Excerpts from DANCE OF CONNECTION | By Harriet Lerner
Chapter 15: The Sounds of Silence
Finding a Voice When You’re Rejected and Cut off
When a Friendship Falls Apart
Corrine and Joan became inseparable best friends when they were college freshmen. Their friendship had always been one-sided, with Joan the leader, the teacher, the in-charge person who did the giving, nurturing, and planning. Corrine described herself as more of a follower, who had difficulty knowing her own ideas or tastes and who readily deferred to Joan. Despite this lack of balance in their friendship, they were each other’s closest confidantes. Corrine loved Joan, but after Corrine married, their friendship fell apart. Corrine reported that first Joan distanced, then acted almost repelled by her.
At the time Corrine sought my help, she had already made a number of important efforts to reconnect with Joan. First she initiated activities, such as calling Joan to play racquetball or shop for clothes. In this way, she let Joan know that their friendship was still important to her. Joan accepted some of the invitations, but never reciprocated. An unmistakable feeling of disconnection and superficiality settled between them, hanging in the air like thick fog.
Corrine also told Joan directly that she had noticed a big rift in their friendship. She asked whether Joan shared her observation and what Joan’s perspective was on how their friendship had changed since Corrine’s marriage. She talked to Joan without criticism or blame and without pressuring or pursuing her for closeness. In response, Joan kept insisting that she was just very busy and there was nothing to discuss. Corrine let some time pass before broaching the subject again. She said, “Joan, I know that something is wrong. I’m wondering if Idid something in the relationship that upset you. It’s important for me to know if I’ve offended you or upset you in some way.”
Each time Corrine tried to talk about the distance and tension between them, she felt that Joan disqualified her perception of reality. Corrine left every conversation feeling diminished and down. She would then let some time pass before going back for another round. In a final conversation, Corrine was very firm. She asked Joan if she could come over and talk to her for ten minutes. Sitting in Joan’s kitchen, she said, ‛’Joan, it’s clear to me that something is very wrong. You keep telling me that there’s nothing to talk about, but I can’t accept that. We were close friends for six years. I’d be denying my whole sense of reality if I tried to convince myself that we just drifted apart because of our busy lives. It’s clear to me something is going on. I’m not asking you to change how you think or feel. I’m just asking you to help me make sense of what’s happened, including my part of it.”
Joan sat like stone and said, “I’m sorry if your feelings are hurt.” Corrine’ s attempts to take the conversation further went nowhere. Corrine is a person with a deep need to talk things through, and her natural tendency is to keep hammering away. To her credit, she let this response from Joan be the final round.
Corrine suffered an important loss, and her anger and pain lasted a long time. The fact that Joan was unable to talk about what happened in a real way only increased Corrine’ s difficulty in finding peace of mind. In addition, every loss evokes feelings from prior losses and betrayals, and Corrine later recognized she was grieving for more than her lost friendship with Joan. And when we depend on one friend to meet all our friendship needs — as Corrine did with Joan — we place ourselves in a very vulnerable position.
The challenge Corrine faced was identical to the challenge Mary faced when Bob split with her. Both needed to let go of the fantasy that the other person would one day talk. to her or “see the truth,” that the old friendship/romance could somehow be restored, or that they would ever understand why the other person jumped ship. Corrine could do nothing to change or fix the situation. She will never understand Joan’s transformation, so she must cope with the difficult challenge of ambiguous loss.
We never know for sure what motivates other people. Still, the human desire to construct explanations for other people’s behavior is very strong. Perhaps Joan derived a profound satisfaction from nurturing and taking care of Corrine-a satisfaction that tapped into her own needs. When Corrine married, Joan may have felt betrayed (and out of a job) because Corrine now had another person to care for her and be more central in her life. If this is so, Joan will probably never be aware of her feelings. Certainly, it wouldn’t be useful for Corrine to interpret Joan’s behavior to her, as if she were Joan’s therapist or had the answers. Joan may have been propelled out of the friendship by something that will remain a mystery to both women.
Corrine needed to keep in mind that the sad ending of this important friendship did not negate the fact that she and Joan had cared deeply for each other, and that they both gained something important during their six years of camaraderie. But the healing conversation Corrine hopes for probably won’t ever take place. Although it takes two people to form an intimate relationship, it takes only one to end it
Learning to Leave the Table
Corrine’s efforts to engage Joan in conversation made sense because something had propelled Joan into profound emotional distance. In other cases, relationships simply go through cycles of closeness and distance, and we don’t have to try to process everything. A good friend may simply drift away, lose interest, or find other friends to hang out with. Here, women could take a lesson from men, who can appreciate that not everything has to be addressed. When a friend is no longer as invested in the relationship as we are, we can learn to feel more at home with a distant or outside position.
Although it can be painful, sometimes a person we love seeks distance that we have to accept. Our friends are free to be friends with whomever they choose. Their feelings for us may wax and wane. We want everyone we love to be loyal and stable figures in our lives, but we can’t always have that. Change and impermanence are part of every relationship, and we can’t hold the clock still, much as we may try.
None of us can escape rejection and disappointment unless we sit mute in a corner and take no risks. If we live courageously, we will experience — and survive — rejections and losses that are not fair and not talked through. Sometimes in our lives the best course of action is to let go and move on. I wish I could give six easy steps to accomplish this goal with ease, grace, and efficiency. But it really does take time. We can’t just decide that letting go is the mature and reasonable thing to do, and then, “Poof! “ make it happen.
My college friend Ralph tacked a poster on his kitchen wall that said:
“YOU’VE GOT TO LEARN TO LEAVE THE TABLE WHEN LOVE’S NO LONGER BEING SERVED”
Ralph adored this poster, and so did I. I can still picture him sitting in the student union in Madison, Wisconsin, chanting those words like a mantra in his deep, sonorous voice and with great dramatic flair. Sometimes what we have to do is as simple-and as difficult — as that.
A caveat: My advice is different if you’ve been cut off by an important family member. Say you’re not welcome in your mother’s home or your adult daughter isn’t speaking to you. If that’s the case, the solution is not to leave the table.
Family therapist Monica McGoldrick notes that when people marry, they often make a vow in front of God and everybody to stay connected till “death do us part.” But we know that at least half of these marriages will end in divorce. Monica suggests that we might be wiser to make this vow instead to our parents and children. Marriage lasts for as long as it lasts, but we can’t orphan ourselves from our first family, even if we try.
In families, distance and cutoff don’t imply a lack of feeling, as we commonly assume. (“What kind of mother could abandon her child like that!” or “How heartless of him to neglect his mother that way!”) Rather, distance and cutoff speak to an intensity of emotion that makes contact too difficult.
“MY SON WON’T SPEAK TO ME!”
How do you not leave the table when a key family member has cut you off? What follows is a long story made short.
Jackie came to see me because her son, Gregory, a successful engineer in his twenties, wouldn’t speak to her. A year earlier Jackie had divorced Gregory’s dad and married her supervisor at work. Gregory saw his dad as the victimized, done-in partner, and he planted himself firmly in his father’s camp. Refusing all contact with his mother and her new husband, he said, “You and that man are never welcome in my house.” And, “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t have a mother.”
When I met with Jackie, she had already made a number of attempts to restore her connection with her son. She had tried to “reason” with him (which boiled down to trying to convince him to see things her way). She sent him a letter explaining his dad’s contribution to the problems in their marriage, which only intensified Greg’s loyalty to him. She showed up on her son’s doorstep, then cried on his front porch when he wouldn’t let her in. Finally, Jackie’s husband jumped on the bandwagon and wrote Gregory a letter telling him how hurt his mom was and asking him to please allow her back into his life.
These efforts, quite predictably, made things worse. Jackie then concluded that if Gregory was going to deny her existence, she had no option but to erase him from her life.
Walking a Fine Line
Jackie did need to accept the fact that her son might never speak to her again. But she discovered that she didn’t have to erase him from her life. As we’ve seen, finding a voice requires us to speak and act in accordance with our core values and beliefs — not from a place of emotional reactivity. An important family member may choose to treat us as if we don’t exist. But if it’s not congruent with our values to respond in kind, we shouldn’t. We need to define our differences.
Gregory’s position was, “I don’t have a mother.” Jackie’s position was, “I can’t pretend I don’t have a son.” This difference required Jackie to walk a very fine line. How does one stand for connection, while respecting the position of distance taken by the other party? With the help of therapy, Jackie was able to chart her course.
Jackie decided to send an occasional card, without requesting or expecting a response, and without trying to change Gregory’s mind in any way. In the first card, she wrote a short note acknowledging that her decision to divorce and remarry had caused him a great deal of pain. She said she understood that he needed space, and she didn’t want to be intrusive. She explained that she was sending a card because it was too painful for her to deny the existence of her own son — she couldn’t pretend that he didn’t exist.
Jackie continued to send cards on holidays and birthdays and to leave a brief phone message on the machine when there was important family news. (“I don’t know if you heard that Uncle Ed is having heart surgery next week.”) She reduced her expectations to zero in terms of getting a response. She also kept her communications brief, low-key, and well-spaced over time. To do otherwise would be to disregard the boundaries Gregory had set. In one birthday card, she told Gregory that she loved him and that if he ever wanted to talk or just meet briefly for a cup of coffee at any time in the future, she would like to do that. But she didn’t try to change or convince him. Jackie also began working on relationships in her own family of origin that were distant and cut off, and she put her primary focus there.
Two years into therapy, Jackie heard from her sister that Gregory was getting married. She sent a card congratulating him, then later sent a modest and thoughtful wedding gift. But it wasn’t until after Gregory and his wife, Marlene, adopted a baby boy that a crack appeared in the ice. Marlene called to thank Jackie for her baby gift, and to invite her to drop by the house on a weekday afternoon to see the baby. Jackie knew that Gregory would be at work, but graciously accepted the invitation without suggesting a different time. During this first meeting, both women were cordial and pleasant. Jackie talked about how adorable the baby was and resisted the temptation to talk about how hurt she was by Gregory’s rejection.
Jackie and Gregory connected for the first time almost four years after Jackie called me to initiate therapy. Gregory had slowly softened and began to include his mother in his new family. Their conversations focused on the baby, a neutral and delightful subject around which they could interact without intensity. But even if Gregory had never spoken to his mother again, Jackie was not going to be locked into total silence. Rather, she used her best thinking and intuition to find a balance between staying in touch and respecting her son’s wish for no contact. Obviously, Gregory could choose whether to read her cards, stick them unopened in a drawer, trash them, or return them unopened. One hopes for his sake that he will forgive his mother for the choices she made and that he will choose to include her in his new family. Such forgiveness is the very best gift he can give to himself and his son.
When it comes to family cutoff involving parents, grandparents, children, and siblings, I try to help people to be enormously patient for the rest of their lives. You can express the wish for connection (which is not the same as rescuing or bailing out an irresponsible family member) and stay in some contact. You can keep your heart open to the possibility that a conversation — even if it’s only about the weather — may one day occur. A reconciliation may never happen, but what’s important is where you stand.