Don’t Upset Your Father
I was reading an article on Huffington Post about enabling in families with an addict. I occasionally look at these sorts of articles as my father had a drink problem when I was a kid and even after my mother’s ultimatum led to him not getting drunk in the pub every evening he spent many years acting as a dry drunk. My mother’s words “don’t upset your father (in case he starts drinking)” became the mantra of my childhood. My mother enabled by which I mean she did certain things which protected my father from the consequences of his behaviour and from the realities of everyday life. Thus cocooned and cushioned from possible antagonism, however slight, and from the hurt he caused others, his poor behaviour was never confronted and so never changed.
This got me thinking about families with personality disorders. I’m certainly not the first person to point out the patterns of dysfunctional behaviour that occur in families with alcoholics map across to families with personality disorders. Robert J. Ackerman one of the founding fathers of the adult child of alcoholics movement points this out in his book “Perfect Daughters: Adult Daughters of Alcoholics”. How do we enable the dysfunctional behaviour of our mothers-in-law? How do we enable our partners’ dysfunctional relationship with their families? And the really REALLY interesting question, why, damn it people, WHY do we enable it?
What Enabling Looks Like
I have pinched this from the Huff Post article and modified it to describe disordered rather than addictive behaviour.
1. Do you avoid potential problems by trying to keep the peace? Do you do whatever you can to avoid conflict?
2. Are you in denial about your loved one being disordered? Do you think his or her behavioural problems are just a phase and aren’t anything to be concerned about?
3. Do you minimize the situation? Do you think the problem will get better later?
4. Do you lecture, blame or criticize the disordered person?
5. Do you take over the responsibilities of the disordered person? Do you cover for and pick up his or her slack to minimize the negative consequences? Do you repeatedly come to the rescue — soothing over hurt feelings with others, managing social events to suite them etc?
6. Do you try to protect your disordered loved one from pain?
7. Do you allow them to treat you like a child? Do you enjoy being taken care of? Do you allow them to financially support you, even though you are an adult?
8. Do you try to control the disordered person? Do you allow them to control you?
9. Are you good at just enduring? Do you often think, this too shall pass?
10. Do you give him/her one more chance … and then another … and just one more?
11. Do you join him/her or overlook dangerous or abusive behaviour, even when you know he or she has a problem?
Reading through this made me think not about my mother-in-law so much as how I accommodated my husband’s family system including his way of behaving around her. I can hold my hands up to 8 out of 11 of these enabling behaviours with regard to my husband’s relationship with his mother and its effects on me and 5 out of 11 with my MIL directly. Ugh. I feel myself recoiling with a shudder from that realisation. I really was trying hard to do the best thing, so I thought, with a woman who I didn’t realise was disordered. I thought she was normal and a lot of the leeway I gave her was on the assumption that she would respond as a normal person would.
Then the beautiful light of reason broke across my cerebellum and I realised she would never change, it wasn’t me at all, she is a messed up bitch and my husband’s denial about her and compliance with her behaviour was the real problem in my life. Sigh, I can feel the weight of it all lift from my shoulders as I type that. I want to slap my younger self for not seeing it sooner but you can’t condemn yourself for what you didn’t know before you knew it.
But Why, WHY?
That knotty question. Why did I allow this to happen. I could have stepped in the first time I met her and saw her behaviour and robustly stood up to it from then on. But I didn’t. Neither did you I suppose. A lot of the readers to this blog describe how they tried to make things work, were baffled by the behaviour they saw, assumed it would change as the MIL got to know them etc. All of these are perfectly reasonable responses, for a limited time. But that time went on, and second chances became third, then fourth. That is the troublesome bit. It doesn’t fit with how I behave in other areas of my life. It doesn’t fit with how I see myself. What could be so powerful it would make me act not like myself?
Ah yes, years of being conditioned to keep the peace for my father and do whatever he needed to feel most comfortable became all to easily a pattern of doing whatever my husband and by extension his family needed to keep the peace and feel most comfortable and that meant playing along with their fucked up family system and not challenging my husband on it. A pattern so ingrained in me I did it without even realising it.
This is a hard, bitter realisation. Each of us reading this blog has in some way enabled our MIL’s behaviour until it got too much and we started to look for help and answers. We did this partly out of social conditioning and politeness, partly out of not wishing to bring conflict into our romantic relationship and I make the bold assertion that for a lot of us partly because we have been conditioned in our own families in a way that let it happen. Don’t start fights, don’t make a fuss, wo/men know best, s/he’ll leave if you cause a fuss, don’t put your needs first, don’t speak out.
I read the most fascinating account of an exercise done with every new intake on a psychology course. It is found in the book “Families and How to Survive Them” by Robin Skynner and John Clease. The students are assembled and left to socialise for a while in a room then the course instructors arrive and ask people to come together in small groups with people they feel comfortable with. The students are then instructed to reveal their family backgrounds to each other. And Holy Shit if all the adopted kids don’t find each other, the ones with divorced parents pair off, the single parent families all end up together, the addicted/disordered offspring are happily grouped up. They do this exercise every year and the same thing happens every year. The point for the students is to show how the unconscious patterns we absorb as children make us most comfortable with people with similar unconscious patterns. And spookily we can find these similar people in a crowd.
My friendship group includes a woman from an abusive family in China, a woman who grew up with a chronically depressed and frequently hospitalised father, a woman with a histrionic controlling mother, a woman whose parents left her in India as a child with grandparents then divorced and moved her to Europe, a woman whose mother raised her and her sister single handedly, a husband with a narcissist for a mother, my daughter’s godfather married into a personality disordered family and had his MIL try to take custody of his child after his wife died, my sister’s husband likewise has a disordered family. I take it for granted that anyone I get on well with will have some serious disruption in their family background. This is not coincidence. I am far far more likely to befriend someone with a disordered parent than the statistical prevalence of such people in the general population. It’s like we can smell each other out.
You smelt out your partner’s family. I am prepared to bet big money on your family system being partly responsible for your difficulties in dealing with their family system. That is what makes tackling the MIL so hard. To do it effectively you have to tackle your own demons, your family demons as well. You got sucked into a situation that resonated with your deepest most conditioned behaviours from childhood and on some level she knows that and plays on it. If your feeling a bit queasy right now join the club. Three things have to change to get out of the grip of the MIL; first change yourself, second change your relationship with your partner, third change your relationship with the MIL. All three mesh together and you can’t change one without the others shifting too.
I’ve talked on this blog about the problems we have with our MILs, what their disordered behaviour looks like and where it comes from. I’ve talked a bit about our relationships with spouses who are enmeshed with these women. Let’s face up to the fact we need to talk about what’s going on inside ourselves that allowed this stuff to happen around us. And then let’s stop it. Stop enabling the whole horrible mess.