On Again, Off Again

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Reconnection Club Podcast Episode 28: On-Again Off-Again Estrangement

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If you’re like many other parents who read this newsletter, maybe you’ve experienced a cyclical pattern with your adult child of “Now we’re talking, now we’re not.”

Known variously in the research literature by such terms as “cyclical estrangement” or “chaotic [dis]association,” this on-again, off-again pattern may be the most common form of estrangement between parents and adult children.

There are both intra- and interpersonal factors that may contribute to this relationship pattern. Let’s take a look at the factors you have some control over, so you can have the impact you want on your relationship.

Cyclical Estrangement

It’s finally happened: A thaw in the relationship. Your child seems to be opening the door a little bit. What a wonderful development!

You’re nervous, but also thrilled. Maybe at last, this Ice Age in your relationship has come to an end. Spring is here, and you can be a family again.

But then a few weeks, months, or even years later…

It happens again. The door closes, and you’re left outside.

What went wrong?

The answer may be something you can do something about, or it may be something internal to your child. Or, maddeningly, a combination of both.

The Dance of Ambivalence

Ambivalence can be defined as “the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person, object, or action, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.” (Dictionary.com)

They like you, they don’t like you.
They need you, they don’t need you.
They want you in their life, they don’t want you in their life.

And on and on.

When one side (e.g., “Let’s be friends”) dominates, they act in that direction. When the pendulum swings, so does their behavior.

To the degree that it’s their innate drive toward independence and autonomy that pulls them away from you, the best thing you can do is to let go, with love. If your child is in his or her 20s or recently launched, independence is more likely to be a factor in ambivalence.

Letting go doesn’t have to mean you’ll never see them again. It just means trusting the relationship and allowing them time to miss you.

If your child’s ambivalence centers on conflict, criticism or any other painful dynamic between you, there’s a lot more you can do to make it easier for them to stick around.

Control the Controllable

Address core issues today. Estrangement is not about what happened in the past; it’s about what’s happening between you now.

If your child seems obsessed about the past, ask yourself, “What is their present need that’s manifesting as an obsession with the past? How can I meet that current need?”

A common need among estranged adult children is for a solid apology. Possibly more than one.

Apologies are a relationship repair aid, not an admission that you’re a terrible person. It takes courage and integrity to offer a heartfelt apology, and it can make you feel better about both the relationship and yourself.

If your child refuses to talk about the past, maybe it’s because they assume they’ll be disappointed if they try. Or maybe they feel too vulnerable.

Just as when they were young, you can take the lead now.

Have necessary conversations, but in general make the difficult parts about you, not your child. Don’t act as if they have a problem, and you want them to address it. Instead, give them the gift of your own reflection.

E.g., “I hear you say that you don’t want to talk about your childhood, and I respect that. If it’s okay, I’d like to share some of my own regrets, and you don’t need to say anything in response.”

Then describe one thing you wish you’d known back then, and what you’d have done differently if you’d known. End by affirming what you intend toward your child from now on, and thank them for listening.

Watch out for your Doormat Alarm; it can easily be triggered by even thinking about a conversation like this.

You can’t control the uncontrollable. Your child’s personal development may require them to create distance from you temporarily (infuriatingly, you won’t know for how long till it’s over). Try not to take it personally, especially if they just left home within the past few years.

DO take control of any troublesome dynamics. Think about interactions within your family that have caused problems in the past, according to your child. Consider those dynamics in the context of multiple generations, so you can better understand your and your child’s places in the larger pattern.

Then set to work dismantling any troublesome family dynamics that have driven a wedge between you and your child. Use the “off-again” part of the cycle to attend to personal growth so that your child finds a stronger, more resourced You when s/he comes around again. You are the bedrock of your relationship with your child(ren).

It may take trial and error, and a few estrangement cycles, but one day you could find that the relationship has settled into a stable and generally positive state.

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