Relationships that Work

by Muriel Lindahl

"Just coffee this morning!" I overheard a woman say to the waitress. "No breakfast?" questioned the waitress. "No, I just had to flee my house!" was her reply. I envisioned an invasion by the exterminators, plumbers, painters and decorators, or the fire chief taking over the place, so she had to "get out!" As the waitress brought the cup of coffee, she asked, "Is your mother still there?" "Yes," the woman said, "and I just had to have some peace." "I understand," said the waitress, "believe me, I understandā€¦believe meā€¦" and the two women shared their mutual problem.

All we know about this customer is that she's about 40-years-old, and she didn't want her usual breakfast. Maybe she already had breakfast with her mother. For some reason she was upset. Had her mother been too demanding, protective, critical or what? One can only speculate why she was having a bad start to her day. The waitress was about the same age and especially friendly with this regular customer. It appears they both have a very frustrating relationship with their mothers.

What makes the connection between waitress and customer both humorous and sad is that the exchange reflects the basic human problem of child-parent relationships. There is an underlying principle that neither participant in the dialogue seems to understand.

What is the nature of the love that exists between child and parent? What is there about the relationship that is so unique? Why does this relationship cause so many tensions and continuing problems in life? What seem to be the factors that will most often provoke such strong emotions, both positive and negative? Is there a difference in the relationship when the child grows older? If there is, then what makes the difference? These are some hard questions; but there are some answers.

It seems to me that the parent/child relationship is blessed with a special kind of love, uniquely designed, strong and powerful, that is capable of weathering many a storm. On the other hand, it is very vulnerable, susceptible to every wind and wave, suffering a little from every blow. The natural love between child and parent needs to develop and grow.

The love in this relationship is different from other kinds of love because a life is dependent on it! The child's life is dependent on the parent, and the parent has the responsibility for this dependency. Both child and parent will love with a dependent love, one that is filled with the powerful conflicting emotion of fear. Children are in a precarious situation. They have many fears concerning this love: fear of jeopardizing their parents' love in any way, fear of not loving enough or properly, fear of hurting or disappointing their parents, and fear of not receiving love in return. It's the fear of being abandoned. Parents, on the other hand, experience fear of having a responsibility for this life without the capability of handling it, or becoming weary and fatigued, a fear that the child will make them look "bad," as well as not receiving love in return. Guilt is a part of fear and is often present. Much anxiety is caused by these emotional conflicts between love and fear.

The natural growing up process is very simple. It is normal for children to start out with an idealized love for their parents, believing them to be all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful. But this changes! Questioning of this romantic love for a "perfect parent" and becoming disillusioned because the parent falls short of this fantasized image are the beginnings of a struggle between loving this parent on whom they are dependent for sustaining life and hating the parent for inconsistencies and weaknesses.

When children move on into adulthood and are no longer dependent on parents for sustaining their lives, the love in the relationship changes again. It will become an independent kind of love. Then the love for parents and for children is like the love for any other human being. It is simply the love of a friend, no strings attached, nothing dependent on it. Ideally, adult children are able to accept their parents, to love them genuinely for who they really are with all their imperfections and weaknesses. Such maturity goes beyond a belief in their omniscience and a disdain for their weakness to an acceptance and understanding, as well as gratitude for their part in the ongoing process of human life. Children now must take their place in this process as heirs. Independent love is mature love. The adult parents will be able to accept their children in the same way giving them their inherent independence. Children and parents are free, free to love each other in a beautiful friendship.

Perhaps the relationship between the women in the restaurant and their mothers had not achieved freedom. Or maybe they were reflecting on the frustrations that a normally good friendship sometimes experiences. In any event, in my judgment, it is absolutely imperative for humans to experience this growth in the relationship with parents! We cannot reach our full potential in any other way, for it determines our emotional growth and our ability to form any kind of personal working relationships.

Muriel Lindahl is a free-lance writer.

See all articles by Muriel Lindahl