What, if any long-term effects are there when parents boycott the most important events in the lives of their children, like graduations or weddings? When I first read that Sarah Palin might actually boycott her daughter Bristol's wedding to Levi Johnston—a moot point since the wedding was called off—it reminded me of a fascinating case that I was able to break open with one simple question. Here's the story:
When Hannah and Bruce entered my office for their first couple's session Hannah was hopping mad. Why? She believed Bruce was under-functioning financially and wasn't supporting the family as she had expected. After calling Bruce a few choice words aimed at his masculinity or lack thereof, she specifically complained that their house was too small and that the neighborhood they lived in wasn't very safe. She wanted a new home in an upscale location, and for her daughter to attend a particular private prep school—something like the school depicted in the movie Dead Poets Society, I assumed. Bruce took the verbal beatings without much protest, but he did sheepishly mutter that he earned a "decent enough" living, just not enough to accommodate his wife's "extravagant" tastes. I believe it was the usage of the word extravagant that just about turned the session into a scene from the Jerry Springer Show, but once I calmed Hannah down she provided me with more detail. "Bruce has a graduate degree from an Ivy League University in finance," she pointed out, "but, he's managing a restaurant. No doubt he's the only one in the restaurant who can quote James Joyce," she said sarcastically, "but what good does it do his family? All his graduate school classmates landed big jobs in Boston, Chicago, and New York, except Bruce. I can't take it anymore. I swear I'll divorce him if he doesn't graduate from adolescence."
Hannah's attack was pretty harsh, but she had a point. Why would a boy go from a community college to a state university and then to a very prestigious Ivy League college, only to work in a restaurant? It's as if someone cruelly and suddenly turned off the ascent button on Bruce's forehead. Is this kind of thing that Elton and Bernie meant by the line, "frozen here on the ladder of my life?" I would soon get my answer.
In exploring Bruce's past, an unconscious transference compelled me to comment: "I guess your parents must be pretty proud of you—from community college to the Ivy—not bad." Bruce responded by a simple shrug of his shoulders. "No?" I said. Okay, now here's that fateful question I mentioned earlier: "DID THEY GO TO YOUR GRADUATION?" Bruce looked down at his shoe tops and sheepishly answered: "No, they said it was too far away and my dad wanted to go fishing anyway." Shocked, I soon regrouped: "Did you go? "Nah," Bruce said, "I watched television in my dorm." Ugh! As a childhood friend of mine used to say: "And there it is!" Now the relationship symptoms made sense to me. From my perspective, Bruce had internalized a success vs. sabotage (see book Magnetic Partners) conflict which painfully limited his achievements in life. One side of him wanted to reach the top—the side that worked his butt off and made it to the Ivy; but the other side wouldn't allow him to benefit from his great achievement. A psychic compromise with his past if-you-will, or more specifically, the message he got from his parents: "you're not that important kid." By marrying Hannah, a woman who had been told repeatedly by her parents that she was "worthless"—and by failing her—Bruce guaranteed he'd continue to be treated as if he were a "loser." By choosing Bruce, Hannah would lose as well. It was a sad match made in heaven; one of disappointment, loss, and hopelessness; one that even anti-depressant medication couldn't do much for.
Now what about that transference? What made me ask about Bruce's graduation? I, too, came from a humble background and yet made it to the Ivy, as did Bruce—something I'm pretty darn proud of. But the predominant stimulus for the transference turned out to be more dramatic. Shortly before I was to complete my degree, my father—a man with a seventh grade education—who told me he was looking forward to the event...suddenly died. In essence, I could relate to Bruce and Hannah's loss—a loss that for the most part cannot be made up for, and one that leaves an everlasting and pervasive impression—something to think about when purposefully missing even those grueling swim meets.