I have some thoughts and observations that aren't coherent enough for a complete article, but might be useful to others even in undigested form. Here are some notes about the all-or-nothing approach many members of estranged parents' forums take toward reconciliations.
Parents who try to reconcile with their estranged adult children often describe themselves as "walking on eggshells." Their children make all the rules, blow up at random. They don't accept invitations enough, offer invitations enough, call enough, text enough, visit enough. The parents feel they're "begging for scraps." Eventually—after a few years, a few months, a few visits, a single visit—the parents back out of the relationship and tell the children they're willing to reconcile only on their own terms. As one mother said recently, "I am coming to realise that they don't want a normal family relationship with us. They want us to know our place and for the entire thing to be run on their terms. [....] So I've decided that we're not playing their games. They want to connect or they don't."
- The relationship is described in terms of game-playing and control.
- Expectation of rapid return to the previous close relationship. Lip service given to taking it slow.
- Some parents do manage to take it slow, and report success in reconciling with their children. Other members congratulate them, then tell them why their methods wouldn't work in their own case. Powerful resistance to generalizing based on parents' behavior.
- Black and white thinking: "They want to connect [for a definition of connection that I control, and right now it means returning to our previous "normal" relationship] or they don't."
- Parent hasn't internalized the changes their children asked for. "Walking on eggshells," not working out new behavioral patterns.
- Eggshells imply uncertainty. Parent doesn't know what their child will take offense to = doesn't understand what the problem was.
- The boundaries the child sets for their own protection = games, rules, terms, control. The parent doesn't understand why the child feels the need to take those actions.
- The parent reacts as though they'd been told to wear a raincoat and carry an umbrella on a hot, dry day.
- No understanding of problem or its solution = reconciliation is bound to fail.
- Strikingly, the parent ends the reconciliation while the child, usually the reluctant party, is still trying to reconcile. Parent interprets child's slow, measured, "wait and see" approach as the permanent status quo.
- Parent stops trying to meet the child's demands ("stops walking on eggshells"), returns to old behaviors, demands that the child meet their expectations, confirms their child's fear that Mom/Dad hasn't changed a bit. Child re-estranges. Parent interprets this in a way complimentary to the parent.
- Or, parent loses self-regard because she perceives herself as submitting to the child's control and accepting disrespectful behavior. (Disrespect = not as much contact as the parent wants.) She ends the relationship because it's easier on her to have no relationship than to have a partial relationship.
- Parents who describe their estrangement as life-shattering, devastating, the worst pain they've ever experienced, return to estrangement if the reconciled relationship is too distant for their liking.
Parents often get offers from their estranged or formerly estranged adult children to meet their grandchildren. There are usually restrictions: Meet only in a public place, both parents have to be present, meetings will be short and infrequent, etc. Parents interpret the offers as an attempt to make them bond with the grandchildren so the children can use the grandchildren against them. Parents who did bond with their grandchildren, then had the grandchildren taken away, warn them that losing contact with grandchildren is horrifically painful. Parents may decide not to meet their grandchildren in order to protect themselves.
Adult children offer to let their parents meet the grandchildren because they consider it a step in reconciliation, because they feel sorry for the grandparents, out of a sense of duty, because they believe children should have grandparents even if the grandparents are bad enough that the parents cut them off, etc. The restrictions are partially for safety, and partially to reduce the chance that a grandparent will form a close bond. Estranged adult children don't want close bonds between their children and their estranged parents. Adult children don't enjoy arranging meetings between their estranged parents and their children, and are often doing it for the sake of the grandparents. The expectation is that if the grandparent does well with a period of supervised meetings, they can be allowed more time with the child, less supervision, etc.
When grandparents turn the offer down, the children interpret it as "The grandparent wants a relationship on their terms, or no terms at all."
- Once again, the estranged parent perceives the relationship as being about control.
- Expectation of rapid reconciliation; initial distance perceived as permanent.
- Backs away from the relationship while the adult child is still trying to reconcile.
- Black or white thinking: Estranged parents do indeed say they want to "be allowed to be a grandparent" (according to their definition of being a grandparent = on their terms), or they don't want to have a relationship at all.
- Parents think they can refuse the meeting without damaging the reconciliation, or alternatively, they think the offer means their child is trying to manipulate them, and it's a sign that they should back away.
- Catastrophic failure of understanding: Adult children don't know their parents are desperately afraid of bonding with the grandchildren and then losing them; parents don't know the adult children view the meeting as a step in reconciliation.
- Solution? Tell the other side the missing piece of the puzzle?
- Adult children would reply, "We don't want to pull the kids away from you. All you have to do is follow our guidelines, and everything will be fine." Parent doesn't understand the problem that the guidelines are meant to solve, interprets "Follow our guidelines" as "Obey us, do whatever we say, give us control over you"; reconciliation is doomed, adult children will withdraw again, taking the grandkids with hem.
- Or adult children make promises: "We would never cut you off from your grandchildren." Common when adult children have a poor grasp of the situation and/or unhealthy attitudes about problematic family members; "having a unicorn." Promises can prolong a relationship that's going sour, and don't prevent estrangement.
- Simply comforting the parent isn't an option. Reassurances don't mean anything unless they're backed by promises, plus reassurance can encourage the parent to feel more secure than they are and return to their usual behavior.
- Parents would be angry at being "tested": "Either they want to reconcile, or they don't." The adult child is viewed as the one with the problem, so the parent has nothing to prove.
- Parents who think their child is trying to trick them into bonding with the grandchild as a means of control are already deep into thought patterns that lack perspective, indicate a failure of empathy (in the formal sense = being able to put oneself in another's shoes).
- Conclusion: Adult children can't offer valid reassurance. They're willing to continue the relationship only if the parent changes their behavior, and because the parent doesn't understand what needs to change and why, change comes only through forced adherence to rules that parents see as arbitrary.
- Conclusion: Parents can't believe that their children are sincere until experience convinces them; spoken words won't budge the paranoia. The necessary experience is a successful relationship with adult child and grandchild that outlasts the parents' paranoia. Paranoia encourages parents to back out of the relationship in fear, or to misinterpret their children's actions and sabotage the reconciliation.
- Solution? Tell the other side the missing piece of the puzzle?
Both situations arise from the same core conflict:
Child is willing to have a relationship with the parent IF the parent will change. The child expects the change to take a while, needs proof that the parent has truly changed. The child's ideal future relationship is different from the original, unsatisfactory relationship.
Parent considers change unnecessary, is insulted by the request, feels controlled by the child. The parent resents being judged and tested, has no understanding of the problem and therefore has no understanding of how long the child will take to trust them again. The parent's ideal future relationship is similar to the original, satisfactory relationship.
Child is waiting for parent to change.
Parent is waiting for child to stop this foolishness.
No change in the parent = no change in the child = reconciliation fails.
Not all reconciliations fail. Some parents say they had one or more failed reconciliations before succeeding, and the successful reconciliation had "give and take."
- Humans want give and take in all relationships. No one wants to be in a relationship where they feel controlled, reardless of the reasons.
- Skeptical about the degree of honest give and take in formerly estranged parents' relationships.
- Personality-disturbed people are inaccurate self-reporters, very poor observers of other people.
- Initial lack of give and take in a parent-child relationship is meant to offset the parent's psychological power over the child. Estranged parents use this power freely, deny its existence just as freely.
- People who are used to an unequal balance of power interpret the correction of the balance as inequality. (See: the Republican party.)
- Alternate possibility: Previous failed reconciliations knocked off some of the parents' sharp corners? Parents did change enough to at least partially satisfy their children?
- Alternate possibility 2: Previous failed reconciliations convinced the children that the parents weren't going to change, caused them to lower their standards?
- Same mechanism working in reverse if the child was the problem in the relationship, with the usual note that normal parents of disordered children go elsewhere for support and don't end up in estranged parents' communities. Disordered parents of disordered children are present in abundance, however.
If an estranged adult child is reading this, reconciliation is not impossible. I'm looking at a population self-selected for intense, enduring estrangements and poor empathy. If you're considering trying a reconciliation, my advice is:
- Ask yourself whether your parent has shown signs of actual change. Hoping and wishing that they'll change aren't signs.
- Expect them to want to move much faster than you want to. Be prepared to manage their expectations.
- Be prepared for them to black out your attempts to manage their expectations.
- Expect them to change much more slowly than you want them to. If they don't understand what the problem is, you'll have to train them out of each behavior individually, and this will take time. Expect them to use any change in circumstances as a reason to backslide. Expect them to backslide if you're not consistent and persistent with consequences.
- Ask yourself whether the amount of training and maintenance you'll need to do is manageable for you. Revisit the question periodically.
- Don't push past the current limits of your training, even for special occasions. ("We said she couldn't see the baby yet, but it's Christmas...")
- Don't introduce your kids into the situation until your parent is well and truly behaving, and has done so for a while.
- Accept that it may take multiple estrangements and reconciliations before you and your parent truly reconcile. Just as your parent may not have believed there was a problem in the relationship until you cut them off, they may not believe you're serious about what you're asking of them until you've shown them that you'll cut them off again.
- If it's safe to be emotionally open with them, talk with them about their needs and expectations. Be open to some input. (This is a tightrope walk between being open to them, giving them the impression that they have more say than they do, and letting them undermine you.)
- If it's not safe to be emotionally open with them, don't reconcile.
- If you read the second-to-last bullet point and decided they weren't safe, then you read the last bullet point and decided that no, really, they're safe, then your parents aren't safe. Don't reconcile with them until you don't feel pressure to lie to yourself about them.
And, most importantly:
- Under no circumstances will the responsibility for either training your parent, or dealing with the effects of their bad behavior, fall on your spouse or children. This is not a "do" or a "don't." This is not a request. This is not a suggestion. This is the Universe speaking. YOU train your parent, YOU deal with their toxicity. You do not push your children or your spouse into firing range, any more than you would push them out from behind cover when there was a shooter on the loose.
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The analyses on this page are my own opinions and should not be construed as medical advice or statements of absolute fact.