Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My Parents Don't Accept My Poly Relationships: A Question from Viny

Dear Viny,

Yesterday, halfway through the first lap of my five-lap run around the track at Fernhill park, I started to cry. I kept running, even though I find it hard enough to run even when I'm not crying. I only started running again a few weeks ago, after not having run, more years than I care to count. Crying, and running anyway: one small leap of faith, and then another, and then another....

I'm writing because I want you to help me articulate something I felt yesterday, but could not (yet) put into words. I'm writing because writing, like running, is a way of moving forward: one word at a time. Yes, Viny, you and I are technically the same person, but can you please do whatever magic thing you do when you answer other people's letters? Read, reflect, consult your friends and acquaintances and random people on the internet, call on the wisdom of the collective unconscious, do some freewriting in your journal, sit at your computer with your cup of Earl Grey and fiddle with paragraphs – you know the drill. Thanks in advance. I look forward to hearing from you.

So here's my problem: every time my parents come for a visit, I end up feeling completely drained. I find it exceedingly difficult to deal with them. Really being present (as opposed to emotionally “checking out”) requires me to tap into my deepest reserves, which inevitably run dry after just a couple of days. This wouldn't be so bad except that whenever my parents are around, I'm cut off from many of my usual sources of renewal: I can't refill, the way I normally would.

Part of the problem is due to the fact that my folks and I don't share the same worldview. They're religious, and I'm not; they're politically conservative, and I'm not; they're monogamous, and I'm not. They have made it clear that they love me and want to have a relationship with me, despite our differences. They have also made it clear that they think my lifestyle is “unethical and immoral,” and that they have no desire to interact with any of my “extraneous people.” So, during their visits, which happen two or three times a year, I have generally tried to keep things parent-friendly. Putting their emotional comfort ahead of my own seemed like a small sacrifice, and I thought I had made my peace with it.

However, a new issue has been developing over the last couple of years. My father is literally losing his mind, beginning with the frontal lobes. He has become increasingly unable to regulate his emotions. Also, he no longer recognizes social cues, which means that he often fails to behave appropriately in social situations. Worst of all, he has seemingly lost the ability to empathize with others. For example, the other day, after my six-year-old daughter accidentally bumped her head on a piece of furniture, he said, “What'd you do that for?” When she didn't answer, he repeated the question again, several times, until she finally burst into tears and fled. “It was a joke!” he yelled after her. As I left the room to comfort my daughter, I could hear my mother remonstrating with him: “You might have meant it as a joke, but it's not funny. No one is laughing.” To which my father replied, “Be quiet, stupid woman!”

I love my dad dearly. I love him for the man he once was, and for the man he still wishes he could be. But he is becoming a really big problem – too big for any one person to handle on her own. My mother is going to need lots of help. And in order to help her, I am going to need lots of help.

What I am beginning to realize is that I cannot keep playing “let's pretend we're a normal nuclear family” for my parents' benefit. My husband and children are wonderfully supportive, but they are only part of my support structure. Not seeing or talking to any of the other members of my tribe makes me feel anxious. And sad. And angry. And frustrated. And then the whirl of emotions gets to be too much, until I feel like I'm beside myself, quite literally: detached, unmoored, adrift.  

Those “extraneous people” aren't extraneous. I need them. They need me. We need us.

As my father declines, I will doubtless be spending more time with with my parents, not less – and that means I am going to have to get more comfortable being my authentic self around them, preferably without making my parents too uncomfortable. My question is this: How do I do that? 

Wondering & Wandering,

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How I Fixed My Parents' Messed-Up Marriage! (Not.)

Dear Viny,

My husband and I opened up our marriage about three years ago with marvelous results. I've talked to my mother about it, and she's been understanding and supportive. I haven't told my father yet because he is conservative, traditionally moral, and would be horrified (bless his Midwestern heart). The problem is, my mom sees how great this relationship model has been for me and has told me she would love to give it a try! My parents married each other when they both had children from previous marriages, and they were great parents together. Since all the little birdies have flown the nest, they haven't been so great at just being spouses together. It kills me to think of my mom being stuck and unfulfilled for the rest of her life. It also kills me to think of them separating because it would crush my dad (he viewed his first divorce as a gross personal failure). I can't quite tell my mom she should just find a little something-something on the side. What to do?

A Dutiful Daughter 


Dear Dutiful,

I'm so glad you wrote in with this question, because your feelings vis a vis your parents' troubled relationship strike a familiar chord: I have been grappling with a similar problem. My parents, like yours, built the kind of relationship dictated by the social norms of their generation. Forty years ago, when my mom and dad got married, they assumed they were aiming for the stasis of “happily ever after.” They viewed every inevitable change as a fall from grace, with the result that they are now stuck in the mire of their separate regrets. They focused almost exclusively on their nuclear family, and neglected to invest in an intimate network of friends, with the result that they are now socially impoverished. They allowed themselves to fall into dependence and co-dependence, probably as a way of guaranteeing that they would always need each other, with the result that neither learned how to honor the other's autonomy.

So I called them up yesterday, and I said, “Hey, I know y'all think my lifestyle is immoral and unethical and all, but you guys are so miserable, I figure you might be open to anything at this point, even relationship advice from me. Why don't you let me tell you about all the stuff I've learned over the last fifteen-plus years, and maybe you could give some of it a try? I'm not saying you have to open your marriage or anything – although, Mom, have you considered how great it would be if you had a partner who was capable of supporting you emotionally? Dad, has it occurred to you that there are women your age who still enjoy having sex?”

And they said, in perfect unison, “Wow, Viny, we are so lucky to have a daughter who can offer us a perspective different from our own. Maybe there is a way we can adapt some of your ideas so that they will work for us. Please, tell us more!”

Yeah, right. April Fool's.

Unfortunately, Dutiful, it's probably too late for our parents to turn their ailing marriages around. My folks will probably limp all the way to their side-by-side graves, squabbling as they go. Yours may split up before death does them part, or they may not, but you will most likely have zero control over which path they choose to take, so you might as well resign yourself to accepting whatever outcome comes. As dutiful daughters, the best thing we can do for our parents is to accept them for who they are, be there for them when we can, and try to model healthy ways of relating. And the best thing we can do for ourselves is to let go of our attachment without letting go of our love.

(All easier said than done, I realize. I can be all lotus-heart enlightened when I'm typing away in my quiet house on a rainy Tuesday morning, but ask me how I'm doing three weeks from now, when my folks will be here for Easter, and I bet I will be singing a scratchier tune!)

Before I sign off, I do have one tiny question for you. You say you have talked to your mother, but not your father, about the fact that you and your husband now have an open marriage. Have you asked your mother to keep this information secret? In other words, is there a meaningful conversation your parents could be having but aren't, simply because your mother is under the impression that you do not want her to share your news? If so, is it possible that you are unwittingly widening the rift between your parents in your efforts to protect them from each other? Just something you might want to consider....

Peace & Parsnips,