The Ties That Bind

I have been seeing more young adults (25-32 year olds) who are feeling stuck in their relationships or their lives in general. This can manifest in romantic relationships or in moving ahead in a career. The common thread is that these individuals are having difficulty separating from their parent/s. Some live at home and others don’t, but in some way they are overly concerned with their relationships with their parents. Here’s a couple of examples; A parent is ill and the other parent is overwhelmed, and an expectation is set up that one child will take on the role as caretaker. Another common dynamic is that a child, who has felt intensely connected to a parent, picks up subtle messages from the parent that they need the child to not leave home, either physically and/or psychologically. In both examples the adult child feels conflicted about moving forward in their own lives. This brings me to *Audrey, a 32 year old woman that I see in my practice.

Audrey came in last week frustrated by the persistent feeling that “no matter what she does it’s never enough”. She is a bright, accomplished, successful professional who has trouble with intimate relationships. Audrey is plagued by a sense of resentment about people’s lack of appreciation of her. From her earliest memories she was treated as a little adult who didn’t need what other children her age did. As a grown adult she longs to be taken care of but feels ashamed of her needs, and has a hard time saying no, both at work and with her friends. When her parents call on her because of the difficult situation at home, Audrey is compelled to step in and take care of them. On the surface Audrey is being a considerate and loving daughter who cares about her parents and is providing help that they do need. Under the surface she continues to replay the perfect child who ignores her own needs in order to gain her parent’s love and admiration.

That same dynamic is at play now and her parents are no better at being empathic to Audrey’s needs than they were when she was a child. Audrey shows up for her parents, and is seen only for what she can do for them, yet she is still hoping that somehow they will now acknowledge her unmet needs. The result is that Audrey becomes upset with her parents, who have now labeled her “the drama queen” because of her emotional outbursts, yet she never fails to come through for them.

It’s very difficult for Audrey to see the reality of how limited her parents are and accept that they will never be able to give her what she’s looking for. Audrey is working on grieving the losses of childhood, and having compassion for the needy, lonely child who perfected the role of the little adult. She is feeling less ashamed of her needs and better able to ask directly for what she wants. Audrey is moving forward in her life as she lets go of the fantasy that hanging around in hope of getting unmet childhood needs is futile – that time has passed. The only way to break these uncomfortable ties that bind is to grieve the past and put your emotional energy into yourself and your life in the present.

*All names have been changed and any identifying features omitted to protect the privacy of my patients.

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