Last month's discussion examined the "magic" of questions.
In any relationship – husband/wife, teacher/student, parent/child – one of the best ways to diffuse a tense or difficult situation is simply to think in terms of asking a question rather than preaching, nagging, begging, ordering, threatening, shaming, commanding.
A well-formed question is one that requires respect for the other person's ability to think. It builds connection rather than distance. It elicits conversation, connection, and realistic solutions which can build a relationship through mutual give-and-take. A "GOOD" question is one which cannot be answered with "I don't know – or a "yes" or "no" response. Productive questions open the door to experiencing a different perception that helps you calm down and perhaps lead you to investigate your own fears, beliefs and behaviors.
Recently I counseled a grandmother (of 9 children) whose major complaint was that one of her married daughters did not accept (what she thought was) " constructive" criticism; from how she dressed, cooked, kept house, to how she behaved with other family members, guests, etc. She knew, intellectually, what her negativity was doing to their relationship. But she felt she couldn't stop. After all, she reasoned, who should "teach" her daughter if not her mother? How would her daughter ever learn how to honor and respect her husband properly? Who would be honest in pointing out her shortcomings?
Upon further discussion, it became clear that there was a long history of a difficult relationship long before her daughter got married. And now the mother felt even more "justified" in her behavior since she was so afraid for the daughter's marriage. (When I asked what would happen if she stopped trying to "train" her daughter, the mother responded that she was afraid her son-in-law would divorce his wife because she didn't treat him well.)
Although the daughter resented her mother, she was at her mother's home almost every day and made unreasonable demands financially and emotionally. The mother did not realize that by taking responsibility for her daughter's welfare, she was keeping her immature and irresponsible. When a dependency is created, the more functional one becomes even more functional (and "take charge") and the dysfunctional one becomes more dysfunctional, setting up a cycle of dependency –hostility- and more dysfunction.
In order to help this woman understand where her fear was leading her, I began to ask questions:
- What changes in your daughter's behavior has your criticism brought about? (For the last 22 years?)
- What indications do you have that her marriage is in trouble?
- Why do you feel you are responsible for the choices your daughter makes?
- How does your 24/7 agonizing over your daughter affect your life…your productivity…your ability to take care of you own responsibilities to yourself, your family, your job?
- Do you view this situation as uncomfortable or dangerous? For whom?
As we examined these questions one by one, it became apparent to this mother that she was involved in a very destructive habit. Although she claimed that of all her children, it was only with THIS daughter she had problems with, she did admit to being a very overprotective and controlling type of parent. "But I only want the best for her!" she cried in desperation. She had no awareness that from the age of Bar or Bas Mitzvah, there is a natural separation process that children go through in order to establish their own identity, competency and self-respect. This process is often so subtle and quietly progressive that it takes a parent by surprise when the child becomes openly rebellious and aggressive or withdrawn and non-communicative. The change that seems so "sudden" is actually no so sudden at all. It has been brewing for some time. Without validation and support for his/her growth and development, the child resorts to any means of survival and the" pretense" of maturity.
I asked about the mother's own experience in her family of origin. She related her own history with her mother, and how choked and guilty she always felt. She was the oldest of 8, and could never meet her mother's perfectionist high standards. She never really had a childhood; but had become a" little mother" at any early age – with overwhelming responsibilities for her younger siblings. It was always " serious business" and constant work, but very little fun, pleasure, or time for herself. At an early age she had learned to take charge of others and assume responsibility for and direct their lives.
We spoke about the possibility of giving up the "slavery of Egypt" (old habit patterns) by investigating beliefs, fears and thoughts that may have hurt her relationships in the past. I cautioned that, along the way, she would need to continually ask HERSELF some very difficult questions:
- What's keeping me from doing MY work and taking care of myself?
- What will happen if I actually stopped managing other people's lives?
- How can I see "not doing" as a chesed?
The "letting go" process is as scary and intimidating as letting go of the side of the pool when you're learning to swim. Your first thought may be one of drowning! It takes many tries and continual practice to finally take the step to independence and self-reliance.
This very well-meaning woman slowly came to terms with how her bossy pattern was creating dysfunction. She understood that the greatest chesed she could do was to help her daughter stand on her own two feet and become more independent. The mother started focusing on encouraging her daughter to make her own dinners, make her own decisions, value her strengths and accomplishments. She was even able to set limits on her daughter's visits, and not be so readily available every time her daughter even "hinted at" a need (which she had learned to do quite often). The confusion and emotional negativity surrounding their relationship gave way to a more balanced and healthy situation.