A Deeper Look at Relationships — Defenses (Not Listening and Others).
I’ve been talking with Rachel, who is now 21, off and on, since the summer before she entered the University of Missouri. Some of our talks are about worries that are “normal” for a young girl in college: dating, first love, anxiety over grades and doubt over her choice of veterinary college as her major.
But, most of our talks are about Rachel’s relationship with Taylor, her mom, who is 48. That relationship is chronically disruptive for Rachel. It creates the most anxiety and sadness and takes up precious work and study time. Here are some examples of why.
Taylor had come to Columbia to stay overnight with Rachel just for a short visit. But Saturday afternoon, right after she arrived, she asked Rachel why she thought they didn’t get along a lot of the time. Rachel said she didn’t want to talk about it. They’d had this conversation many times in the past and nothing ever changed. It not only upsets Rachel but it’s also exhausting. And, Rachel had to get in some study time before she and her mom went out for dinner and a movie that evening.
Her mother asked the same question again, twice, completely ignoring what Rachel had said. Rachel thought, “Here it is again, mom’s old habit of pressuring to get what she wants.” Rachel did what she always did with her mom; she gave in. (Rachel is an exaggerated Pleasing personality).
“Okay,” Rachel said, “One reason we don’t get along is that you don’t listen to me.” Taylor protested that: of course she listens. When Rachel repeated that Taylor really doesn’t listen to her, Taylor asked, “When?” So, Rachel gave her mom two examples, one from the past when she was still living at home and one from just a few weeks ago.
Rachel’s first example: Rachel reminded her mom that when the ‘Hello Kitty’ craze happened a few years ago, Rachel was already a senior in high school, 18 years old. She was too old to be interested but Taylor, who is an immature Comfort style personality loved the ‘Hello Kitty’ products.
When Taylor brought home a ‘Hello Kitty’ pillow for Rachel’s room, Rachel told her mom that she hated the ‘Hello Kitty’ hype. So, she would appreciate it if her mom didn’t buy her any more of that stuff. A clear message.
Over the next six months, ‘Hello Kitty’ things showed up often in Rachel’s room. When Rachel told Taylor that she really appreciated her thoughtfulness, but, again, she didn’t want any more, Taylor cried for a long time. (Crying is one of Taylor’s most used defenses.) The same thing happened when Rachel protested the third time. More persistent crying. Rachel finally gave up trying to be heard and the only way she was able to leave the ‘Hello Kitty’ stuff behind was to go to college the next fall.
Rachel’s second example. A similar incident happened just a few weeks ago between Rachel and Taylor. Rachel had been in a year-long relationship with a guy that she cared about. When the relationship ended, it was pretty painful.
When Rachel, now 21, went home from college for a weekend visit shortly after the breakup, she gave both of her parents some details about why the relationship ended. She was clear with them that she felt sad about it and wanted to put it behind her.
And yet, during that conversation, Taylor pressured Rachel for more and more details. When Rachel hesitated, Taylor strongly suggested that Rachel had been the problem in the relationship and maybe that’s why it had ended. Rachel felt so hurt, she couldn’t even tell her parents the truth: the guy had cheated on her twice and she was glad they weren’t seeing each other anymore.
How did Taylor take these two examples of her Not Listening? She did what she always has done: She first denied her own behavior and then she cried for an hour. Rachel got so rattled that she decided to go out to study rather than trying to concentrate there in her condo. Rachel has heard Taylor’s crying for so many years she just doesn’t want to handle it anymore. It’s so tiring.
What’s Wrong in This Relationship?
- Rachel is more mature, more responsible and a clearer thinker than Taylor is.
Rachel’s mom may be older than her daughter but in terms of responsibility for her own behavior, Taylor is still emotionally young.
- Taylor has been manipulating Rachel since she was a child. Not just by (a) not listening, but also with (b) subtle and not so subtle blame, and with (c) whining and complaining, (d) crying, and (e) feeling hurt when she’s confronted with her own behavior. All of these behaviors are defenses that keep reality out. And, until now, they’ve kept Rachel confused and off-balance.
- Rachel is a typical exaggerated Pleaser. She may think briefly about setting verbal boundaries for her mother but she doesn’t follow through. She always gives in to what her mom wants.
- Rachel can’t say “No.” Pleasers always say “Yes” either with their words or their behaviors, usually both. It isn’t even a thought in Rachel’s head that she not only has the right to say “No,” but she has the obligation to herself to say “No.” Everyone has the right to privacy. And, everyone has the right to self-respect.
Two hours after their argument, Rachel returned to her condo after studying. Her mom acted as if nothing had happened. This is the way it has always been. Rachel knows that this kind of “talk” will happen all over again, probably many times, in the future because Taylor is so manipulative. When you’re in Rachel’s position in a relationship, this sort of exchange is exhausting! And damaging. Though Rachel loves her mother, she also resents her. And, unless one of them changes her behavior, the resentment will grow deeper over time.
One. The whole thing is so avoidable. If only Taylor would recognize that good relationships need: (1) good communication which starts with listening, (2) respect for each other’s boundaries, and (3) the people in them to be open and defenseless or they don’t work. True affection, friendship and/or intimacy just don’t blossom where there’s the poison of manipulation.
But, Taylor is unwilling to look at herself and refused to talk with Rachel and me together. It doesn’t look hopeful that she’ll agree to work on herself in the future either. So, any positive change in the relationship has to come from Rachel.
Two. Rachel must decide to:
- Stop being so afraid of damaging the relationship when she respectfully stands up for herself. Taylor loves her daughter so Rachel’s fear of losing the relationship is unrealistic. Over time, Taylor will accept Rachel’s changed behavior, precisely because she loves her daughter. But Rachel has to stay with it.
- Rachel needs to learn to set limits, both verbally and with her behavior. Setting limits is a form of saying “No,” and you’ll remember that Pleasers really are unfamiliar with that word. Rachel has to practice saying “No” respectfully and consistently. Sooner or later her mom will accept it.
- Rachel needs to understand that she’s not responsible for her mom’s feelings. As long as Rachel is respectful with her mom, she’s entitled to be responsible and respectful to herself to say the reality when her mother asks. Her mom is responsible for understanding her own feelings and working them out herself.
If you are either a Taylor or a Rachel, please consider making these changes. Emotional safety, closeness and intimacy depend on your changed behaviors.
Warmest regards until next time,