Parents' love always feels conditional

  • Article by: CAROLYN HAX
  • Updated: June 3, 2012 - 6:09 PM

Dear Carolyn: How do you deal with a family member's "conditional" love? I'm in my mid-30s, and am one of those kids who did not live out their parents' dream, but have a sibling who did. In my heart, I know they are good people, but they seem to be supportive of everyone around me and not me.

For what it's worth, I'm single, have a graduate education and a good job, and am healthy. I go to family events and help out often.

I am having a tough time balancing the healthy solution of keeping my distance, and my guilt over the fact they are getting older -- and I don't want to cut them out entirely and live with that regret. But every time I see them it's a blow to my ego and another dent in our relationship because they can't seem to let go of some of my life choices.

Carolyn says: I realize I'm overstepping here, but isn't it possible they aren't good people? Not necessarily bad, either, but maybe just average? Or emotionally stunted, or limited in depth and imagination?

From where I sit, parents who impose their own dreams on their children, and then reward each child according to his or her adherence to the Designated Parental Way -- despite mounting evidence that a deviating child found another way that was perfectly respectable -- at a minimum are not good parents. They're just not.

The scene you sketch out is of the unfavored child's dutiful vigil for any credit for a life thoughtfully lived. Given that, it sounds as if "keeping my distance" actually isn't the healthy solution. At least, not yet.

First, I suggest you show yourself a little of the kindness your parents decline to show you. Let yourself believe that failing such deeply flawed people might be a cosmic backhanded compliment. Let yourself see that you became neither your parents' pride nor their patsy, but instead your own person, with little support and under considerable pressure, and (apparently) without resenting the favored sib. Well done, no?

And, let yourself drop your parents down a couple of notches in your estimation. Maybe they weren't the worst parents, but their failure to accept you plots them short of average on the curve. Good people? Maybe, but not to you, their own child, and if that doesn't warrant a closer look at your definition of "good people," I don't know what does.

I dwell on this not to be divisive, but to propose a decisive end to your vigil. You are waiting for them to be the people they should be -- irony alert, just as they're doing with you -- and waiting for them to fill in the blank where their approval should be. The repeated disappointments tear you down piece by piece.

But if you see your parents for who they are -- "fine as far as they go," for example -- then this will stop being about what you can get from them, and it will be about what you're willing to give to them. Namely, forgiveness. If you can fill in the blank with that instead, and mean it, then you'll be free.

Reveling in others' failures

Dear Carolyn: My friend validates herself not with love and pride in the accomplishments of her son, but instead in pointing out the pain and failures of others, as in, "When I see what a mess their kid is in, I feel so much better about mine."

I am finding it hard to ignore this version of Schadenfreude. Should I?

Carolyn says: Please don't.

Not that you can or should play the pettiness-conquering hero. However, you can -- and should -- let her know you're not going to abet hers with your silence. A well-timed "Ouch" or "Wow" can say a lot when she has just slammed some other mom's kid ... since that is the arena in which she's competing, right? These are the motherhood games?

Those shutdown monosyllables work even better if you've laid the foundation by saying, once: "Ooh, I don't know about that -- one bad break here and there and any of our kids could be in trouble."

I might even continue, " ... or, one parent here and there who's more concerned with competition than with compassion," but I don't want to build a glass house of my own. Besides, the "We're all vulnerable" reminder will work best for you sans snark.

I will say this, though: Wouldn't it also be problematic if your friend validated herself with pride in the accomplishments of her son? It takes hard work to raise a kid well, yes, and parents who put in the work deserve the gratification they derive from it -- from the dedication itself, and maybe from any assurances they get that a child feels loved. The filial accomplishments, though? Those belong to the kid.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com.

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