March 2018

What Does it Take to Get Out of a Bad Relationship?

By David Rottman


On the third day following the birth of his only son, Edgar was asked if he had any thoughts about his newborn. He replied, “The boy will be an engineer like his father.”


As a new mother, Jane often thought, “My baby will have all the advantages I never had. I’ll give her music and ballet lessons, and she’ll have new dresses every season.”


Decades later, both Edgar and Jane came to therapy with a similar heart-breaking problem: their child wouldn’t talk to them.  Both children had moved away, stopped calling, refused to come home for holidays, and didn’t acknowledge birthday gifts.


“He’s stonewalling me,” Edgar said. “His own father who did so much for him.”


“It hurts so much,” Jane said. “When I think of her, and I think of her ten times every day, I just want to cry.”


Edgar and Jane had read parenting books, and asked for advice from friends who they envied because of the friend’s closeness between parent and child. But both saw no way out of their pain.


“What were you thinking, when you said the boy would be an engineer like his father?” I asked in a therapy session with Edgar.


“I wanted him to be more successful than I was,” Edgar said. “I wanted him to really make it. All those years, I never got promoted. I didn’t want him to have to go through what I went through. Is that so bad for a father to want for his son?”


“Not necessarily,” I replied, “but have you considered that your son experiences your desires for him as a burden?”


“Why would it be a burden?”


“Because he isn’t you. His journey isn’t about the same problems you faced. If you can let go of your understandable desires for him, perhaps he won’t have to stay away from you.”


“But that’s not easy,” Edgar said.


“Who said it was easy?”


For some weeks, Edgar wrestled with the idea that his son might not want to fulfill his father’s unfulfilled ambitions. “All right,” he said one session, “let him be who he needs to be. I guess I’ll have to deal with what happened to me by myself. Let’s talk about that.”


And we did talk about it for many weeks.


Jane came to a therapy session and said, “I don’t expect gratitude from my daughter. I know I gave her all those lessons for my own sake. But why can’t she call me once in a while?”


“How about you?” I asked. “Do you take any lessons?”


“I never thought of that,” she said.


After weeks of resisting the idea, Jane set up dance lessons for herself. She loved the experience profoundly and said, “I feel like a changed person.”


“Do you think I could tell my daughter about it? I mean in a letter?” Jane asked in a session.


“Why not?” I said.


In what seemed like an almost unbelievable turn of events, Edgar’s son and Jane’s daughter both got in contact and the relationships began a slow but very steady repair.


What happened? Both parents changed the invisible field of relationship between them and their child, by taking on responsibility for their own lives. With the burden lifted, the relationship between parent and child could improve.


David Rottman is a psychotherapist with a practice in Westchester and Manhattan. 917 589 0277. @copyright 2018 David Rottman



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