Fragmented stories, missing bridges

A recent post on an estranged parents’ forum ran down a list of things the member’s son had done to her and her husband since his wedding. It ended with a realization that, from the outside, is both touching and tragic:

For the first time—ever—I felt like it was OKAY that I didn’t have to ever talk to my ES again and that it was OKAY that it felt like a huge boulder had just been lifted off of my heart. It not only felt “okay,” it felt freakin’ awesome! Woo Hoo! My question is, just how long does your list have to be before you give YOURSELF permission to be happy again?

It’s awful that she felt she couldn’t let go of her son, no matter how he treated her. It prolonged both her pain and her son’s. No one should feel they have to force themselves to stay in contact with someone who keeps hurting them, regardless of the other person’s motives and regardless of family ties. Life is too short. Take care of yourself.

There’s an essay in there about what it means that people feel compelled to chase their estranged children, and what can be done to help the situation all around. Unfortunately, I’m not the person to write that essay. Instead, I want to talk about the list of things the member’s son did from an analytical standpoint.

This is the list, bulleted and lightly edited:

  • I wasn’t invited to any of the four wedding showers.
  • I was told that if I asked the wedding photographer to take any pictures that weren’t already on the DIL’s list of approved pictures, the answer would be, “No!”
  • We were only allowed to visit (from out of state) once a year and it was always awkward and, later, critiqued via reprimand email.
  • After we’d drive 12 hours to see ES and his family, our visits were timed, were always at a restaurant and we’d be told when we were “done” and told that we could fill the rest of our vacation time in with other family or friends because our visit with them had ended. I’d cry the entire way home.
  • [W]e were told NOT to refer to [the granddaughter] as being shy (as she hid behind her mother), not to look her in the eyes, not to talk to her unless she talked to us first and never, ever to touch her because “she doesn’t like being touched.”
  • When we let ES and his wife know we were moving back to the same town as them, we were cut off altogether and were sent a series of blistering emails with the most hurtful, vile things to say to anyone, much less parents and were told that we were now cut off altogether and we’d never be allowed to see our granddaughter.

Lots of red flags here:

  • By the wedding, the situation was already so bad that she was chilled out of preparations.
  • There must have been an issue with her and photographs for her to be issued a direct warning about making requests of the wedding photographer; and it must have been a significant issue for her to remember it–in detail–in a list that covered at least eight years and painted most issues with a broad brush.
  • After the wedding the son kept contact to a single annual meeting, at a neutral public location, with a strict time limit. Standard procedure for dealing with family when shit has gotten really, truly bad.
  • Something about how she and her husband interacted with the granddaughter was so off that the parents laid down strict, detailed rules for contact with her.

Is anyone surprised that the son blew up when the parents announced they were moving to his town?

What is surprising is that the member didn’t realize moving to her son’s town would destroy the relationship. After eight years of having contact doled out to her once a year in a hermetically sealed nugget, she hadn’t internalized that her son didn’t want to see her.

Another member’s reply displays the same lack of insight:

[My son] does not answer texts, he has blocked me from his email, and his phone.
His girlfriend will respond to my texts, but it seems like she has the control over him now. I haven’t seen or talked to him in almost 3 years. He had told me he doesn’t need me anymore, and I am not to come by their apartment, which is right around the corner from me.
He also told me he will never see me again.
He would Never invite me to anything.

The order is telling. The second member’s son has refused to speak to her for three years, but she needs to be told separately that she can’t come to his apartment. After she says her son will never see her again, she adds that he would never invite her to anything–presumably musing on how he treated her before he cut her off. Why would she expect him to send her invitations if he wasn’t speaking to her? She doesn’t seem to connect the details into a coherent picture of the relationship, even one as simple as “My son has cut me off.”

The first member has a similarly fragmented view of the relationship. The chill that had already set in by the time of the wedding didn’t make the chill after the wedding any more comprehensible. The chill after the wedding didn’t make the restrictions on meeting her granddaughter any more comprehensible. Eight years of unrelenting freeze didn’t shed any light on why moving to her son’s town was a deal-breaker.

At the end of the list, the first member mused on how the estrangement came to be in classic Missing Missing Reasons style:

We’ve never had raised voices between us, there was never a “moment” you could pinpoint to explain this estrangement, and we’ve never responded in kind to any of these hateful emails they’ve sent us over the years.

The post contains instance after instance in which the son and his wife explained what the problem was, or where you can see the outlines of an explanation. They sent emails after visits. They sent multiple emails when they cut the member off. They gave the member specific, detailed instructions about the wedding photographer and the granddaughter that must have come with an explanation, or that happened so soon after an incident that the timing itself was the explanation.

And yet the member described the search for an explanation as a “tornado spinning in [her] head”. She had no ability to turn her own life into a coherent narrative.

Is she always like this? Of course not. The ability to see others’ perspectives–the missing link in her thought process–is a later-developing skill that shuts off when people feel threatened; and while healthy peoples’ threat thresholds are high, abusive upbringings and personality disorders can drop the threshold so low, an ant would trip over it. The threat threshold is intimately bound to a child’s earliest attachments, so any relationship that pings the mother-child bond–in either direction–garners an outsized reaction. That’s why people who deal with their friends and coworkers with admirable maturity can lose all perspective with their children. Both members I’ve quoted are no doubt calm, rational people with their neighbors, their officemates, their mail carriers. They plumb the depths of madness the moment their thoughts turn to their kids.

And they have no idea they’re doing it.

There’s no sensor in the brain that trips when your insight shorts out. As far as your mind is concerned, it’s always in tip-top shape. (If anything, it takes more insight to realize you’re short on insight.) Even when your insight levels pitch up and down like a rowboat in a storm, your brain thinks it’s smooth sailing. Live that way long enough, and you develop defenses for those moments when your insight levels rise high enough for you to notice just how nuts you are: I was angry, you made me do it, I deserve better, I was justified, it’s all your fault.

So you do selfish things because you’re desperate, then you fail to see how you’ve affected the people around you because you can’t see the world from their angle. You’ve lost your grip on cause and effect. Your relationships don’t make sense. Is it you? No, it’s not you. You’re fine. It’s the other people. You’re even more desperate. You do more selfish things.

You get a few gulps of air. Your head clears. You try to explain the problem to a third party, someone calm and soothing. You realize that the details make you sound guilty. Smooth them over. Telling the story in order sounds bad. Stir up the order of events. Skip the ones where you look bad because other people made you so angry that you acted out of character. The third party asks you a question, something that hints that maybe you should be ashamed, you should be guilty, you are guilty, you are a thing to be ashamed of, feel shame, feel shame, fight or the shame will destroy you, fight or you aren’t worth living, shame erases you don’t let shame erase you erase the thing that’s trying to erase you erase it erase it erase it or be shame

…And nothing ever gets better. But the pain of estrangement is still better than the shame.

That doesn’t mean people who think this way can’t stay centered long enough to feel shame. They do feel shame–lots of it. More than normal people. If shame is sugar, these people are diabetics, unable to metabolize even normal levels of shame. It sloshes around their system, damaging everything it touches, washing out slowly and through the wrong channels, never giving the sufferer the benefit of having ingested it. But a lifetime of shame avoidance makes people do lots of shameful things, so eventually their own life stories are an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet. The first member circles the buffet endlessly, trying to figure out why her son cut her off, but she can’t swallow the memories that would explain it any more than a diabetic could swallow three pieces of pie, a whole cake, and half a box of mints.

Better to leave each part of the story on its own separate plate.

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