Can I Save the Relationship with My Estranged Child?
Sometimes parents do very little to cause an estrangement. And sometimes they do a lot . . .
Ralph wanted my help reconciling with his estranged son, but he didn’t like my advice. He didn’t believe that his son’s view of him, however harsh, might have a little truth to it. In reality, I thought his son’s assessment was more than a little true: Ralph was a gruff, self-centered Modesto developer who took his own opinions way too seriously. He expected a level of gratitude and deference from his son that was never going to happen. Ever. Especially challenging was Ralph’s belief that the amount of financial help he’d provided his son afforded him the right to dictate the terms of the relationship.
Frank told me that he had grown up feeling controlled and dominated by his father. Among other things, Ralph was critical of Frank’s desire to get an undergraduate degree in the humanities; he threatened to cut off his college funding if Frank didn’t study something practical that could, as he put it, “actually support a family.” Frank’s temperament was more like his mother’s—bookish, reclusive, drawn to the arts. While he ended up getting a BS in business, he went back to school for an MA in English lit shortly after. He had worked hard in his own therapy to stand up to his father’s demands for time and availability. He’d also made it clear to his dad that there was no way he was going to give back an inch of that hard-won territory.
In my initial meeting with Frank he described feeling close to his mother but a constant disappointment to his father. It wasn’t until he got into therapy that he began to connect his feelings of unworthiness to his relationship with his dad. “I just don’t want to walk around feeling like that anymore. It sucks. I’m through with him treating me like that person. I feel a lot less stressed since I’ve cut off contact with him. I’m fine having a relationship with my mom, but she pretty much does whatever he says. You’ve met my father, so you probably get it.”
I got it.
My work with estranged families typically takes place over two to five sessions. Most of the time parents contact me because they have no contact with their adult child and want strategies to pursue reconciliation. In our initial meeting, I ask about their own childhood history, so I can learn about experiences they may be repeating or that may continue to influence them. I also take a thorough developmental history of their adult child from the parent’s perspective, which includes the child’s academic performance, social life, drug and alcohol use or abuse, prior or current therapy, learning disabilities, temperament, and psychiatric issues. While I don’t expect parents to be diagnosticians, I want to gain a sense of how they understand their child’s strengths, vulnerabilities, temperament, level of insight, and self-reflection.
Of course the parent’s view is sometimes colored by the limitations imposed by their own childhood history, their history of interactions with the child, and whatever other vulnerabilities or limitations they bring to the table. So a parent might wrongly assert that his or her adult child is overly sensitive or defensive because they can’t see how much defensiveness they provoke.
In my initial meeting I suggested that Ralph consider making amends to his son. I stressed that Frank himself had indicated that the relationship wouldn’t move forward unless his father could more deeply address his feelings about their relationship. It was clear that since childhood, Frank had felt controlled or criticized by his father.
“I have nothing to apologize for,” Ralph said, annoyed. “He went to a good school and didn’t have to pay a dime for it. I bought him and his wife a house; she won’t even talk to me. I have money set aside so my grandchildren will have their college paid for. And now I’m not even allowed to see them. What exactly am I supposed to be sorry for again? I’ve got an idea: How about he apologizes to me for cussing me out the last time I was there?”
“Sounds like you did do a lot for him,” I said. “I agree.” And I did agree. But the exchange rate on parental investment has weakened over the past half century. Parents, for better or worse, can no longer demand contact as a return on time and money spent. Like many parents, Frank wasn’t factoring that into his expectations.
Ralph’s wife, Rachel, was small, quiet, and unbearably sad. I asked for her thoughts about the estrangement.
“Oh . . . ,” she said slowly, as though gathering strength to respond, “I don’t know. I just want this to end. My grandbabies, I don’t know what they think, and you know, I just miss them so much. This isn’t fair to them. He and his dad, they’re probably more similar than different.” Small smile. “Both a little too pigheaded for their own good.”
I could see how some people would feel intimidated by Ralph. He was a big guy, used to getting his own way and to having people agree with him. His size, bluster, and arrogance would probably be daunting to a spouse, let alone a child. But I also recognized that he, like many estranged parents, was caught in a generational trap not of his own making.
“You know what?’ he said when I asked him about his childhood. “Nobody gave me anything growing up. My old man used to beat my ass all the time. Is he calling me up and saying, ‘Aww, son, I’m so sorry for beating your ass all the time. What was that like for you?’ He’s an ornery sonofabitch, but we still go see him and my mom ’cause that’s what family does.”
Rachel smiled at me apologetically.
“He also made me who I am today, so I kind of give the old man credit, as big of a dick as he was. When I’m in a meeting with a bunch of construction workers and I’m on the phone with some asshole who’s holding up my building permits, even though I’ve already sent them everything for the tenth time, could they give a shit about what I’m feeling? So I just don’t see how that’s supposed to make things any better.”
“I understand. I think a lot of the parents that I work with feel the same way,” I said. “But it seems like the way you’ve been doing it isn’t getting you what you want. Do I have that right?”
“Yep,” he said begrudgingly.
“So I don’t think there’s a big chance of your seeing him or your grandchildren unless we can help you do it differently. Your son made that pretty clear to me in my individual session with him.”
From my many years of experience, I can stay that how a parent responds to this particular recommendation—that they try to empathize with the child’s complaints or perceptions, however at odds these are with their own—is crucial: it often determines whether they ever see their children or grandchildren again.
“Well, I’m not apologizing to him. No way. For what?”
Rachel looked at him wearily. I could tell this was an old, tired interaction for her: she pleads with him to take a softer, less defensive approach and he aggressively shoots her down. In my experience with married couples, mothers are often willing to keep trying long after their husbands have stopped. I have worked with many desperately grieving mothers who said some version of this: “My life has no meaning without my children and grandchildren in it, so why go on living?” This reality causes them to keep trying sometimes well past the point of it being good for anyone. And sometimes they keep trying because they know that the child needs something different in order to reconcile.
A mother’s desire to persevere may result from the fact that women are still held to a higher standard of responsibility for family relationships than are men. As a result, they have a much harder time letting themselves off the hook. Fathers are also deeply wounded by estrangements, but perhaps due to their roles being less socially prescribed, their identities may not suffer as intensely. And, unlike mothers, they may believe that giving up on reconciliation is an expression of pride or masculinity, rather than selfishness.
In Ralph’s case, I also knew that his aggression and gruff bearing insulated him against his feelings of sadness and shame about his son’s rejection.
“It’s not exactly that you have to apologize,” I tried again. “It’s more like this: you’re saying that you didn’t know when you were raising him that you hurt him. And now you do. Now you wish you’d communicated differently. You don’t have to say that you’re a bad person or a bad father. Just that your behavior had an effect on him that wasn’t your desire.”
Rachel looked at her husband hopefully, waiting to see if this new approach was getting any purchase. “That seems like a good way to put it,” she said.
But Ralph wasn’t going to relent. Instead he seemed to grow hardened. “I did want him to be afraid of me: I wanted him to toughen up. He was such a whiny little mama’s boy.”