wonder twins: how to get us into therapy

Wonder Twin powers, activate!! In the form of...an emotionally healthy individual!
As previously mentioned, I have a dear friend who deals with similar dysfunctional-mom and clueless-dad problems with her own family flavor. She and I didn't know about our shared mom issues until well after we had become friends, and it continues to amaze us just how similar some of our family crap is. She is the first person who ever really *got it* when I talked about my mom, and we have kindof doula-ed each other through growing up and becoming our own women. (I'm sure her sense of humor has helped a lot along the way - the phrase "open up a can of wacky" will forever be a part of my vocabulary, thanks to her. And she has joked for years about us being the Wonder Twins.) Her dad has been ill for a long time (much, much worse than my dad) and has significantly worsened in the past few years, resulting in heightened family stresses. Crisis does a lot to bring out the best and the worst in us, and in this case, it resulted in her already-nutty mom totally destabilizing and leaving her kids in the lurch, faced with making some serious decisions about their father's health care AND managing their crazy mom. Her mom has always been hard for my friend to deal with, but the shitstorm that rained down was just THE LAST STRAW for her, and she cried no mas, and launched her own truth campaign. She attempted ultra-low-contact in a way that reminded me of what I first tried: avoiding her, still letting grandkids see her, trying to communicate only through email. It doesn't work well. For me it was a stepping stone to no contact. For her? Who knows. She's happier and healthier than she was before, she's working through a lot of her own psychological junk, and she's hopeful that eventually there will be some form of relationship or non-relationship that will work for her. For now, though, it's tricky, what with a dying father with whom she still wants contact. She and I were messaging each other recently and there were a lot of moments in there that felt worthy of sharing. So here are snippets, shared with her permission and sometimes rephrased.
"Asking somebody to subvert themselves to an unhealthy dynamic in the name of family love and harmony is not ok. It is not a loving thing to ask."
This was with regard to siblings who give us the "she's your mother, this is causing drama within the family, could you just get over your issues and be normal?" treatment. What's really going on is that they lack empathy and fortitude, probably because they were parented by the same hot mess that you were. They cannot understand that your experience is not the same as theirs. They do not relate to the discomfort you feel in the presence (physical or via mail/phone) of your parent. They can only focus on how queasy they feel about the parent being upset and the "drama" resulting from your standing up for yourself. It's a selfish approach. It is not really rooted in love and compassion.

Here's an example of a relatively healthy sibling stance: my sister expresses clearly that she sees how my mother treats me and that she remembers other things my mother has done to all of her children in the past. This provides validation and compassionate witness to me. She does not feel that my choices require her to make the same choices, because she recognizes that she and I are separate people with separate needs and separate relationships with our parents. She has laid down FIRM boundaries with my parents and defends them when necessary. She refuses to get into drawn-out fights and she has let my parents know that she will NOT be put in the middle of their issues with me. That is a sibling who gets it. How she ended up this well-functioning is beyond me. My friend also has one sibling who mostly gets it, although he is currently hitting up against the limits of his compassion. Hopefully that will change, because I know he has been a saving grace for her. We also discussed a couple of standard maneuvers the dysfunctional parent employs. First, act clueless. "I don't know what you think I did...I still have no idea what your problem with me is." This, despite the fact that you have basically been trying to tell them for your whole life. Second, the therapy stick. They hit you with this in one or both of two ways. 
1) "You need therapy to work out your anger issues." Here's the thing: therapy shouldn't be the thing we do to fix the ACON. It should be the thing YOU do, mom, because you honestly want to know your kid and do the work required to get along with her. It doesn't count as therapy if all you do is complain about your kid to the therapist. It only counts if you're seriously working to figure out what your own garbage is. Honestly, if my kid decided he didn't want to speak to me, my first reaction would be to wonder what I did, not to tell him that he needs therapy. 2) "I want you to go to therapy with me." This is sometimes worded as a supposedly-selfless invitation, sometimes as more of an order. Problem is, therapy isn't magic. No therapist in the world can go *poof* and make a family all happy-happy-joy-joy just because you all showed up and sat on his or her couch.
My position is that if my mother really wants to go to therapy with me, really and truly, I need to see a few things from her first. I passed this along to my friend, who liked it so much that she ended up crafting a letter to her mother around this idea. No more "I don't know what I did" and "let's throw therapy at this problem." Here are what she and I think should be the pre-requisites shown before an ACON will go to therapy with a parent.
a) Elocution. The dysfunctional parent should demonstrate that she is aware that she has taken actions that were inappropriate. She should give specific examples of inappropriate behaviors and describe the ways in which these behaviors were harmful. This should be devoid of victim-blaming or excuses. This shows personal insight, responsibility for one's own actions, and empathy for the experiences of another.
b) Remorse. Expressed verbally. Preferably put into writing. Tell the wronged party how you feel about your own actions, and give a sincere apology, without excuses. 
c) Evidence of a willingness to change. This could be in the form of written expression of things she plans to do in order to create positive change, actions they have taken that show that they have taken you seriously and are changing the way they do things, or other positive behaviors.
Integral to this is the idea of SPECIFICS. Saying "I know I did some inappropriate things, and I'm sorry, and I plan to change" doesn't mean anything. It's not that easy, lady. (Not that we've ever been given even that much.) This is definitely a time when more is better. Actions speak louder than words. Love is a verb. And more cliché yet totally true things. She and I agreed that what we had seen thus far from both of our mothers was a) identifying us, the daughters, as the sole causes of all dysfunction, or b) completely ignoring reality by acting as if nothing is wrong at all. It is also important that the dysfunctional parent express these things directly to the estranged child. If you want it badly enough, you will figure out a way to get it to the kid, no matter how non-contact they want to be. It's not good enough for a sibling to tell you "she's really upset, she cries, she really loves you, she really wonders what she did wrong." Um, no. If you've told somebody else that you miss me and want things to be right, but you haven't told me, it doesn't count. The parent also needs to do her own work. You can't look on somebody else's paper for this stuff. From me to my friend:
The whole "give me an example" thing that, yes, I'm sure your mom would do to try to pin you to the wall is just lame on her part. If she wants to go to therapy, she needs to have enough self-awareness to think of at least one thing, ON HER OWN, that she thinks she could have done differently. History has shown me that no matter what the child in a dysfunctional family comes up with, the parent will explain it away. And, frankly, the mere act of batting away your objections is a sign of poor insight and lack of empathy in itself. They could at least get half-credit by listening when you tell them about the things that bother you.
Non-empathetic response: "I never did that" or "You were being unreasonable" or "you're taking that out of context" or any such defensive / offensive response.
Empathetic response: "I didn't realize that affected you in that way. Can you tell me more? My intent was ____ but it sounds like it didn't come across that way. How could I do things differently in the future?" 
Children of broken parents often hear that we are avoidant, and this comes up in the therapy discussions. They fail to realize that there's a difference between avoidance and exercising healthy boundaries. I can't see how it would be at all useful to go to therapy with a person who has shown zero signs of being a person who would be able to participate meaningfully in said therapy. Therapists aren't magicians. I should toss out there that neither she nor I think that either of our mothers will actually ever be able to make amends. I would LOVE to be proven wrong in either case. But neither of us is holding our breath. ;)
So, do you all have anything to add to our list of pre-requisites for starting to mend fences? What would it take for you to begin to trust your parent again?


  1. I think you've made some great points here.

    One thing to add, would be some patience from them and willingness to take it slowly. I've found that they just want to "kiss and make up" and move on. They aren't willing to walk the path slowly and expect any little positive behavior to clean the slate.

  2. You can try to get a Narcissist into therapy, while I do something more plausible.......like borrow an oil well from the Ayatollah Khomeini.

  3. I hope I didn't sound like an ass. but the mere suggestion of my mother seeking out therapy would send her into an all afternoon rage.

  4. I had a therapist who asked me to role play my father in therapy. I said, "Fuck you!" He got a little flustered and asked me why I didn't want to role play. I said, "I just did." He says, "No, I want you to say what you would expect your father to say to a therapist." So, I said, "Fuck you!" He told me if I wouldn't co-operate I should find another therapist, so I did!

    After reading this post, I think your friend and I should be triplets!

  5. HA! Love it, mulderfan. I honestly don't know what my mother would say if she actually (miraculously) went to therapy, but "fuck you!" seems as likely as anything else.

    Q, you didn't sound like an ass, although I did wonder if you caught that I don't actually think my mother is ever going to go to therapy with me. I'm just saying, here are the pre-requisites. She has tried to pressure me into family therapy before, and I'm not going until and unless I see this stuff from her. Which is to say, never.

    If I told my mom today that I would go with her, I think she actually would go. But it would only be because she thinks the whole point of therapy is for her to get the therapist to tell me what a bad person I am, and then they can get to work fixing me. Oy.

    Jessie, yup, they tend to want to just hit the reset button and go back to "normal." Our old normal was for me to do the whole "I'm so sorry, mommy, I love you so much!!!" thing with crying and all. And then I would have to endure her being less-than-warm to me while I worked back into her good graces, and then I *might* get to be the golden girl briefly if I did something huge like graduate from college or have a baby, and eventually she would treat me like shit again, and I would either have to suffer it in silence or stand up for myself and start the whole cycle all over. NEVER AGAIN.

    1. I'm ashamed of how many times I was dumb enough to press that "reset" button! At one point, I was NC for two and a half years, then my aunt tragically died and I was "needed".

      At one point when I was in therapy, my GC younger brother told my parents, who had always insisted I was mentally ill. They took the news as proof positive that they were right and I was nuts. What these idiots don't realize is that people who are truly nuts never go to therapy because they're perfect just the way they are!

      The only thing nuts about me is that I endured those assholes as long as I did!

  6. Claire, your description of the "standard maneuvers" N parents employ is so spot on. Your prereqs to therapy are identical to mine. I'm pretty confident my NM would rather go to her grave than to admit she might have something to apologize for. It's taken me a while to let go of the anger that comes with knowing this. I feel sad for what I wish could be, but not for what I know it really is, if that makes sense.