I promised yesterday to give an example from my own life about how a concerted effort to bridge a cut-off eventually resulted in a defining moment for me, so here goes.
If you’ve been following this blog series on dating wisely, you know that my family of origin was one of those especially chaotic ones in which abuses of all kinds were rampant. You also know that I chose to escape it all when I turned 18 and went off to college in another state. That I went to college at all was out of the ordinary–no one in my family had done so, and no one was encouraged to. In fact, females were supposed to operate only behind the scenes, so higher education was especially discouraged for girls.
That I purposefully chose a college far away from home was my then-unconscious attempt to cut-off from the chaos. Sometime around middle school, I had become a dumping ground for my mother’s resentment toward my father, and it was deeply painful for me to feel like I had to choose between two people I loved. Granted, my father was truly impossible to live with, but my mother was, too, and she couldn’t see it. Still can’t.
The empty nest that resulted when I left home to get away from all this was too much for my parents’ relationship to bear, and within a year, my father died of a sudden heart attack. I was relieved, I’m sad to say. It was dreadful that we would never have a healthy relationship (something that I longed for), but it was comforting to think that there to be no more of the family feuding that had been so painful for me to powerlessly witness.
To my dismay, my father’s death did nothing to curb my mother’s berating of him, so memories of their fighting were constantly resurrected in just about every conversation we had together. He lived on, as dead people do, in the hearts and minds of those left behind.
A Bridging Effort
Fast forward 30 years. Every year, my father’s huge family (he was the 11th of 14 children) holds a reunion on July 4. I had moved back to the area in which I’d grown up for the purpose of bridging cut-offs in a tangible way, and attending the reunion for the first time in decades was part of that effort.
My mom and I planned to drive the two hours to the reunion together, and I knew that she would, at some point, start in on her invective toward my father and his family. Sure enough, on the way home the day after the reunion, it started, and I was immediately annoyed.
No Joining, No Judging
But then something happened. I became aware that I was annoyed, and I simply took notice of this for a minute, even while I continued to hear my mom shit-talking my dad who’d been dead for almost three decades. This is what you were expecting, I said to myself. What do you need to do to define yourself here?
I erected an imaginary glass wall between my mother and me as I continued to listen to her invective. With her in her space and me in mine, I could think more clearly, and I realized that I didn’t have to join her (my pattern of silent observation or offering advice had likely implied agreement with her for all those years) and I didn’t have to judge her (her marriage and life with my father had been horrible; she had reason to feel as she did).
But my healing journey had brought me to a different place, and I no longer resented my dad for what he did and didn’t do for me as a father. When Mom took a breath, I took the opportunity to share my experience.
“You know,” I said without any of the tightness in my voice that I would have expected before I realized I didn’t have to either join or judge my mom, “I just don’t feel any of that anymore. I was actually glad to hear (my cousin) Dave describing how much he venerated Dad. I’m glad he had a relationship where he could be respected and valued. Sure, I wish that was what I had experienced of him, but maybe he was his true self everywhere else. Maybe we only got his pseudo-self. Either way, it just doesn’t impact me anymore, and I’m really grateful for that.”
There was a brief moment of silence after I spoke, and then Mom replied, “How did you come to that place?”
“All the years of healing work I’ve been doing. I finally got to the place where I could forgive him and let go of all the pain.” I described a few details of my process, such as writing lots of letters to him over the years, getting my feelings out, saying things I didn’t have the words for when he was alive; writing letters from him back to me, imagining what he would say to me if he had acquired consciousness and perfect knowledge on the other side of this life; and lots and lots of mourning the losses.”
Basking in the Glow of Differentiation
And that was it. The conversation ended without animosity or division. The rest of the car ride was pleasant, and for days after, I basked in the glow of having simply, clearly and kindly defined myself in the context of relationship with my mother. I had not defined myself in contrast to her, and there had not been an ounce of combative or adversarial energy in what I said. I had simply shared my experience, without any expectation that Mom would respond in any particular way. End of story.
It was a glorious moment. I had altered a life-long pattern, changed the script, and I had done it in a way that I could be proud of. It was about me, not about her or about us. I had earned the glory of that defining moment over the years of effort I had put into healing and growth, and I was amazed by the freedom of it.
That was the first time I felt completely satisfied with the way I conducted myself in relationship with my mother, and it gave me hope that I could do it again and again and again, in this relationship and in others. As you know from “Dating Wisely 1.29,” I still don’t do it perfectly, but I’m improving in my ability to define myself without reactivity.
This is the way I want to live my life in all my relationships. It feels so right.