My friend, Robert, explained it with his own story.
“No parent wants to inflict pain on their children but sometimes they can’t help it. My mother had untreated bipolar disorder, suffering from bouts of depression and mania. My dad was helpless in the face of her episodes so he shut down, exploding in anger which made mom worse. Every day was scary. As a result, my sister and I became the parents in our family, with me forging permission slips, mowing the lawn and making sure there was food and my sister doing most of the cooking and cleaning. We were highly attuned to their outbursts, believing we must have done something to bring it on. And despite everything, we both replayed our childhood by marrying people we had to take care of.”
“Of course, I didn’t realize any of that until my 11-year-old son asked, ‘Why is Mom always mad at us? I forgot to take the trash out last night and she threw a glass at me, screaming for an hour.’ While listening to him, I felt like a failure. My three children suffered because I had married a woman that was a combination of my parents. On a subconscious level, I just didn’t want to deal with my wife. I could ignore her behavior because my work took me on the road most of the time, but my children couldn’t escape.”
Robert’s story demonstrates how he was conditioned by his family of origin to accept abusive behavior and how the family’s trauma passed to the next generation. His three children respectively developed unhealthy coping styles as they grew. His eldest, the perfectionist, was confrontational and drank too much. His middle child, starved for attention, clung to Robert and failed to launch in life. The youngest, although compliant, avoided everyone by using work as an excuse. All of them, including Robert, evaded conflict and had trouble establishing appropriate boundaries with people. Although he eventually divorced, it took years for him to heal and to help his children with the aftermath through therapy.
When he told me how guilty he felt for not leaving sooner, I responded, “When you’re in the eye of the storm, you don’t see the wreckage around you. Only when you leave, do you see the destruction.”