Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
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Using the Children to Reach the Spouse: The Dangers of Ignoring the Boundary between Generations

by Carol Campbell, MFT

Remember how in grade school you used to get your friend to deliver a message to another student when you were too scared to deliver it yourself? "Susie likes you!" would be whispered into Bobby's ear by Kathy. Or "Don't pick Joanie for our team" gets passed along to the captain, by Mary, who was not invited to Joanie's birthday party. It was the old trick of roping someone else in to do your dirty work.

As a Marriage and Family Therapist I have heard countless stories of grown adults doing essentially the same thing to affect their spouses, by using their children as the go-betweens. But since they are expecting me to be professional, I refrain from snapping, "Grow up!" Actually, I have come to see that we are all doing the best we can with what we have to work with at the moment, so simply urging a rapid attainment of emotional maturity is pointless. If the parents knew a better way to operate, they would be using that instead.

But let's look at the inevitable collateral damage done to children when their parents communicate indirectly with each other through the kids. What makes a family different from other social groupings is that the people involved are organized into discreet and separate generations. One important measure of what makes a family functional is the extent to which the generational boundaries are observed. The kids need to be rock solid certain that the family is run by their parents. The parents are in charge. The parents are the main authorities. The parents protect their position as leaders for the family. And the parents are a team.

If grandma and grandpa – representing another generation – come over and offer the kids candy right before dinner, or let them off the hook for their chores, or otherwise interfere with the rules the parents have set up, a generational boundary has been inappropriately crossed. As a result, the kids will become anxious and confused. A likely outcome will be that the kids will then test the system by trying to get away with other breaches to the rules. Any kid worth his or her salt will test the limits at home until they figure out where the limits actually are. Once they know that, they can relax and cooperate.

But even worse problems arise when the parents use their children to deliver an unspoken message to the other parent. My observation from my clinical work as a Marriage and Family Therapist is that most of the time parents are unaware of this issue, because their behavior is unconsciously set up. Some examples will illustrate my point.

Let's say that John and Mary have a 15-year old daughter, Chloe. John and Mary's intimate relationship is pretty non-existent. They seldom hug or kiss each other, especially in front of Chloe. If Chloe sees that happen, she comes running in to turn it into a group hug. John and Mary's sexual relationship is a distant memory. They never go out to have some fun unless Chloe is included. Chloe sees little communication between them other than incessant bickering about who has the right approach to parenting Chloe. John doesn't like to reprimand Chloe when she is rude to her mother, which is frequently, because he believes in keeping the peace and simply distracting Chloe from whatever she has done that irritated Mary. Mary becomes easily enraged that Chloe is very close and affectionate with John, who welcomes her playful attentiveness. Chloe can't be bothered to even look at her mother at the dinner table, but carries on animated conversations with John. After dinner, Chloe rolls her eyes at Mary when Mary asks to be included in the joke being shared between herself and her dad. Eventually Mary explodes in anger and leaves the house, leaving John and Chloe shaking their heads in bewilderment at what they see to be such a sad, disturbed mother.

What is going on here? Plenty! John has forgotten that his first job in the family is to be the mate to Mary. Chloe realizes unconsciously that her father's emotional and sexual needs are not being met in the marriage, so she is following her oedipal instincts to see if she can become the substitute mate and rescue her father. John's fears of losing Chloe's love prevent him from appropriately correcting her insolent behavior toward Mary. Mary is beside herself with jealousy and exasperation. But her own unaddressed intimacy issues have caused her to reject John sexually. Rather than deal directly with Mary about his hurt and rage at being rejected, John is passive-aggressively yanking Mary's chain by maintaining an intimacy with Chloe that borders on inappropriate. In other words, he is communicating to Mary through Chloe. Similarly, Mary is hyper-critical of Chloe, in part because she is raging at John internally, but it seems more acceptable to scold Chloe. So Mary is communicating with John through Chloe.

Some psychotherapy would be helpful to this family. John could use some analysis to help him discover his emotional self, including his anger. Mary could use some analysis to resolve her fear of intimacy and her need to control. They both could use some couple counseling to improve their capacity to tolerate reality and take back their projections onto the other. Chloe could benefit from some psychotherapy to resolve her underlying anxieties and confusion. They all might respond well to family therapy. Lots of options for improving things here!

The greatest damage is probably being done to Chloe, because she has not mastered the oedipal challenges of life. In order for her to be confident about individuating from her family of origin and setting out into the world to find a partner for herself, she needs to have had countless experiences in which her father tells her "No, you can't do that." She needs to get it that as much as she loves her father, he is already spoken for. Her only hope is to go find her own mate one day who will be just as worthy of her love.

Chloe also needs to experience having a mother who can take up the role of being a mate for the father, so the burden does not feel unconsciously as if it is up to Chloe. Chloe needs to witness a mother who can embrace her own sexuality and desires, and who has loving feelings for her own body. Otherwise, Chloe will enter her adult years confused about what it means to be a daughter and a woman and a mother. She will be far more likely than not to experience difficulties with intimate relationships, as well as confusing rage toward both her parents. She will present to others as a very anxious person, at risk for self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.

Perhaps the most important words that parents can say to their children are, "I love you" and "No!" Perhaps the most important words that adults can say to each other are, "I love you" and "Yes!" Both sets of words are necessary to keep the boundaries straight between generations.

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Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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