Generosity as Isolation
Using caretaking to maintain emotional distance.
Posted Mar 29, 2016
"Hard to believe,” mused Heather, “that all those years I thought I was so darned generous when really all I was was a tyrant.”
Keeping our distance through compulsive caregiving in tandem with others equally afraid of getting “ too close” can be a routine that goes on for years—even within a marriage. This protective device, “irrelationship”, shields us from knowing what we’re using our compulsive caretaking for.
"A couple of years ago I tried to cash in on my so-called generosity,” Heather continued, “and was forced to see how messed up my act was.”
“As usual, we were all making plans for our annual end-of-summer get-together. Also as usual, it was building up into a fight. My mom and my sister had a long-standing resentment because my mom hadn’t wanted my sister to marry her husband. As a result, this always complicated family get-togethers because my sister never wanted to go to my mom’s, even at holidays, which hurt my mom’s feelings. Funny thing I found out later was that, though my sister was always telling me how pissed of at mom she was, after they had kids, mom and my brother-in-law quietly started burying the hatchet. Well, my sister never mentioned that, but that’s another story in a way.
“Anyway, the way I’d manage friction in our family was by arriving at gatherings making nice and loaded up with expensive gifts for everybody. I also did my homework so that I had lots of plans for how we were going to spend our time together. Then, on our last night together, I always took everybody out to an expensive restaurant. I choreographed and monitored everything and everybody so that nobody had a chance to get into it when we were together. I’d even inject myself into conversations I wasn’t part of to deflect snide remarks so they didn’t have a chance to go any further. I was such a control-freak.”
“Well, that year, mom and my sister had an ugly scene on the phone that ended with both saying they weren’t coming that year. And this time it was supposed to be at my place in the Berkshires. For me, this was a ‘fix-it’ emergency. So I trotted out the, ‘after all I’ve done for you’ line to shame them into doing what I wanted. It always worked in the past, and I was sure it would this time. Well, I was in for a big shock. Out of nowhere, my mother, my sister, and even my brother-in-law pounced on me. They’d been wise to my act for a long time—the way I played them like little kids to make sure I’d get my way. It had even contributed to the bad feelings between mom and my sister. They’d finally had enough to tell me to butt the hell out.
“Funny thing is, I was the only one who didn’t realize that my generosity act was mostly about controlling everybody. But in the end, it just got everybody mad at me. Actually, they’d been mad for years, but now they were mad enough to tell me about it. But that wasn’t all they had to tell me: not only did they resent my interfering in their relationships, but they also told me how they didn’t like the way I’d pop in from New York once a year and expect them to treat me like some kind of hero.”
What looks like generosity can actually be a Trojan Horse—the proverbial ‘Greeks bearing gifts’ hiding an irrelationship agenda. But the manipulation of one-way-giving has even deeper implications than simply getting your own way. One-directional caretaking like Heather’s managing every conversation and planning family activities to the minute left no room for spontaneity for anyone and prevented Heather from accepting, validating, and valuing whatever anyone else might want to offer. And it was all done to manage emotional investment and distance—in other words, to prevent intimacy with her family from taking its course.
"Keeping a safe distance from what was really going on in my family sabotaged my relationships with all of them, and even made things worse in relationships that had nothing to do with me. I told myself I was so generous, but really it was all about controlling everybody so that I felt comfortable—totally selfish.”
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