Rhythm of Closeness—Part III

If he had loved her he wouldn’t have minded the distance.”


Wendell has been in recovery for quite some time now, but his mother and father haven’t. Even though Wendell is forty-six years old, his mother’s influence sticks to him like a spider’s web. He realizes that his mother has been guilt-tripping him into doing her bidding for years, manipulating him to stay in contact with her. Some of her favorite sticky phrases: “Your father misses you. You should see him more often. He won’t always be around, you know.” “I haven’t been feeling well lately. I always feel better when you come for a visit.”

Often Wendell’s mother places herself between him and his wife, Laurie. She gets him to side with her during arguments or to make choices in her favor regarding the smallest of things, such as where they should go for dinner. Laurie is furious about half the time they’re all together, and Wendell’s mother seems to thrive on upsetting her. Laurie has finally demanded that Wendell put her needs before his mother’s maneuverings. This has made Wendell’s mother come after him even more.

After much therapy and work in a men’s group, Wendell has finally decided to break this cycle of addictive behavior, to alter rhythms he and his mother have unwittingly danced to over the years. He has decided that he must create boundaries strong enough to resist her barrage of guilt. Until he manages that, he doesn’t want to see her for a while, but he’s afraid to tell her this. He’s still not completely convinced that he has a genuine right to establish his own personal rhythm of closeness with the woman who brought him into the world.

A hallmark of a healthy relationship is the freedom to choose how often to get together and how long to stay apart. The rhythm is defined by the needs of each individual adult. As children we had to come to our parents when they called us or else we’d suffer the consequences. But this rhythm didn’t work in reverse; the adults in our lives didn’t have to do our bidding unless they chose to do so. Today, when our mothers or fathers want us, many of us still feel like children, as though we would be breaking the rules if we didn’t come when called. If, as adults, we still fear punishment by our parents, we have some deep work to do, especially if our parents are shaming, guilting, withdrawing from, or disowning us because we are trying to find our own rhythms of closeness.

If Wendell continues to be afraid of establishing a rhythm that works with his mother, he’ll find it difficult to find his rhythm with others—particularly with his wife. He will move to other people’s rhythms more often than his own, and he’ll continue to stumble through life.

Members of a well-functioning family, group, community, or support network encourage each other to take their time and space, to connect when they’re ready. They honor another’s need to withdraw for a while in order to re-evaluate his or her role in the relationship. A healthy mother might say something like, “I understand you need time away from me. I’ll miss you, but take all the time and distance you need. Call when you’re ready, and I’ll be glad to talk if it’s at a time that works for both of us. Until then know that, whether you’re near or far away, I’ll always love and respect you.” At such moments, we are supported as we work through any fear of separation and we can freely speak our truth to mother, father, or friend. Love doesn’t mean we have to let someone trample our boundaries. Quite the opposite. The stronger our boundaries, the greater the intimacy. Nor does it mean going to see our family when we really don’t want to. After all, when we get there, we’re only partly present, and everyone will feel it. That’s fear and guilt, not love. In contrast, the rhythm of love goes something like this: “I’m glad to see you and I bring all of me to you. I feel seen by you and heard by you and want to see and hear you, too.”

At the end of a lecture I gave in Vancouver, a woman said, “I heard you talk about how to love appropriately and how to connect with your children. Sometimes I feel so lonely. My husband and I have been divorced for five years and I just haven’t been able to find anyone that I really am attracted to. When I’m feeling really lonely I call my six-year-old son over and ask him to give me a hug. And he does, and I feel better, but should I be worried that I’m doing something really wrong and harmful to him?”

I replied that a six-year-old’s body and soul are not equipped to meet the psychosexual needs of a mother who longs for adult companionship. Nor would it be appropriate for a son, of any age, to give such companionship to his mother. It is the mother’s responsibility to create a network of supportive friends and family who can meet those needs. Her natural longing for touch should be met by people who are equipped to deal with the mutual outflow and inflow of energy that comes between two adults during closeness and intimacy. This will give her a full reservoir of energy, so that when her son needs a hug she has plenty to give, rather than bringing her own neediness to him. Otherwise her loneliness will pull at the boy’s body, draining it, making it difficult for him later on to enter adult relationships based on an equal flow of giving and receiving. This awkward, unhealthy exchange of energy will teach him to find lovers who’ll take from him the way his mother did. Or he will look to his children to fill his longing. He’ll remain unsure about when to stay, when to leave, or whether he’ll ever be able to live according to his own internal rhythms of closeness and distance.

It wasn’t the answer the woman wanted, but she appeared to hear it just the same.

John Lee

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John Lee has been a leader and author in men’s health issues for over a decade. Lee began his career as a professor at Austin Community College, the University of Alabama, and the University of Texas. He has written 18 self-help, psychology, recovery, creativity, or relationship non-fiction books that explore men’s health issues, like alcoholism and co-dependency. In addition to literature, Lee has advocated for the maintenance and improvement of men’s health in magazines, like Newsweek and on shows such as Oprah and 20/20. In 1986, Lee co-founded Primary, Emotional, Energy, Recovery (P.E.E.R.), a training program for counselors, social workers, and psychotherapists. Two years later, he founded and directed Austin’s Men’s Center, a counseling center that specializes in men’s issues. In the late 1980’s, he opened his own private practice in Austin, Texas specializing in men’s issues, relationships, adult children of alcoholics, and co-dependency. His latest two books, The Anger Solution and When the Buddha Met Bubba, are on sale now on Amazon.com. More information about John Lee can be found on his web site http://www.johnleebooks.com and on his daily blog at http://openingtheheartnow.blogspot.com.
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