On Reciprocity – attempts to forgive and to rekindle lost affection
I will share some thoughts and insights that I have learned as an academic and counsellor about the importance of reciprocity in relationships. The example below focuses on the loss of such mutuality and exchange in the parent – child dyad. Although there are almost endless reasons, extrinsic as well as intrinsic, explanations on why this has come about I will provide you with some thoughts to consider if you wish to begin the process of mending such a distance. Some things we do are more universal, and could help heal the relationship regardless of what caused the estrangement in the first place. This is true for all relationships, not only those of the parent – child. This post is for anyone who feel that they have lost an important relationship, and was left puzzled and feeling helpless about what really happened that created such a distance.
I have on a few occasions recently come across a quote on social media, mostly shared by late teenagers and young adults, that reads ‘a daughter/son should not have to beg for a relationship with her/his mom or dad’. At first one might accept what is says, feel for the implied victim in the situation and probe no further. Allowing yourself to think some more about it however, the quote is problematic, even unhealthy, and I will give you my reasons for suggesting so.
First of all, I do understand why we would instantly sympathize with the adult child in this quote. It’s only natural. Imagining a child, albeit now an adult, to be estranged from their parent is painful. And as the quote suggests, even more so by the hinted possibility that the parent is the culprit for this distance, causing this seemingly utterly desperate tension inside the child that they would need to ‘beg’ for a relationship. That idea is an agonizing one for most of us, whether you are imagining yourself as the child or the parent in that situation. But it is in how the pain inside this child is worded where the heart of the issue lies.
Let’s explore the word and notion of what is meant by a ‘relationship’. The English dictionary provides more than one definition. First and foremost, a relationship denotes kinship between people, through blood or marriage. The second definition mentions the emotional connection between two people, that a relationship is one of alliance and affinity. The final definition refers to romantic and/or sexual involvement or affairs.
How about the word ‘beg’ used in the quote? Knowing that the relationship exists already, in terms of kinship, the sentence starts to look like something of an oxymoron to me. It is not possible to beg for a relationship when it comes to the child-parent union, there just is one, at least by blood. This is where it gets really tough… Harboring the desperate feeling that ‘one must not have to beg for a relationship with their parent’ therefore appears to be born out of the very notion that, indeed, the relationship itself is not what is missing. This makes the lack of a poor, or non-existing, affinity ever more painful. By dismissing the existence of a relationship altogether, the lack of what you want out of the relationship, the love, acceptance, and union, the very essence of a healthy, warm and reciprocal relationship, may seem a little easier to handle. The internal message becomes ‘he or she is responsible for that essence to exist, not me, I am the rejected one, the victim’. This also makes sense on another level, because the feelings of a child towards a parent have an element of dependence, in some cases entitlement. I have indeed come across many people that hold the view that the state of the relationship between the parent and adult child lies solely in the hands of the parent. If this is the case, then where does the notion of affinity in kinship come from, stated as being of such utter importance, come from? I believe that any healthy relationship depends on both units to be committed to the giving and receiving, at least when we are talking about relationships between two adults. That is what defines reciprocity. Affinity and affection suffer in no mild form without it in the short
Even though it may be that the parent is falling short of showing affection and lack of investment in the relationship, the adult child is nevertheless removing themselves from the relationship by having such a divisive cognitive framework. That does not do the child, nor the parent, any justice. In terms of the adult child, it evokes a helpless and hopeless sense of being in a situation where you don’t have a choice with regards to the outcome of the situation, which I have many times witnessed to be such a very negative and unhealthy emotional response to have. Mostly for their own wellbeing. By stating such a quote in social media, the pain that is expressed over the loss of the quality of the relationship strongly suggests that the relationship has important meaning to them. Yet, they can’t find the strength to do anything about it, leading to self-victimization and scapegoating, and the situation remains unresolved. They are not owning the situation nor their own true feelings about it, but merely inducing a sense of false temporary relief, that ultimately harbors emotions of hopelessness and helplessness at the same time, maybe also leading to isolation. Perhaps, indeed, by ‘begging’ their parents themselves for the affinity to return to the already existing relationship would most of the time be the better option, and indeed the only option that would offer any kind of closure. And this is so, even in a situation where the child would in fact face rejection despite a genuine and emotional attempt to reconnect to their absent parent. By having accepted what they are lacking, and so painfully missing, and the ability to communicate this, can be remarkably cathartic and offer true positive changes to either the situation itself and/or the inner culmination of peace regarding the relationship.
So, there is it, the importance of reciprocity. When the child has grown and become an independent human being, there are two adults in the relationship, both with responsibility towards the other to maintain a loving and functioning relationship. It may, not surprisingly, also be the case that the victimization and blaming is found to have been exactly what drove the parent away, and one does need to, albeit extremely difficult, be prepared for this possibility. Instead of labeling oneself the victim, and allowing anger to fester towards the other as the culprit whether it is true or not, it is more constructive to look honestly at the emotions that are longed for but lacking. To accept and try to possibly find the ability, or courage, to explore, examine and communicate these to the parent in an open way, while allowing space for both to be heard. For we know that it is not the relationship that has gone astray, it is already there in the kinship, but something even more important is missing, the affinity. The affinity and union that can only grow out of the mutual sharing of affection, the only true reciprocity.
So ‘what do I do?’ some of you may be thinking now. We can all start by examining the view, or views, we have of ourselves, and which of these that we choose to communicate to others. What story are you telling others, and ultimately yourself? Are you the victim? In what way does it help you to communicate to others that you are the victim, or have been the victim, of rejection? What do you believe are the reasons for estrangement with someone significant? Does the empathy you receive from others mend you? Do they add to your feeling of self-worth? We need to do this, sometimes very difficult, self-reflection for our own self-awareness and growth. Not so much for the sake of others, but rather for the sake of ourselves, for us to begin our mending, without relying on others. Only then, I believe, can we make real changes to our relationships that matter to us.