Parent or Spouse? : Dealing with Conflict and Anger

by on June 7, 2014

in Bernice responds

In my previous post to C, I outlined the consequences that an enmeshed parental relationship can have on both parties. I will continue with this theme and explore the conflict and anger that these types of relationships can lead to and how this can be challenged in a constructive way.

Conflict is a normal part of a relationship because we are individuals with different experiences, expectations, hopes and fears. When we are in a close relationship with anyone there will be times when conflict emerges through difference. This is perfectly healthy. It is how it is managed that can create problems.

If we take the enmeshed relationship, where both parties feel responsible for the other and no sense of a separate identity has been encouraged, conflict can feel devastating. It is almost as if you are at war with your self. This is because in a sense you are, having invested your identity in the other person. When they don’t like what you are doing or saying, because it is contrary to their own views, beliefs etc. it can feel excruciating. It feels as if your very self is being attacked.

What makes it worse is the co-dependency of this type of relationship. Co-dependency means that each person does not feel they can fully function without the other. Most destructive relationships have a co-dependent element, and is the reason people stay in them because to leave would be like loosing part of yourself. As a result, many people turn to addictive behaviours whether it is alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, etc. What they are trying to achieve, by doing this, is to give themselves space from the other person. Space on their own, which excludes the other person. In other words they are introducing a third ‘party’ to have a relationship with in order to break the intensity of the co-dependency.

Conflict is another way of avoiding this intensity. In another email C wrote about her anger and the conflict she experiences towards her mother, which she does not attempt to avoid:

In one of your posts you mention that only children tend to escape confrontation and shut down, not wanting to talk about it. However I don’t escape. I continue to question and put pressure on to continue fighting. I’ve thought about this issue and I think it is because I want the confrontation to end in my favour, perhaps unconsciously I want the other person to apologize even when that person doesn’t seem to understand why.”

I addressed this behaviour in: Are only child adults difficult partners? (Conflict). I suggested that: “we either deny we are upset, sulk, or walk out or on the other hand, we indulge in out-bursts of fury and hostility”

One of the reasons this latter type of behaviour occurs is, I believe, a result of pent up anger, which needs to be expressed. Difficulties arise in a co-dependent relationship where the individual feels both overwhelmed by the other person but simultaneously cannot be without them. This leads to a tremendous tension and one way of alleviating it, is to argue (remember Grey Gardens: Little Edie and Big Edie). This not only releases built up tension but is also the only way an individual feels they can assert their independence. This enables them to have their viewpoint acknowledged, which has now become important out of all proportion to the actual incident. However real independence is not what is required here, just an assertion of one’s own truth before lapsing back into a co-dependent state.

In order to resolve conflict we sometimes need to be able to remain neutral in order to listen to the other person’s perspective, and hopefully that will encourage them to do the same. An adult to adult conversation can then occur. The appropriate way to deal with conflict therefore, is to be calm, talk about the issues involved, be open to the other person’s opinion, and negotiate a win – win solution.

Unfortunately an only child adult, from an enmeshed parental relationship, will find it difficult to feel separate enough in themselves, to be able to stand alone and feel confident to negotiate a compromise. This is because many of us have been told how to behave and have not been given opportunities to negotiate differences in opinion and worldview. To be so dependent on a parent makes this kind of negotiation difficult as we have to accept that to truly grow up and mature we have to stand apart and develop a separate identity from a parent. This can be very difficult as illustrated in a previous post:

“Every decision I make, I have my mother in mind and feel guilty planning a vacation, shopping for myself, or even having social gatherings without a level of guilt from my mom. Every apartment complex I’ve moved to she generally follows living either within the same building or perhaps a building over. The thought of moving far away crosses my mind often. I went to college out of state to develop a sense of self but had to move back due to financial hardships. I’m 28 and still feel like I’m 8. I’m missing out on so much, out of fear and guilt. My love often turns to disgust, anger, and frustration. I’m miserable. As I try to progress in life I feel that my mother digresses, becoming more and more needy, acting incapable of doing small task. Cleaning, cooking- she’s 46. I clean her apartment, I cook most her meals, I run her errands I feel like the parent and she is a teenager – my respect for depletes with each day. She raised me to be this strong independent woman but then contradicts everything she’s tried to teach me.”

The contradiction between the overt message of ‘Be independent’ contrasts dramatically with the actual behaviour of the mother leaving the daughter feeling angry, guilty and feeling in a no win situation.

So how can we separate from our parents? In my post:  Why can only children find it difficult to separate? I outline three areas where this needs to occur: emotional, physical and financial separation. The end result, when this separation is missing, is a lack of a sense of self, a lack of control over one’s life, a potential for low self-esteem, and at worst the feeling of being a ‘victim’ rather than an ‘author’ of one’s life. Once you are enmeshed with a parent you will need to take some very strong steps to disentangle yourself from the relationship.

In my next post I will look at this further.

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