Change begins with conversation
Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own. The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.
Though my three siblings and I saw our parents as punitive and/or ineffective, it also became clear that they were far more successful building a satisfying marriage once we were no longer living with them. It’s not uncommon for relationships to improve (or collapse) once children have established their own lives and homes and parents are no longer responsible for raising them. In the case of my parents, they became fast friends during the latter half of their 60 year relationship and enjoyed many years of constant company—him reading his prayer books and she watching her soap operas or Judge Judy shows on TV, both in the same room. They moved together like a dance. Mom bragged for years how Dad fixed breakfast for her every morning, kept track of her medications, even polished her toenails when she was so inclined (so like the mother she longed for). Sunday afternoons they took their drive to City Island or to Graymoor (a Catholic shrine) – during the week they took off to circle Manhattan Island on the FDR and West Side Highways or to Sears for tools for Dad or kitchen gadgets for her. He sat patiently waiting for her while she fished through the many racks of blouses or slacks at Macy’s; she likewise while he poured over the new bits or blades for his electric saw. Oftentimes, they turned down invitations to come to my house, my sister’s or brother’s for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner because Mom had bought a turkey and was making a festive dinner for the two of them – complete with all the trimmings and Dad’s favorite mince pie. They were totally devoted to each other. They never argued because they knew what each wanted and felt, and they honored that in just about everything. Theirs was a marriage that clearly reached its heights when we were no longer around. Alone they flourished.
Remarkably, each of them has grown as individuals and parents as well. Without the competition and conflicts that came with parenthood, they were content and well cared for by each other and were therefore able to give more to us.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Dad became more and more open minded as we all aged. The topics that he was black and white about grow fewer and fewer. He had to accept the fact that each of us had moved away from religion and that much of what the Church teaches, we didn’t believe anymore, yet that never got in the way of his love for us. And that is the bedrock support I always longed for. He and I spoke honestly about our differences and though at one time we would have been vehemently on opposite sides of an issue – be it birth control, abortion, divorce or homosexuality – complete with his rage erupting (though passive with Mom, Dad was staunch, often virulent about the teachings of Catholicism) over the immorality of many of my positions, our later conversations were among the most accepting. Though we each remained utterly ourselves—very different in some of our beliefs, in tandem in others, we were no longer interested in proving one another wrong. This has made for a more adult, loving relationship. I never thought that my father would be capable of flexibility when it came to the Church and religion and his children’s unorthodox affiliations (my marriage to a Jew and our son being Bar-Mitzvahed, J’s joining the Quakers), yet he was. He found his earlier inflexibility narrow and somewhat pompous. Whereas he was once the one that all sins had to be kept from, he became the one who’d most readily accept any flaw in us.
Surprisingly for us, he learned a lot from Mom in that regard. She too had changed—with Dad exclusively hers (day to day), she was happier and therefore more generous with us. When she was supportive of one of us in the various questionable life decisions we made, she’d emphasize the importance of them as parents sticking by us and understanding that it was not a lack of good will that lead us away from their beliefs. That happened when I married for the second time and agreed to have our son named in Temple and Bar-Mitzvahed. Before I met Alan, Mom saw that I was lonely, and she wanted to see me married again and to a man who would be good to me. She didn’t really care that I was divorced and forbidden to marry in the eyes of the Church. She did not agree with such dictates. They were far too harsh and didn’t allow her child, me, to have what she felt I warranted – a partner for life like she had with Dad. That became Mom’s gift; if she was in your corner, she would lobby for you everywhere it counted. No one was a better support.
But Dad was torn when I decided to marry again and he actually considered not coming to our wedding—we were married in our home in a civil ceremony by a Justice of the Peace. Over Mom’s great tuna fish sandwiches and mugs of tea, the three of us sat in their dining room and talked openly about this.
Dad was first. You understand, Honey, that I might not be able to come to the wedding. The Church forbids it. By going, I’d be condoning the marriage.
“But Dad, you’re not my witness and you’re not giving permission: you’re a guest. How could the Church fault you for that?”
As far as the Church is concerned and I have to say I agree—you’re still married to M and have no right to marry again. You don’t have an annulment. Why don’t you try for one? Then you could be married by a priest.
“There’s no way I can get an annulment, Dad. The only grounds are if your contract was entered into dishonorably—one of us would have had to be lying when we exchanged those vows. To my knowledge neither of us were.”
Mom tried to help. Why don’t you talk to that nice young priest who just came to the parish? He’ll understand that you want to see your daughter married. There’s no sin in that. The Lord would never hold you back from celebrating with your daughter. Don’t go to the pastor; he’s too old school.
“I’ll try that,” Dad said. “I’ll talk to him after Mass tomorrow morning.”
Mom’s intervention here was wonderfully helpful to all of us; Dad wanted to see me happy and wanted to celebrate but was fearful of violating his commitment to the Church, and I wanted my Dad with me the day I married. Mom had already said, without an ounce of rancor towards either of us, that she would attend, but she hoped Dad would find his way to come too. Of course, he did. But not because he just went along with her; Dad’s commitment to being a good Catholic overruled his passivity when it came to Mom. But fortunately, he did choose to talk to that young liberal priest rather than the staunch conservative pastor who would have frowned on what he’d have seen as Dad’s implicit approval of an unholy, in fact sinful, union. I was very grateful to him for that and to Mom for encouraging him. Far from the mother who competed for dominance in every conversation or relationship, she stood by both of us and let Dad and me find our way to resolve a very difficult situation for both of us. And we managed to do that without anger or recrimination. Amazingly, without judgment. This was the Cusacks at our best—loving and accepting of one another’s differences and moving toward each other without compromising our individual beliefs.
Mom was also the first of the two of them to accept the fact that I would be raising my son Jewish—it is a great ‘shanda’ in Catholicism as it is in Judaism to bring up a child in another religion. But the decision for Alan and me was based on the fact that his parents had no other grandchildren and my parents had five—all baptized Catholic; it seemed fair that the Handlers’ one grandchild be Jewish. Remarkably for us, Mom, Dad and I talked about all of these things very openly and honestly as they came up. I made no attempt to hide things from them, and they made no attempt to change my mind or my direction. Our respect for each other was so complete during these times when it could easily have been fractured or collapsed. But we were closer during these moments than I had ever remembered us being.
One of my fondest and also most painful moments came when I had to tell Dad that I did intend to have a child and yes, he would be brought up Jewish. During another visit, Dad said,
Well, I went to see Father Hayes as I said I would. And Mom was right. He understood that I wanted to celebrate with you and he saw no reason why I shouldn’t.
“Oh Dad, I’m so glad.”
I’m glad too, Honey. He didn’t feel that it was any disrespect of the Church if I attended. My attendance doesn’t mean I condone the marriage. I told him there was no worry about children—you already close to 40.”
My stomach dropped. I’d hoped that the question of children wouldn’t come up for awhile. But I couldn’t pretend I had no plans to have a child.
“Dad,” I said, “It’s not true that I’m not considering having a child. Alan and I would like to try.”
The next part was unbearable to say, but I had to. Honesty was more important to me and Dad than anything. “We’ve also talked about what religion the child would be.”
Neither of us are religious so our decision comes down to what’s important to our parents.
That’s a difficult decision.
“It’s been hard—neither of us want to disappoint any of you.”
Well, you can’t very well avoid doing that, can you?
“We even had a few sessions with Alan’s therapist to talk about it.”
What did he have to say?
“He talked about the Jewish concern when children of intermarriages aren’t brought up Jewish. They’ve already lost so many in the Holocaust; they can’t bear to lose any more.
They were God’s Chosen People and look what they suffered.
“It’s true. Hard as it was for me to hear that, it made sense to me. I mean, the fact that you and Mom already have five grandchildren—all baptized Catholic—and the Handlers have none, it seemed fair that our child be brought up Jewish.
“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, Dad, but I can’t imagine just letting things happen and you finding out when my child is born.”
Dad was quiet for a long time. My heart was banging in my chest. Finally, he spoke.
Well, it looks like you’ve thought things out very carefully and nothing I can say will change your mind.
“I’m afraid not, Dad. Alan and I came to this together.
So I’m not going to try. I’m saddened that you won’t baptize your child. I think you’re making a mistake, but this is the last I’ll mention it. I’ll never hold this against Alan or you. And it will have no bearing on how much I love your child. Your son or daughter will be loved the same as the other 5.”
“Thanks, Daddy. That means everything to me. I’m so sorry I had to tell you this but you deserve the truth.”
Well, I know how hard it was for you to tell me this, Honey, and I love you all the more for being so honest. We sat beside each other, never closer, never so far apart. Life began again for us at that moment.
As is evident from these exchanges, both of my parents did change with age. Not completely but significantly so. All too often we abandon efforts at reconciliation out of the belief that people don’t change. That is not always so. In our case and I believe in many, change began with the commitment to talk to each other. To speak up for ourselves. My siblings and I had to learn how to do that and to the extent that we did, I believe we were more or less successful in reestablishing healthier relationships with our parents. But at the root of that success has been a commitment to be honest with each other. In my case, when my mother intruded I blocked her and explained why. Repetition of that message finally began to stir generosities and flexibilities in her. She lost one son who never did return because neither of them could get beyond their ancient anger. She knew that that could happen again. My sister, brother J and I refused to engage—and learned to either halt the conversation completely or come back to it later. At one point or another each of us stood up to our mother and continued to challenge her when she was out of line. There’s courage in that. It’s easier to say nothing. To walk away. To the extent that we had to to preserve our own sanity earlier on, we did walk away, but three of us eventually returned (to the extent that it was possible—i.e. without compromising our own mental health to duel or dance to her manipulations) shored up by a stronger belief in ourselves. And we talked. Neither Mom nor Dad were puzzled by our distances but grateful for the relationship that became possible on the other side of our decisions to stand up. Both C and I spoke openly to Dad about his passivity when it came to Mom. Remarkably, he spoke about his conversation with her on the road home from that devastating family weekend when they left. He told her what he thought (that she was wrong) as he claimed to have done many times after battles with us. He knew there’d ‘be no talking to her’ in the midst of one of her tantrums or outrages, but he insisted that he never let her behavior go without responding to it directly with her when they were alone. Sadly, we never knew that—only that he said nothing to refute what she said and so seemed to at least tacitly agree.
I know of no relationship—my own or those of the people I know personally and professionally that improved without conversation. In some cases, that speech was with the person with whom we were/are angry, but that is often not the case. Usually we start to open up to friends or loved ones that we trust. The tendency to hide from the truth of our own conflicted feelings or the wish to remain faithful to the other makes opening up extremely difficult. We don’t want to admit that the relationship is troubled or not working. Oftentimes, we claim responsibility for the failed relationship (as I did with my mother, brother and first husband) and rather than confront it, try to be more deserving of love. Other times, we do nothing and continue to walk into the same wall until the relationship explodes or fails on its own. Ideally, talk with loved ones leads to therapy. And therapy leads back to open conversation with the person with whom we are in conflict.
Many problems are so complex that they need to be decoded by a professional working in tandem with the person seeking help. That process often involves collision with defenses; hence the need to decode patterns of behavior and emotion. The person does not immediately see the connections between various conflicts in their lives and doesn’t recognize the fact that the person that they chose is the embodiment of the parent—the negative twists and turns that the relationship takes a replay of old unresolved conflicts. Nor does the person necessarily recognize that their inability to keep a job may well stem from their resistance to authority. Our defenses keep us blind. They started out as a way to keep the truth from our view—to protect us from the danger of knowing impenetrable truths about our relationship and circumstances. As I’ve mentioned before, however, these defenses may be outdated; one’s boss or spouse needs to be separated from our parent with whom the conflicts started. But keep in mind that these defenses were unconsciously designed to keep the truth from us—we are seldom equipped to decipher these on our own. That’s where the trained professional comes in.
Finally, the process of building trust is at the root of therapy’s challenges and is required for real change. The therapist may be thought of as the confessor, but more than the confessor; he or she becomes the good parent, the loving parent who accepts us unconditionally and whose goal is the facilitation of growth and wellness in us: to become our finest and healthiest selves. According to our own roadmap (not the therapist’s, not the parent’s, not the spouse’s). In such safe arms, we slowly come to confront and know who we are, eventually (hopefully!) accepting our humanity and rebuilding a self. This is a process; it’s a relationship between two people that develops and deepens over time. Trust is its bedrock and as such is hard-won; building it takes time and work. This is what we want for our patients, our families and our friends; this is what we want for ourselves. To the extent that we are successful, therapy is effective and healing. Change is possible. Intimacy is possible. Talk is critical.
Though this is the last in the Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust Series, I will continue to post articles on psychological issues and will introduce several related to the making of art. I hope you will continue to visit. Many thanks to you for listening….