Living with Love

True love and its obstacles.

How Parents and Children Can Finally Come to Love Each Other

Paradoxically, desires for our children's happiness can displace true love

The following is another story about the ways parents' wishes for their children's happiness and success can become a formidable obstacle to well-being and true love. I met "Tyler" - a 19 year-old - at a Philadelphia dinner party where his parents and I were guests of a mutual friend. The dinner party was a festive affair with formal seating, and I sat next to Tyler as his dinner partner. Early on, over our red wine, Tyler glanced slyly in my direction and asked, "So, what do you do?" I responded, "I'm a psychoanalyst." Without missing a beat, he replied, "Do psychoanalysts believe in facts at all?"

Because Tyler was being annoyingly impudent with someone his mother's age, I assumed my best professional manner and replied, "It depends on what you mean by facts. All facts occur in a context, right? They don't make any sense without that context and the conversation surrounding it. And we psychoanalysts care a great deal about context and deep conversation. So, yes, we care about facts, but we care also about the whole context in which they occur." His reply to that was something like, "Oh."

We then settled down to our wine and salad. After another five minutes, he ventured out again to ask, "What are you doing here in Philadelphia?" I told him I was there to give a series of presentations on my new book, The Self-Esteem Trap, about a psychological condition suffered by many young adults in college or entering the workforce. When he asked me what I had found, I listed the characteristics I had described in the book:

  • Restless dissatisfaction
  • Pressures to be exceptional
  • Unrealistic fantasies of wealth, power, celebrity or achievement
  • Un-readiness to take on adult responsibilities in an imperfect world
  • Feelings of superiority or inferiority, or both
  • Excessive fears of being humiliated
  • Obsessive self-focus

"Oh my god," he said, "that book is about me - and my friends!" From that moment forward, he and I engaged in a fast-paced, rich conversation back and forth about his experiences as a freshman and his worries about himself and his future.

Soon his mother circled in next to us with obvious curiosity. She sat down at my left elbow, and Tyler (from my right) immediately shouted over to her, "Mom, this woman really gets me!" "Oh?" his mother replied skeptically. "She's written a book about the whole thing. You know, how you ruined my life because you thought I was a god!" I hadn't seen that coming and was taken aback. Without missing a beat, his mother wheeled right around and stared fiercely at me and said, "I totally disagree with you!"

During our conversation, I had discovered that Tyler was an only child and that, although his parents had tried to raise him with the freedom "to become himself," they had also communicated their belief that he was "brilliant" and "special" and probably more intelligent and creative than they would ever be. In his early years--in fact until he was eleven or so--Tyler had been very close to his mother and had come to identify with a lot of her interests, especially her interests in music and art (areas she'd always wanted to become involved with herself, but had never done so). Tyler was certain that she regularly over-praised his accomplishments in the arts. He told me that any time he started a new project or practiced skills he had felt both confused about his real talents and afraid of disappointing her.

Unintentionally, his mother had created an emotional atmosphere based on what Carl Jung calls the Divine Child archetype - the belief that a particular child is extraordinary and promises a whole New Beginning. In everyday terms, her desires for her own unlived life promoted unrealistic demands for achievement in place of a healthy love for her son. Sadly, Tyler felt she'd never really known him, with his actual strengths and weaknesses. Instead, she had seen him as an idealized "god," as he rudely accused her of doing at the dinner party.

Unfortunately, Tyler and his friends are not the exceptional cases in today's world. Too often, our desires for our children, coupled with their need for our support and involvement, can displace realistic acceptance and knowledge of them as imperfect individuals. And when that happens, our wishes for the child's success and happiness actually interfere with our ability to love. Desire on the one side, and need on the other, can put pressures on the child to be and become "only the best" and to "never settle for less." In such situations, the only opportunity we have to truly love our children will come when they are adults. Then, with some luck, we begin to see them as individuals with strengths and weaknesses, accepting that we didn't really know them as they were growing up, when we unintentionally infused them with our own dreams instead of allowing them to muddle along until they developed theirs.

The process of truly accepting and loving our children is a hard path. Sometimes even well-meaning parents don't set foot on it because they cannot forgive themselves for the mistakes they made as parents and human beings or because they can't perceive their children clearly enough. And it's not easier on the other side. Because the child's dependencies and needs are so strong and long lasting (well beyond the 18 years many parents see as the "end" of childhood) and because he or she originally idealized the parent (only to see the relationship metamorphose into disappointment or even hatred), the conditions for true love between parent and child are rarely present in the adult relationship.

True love is deeply reciprocal. How many adult children actually know their parents well and accept them just as they are? In my experience, very few. The intensely emotional experience of being parented over a couple of decades, constantly alternating between rebellion and dependence, interferes with our ability to see clearly those on whom we depend for our survival. We color them Good or Bad based on our own feelings and perceptions at the moment. Sadly and ironically, those colors will tend to stick, unless as adults we can come to see our parents more clearly as individuals with childhoods and histories of their own.

Parents are born into, and grow up, in a world that is different from their children's. Too often parents make the irritating mistake of saying, "I was exactly the same way when I was your age." Not only does the phrase separate them from their children when it was meant to bridge the gap, it is incorrect and blinding. The world parents grew up in was a different place from the one their children occupy, and no one then was the same as they are now. A better approach is to try to get to know your children anew, as you would a stranger, asking questions, being curious; and to assume that all the images and stories you have developed about them were based on your own desires and needs, not who they really were. And for an adult child—assuming that Tyler and his friends are properly considered adults—the best approach is to give your parents a break in getting to know you again and, as soon as you feel you can stomach it, to  ask your parent about his or her own life and all of the particulars of their childhood, adolescence and even the way they parented you.

Ironically, a parent-child relationship may be the hardest relationship to enjoy—in which to love, truly love another. As we come to understand and acknowledge the subtle but powerful differences between love and desire—especially the desire to have our own needs met, as parents, spouses, and children—we begin to see how and why we must serve instead the forces of love, often against our desires. As all of us look forward to living longer, adult children and their aging parents have a unique opportunity to relinquish control, to see, for once and for all, whether love is possible after all.

Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D., is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Vermont, and the author of 13 books.

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