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“Separate Realities” of Parents and Children

 San Francisco-based psychologist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., is the author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (Harper Collins, 2008).  In a blog post for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Dr. Coleman recommends:

Honor the ‘separate realities’ nature of family life. Just because you made decisions with your child’s best interest in mind, doesn’t mean that they were experienced in the way that you intended. Don’t try to prove them wrong…  Take responsibility for whatever mistakes you have  made as a parent.  If there’s a kernel of truth to your child’s complaint, speak to the kernel of truth.  

Let’s face it: there are separate realities for parents and children in practically every family.  Even relatively minor, long-past separate realities have the power to destroy relationships when people don’t acknowledge them and make amends.   Take the case of Mrs. R., whose family saga is recounted here by her former neighbor.  It’s a worst-case scenario, to be sure. But sadly, don’t almost all of us know – or know of? – a Mrs. R.?

Unforgiven: One Family’s Story

             My former neighbor, Mrs. R., was a hard-working widow and a devoted mother.  Helen, her older child, was a brilliant student, but there was no question that charming, easygoing Sammy was the apple of his mother’s eye.  She didn’t think anybody was good enough for her son – not even Karen, the lovely young woman Sammy began dating when both were college freshmen.  Still, Mrs. R. was livid when she learned that Karen had broken up with him.

           Only a few months later, the young couple reunited.  But Mrs. R. insisted she would have nothing to do with her son until he came to his senses and dumped the no-good tramp who had wounded him!

            That was more than 25 years ago. Sammy and Karen are married parents of three – successful in their careers, active in their church and community.

             Unbelievably, Mrs. R. kept her word.  She never spoke to them again.

            At first, Sammy and Karen tried to make peace.  But after Mrs. R. refused invitations to their wedding, and their oldest child’s baptism and birthday parties, their overtures ceased.  They began bad-mouthing her as bitterly as she bad-mouthed them. 

             Their children were the only grandchildren Mrs. R. would ever have.  She’s in her late eighties now, in the final stages of Alzheimer’s.  Helen takes care of her, and the relations between the two siblings are extremely strained.  Sammy’s family feels no obligation to the bitter woman who they know only as a living symbol of what it means to hold a grudge.

            Mrs. R.’s story taught me one of the most important lessons I’ll ever learn.  I remember vividly how her kids were everything to her, just like my recently-married daughter is to me! How could things go so terribly awry?

            Everyone who hears this story says: “A bump in the road of a college romance – that’s a ridiculous reason for a lifelong rift!”  And they’re right, of course.  But when you think about it:  what’s a GOOD reason for anger and blame that does not recede?

            I’ve promised myself I’ll be proactive so grudges never take root between my daughter, son-in-law and me.  I will offer and seek forgiveness immediately whenever hurt feelings or misunderstandings arise (as they inevitably do).  It’s a tragic waste to do otherwise! 

                                                                                     – Marta (48), New Jersey