their father's estate. Her father was the last person in the family who had the power to summon the entire family together for special events; I remember there was great relief after his death that such family gatherings would no longer take place. I have tended to continue that same pattern in my own, immediate family of origin, having cut off relationships with my sister because I experienced her interactions with me and my parents as toxic; she, in turn, has no relationship with her own children.

Where ever your family might fit on the continuum I've described, it's possible for its members to grow up feeling loved, nourished and supported, though that happy reality becomes more tenuous as the extremes of the continuum are reached. Families tend to have particular vulnerabilities depending on their location on that continuum: the more distant families leaving its members more exposed to feelings of isolation, being unsupported and experiencing difficulties working through emotional conflict; the more enmeshed families leaving its members feeling stifled, smothered and sometimes treated harshly for breaking with family norms and values.

I experienced such a vulnerability in my own family when I came out. I wrote a letter to my parents expressing my identification with being gay and subsequent decision to leave my wife. Not having received a response after several weeks, I enquired as to whether they had received the letter. They responded that they had read it, intended to respond, but hadn't realized a rapid response would be so important to me. That explanation was followed by a very warm, supportive letter, relating, as they had repeatedly done as I was growing up, that what was important to them was that I be happy in my choices and not the choices themselves. I was left with a feeling that there was something lacking in their level of caring for me that they would treat my coming out in what seemed such a casual manner. Happily, I had enough experience of their caring to draw upon that I was not left with that negative feeling characterizing our relationship. Several times I have spoken with clients from Italian families, which in Montreal are usually from rural origins, about their first visits with their in-laws of Northern European extraction. Their first reaction, based on a perceived absence of physical closeness and intensity of emotional involvement is almost always: "Do these people really love each other?". Most often, they do.

I think it is reasonable to observe that the more enmeshed pattern is more congruent with rural, pre-industrial societies, while the more distant pattern is more congruent with urban, industrial and post-industrial societies. Within that observation there is room for many exceptions; for example, urban, Jewish families, even those with the resources to permit a high degree of separation and individuation, are often on the more enmeshed side of the continuum; no doubt because experience has taught them that civil society cannot be relied upon to provide safety; for that it remains important to rely upon family and the community of families of similar origin.

Having acknowledged that families at nearly any location on the enmeshment/distance continuum can provide a happy, healthy, nurturing environment for their children, it must also be acknowledged that most of us are more comfortable with and feel a preference for the family relationship style within which we were raised. Those raised within a close-knit family can experience discomfort and disapproval when an acquaintance relates that they don't want any contact with their parents and that they feel no love from nor toward their parents. The tendency will be to respond with guilt-provoking judgments that the  choice and feelings of their friend are wrong, crazy, unhealthy, unnatural; a response frequently proportional to their own experience of and comfort with a family pattern on the more enmeshed side of the continuum and employing the same mechanisms of coercion used to keep their own families tightly together. Those from the more loosely-knit side of the family continuum are more likely to accept a decision to break the connection with parents and to respond with moral or political condemnation of the coercive measures employed to maintain solidarity in more enmeshed families.

Therapists are not immune to the same preferences and discomforts when faced with a client who has chosen to break with parents experienced as abusive. Those from more close-binding family pattersns will more likely focus on the importance of re-establishing family connection; encouraging the client in the name of mental health to seek some sort of reconciliation with their parents; warning that the client will likely suffer from damaging, unresolved emotional issues subsequent to the death of their parents if a reconciliation isn't accomplished beforehand. I've never seen anything but antidotal evidence supporting such a prediction and have certainly spoken with clients after the death of parents who relate feeling no such regret for having made the decision to have no contact with them. I feel that such a therapeutic approach can be a subtle form of provoking guilt in a client masquerading as a concern for mental health. On the other hand, a therapist coming from my family background must be careful to hear and respond to the deep pain experienced by some clients in the face of a rupture with parents.

People who have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse from their parents are especially vulnerable to the provocation of guilt and shame. Little children, no less than adults, make sense of their experience of the world through the stories they tell themselves. Most often children treated badly will feel they deserve such treatment because they are, in fact, bad. The perception that they are at fault is grounded in two realities: being actually told they are bad, stupid or careless is usually part of the abuse itself and it's less frightening for children to consider themselves bad than to think of their parents, whom they depend on for protection and nourishment, as hurtful and unloving towards them. Most child protection workers are familiar with children who, lying battered in a hospital bed, beg to be returned to the same parents who've beaten them. It is most often themselves they blame. As adults they remain vulnerable to feeling they are responsible for repairing the relationship shattered through parental abuse and are bad if they don't assume that responsibility; especially when faced with aged, fragile, newly vulnerable parents; seeming much changed from the powerful, frightening people they once were.

What makes sense to me when talking with a client who is experiencing shame and guilt around not having a loving relationship with parents and, perhaps, having absolutely no relationship with them, is to express curiosity about what leads them to feel a primary responsibility for repairing a relationship which has been damaged through abuse or rejection by their parents. What feels wrong about having chosen to remove themselves from the potential for further abuse?  How have they learned to feel guilt and shame about separating themselves from a vulnerable closeness with their parents? What do they themselves want in terms of a relationship with their parents, as opposed to what they've been told they should want? Is it reasonable to blame themselves if they feel no love for their parents? With what sort of relationship, if any, would they, themselves, be comfortable? What experience have they had with attempting to repair the relationship with their parents? Have they become skilled and generous at providing excuses for the hurt inflicted by their parents, while being ungenerous and judgemental towards their own attempts to protect themselves from further hurt?

All too frequently, there have been many attempts, but the guilt and shame persist and they have exposed themselves to additional hurt in the process; establishing a loving relationship is often not a likely prospect. I've talked with clients who have regularly gone home on special occasions to visit parents; met with a reasonably accepting welcome; then the customary abuse reemerges. I've spoken with clients who plan something special they think their parents would enjoy; only to be met with the same rejection and negativity they experienced as children; who have shared an accomplishment they hope will lead to parents expressing pleasure or pride; only to be met with the usual indifference or derision. I've seen the relief of clients having let go of that burden to repair the relationship and coming to be comfortable with whatever level of contact seems emotionally safe and realistic to them. Sometimes all that can be salvaged is a superficial connection without love or affection; one that meets the minimum felt needed to see that care is provided in their declining years; sometimes not even that is feasible.

Although with work a person can arrive at a point where they no longer feel guilt and shame because they have little or no significant connection with their parents, it is natural that sadness and disappointment remain. Most of us would like to have experienced a family life in which we felt loved, nourished and protected; we all must either cope with the reality that life doesn't always provide us with what we would have liked or face a lifetime of anger and bitterness. I think the disappointment and sadness can be acknowledged, expressed and accepted without becoming the dominant emotional themes of our lives.

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