Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Generational Strife

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 19, 2015

The struggle for power and sexuality, the acceptance of one’s decline, and the acknowledgement of the up and coming generation are the universal struggles of mankind, as Freud liked to teach us. “How does the increasingly vital younger generation appropriate the power of the decreasingly vital older generation?” Stephen Mitchell and Margaret Black ask us in the book ‘Freud and Beyond’. On the one hand the younger generation wants to kill off the older generation so that there is room for them to grow, and on the other hand, the guilt and fear associated with this wish can be paralyzing. This is the fundamental paradigm of the oedipal conflict. The little boy’s fantasy of marrying his mother, ridding himself of his father, is associated with guilt which is tempered by his acknowledgment that his father loves his mother and hence he must make peace with being left out of their dyad. This struggle, followed by compromise, is the paradigm for negotiating frustration throughout life. As the boy matures, he can become competitive with his father, and for some fathers this is a challenging situation to the father’s ego, and as such, generational strife can take on massive proportions. In essence, not all fathers want to see their sons be more successful than they are. In fact, some father’s sabotage their children so as not to be faced with this perceived humiliation.

Bart and Brad come to mind. Bart is in his sixties, working hard as an attorney. Brad, in this thirties, is working hard in investment banking. Brad has surpassed Bart’s earning power my many magnitudes. Bart is not happy and continually criticizes Brad for his choice of girlfriends, his wardrobe, his financial expenditures. Through my work with Bart, we have come to understand that this criticism of Brad is based on Bart’s weak ego in which he feels “upstaged” by his son. He understands that most people expect him to be proud of Brad, but he feels very threatened by him. He feels that Brad has made him look inferior to his friends and extended family and he does not know how to cope with those feelings. He has come to see that his competition with his son has caused him to be mean and judgmental of him. “It is not easy getting old and feeling like I am not going to make any great career moves now and so this is it, for me financially speaking.” Bart says with sadness that he has reached a plateau. “Maybe you need to grieve the loss of your upward mobility,” I say, suggesting that maybe he needs to accept his stage in life. “That’s tough, but I can see how threatened I feel by my son’s success and I can see that I have treated him poorly, as a result. I guess I just do not have the daddy gene which says that if your kids do well, you should be happy. I just do not feel that, at all,” Bart says with uncharacteristic frankness. “It is great that you know how you feel and it is curious why you do not have a sense of pride,” I say, wondering aloud as to what this missing “daddy gene” is about.

I imagine that Brad wants to please Bart and wants to compete with him, at the same time. The dilemma that Brad is in makes me wonder how he copes with, what Freud would term, his aggressive drive. Does Brad feel the guilt of making his father feel small, and is this played out in his trouble in finding a life partner? I have never met Brad, but I imagine that hypothesis. Playing with ideas is my business. Having theoretically underpinnings to forming these ideas is useful, not as declarations, but as a framework on which to build a theory. This delicate balance between floating a theory and making a declaration is the art in the work. And so, this will be the opening for my upcoming class.

2 Responses to “Generational Strife”

  1. Shelly said

    What about the opposite side of the coin, the parents who live through the success of their children? What does that say about the emotional health of the parents? Does that place undue pressure on the children to achieve and does this really mean that the parents feel insignificant and small?

    • Essentially- yes! Having a healthy distance to your child’s achievement is complicated by the narcissitic need to take credit. Boundaries and respect for autonomy is key. Hard to do- easy to say! Thanks

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