A reader asked me to discuss the topic of dealing with parents where one is confrontational and the other is passive. This reader was specifically interested in this topic with Father’s Day coming up. Because Mother’s Day is my big “go crazy” day, I often forget that Father’s Day is extremely painful for many of my readers. Hopefully, this blog entry will be helpful for those of you who have to deal with this dynamic.
The reader talked about a family dynamic that I have seen in other abusive and/or dysfunctional households. One parent is confrontational while the other parent is passive, letting the confrontational parent steamroll the adult child. The adult child struggles with where to place the anger, sometimes finding herself even angrier at the passive parent than the confrontational parent.
I have had to wrestle with this dynamic myself in a couple of relationships. With my own parents, my mother abused me while my father didn’t do enough to stop it. I went through a phase of being angrier with him than with my mother/abuser because it was his job to stop the abuse, but he didn’t (or at least not enough). My in-laws had a similar dynamic, where my mother-in-law would get all worked up about something, and my father-in-law would not intervene even though he disagreed with her. In both situations, I felt anger that the “sane” parent would not step in and protect me.
If you are dealing with this dynamic, you first need to recognize that this dynamic is triggering you. The wounded little boy or girl inside feels betrayed and angry at one parent for not intervening with the abuse or dysfunction of the confrontational parent. Try treating the wounded child inside as you would any other abused child. Comfort her. Tell her that she is now safe and that you love her. Also, tell her that **you** will be the one to intervene this time.
The second step is to set and enforce boundaries. The passive parent is not going to step it up, so you need to be the advocate for your wounded inner child. You need to be the one to tell the confrontational parent to knock it off or you will leave. Period. If you give a confrontational person a verbal “punch in the face,” the confrontation will stop. Walking out is always an option.
The third step is to cut yourself some slack if you don’t handle things perfectly. Keep in mind that your confrontational parent knows what buttons to push because he or she installed them. Until you are able to dismantle the buttons, you will stay vulnerable to doing your part of the “dance.” The parent will say X, and you will react by doing Y simply because that is how you were “programmed” to react. Any steps you take toward dismantling the dance will go a long way toward healing.
One final tip – Before I got strong enough to remove myself from dysfunctional family get-togethers with my in-laws, I used humor to get myself through them. For example, whenever my mother-in-law would say a particular phrase, I would “do a shot” in my head and then imagine how drunk I would be if I was really drinking. This helped me to step outside of the “dance” and see the dysfunction for what it was.
This change is not going to happen overnight, but any step you take toward standing up for your inner child and refusing to participate in the “dance” with your confrontational parent is a positive step along your healing journey.
Photo credit: Hekatekris