Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

‘I Can’t Take This Relationship Any More’

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 23, 2011

  Cindy, fifty-six, comes in with her twenty-three year old daughter Tracy, exasperated. “I can’t take this relationship any more,” Cindy says to me in front of Tracy. Over the course of our session, it becomes clear that Cindy is feeling very guilty that she has not been more available to Tracy during her tender developmental years. Cindy worked hard honing her legal skills, leading her to become partner at a major law firm, but in so doing, she delegated the majority of the parenting to her husband, Tracy’s father. Tracy has consistently confronted her mother on what Tracy calls “my abandonment.” Although Cindy acknowledges this to be true, it makes Cindy very angry to hear those words. Her defensive reaction is to pull further away from Tracy, thereby worsening their relationship, but at the same time, Cindy’s behavior protects Cindy from feeling bad about her parenting job.

   Tracy wants to get closer to Cindy, but she desperately wants Cindy to apologize and understand how lonely she felt as a child. Cindy distances herself from understanding that, making Tracy rage at her. In the end, they both say that they do not want to spend Thanksgiving with each other. I explain to Tracy that Cindy is too raw now to understand what it was like for her to grow up while she worked long hours. Maybe there will be another time for Cindy to hear this, but now that cannot happen. I also explain to Cindy that although her gut reaction is to pull away from Tracy because she is saying very hurtful things, my suggestion is to keep repeating the idea that you want a good relationship and you want to be there for her.

   The tension in the room markedly diminishes, although Tracy chimes in to say, “I am not completely happy about this.” I respond, “sometimes when I see parents and adult children, I feel it is like couples therapy. The best outcome is for both parties to be a bit unhappy. That represents a compromise.” Tracy looks at me fondly, with the recognition that the room feels so much better than when we started. “Happy Thanksgiving,” I say, knowing that airing those harsh words in the beginning allowed them to enjoy the holiday together. Tracy and Cindy hug before they leave my office. “That was for you, Dr. Vollmer,” Tracy says sarcastically, as if to suggest that they wanted to make me feel good about the session, and that the hug was not genuine. “It is nice to see you hug, no matter what the reason.” I say, feeling good about contributing to their holiday joy.

6 Responses to “‘I Can’t Take This Relationship Any More’”

  1. jeffdashrink said

    Just a wonderful, wonderful post. Happy Thanksgiving back at you and to all.

  2. Thanks, Jeffdashrink!

  3. The ultimate fear for each one of these lady’s is what? It appears that Cindy needs to be seen as a “good enough” parent, while Tracy is afraid of never really experiencing a close mother-daughter relationship. I know you do “talk therapy” but it might be quite illuminating to have these two people work together on what I call “table top Adventure Based Counseling.” Sometimes it is the doing rather than the talking that helps to bring out the hidden agendas/feelings. How can they “experience” the other outside of their typical, defensive stances? Thanks for your interesting and informing blog—All the best, Barb

    • Dear Barb/Dearfriends,
      You are right that I do talk therapy, but as a child psychiatrist, I am a huge advocate of using games as a communication tool. Your “table top Adventure Based Counseling” sounds really interesting. I would like to learn more about it. Thanks for your comments. SV

  4. Shelly said

    This sounds painful all around. Painful for Tracy, painful for Cindy. I sympathize with them both. I understand Cindy’s feelings of inadequacy as a parent, and hope that in time, Tracy will come to realize that in her own way, Cindy was trying to provide for Tracy. I empathize with Tracy and her feelings of abandonment: no-one ever stops feeling the need for a mother and wanting to be important to her. How did this session help both Tracy and Cindy? No-one truly felt heard. No-one truly felt appreciated for the sacrifices that were made for the other. The hug was ‘fake’. Were more sessions planned?

    • Yes, it was painful, but at the same time, the mutual defenses were slowly being chipped away-or so I hoped. Cindy got defensive when Tracy confronted her, so the session did a “work-around” by helping Tracy be more understanding of Cindy’s fragility. Likewise, Cindy came to understand that Tracy needed to be reassured that she was very important to Cindy. I think both folks did feel heard, although neither one got completely what they were searching, which was total understanding for their struggle. Each one felt partially heard. The hug was not “fake” but it was also not completely genuine. It was a statement that they would try to move forward, and come together, despite the mutual pain. Yes, more sessions are planned. This is a work in progress. Thanks.

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