Why Are the Members of Estranged Parents' Forums Different?
Why are the members of estranged parents' forums different from other estranged parents? Why have so many of them been estranged from their children for 5, 15, even 30 years? Why are reconciliations so uncommon among the members, and why do they so often prove to be temporary? And why is the forum culture so uniquely toxic? Are the forum culture and the parents' estrangements related?
There are three factors contributing to the dysfunctional culture of estranged parents' forums and the failure of these particular parents to reconcile with their children:
- The "chain of pain," the generational cycle of abuse
- Authoritarian follower personality, with the resulting insistence on deference to the parents' authority, double standards for parents and children, and the powerful desire to punish people who resist
- Criticism avoidance, a pattern of deflecting, minimizing, denying, or sometimes even blacking out anything perceived as critical
The overwhelming majority of the members tell tales of multi-generational abuse. Their grandparents abused their parents, their parents abused the members, in adulthood the members married abusive men, their own children accuse the members of abuse and are drawn to abusive spouses, sometimes the members even see their children abusing their grandchildren. Members' divorce rates are sky-high, and many members have divorced more than once when they remarried to another abusive husband. Many members say there were previous estrangements in their families—they may have been estranged from their own parents for a time, aunts and uncles may have quarreled with one another, their own parents may have cut off the rest of the family for a while. Members refer to a "culture of estrangement" and say with regret that they taught their children to estrange, but I think the explanation is simpler: Abuse breaks relationships.
Members all say they tried to be better parents than their own parents, and they succeeded. They can't understand why their own children say they were abusive when they did none of the things their own parents did to them. In fact, all around them they see really abusive parents—child-beaters, drug addicts—surrounded by circles of devoted children. What went wrong? Why are their own children rejecting them when children who were treated hideously still love their parents? More than one member has asked herself whether she should have treated her own children worse.
What went wrong? Two things. First, the parents identified their own parents' worst behaviors as abuse and stripped them out of their lives; but they still picked up their parents' dysfunctional defenses, unchallenged sick beliefs, and bad coping mechanisms. (All children and spouses of abusers pick up abusive traits. They're called fleas.) These fleas lurk in the parents' blind spots. A father who prides himself on not beating his children the way his dad beat him may not realize that being dismissive and controlling is doing his children almost as much damage as the beatings did him. When someone points out that he's being dismissive and controlling, he may see nothing wrong with his behavior because he inherited his father's ideas about what's due him as the head of the family, and his upbringing may not have given him the tools to absorb the knowledge that he hurt his children, however unintentionally. He may be far better than his own father, but that doesn't mean he's not abusive.
Most members of estranged parents' forums have been bitten by their own fleas. That's the first thing that went wrong. The second thing that went wrong is less common, but it contributes to no small number of estrangements: The members were better parents than their own parents. They raised their children to have a little more self-esteem, a little less enmeshment, better defenses that let the children make healthier friends and see a way to a wider, kinder world. That, combined with a greater understanding of abuse and more support for victims, meant that children were healthy enough to recognize their situation as abusive and escape their parents' orbit.
So some members are right when they say they were better than their own parents and that their children left because they weren't as bad. It doesn't mean the members weren't abusive.
The members of estranged parents' forums would score high on what Bob Altemeyer calls the Right-Wing Authoritarian Scale, specifically the authoritarian follower side of the scale. (I refer to this type as authoritarian followers instead of right-wing followers to strip the misleading political reference from the name.) Authoritarian followers' central belief, the one that organizes the rest of their personality, is that authorities should be respected and shown deference because they are authorities. Authoritarian followers support this belief with double standards that excuse authorities of wrongdoing, a rigidly hierarchical worldview that keeps people in their place, and powerful resistance to any attempt to question authority. They tend to be black-and-white, us-and-them thinkers with a deep need to punish transgressors.
All of this is readily apparent in estranged parents' forums. The members' worldview is fiercely hierarchical, with one group labeled "estranged parents" (or "grandparents," "mothers-in-law," etc.) and one group labeled "estranged children" ("children," "daughters-in-law," etc.). Each group is held to radically different expectations, with acceptance and validation of anything "one of ours" says, and rejection of anything "one of theirs" says. This separation between groups is impermeable. Estranged parents are estranged parents, even when they describe being estranged from their own parents; they're not subjected to the rules imposed on estranged children, even when they talk about being estranged children.
And they're clear on the need to punish estranged children. (Real estranged children, not themselves back when they stopped talking to their parents.) One of the forums' primary functions is to act as a safe place for members to vent about their desire to humiliate their children, beat them, shame them, make them hurt as much as they're hurting their parents. After the pain of rejection, the second most common emotion members express is rage.
Authoritarian followers also have a slippery grasp of reasoning. They compartmentalize, they avoid looking at contrary evidence, they tend to think a line of reasoning is correct if they like the outcome. They also have a loose grasp of facts. As a researcher working with authoritarian followers said,
They could not remember some pieces of evidence, they invented evidence that did not exist, and they steadily made erroneous inferences from the material that everyone could agree on.
Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, pp. 75-76
Her description could be applied to any estranged parents' forum. Members recount events in an impressionistic style, cherry-picking details and often telling conflicting versions of events at successive retellings. The other members pay no attention to the inconsistencies, accepting the latest version as the full truth. In mixed forums where members are more likely to question one another's stories, estranged parents have difficulty keeping all the relevant details in mind, forget inconvenient facts, add new facts, and feel confident about making judgements even when they don't remember any of the background. When challenged, they may concede that they got the facts wrong, then keep arguing for a conclusion that relies on the facts they just admitted were wrong. In mixed forums, this leads to sulking over being misunderstood and nitpicked to death. In estranged parents' forums, it leads to a forum culture in which members will happily argue for something one day and against it the next day. In the long run, it impoverishes the forum culture because the members don't pool their experiences and come up with a coherent understanding of estrangement based on what works. If anything, the members declare that coherence is impossible because estrangement is beyond understanding.
The beliefs that members hold, teach each other, and try to impose on their adult children are deeply authoritarian:
- Parents are to be respected because they are the parents. Period.
- Parents who behave badly are still to be respected. (The members' own parents were awful, and they would never have treated their parents the way their own children are behaving.)
- The parent is the arbiter of what "respect" means.
- The parent sets the terms of the relationship. A child's attempts to set terms are an attempt to control the parent.
- Parents should control children. Children must not be allowed to control parents.
- Making decisions a parent disagrees with is a sign of immaturity. Doing as a parent says is a sign of maturity.
- Other people's reasons have no validity unless the member agrees with them. Invalid reasons are nonexistent reasons.
- Children have no right to break off relationships with their parents.
- Refusing to have having a relationship with a parent is abusive.
Members spend a lot of time lamenting that their children don't hold these beliefs, that the people around them won't help the members impose the beliefs on their children, and that society in general is moving away from these beliefs. For many of them, the magical solution to estrangement that they're searching for is a way to corner their child and force these beliefs on them. Unsurprisingly, they're unlikely to reconcile, so over time less authoritarian members either reconcile with their children or leave for less authoritarian forums, and the concentration of authoritarian members stays high.
The culture of estranged parents' forums is built around the members' resistance to criticism. The members question one another with exquisite gentleness, or not at all; they believe whatever another member chooses to tell them; and they spend a great deal of time comforting one another when the outer world dares to be less kind. One of the more important functions of the forums is offering relief to people who feel misunderstood, attacked, maligned by the outside world for things they believe are beyond their control.
Some of the mechanisms members use to avoid criticism are:
- Inability to remember criticisms. "She was screaming and screaming at me," members say, but they won't be able to recall what she screamed.
- Minimization of the criticisms members do remember. A list of grievances is boiled down to "He accused me of eating his Halloween candy one year" or "He was angry because I made him do chores in high school." Whatever the members repeat is so petty or reasonable-sounding that it can't be taken seriously.
- Unwillingness to repeat criticisms. Members don't post the "letters full of abuse" their children send them, rarely post texts from their children, and often avoid saying what the substance of an argument was.
- Refusal to accept criticisms that they themselves don't agree with. If their daughter says she can't put up with their disapproval of her boyfriend, but the parents think their disapproval is perfectly legitimate because she could do so much better, then their daughter is not estranged from them because they gave her grief about her boyfriend. The parents conclude that she hasn't told them the real reason, therefore she hasn't told them any reason, and they wish she would tell them so they can heal the estrangement.
- Hypersensitivity to negative emotions aimed at them. Any criticism at all is interpreted as an attack, unhappiness is interpreted as rage, calm speech is remembered as screaming. Their children aren't hurt or upset, they're "filled with hatred." Other people's reactions are perceived as being so powerful that nothing could justify them, and so painful that no sane person would willingly withstand them.
The members' criticism avoidance mixes with their authoritarian-follower disinterest in facts to create a distinctive approach to reality. Members have difficulty integrating details into a coherent whole. Their stories are generally vague and focused on the emotions they experienced during the episode, lacking information about what led up to the event and often related with a timeline so mangled it might have been run through a blender. Estrangement comes at them like a punch in the dark: Their son was happy and then he cut them off the day after the wedding, the picnic was wonderful and then their daughter-in-law came up to them and started screaming. Members see nothing odd or missing in these accounts. So many of them have been through the exact same thing, after all.
If an estranged parent comes to a mixed forum, another member may ask for more details. At that point, one of two things happens. Either the parent explodes, saying she came here for support, not to be questioned, and why are you interrogating her, anyway? Don't you believe her? Are you a parent or a child? She wants to speak only to parents, because they can understand, so you can go away and take your insults with you.
...Or the parent reveals that despite what they said, they have all the puzzle pieces. "My daughter-in-law was rude and selfish and wouldn't let anyone hold the baby at the baptism—we were so hurt" becomes "The baby was premature and at risk for RSV, and it was flu season."
Members' ability to keep the facts corralled varies according to how they're feeling. A woman who visits her son and daughter-in-law frequently says she knows her daughter-in-law dislikes her visits, but the member will keep visiting because her son would never let her daughter-in-law turn her away. Six months later the same member says that she and her daughter-in-law had such a good relationship, and now the daughter-in-law made her son cancel a visit, and the member has no idea what's happening.
Criticism avoidance guarantees that people will have strained relationships. No one wants to be around someone who can't bear to talk out problems, who can't remember being told anything she doesn't like, who goes around saying she has no idea why people are so mean to her. It also guarantees that if the solution to a problem is "See what you're doing wrong and fix it," the problem will never be solved. It's no surprise that criticism-avoidant people end up divorced and estranged more often than the general populace.
Once you know the pattern, it's also no surprise that criticism-avoidant people cry that their children cut them off suddenly for no reason. As far as they're concerned, there was no reason. (At least, no reason they can remember, apart from all the abuse their children screamed at them, and something petty about eating their Halloween candy.) They so want to reconcile with their children, but when they ask what they can do, their children only scream more abuse at them, or tell them they know what the problem is, or give more petty reasons that no one can understand... so the parents offer to go to counseling with the children, but counseling fails, or the child refuses and tells the parent to go on her own and work on herself first, only the parent can't work on herself if she doesn't know what's wrong, so she has to wait until her child calms down and hope that someday, someday, her child will tell her what the real problem is.
Generational abuse, authoritarian follower personality, and criticism avoidance are intimately entwined. The authoritarian parenting style isn't inherently abusive, but it's the style of choice for abusers. Authoritarian upbringing tends to create authoritarians and abusive upbringing tends to leave children with poor parenting skills, so people brought up in abusive, authoritarian households tend to bring at least some of their parents' abusive, authoritarian behavior into their own parenting. Abusers are intensely criticism-avoidant, so they don't teach their children healthy ways to handle criticism, and their authoritarian punishments fill their children with such a sense of shame and powerlessness that some children grow up unable to admit to any wrongdoing without being flooded with shame and powerlessness all over again. At the heart, abuse is authoritarianism is criticism avoidance.
Not all members of estranged parents' forums show all three traits. A sizable minority weren't abused as children, and, separately, a minority aren't authoritarian followers but still find the forums congenial. However, all the established members are criticism-avoidant. It's impossible to be estranged "for no good reason" without criticism avoidance; and members who know what the problem is and who have the fortitude to look it in the face go elsewhere, to forums that directly address their issues.
Most members of estranged parents' forums belong to a group of people who are at high risk of poor relationships: People who were abused as children, who unconsciously absorbed some of their parents' abusive behaviors and, despite their best efforts, passed the abuse on to their children. They also resist criticism so strongly that it alters their perceptions, making it impossible for them to absorb and act on the issues their children have with them. Unconsciously, it's easier for them to bear the pain of estrangement—pain so intense that some estranged parents commit suicide—than to bear the pain of being wrong.
What can be done? I don't know. Lifelong patterns are hard enough to break when the sufferer is willing to break them. When someone can't even see that there is a pattern, when breaking the pattern feels like taking a sledgehammer to their very soul, change isn't going to happen.
But what I do know is: Change can still happen, a link further down the chain. If you're an estranged adult child, you too were raised by an abusive parent who was probably an authoritarian follower. You too are trying to do your best by your own children. And you too learned some of your parents' abusive behaviors, where they're hiding in your blind spot. You're at risk of estrangement from your own children, not because you're "teaching your children estrangement" or whatever nonsense the flying monkeys toss at you, but because it's human nature to get fleas. No matter how good a parent you are, find a therapist and do some heavy drilling. Turn the lens on your blind spots. Have the courage to face yourself, even the broken, jagged, armored parts you don't want to exist. Because if you don't face them, your children might have to.
 Contrast this with forums for estranged adult children, where discussions about wanting to hurt, humiliate, or punish their parents are almost nonexistent.
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