When I hear the term “unconditional love,” I think of the incredible moment my son was born.
Yet a parent’s love can be virtually destroyed.
Some of the most difficult moments I’ve witnessed as a therapist, when there wasn’t an actual death, is when a parent is agonizing over a grown child whose destructiveness and emotional manipulation are squeezing out the last drops of unconditional love that parent feels.
Years of lying, stealing, drug abuse, disappearances and reappearances, emotional manipulation, multiple jobs, and chronic chaos — even continual suicidal threats — have taken an immense toll. To say these “children” haven’t successfully launched is an understatement. They are emotionally stuck, and often frozen in blame toward the parents who’ve watched and tried to understand their struggles. They lash out if parents try to confront: “You’re supposed to love me unconditionally…”
Certainly, there are many parents who do a poor job of providing safety and a sense of being securely loved for their children. A child can feel besieged by the instability and emotional onslaught of a parent as well.
But it can be the other way around.
Parents may have been decent, “good enough” parents. Sure, they made mistakes. But the mistakes were normal and unintentional.
There are many reasons why an adult child might struggle. Perhaps she suffers with a diagnosable severe mental illness but refuses treatment. Perhaps he has an addiction. Perhaps an underlying personality disorder exists, causing emotional extremes. Perhaps there’s trauma that is unknown to anyone but your grown child.
Parents are left to fight through their own questions and guilt. “What did I, or we, do or not do?” When you’ve had the joy of hearing a toddler say his first words, it can feel unbearable to overhear that same, now adult child make a drug deal or vehemently claim that one more supervisor was after him.
Emotional survival becomes a must, and a necessary sense of detachment forms — necessary because continuing to unconditionally love that child will only end in sabotaging what’s left of the parents’ own lives, and often, the lives of their other sons and daughters. In fact, the motivation for detachment is often because another child’s well-being is being dramatically affected.
Anyone can use up unconditional love. Anyone. Your spouse. Your parent, Or your child.
It’s a kind of emotional death. The death of dreams. The death of hope. The death of trust.
These same parents have to set boundaries. They tell their 32-year-old daughter she’s not invited home due to her emotional sabotage of one more holiday– or cut off financial support from a 40-year-old homeless heroin-addicted son, finding odd reassurance when he’s put in jail for one more misdemeanor.
“I’ll always love you, but I can no longer do this with you.” This choice will often be met with even more drama, as the “child” tries to desperately manipulate the parent into returning to a little or no boundary zone.
It’s far from easy.
A couple comes immediately to mind. He was the biological father of a 28-year-old severe alcoholic, who regularly would call in the middle of the night, barely able to talk, breathing heavy and slow. He would rush to her side. His wife had been a loving stepmom, but enough was enough.
“You have to stop. She has to confront this in herself. As long as she knows you’ll save her, you’ll fix it, she won’t fix it herself.”
“But what if the one time I don’t go is the time she actually dies? I could never forgive myself.”
The room got very still. Both looked at me as if I had the answer. I didn’t. There was no good answer. They reached an uneasy compromise, their intense sadness palpable in the room.
These parents feel the kind of pain that doesn’t get written about. There’s no Disney ending. It can’t be made pretty.
Watching your child struggle can be agonizing.
But you wait in the wings, praying it all ends well. And soon.
Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist, has practiced for twenty-five years in Fayetteville, Arkansas., Her work can be found at http://www.drmargaretrutherford.com, as well as HuffPost, Psych Central, Psychology Today, the Gottman Blog and others. She’s the author of “Marriage Is Not For Chickens”, a perfect gift book on marriage, and hosts a weekly podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Her new book, Perfectly Hidden Depression, will be published by New Harbinger in 2019.