Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I’m married with two kids. I went through a lot to figure out why I can’t have a good relationship with my parents and probably never had one.
It’s clear to me now that they are trying to have a relationship with their kid, not their adult child. They get angry and afraid when I express emotion; they want me to be happy all the time. They are afraid of everything in my life – my commute, my neighbors, my lack of anything they think I should own. They take no interest in my job or friends or hobbies, but keep asking about my childhood friends and interests. They tell me to eat and sleep, and they backseat-drive about my house and kids. If the pictures in their home are any indication, time stopped when I was about 9. Puberty, high school, college – all dealt with on my own, with no help from them, save fretting, guilt-tripping and warnings of what could go wrong.
So, in the past 10 years, I haven’t seen them much. I’ve had three knock-down fights with them during that time. I’ve expressed my frustration at not being seen as an adult, and wanting a different kind of relationship with them. They say they’re very hurt by my words and just want us all to get along.
It’s clear they don’t take feedback. I know this needs to change, but they won’t. I am their only child; my kids are their only grandkids. (They display all the same kinds of behaviors toward my children.) If they were abusive, I would just cut them off, but I’m only just miserable, up against their alternate reality of who I am.
How can I stop expecting something so, well, normal to be expected? How do I have parents in my life who only know how to see 4th-grade me?
New Relationship, but Old Parents
What if, instead of approaching them as the parents who need to see you as an adult, you approached them as the children, where you’re the adult in charge? Flip it around completely. They are acting like children, if you think about it – they’re playing house, circa 25 years ago, as opposed to occupying and reckoning with reality.
Reversing the way you view them would change your expectations, which in turn is the surest way I’ve found to make it easier to deal with difficult people.
It’s extremely difficult to change the way you see people who are so fundamental to your life, yes, but one reason for that peeks out from your question: You say, “something so, well, normal to be expected” – and in doing so reveal that you’re dug in, holding out for what you think you deserve. You’re grown, you reason, so you’re not asking much – they should treat you that way.
But that’s a reasoning error. There’s no should, there’s no being right – not in a way that governs the way someone else behaves. There is only what is, and their treating you like a child just … is.
Counseling can help you meet people where they are, especially against your own deep wishes that they’d progress to someplace else. Ironically, it can even help move both parties along. Please consider it.
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