Carl loved his 45 year-old son, Brian, and was overwhelmed with feelings of compassion for his son’s plight. Brian could never hold a job. Also, any time Carl or his wife, Vickie, didn’t do exactly what Brian wanted or didn’t give him what he wanted, Brian would throw a fit – he’d yell and scream and curse them, even in front of his own wife and children, or in public. Many times, Brian would suddenly turn on his own long-suffering wife and children in the same way. How could Carl love his son and have compassion for him, and still protect himself and his wife from Brian’s harassment and bullying?
Everything I say about this family situation is the same I’d say to people trying to have both compassion and protection when dealing with abusive and suffering:
- Extended family.
- Drunk drivers.
- Strangers in public places.
The tactics we choose would depend on the specifics of the situation, but our attitude and general direction would be the same.
For decades, Carl had bit his tongue as best he could and had asked Vickie to do the same. His heart went out to Brian because of his suffering. Brian’s mother had died when he was 9 years old and two years later Carl had married again. His new wife, Vickie, had done her best to take care of Brian and she did love the boy. But no matter how she tried, Brian hated her and made her pay.
Out of compassion for Brian’s struggles, Carl had given Brian hundreds of thousands of dollars and also had bought many things for Brian’s children. But it never seemed to be enough for Brian.
Brian denied that he needed any help. He thought he was fine the way he was and he had good reasons every time he exploded. It was everyone else’s fault that he lost his temper, and they deserved what he said or did to them.
He told Carl clearly that if Carl didn’t do what he wanted and didn’t endure the attacks, Brian wouldn’t allow Carl to see his grandchildren. There it was; not only attacks but also blackmail.
Carl was stuck. His compassion didn’t allow him to set any limits. All he’d allow himself to do was to beg Brian to change.
Separate from the blackmail, Carl suffered from a common misunderstanding about compassion. He thought compassion meant that he had to give Brian what he wanted and to keep giving and to take the abuse in hope that, someday, his love and forbearance would cause Brian to have an awakening and become a grateful, appreciative, civil and polite person.
Carl also thought that if he acknowledged his anger and dislike of Brian, or really did anything serious, that would mean that he’d given up on his son. Also, it would be wrong to try to force Brian to do anything against his will.
After coaching, Carl decided that there were two distinct and separate scales he had to operate on in order to protect himself and his wife from Brian, and to preserve their retirement funds that Brian wanted to get his hands on.
On one scale, he could love Brian and have infinite compassion for his suffering, even though it was self induced. And Tom could always pray for Brian’s spirit to take charge of his life.
On the other scale Carl could see that he had to deal, not with Brian’s spirit, but with Brian’s personality – his weakness, selfishness, arrogance, need, sense of entitlement, anger and narcissism. Against Brian’s personality, Carl had to protect himself. Out of compassion, he’d do that calmly, lovingly and clearly.
So what did Carl do?
- He and Vickie decided to tell Brian that they wouldn’t take the abuse any more. They were going to create an Isle of Song for the rest of their lives. Good behavior was required from anyone to get on that Isle; blood wouldn’t count.
- They knew they’d said that before, but they’d always given in and had pretended that the bullying had never happened. They knew also that Brian counted on that.
- The next time Brian exploded at them in front of his 11 and 13 year-old children, Carl said publically that they weren’t going to put up with that behavior any more. They weren’t going to see Brian. They’d love to see the kids but Brian probably wouldn’t allow that. They wanted the kids to know who was responsible for the breach.
- Carl told Brian they were taking a break from involvement with him for at least six months. He’d have to make it on is own. After then, if he wanted to resume contact he’d have to call and apologize and promise never to act that way again. He’d especially have to apologize to Vickie. Carl was going to protect his wife against all comers, even his son.
- Even after that time, they were going to continue to withhold money because they wanted interactions to be based on fun, not need or greed.
This time Carl and Vickie kept to their bargain with each other. They said they were able to stay on track because they still allowed themselves to feel compassion toward Brian, and especially his wife and kids, but they weren’t going to rescue Brian from the effects of his behavior. Also, they saw that the most compassionate thing they could do for Brian was to demand good behavior and maintain their boundaries. Their new vision would determine what they did, not some old, out-of-date feelings and assumptions.
My experience has been that the Brian’s of the world never learn by being coddled. The only chance they have to learn is by being kicked out of the nest and letting the world, not their parents, teach them the natural consequences of their obnoxious behavior. That doesn’t always work, but it’s the only chance.