I occasionally experience a sense of déjà vu – my clients’ issues, circumstances and dilemmas appear similar and yet are not the same.
I felt it recently when three siblings—working adults in their mid-twenties to early thirties—came to consult me. A family conflict had led to the two older daughters moving out of the family home.
They talked about several issues. First, their relationship with their father was strained because of his very restrictive control over them. Second, they worried about their mother, who they felt was always giving in to a very domineering husband. Now that they were no longer living at home, they could not come to their mother’s aid in future marital conflicts. Third, they were concerned that their assertiveness might result in losing their mother’s affection as she, a traditional wife in her sixties, might have little choice but to side with her husband over them.
After listening, I asked which was their greatest concern. They unanimously answered it was the second. What further astounded me was when I posed the same question to their mother later, she gave the same answer. Without a doubt, these three adult children considered their mother’s happiness more important than their own and their mother knew this.
I suggested to the siblings that their moving out may pave the way for a smoother relationship in time, as the day-to-day conflicts could be avoided.
The encounter with this family reminded me of another about 20 years ago. Then there were also three siblings of similar ages, all single and working professionals. They had come after a violent confrontation during which their father turned on the youngest when she stepped in to stop him hitting their mother.
Previously, it would have been the two older daughters who would try to defend their mother, earning them much scorn and anger from the father. As the father’s favourite, the youngest had been spared in the past because he was more even-tempered in her presence. But this was not the case in the parents’ latest fight.
I asked why they continued to live at home since they had a minimal relationship with their father and were subjected to physical danger. Though having the means to live independently, they said they had long considered moving out but stopped short as their mother would not go with them. They were torn as they felt that leaving without their mother would be failing in filial duty to her. Yet, staying put them in danger.
It was then that I asked them to look at moving out as not so much abandoning their mother but offering her a place to go to should she ever need respite.
Such an idea may not be acceptable to all parents, especially those who see marriage as the only reason for children to leave the family home. However, when adult children live apart from their parents, they can choose to relate to their parents on their own terms, like having meals together. Rather than viewing it as running away, it can become a new way of being a family. We can still stay connected though apart. This may be a better way than living together but being very distant from one another.
Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.
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