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THE ENABLING PARENT
A while back, I jotted down some thoughts about a person I called “The Other Parent”. Since then, I’ve been collecting information and have concluded that there is a dearth of material on this subject. But I have expanded upon my initial ideas and hopefully this will lead to more research data in the future. These were my initial thoughts:
I’ve been experiencing a lot of counter-transference lately with my clients over “the other parent”; especially when the other parent is the mother. You may be wondering whom I’m referring to when I say the other parent. I’m referring to the parent who is not molesting their child in a household where a child is being molested. What about these parents anyway? Some of them really might not know, but if so, what planet are they living on? Most do know on some level but pretend not to. I’ll try not to sound too judgmental here; I’ll try and understand why this parent either has to look away and put up with the situation or else decides to in order to take the pressure off them. I realize that this other parent is missing something inside herself or himself that cleaves them to their mate. But regardless, I have an easier time empathizing with the molester whose compulsion drives them then with the pallid partner who is unable or unwilling to stand up for their child. It would be an oversimplification to say these other parents are weak and dependent. Perhaps many are. But I’m aware of some of them as being the rock in the household and/or the financial provider. And some of them pick their mates over their children even with the knowledge of what has taken place. I wish that I could come up with a diagnosis for “the other parent” so that I could find a way to understand them in my heart.
The more pressing need is to be able to meet my client emotionally in the place where they are; and usually what they want is to find some way to hold on to the other parent and justify their behavior. After all, that’s all they have left. I certainly understand that, but that is where my own counter-transference gets in the way. If I can’t find a way to understand the other parent, to find compassion for them, I can’t honestly guide my client along a path to reconciliation or co-existence. And what I really want to say is give up! I want to be your good other parent and help you move on. That isn’t usually what they want.
Sometimes the other parent makes my work clearer by their rejection of the client. But for the most part, the other parent doesn’t want to have to look at their own behavior; they want to get along with everyone and have the family continue on in what they consider a normal manner. Remember it is the victim who is usually viewed as the “identified patient”; no one else in the family really wants to do any work on themselves. I can only wait for my client to finally recognize that they have become too healthy to make an inherently dishonest situation work.
Since I wrote those thoughts I have come to recognize that the parent I was referring to has a more active participation in the family dynamic – she/he is not the other parent but the enabling parent. Not only do a large percentage of them know, they collude. By their tacit approval they provide a cover for the molester and a shield for themselves. In the process, many of them construct a scenario so that the victim becomes the ostracized family member, the troubled outsider. This becomes their rationalization. This child is crazy, is a liar, is difficult, is unstable. This child is not who I wanted him/her to be, does not behave the way I expected my child to behave. I cannot let this child tear my family apart.
Perhaps the enabling parent recognizes disowned parts of themselves in this child. Perhaps the enabling parent is playing out a familiar scenario from his/her own childhood. Regardless, the enabling parent is not another victim of the abuser; he/she is an integral part of the fabric of this family. The abuser married the type of individual who enables them to be who they are. This is the only partner they could choose. Because even though it probably wasn’t all consciously planned, it was what the abuser needed and the only outcome possible. We pick the partners we need – not necessarily the ones we want.
There are parents who truly don’t know that their children have been abused – but probably not if the child has been abused over an extended period of time. And the parents who truly don’t know, leave and take the child (children) as soon as they do find out. When dealing with survivors, I have found that it is important to help them understand the entire family dynamic – no matter how painful – in order for them to truly heal.
Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT
© Copyright 2013 by Roni Weisberg-Ross, therapist in Los Angeles, California . All rights reserved.