An adult woman, writing to the advice columnist Dear Abby, complained about her mother’s clinginess. The writer said that the mother had had “no time for me when I was growing up” and had been verbally abusive, having even told her daughter that she wished she had aborted the letter writer.

After the mother’s husband (presumably the writer’s stepfather) died, the letter writer explained, the mother began to call the writer at work at 8 a.m. demanding that she drive 20 miles on her lunch break to bring the mother food. Mom would also make frantic phone calls at 2 a.m. demanding the daughter come sit with her because she was "lonely,” but when the daughter arrived, Mom would be asleep! Mom would call the daughter at least four or five times a day.

An adult male patient of mine told a somewhat similar story. His mother was constantly calling and demanding that he come and wait on her hand and foot. She would almost always call at times that she knew were the most inconvenient for him – as if he had nothing else to do- and was incessantly criticizing him for not paying more attention to her. The things that she wanted him to do for her were tasks that she could have easily done herself, or that she could have easily afforded to pay someone else to do to.

When the son did things for her, however, the mother was never satisfied. Either the work was not done quite right, or there were more to do than he could possibly finish. Oddly, the mother was also constantly criticizing herself for taking up so much of his time!

Yet another adult male psychotherapy patient was constantly “on call” for his hypochondriac mother. Earlier in her life, she had been able to run several businesses behind the scenes (there were always male figureheads), but now she could not seem to do anything for herself. One of her favorite pastimes was getting “sick” just as the patient had packed up his family to go on vacation - her son would then dutifully cancel the whole trip.

Both of the patients described above just assumed that their mothers were absurdly dependent and too crazy or stupid to realize that their “dependent,” behavior, by being extremely noxious, in fact came very close to driving the sons away from them completely. Of course, for this to be true, the mothers would have to be extremely crazy or impossibly stupid. At least with these two patients, there was no evidence that their mothers were either.

In fact, all three of these mothers were sending a very mixed message: I badly want you to be here but I’m going to drive you so batty you will never want to come see me again. Or, as P!ink says, Leave Me Alone, I’m Lonely.

When parents act in an obnoxious manner like this that pushes their adult children away, this is referred to as distancing behavior. With apologies to the rock group Rush, I will subtitle this post, Distancing: Early Warning.  I am often impressed by how much of this crap my patients are willing to put up with before they finally say, “Enough!” – if they ever get to that point at all.

So what is going on here? In families where distancing like this transpires, I usually find that the mothers’ (or in somewhat fewer cases, the fathers’) behavior can be explained by one or both of two common patterns.

In the first pattern, as seen in the case of the two male patients described above, the mothers have a dependency conflict which really stemed from a gender role conflict. The mothers were both bright, capable and ambitious women who had been raised in families that valued exactly none of those traits in females. Females were supposed to get married, raise a family, and be totally dependent on men. In today’s culture, such earlier mandates sometimes lead older females to acquiesce to male dominance while at the same time to seethe with secret resentment over being infantilized.

Such a situation, depending on other factors, can lead to a variety of different behaviors between women and their children. In the cases under discussion here, after the women’s husbands died, there was no man around left to “take care” of them. They acted as if they needed someone to take care of them but really resented anyone who dared try. Their poor sons would then receive the fallout from the conflict. The mothers engaged in distancing behavior in order to appear “dependent” while really trying to discourage anyone from actually taking care of them. Cutting of their you-know-whats, in the vernacular.

The second pattern might be the one that applies to the Dear Abby letter writer. Parents who know they were abusive, even if they do not admit it, may secretly believe that their children are better off without them. Hence, they engage in distancing to push their children away, thereby protecting the children from themselves - and in the process "proving" themselves to be as bad as they themselves think they are - to anyone witnessing their behavior.

However, the parents also secretly long to have a healthy connection with their children, so they cannot seem to bring themselves to just cut off all ties directly. Their own conflict causes them to give off the double message inherent in distancing behavior: come here but get the hell away from me.

I would like to provide readers with some more  real examples.   

If  I used examples entirely from my practice, other therapists who do not like my family systems conceptualization (and there are many who do not) might accuse me of having induced my patients to make up this stuff just to please me. Never mind that they'd have to have the fiction writing skills of Charles Dickens to come up with such complex and internally consistent stories on the spur of the moment. These therapists just do not seem to believe that this sort of odd behavior ever really happens.

So this is why the rest of the examples I will present come from several different newspaper advice columnists. The columns are written by Jeanne Phillips (Dear Abby), Carolyn Hax, Amy Dickenson (Ask Amy), Harriette Cole, and the team of Marcy Sugar & Kathy Mitchell (Annie's Mailbox).

Carolyn Hax

Now of course the writers of advice to the lovelorn columns are not trained therapists, and their suggestions to the readers who send in problems vary widely from the very psychologically sophisticated (Carolyn Hax) to the often naive, all too obvious, and glib (Annie's Mailbox).  

Nonetheless, in order to be successful at writing such a column, all of them have to be adept at writing about issues that resonate widely with readers. They have to pick out a few letters that pique their readers' interest from the hundreds that they typically receive every day. And it is not just females who read the advice columns, as was the case back when they first started. (In England, advice columnists were once called "agony aunts" because they dealt with female letter writers who were always agonizing about something).

Academic psychiatrists and psychologists tend to look down their noses at the popular press, and are often dismissive of advice columnists as well as op-ed writers who write columns on psychological issues -  as if non-professionals cannot make valid observations or have informed opinions. That just shows how short-sighted the academics can be. What they see in their offices and read in journals is frankly a highly skewed view of human nature. They ignore the popular press at their peril. They also need to get out more.

The problem of what I call distancing parents comes up quite frequently in the letters advice columnists choose to publish; what follows are a whole bunch of examples culled from recent columns. (Of course, there are also a whole litter of letters written by parents denouncing the dastardly dreadful dirty deeds done by their ungrateful a-dult offspring, which not only allows me to alliterate but gives me material for another post later on. Distancing is often a two way street).

According to one writer, her parents insisted on monopolizing most of her and her husband's social time. When the couple moved out of state, hoping to solve this problem, her parents literally bought a house a couple of blocks away from theirs in the new state, and  moved into it.

A father, after divorcing the writer's mother when the writer was small, would rarely show up to spend time with his children when he had promised to. These no-shows had always been a crushing disappointment for the kids.  Nonetheless, after the kids grew up, he constantly complained about how they refused to visit him.

The mother of one letter writer always cried to her about how awful she, the mother, was being mistreated by the writer's husband. From the writer's perspective, however, it was actually the mother who was consistently verbally abusive to the husband.

Whenever another letter writer disagreed with her father, he would reply, "Maybe I'll just kill myself."

When a writer's father became chronically ill, her mother constantly asked her to come over and help take care of him. If the young woman could not make it for whatever reason, the mother would launch into a long teary rant about how she, the mother, never got to go anywhere. No matter how much the writer helped, Mom would constantly describe her as the "unhelpful sibling" when discussing the situation with the writer's sister.

Another writer had been physically and sexually abused by her father when she was a child. After he died when the writer was an adult, her mother would go on and on endlessly about what a saint he had been.

A mother constantly blamed her daughter for the mother's divorce from the writer's father, although the mother would gush to complete strangers about what a wonderful daughter she had.

One mother was a real Cassandra; everything she talked about was gloom and doom about the future. However, if and when her adult daughter was not all sunshiny about everything, the mother would berate her.

Another writer's parents always gave expensive gifts and money to the writer's older siblings, but never gave her anything.

When a writer and her husband generously took in her elderly and apparently agorophobic mother-in-law, Mom expected them to stay in the house with her 24/7 and would never want to go out herself. She also made huge messes in the house and constantly henpecked the writer's husband about what he was and was not doing.

One writer's mother repeatedly lied and gossiped to the other siblings about each of her adult children behind their backs.

A writer complained that her mother had always treated her like crap, but doted on the writer's daughter.

A mother who was overprotective of her children when they were kids still expected a writer to check in with her every single night.

Another parent constantly embarassed her daughter in front of the daughter's friends; if the daughter did not do everything the mother told her to do, the mother would curse at her and call her names.

The parents of another writer consistently favored one of the writer's daughters over the other grandchild in a highly ostentatious way.

Finally, when one writer was literally dying of cancer, her mother made plans with a single friend to find a way for the friend to marry the writer's husband after she died.

That last one may seem over the top, but believe me, I've heard far more bizarre examples from my patients. The parents described in these posts were pikers in comparison. It never ceases to amaze me how creative people can become in devising ways to annoy other family members. Every time I think I have heard it all, boy am I ever in for a surprise.

You are reading

A Matter of Personality

Questionable Study About Implanting False Memories

A PBS "Nova" documentary includes a study based on false assumptions.

Borderline Personality: Why They May Not “Get Used to It"

In a chaotic family environment, marked reactiveness of mood is adaptive.

Genes, Environment, and Strategic Planning in Human Behavior

Scientists and clinicians routinely ignore obvious determinants of behavior.