Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust X: Breaking the Silence

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 see.

“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….


Psychology Today

Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust IX: Forgiveness, Finally But first understand the dysfunction

Roadblocks IX.jpg

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.

As I’ve explored in the Roadblocks series, the root of my family’s dysfunction was my mother’s insatiable need to possess us, exacerbated by my father’s passivity. Though conversation between me and my father over the years clarified much about him, this was not the case with my mother. Closure for me would only be possible with a clear understanding of my mother’s pathology and its origins. That might make forgiveness possible for me. I needed to know about her early life. Remarkably, she offered it.

Close to her death, Mom spoke to me for the first time of the death of her mother. Prior to that we only knew that she had died when Mom was quite young, and we surmised details from what we overheard as children from Aunt Eileen. But never from Mom. She finally spoke of her mother dying in childbirth while she watched from the doorway and of the deafening silence that descended on the house afterward and how her Mom was washed, dressed and waked in the bed that she died in. (The wake is the Catholic period of three days prior to the funeral when the person is “laid out’ for all of the family and friends to come to ‘pay their respects’).  While this was a way of life in Ireland, it must have been a brutally painful thing for these children to grasp that their Mom was dead in her bed and would never return to them.

Sometime after Mom told me about her mother she asked me why I thought she needed so much from her own children. I pointed out that having lost her own mother at such a young and vulnerable age, she was forever hungry to replace that love. For the first time in many months, she became very angry with me—not because I said that she was so hungry but because I mentioned her mother. She insisted that she had never told me about her and though she seemed to later relent that perhaps she did, I had violated some very vital trust in mentioning her. That was the last time that she’d discuss her childhood with me, she said. My interpretation was that my mention of her mother in some way took her away from Mom. Up until I spoke her name and referred to her, she had remained locked in my mother’s heart and was Mom’s alone. Somehow I was now claiming her by talking about her.

Ironically, considering Mom’s reaction to that conversation, but not surprisingly, most painful of all for Mom was the utter silence that followed the burial of her mother. No one spoke of her again. It was as if she never lived. The Irish are known for keeping feelings locked inside their hearts and this was a stark example of that; if you don’t mention the person, no one will hurt. (This is such a common belief, and so unfortunate; the person is totally isolated with their loss and pain). “The less said the better” was a phrase that I heard all my life from Mom. The family must go on living without this person so what is the good of talking about them. They are gone. But what does a child do with the hole that’s left in her chest? How does she bear the heartbreak? She adopts the baby Dan, who is left motherless at birth and is quietly blamed for her death. She becomes the mother and is adored as the love of Dan’s life. (The two ways of being adored are as child to the mother and as mother to the child). But ultimately, she is not enough to erase his profound guilt, and at 13, he disappears as well and is never heard from. Until he reappears in England 75 years later just months before his own death. My chest heaves with the weight of that loss. Add to that, the ultimate disappearance of her own son, S, the one most like her in the family. Like her, he insisted on total loyalty —his particular brand of loyalty—and devotion. Ultimately, she lost him as well—but this time it was not chance and circumstance, but rather her own narcissistic image rejecting her. Three major losses—her mother, her brother, her son. I cannot imagine the heart that bears that grief. I suspect that even Dad, the devoted staunchly loyal son of his father was not quite enough for Mom; yet more than anyone he came closest. Mom knew that Dad loved her and would stand beside or behind her at any cost. He would not leave her.

Clearly, though, our love was not enough. Until the end. Prior to that she wanted to possess us—needed us to be there with her forever as her mother and Dan were not. Each time we moved away, the harsh pain of abandonment attacked. She’d try harder to pull us back and lash out as we resisted. Though she wanted us to be educated so that we’d be able to rely on ourselves economically, she was unprepared for our emotional independence. To the extent that we remained dependent, she was satisfied; as we grew less dependent on her, she grew more critical and angry. Ironically, the very essence of mothering means a letting go—preparing one’s children to live without us in the world. Readying them to no longer need us for survival—physical and emotional—and encouraging them to place themselves at the center of their own lives. As they grow, friends and lovers become increasingly more important until such time that they choose a life partner with whom they set up a home. This process of gradual loss and replacement of her with ourselves, the world and a spouse must have been unbearable for Mom. And it wasn’t until she got sick that she knew she had us back. There was no doubt where our allegiances lay. She was the center and we turned all of our energies to making her days better. Despite all that had transpired in her role as mother, what is surprising and admirable is how well she adjusted to her barren early life and how hard she fought to have the life that she longed for. She certainly chose the right man in Dad. Only God came before her and for a religious Irish person like herself, God may have been the only acceptable competitor. Thankfully, Mom lived most of her life feeling loved by her husband and during her last days, feeling loved by her children.

The loss of a mother is the most devastating event in any child’s life. And has lifelong psychological effects. Parents aren’t supposed to die; they are perceived as invulnerable by the child and the loss is incomprehensible. The wound is violent: the child’s center, his/her spiritual and emotional home has been torn from them. Voracious for love, the child forever seeks out a replacement. Once found, however, the child expects him/her to disappear at any moment. Hence, the anger that erupts with spouses and children. They can never be enough. They cannot be trusted. Loved ones leave. Mothers die. In my mother’s case, cherished brothers (adopted children) disappear. Even sons disappear. The tragedy is that her frantic possessiveness and distrust are what often precludes her being fully loved because the impulse of the person possessed is to be resentful and to run. To be free of the enormous need of the loved one—who can’t be satisfied. I believe that consciously my mother wanted to be a good mother, wanted us to be happy, wanted to tend to and love us. But she was so driven by hunger and unconscious resentments that the anger leaked out: we didn’t always prefer her to Dad; we were going to abandon her again just like her own mother did and her brother; we loved someone in addition to her, so we abandoned her; we had a mom and she didn’t. This last was probably the root of most of the anger. And the envy. So she rejected C because she believed that C favored Dad; she tied me to her and made sure that my siblings hated me, so that I was hers alone. Interestingly enough, she told me once that when C was born she became the favorite of Dad’s sisters (and they ‘took over’ the baby when they visited); then when S was born, the first boy, they did the same thing, so when I was born she swore to herself, “This one is mine. So I never let anyone near you. Everyone says you look a lot like Aunt May, but you’re more like my mother than anyone.”

One Sunday afternoon while I was in East Hampton and she was at Calvary Hospital (she had inoperable pancreatic cancer), I stood in the kitchen washing lettuce and talking to her on the phone. The kitchen was filled with family and friends as it often is in our house (this is very important to me, given the smallness of our Edgewater home and my mother’s reclusiveness)—my friend and her husband, my husband Alan, and David, our son—all preparing different parts of dinner while she and I chatted. I was feeling sad and somewhat guilty for having so much fun and so far away while she was sick in the hospital, I never got over my guilt at not putting her first. She insisted that I needed to have time for myself and my family—meaning Alan and David—and she was happy to know that I got time to do that since I spent so much time during the week at the hospital. I knew she meant that. We were loving each other openly in that phone call when out of nowhere, she said, I’m sorry, Joanie, for all those years ago taking back the money I loaned you to give it to S. It was the first time she ever spoke of that incident—prior to that, anytime I mentioned it, she claimed it never happened or she was defensive and angry. This time, she was simply sorry. I was very moved and grateful and thanked her for admitting that. It was the first apology from her that I can recall.

That openness continued uninterrupted during the six months before her death that she was hospitalized. At one point she told me not to look for S (we had not told her that we already had) because she was sure that, if he came, he would hurt everyone in the process. We were all suffering enough; she didn’t want us to hurt anymore. I believe she meant that too. Another instance stands out in my memory that shows her sense of humor. I was supposed to go on a cruise with Alan and our friends, and she knew I was planning to cancel (which I did). She kept trying to convince me to go, insisting she’d hold out till I got back; if she didn’t, she said, she’d tell the doctors “to put me in the deep freeze” until I returned. She kept us laughing as much as possible. Though she was very sad at leaving us, particularly Dad, she seemed genuinely at peace, almost happy. Thankfully, she suffered very little pain.

The most painful aspect of the illness, however, occurred when it started to attack her brain and great psychic pain poured out of her. She kept trying to get out of bed and Dad and the nurses were hard-pressed to keep her from doing so. She wanted to go home. She kept calling out for her mother and Dan, her beloved brother. From one delirium, she spoke with great anguish of a miscarriage she’d had many years before that she claimed to never have told Dad about. I’m not sure if that was the same one he referenced to me in one of our talks, but she responded as if she blamed herself for the loss of this child. Another time, particularly sad for both of us, was when she shot up in bed crying to me, Joanie, Why don’t you love me?! “But I do,” I answered. Yes, but not enough! she cried out. It was heartbreaking. For both of us. How sad that she had to know that. How sad that it was (or rather had been) true. It was her greatest fear all of her life that I (or any of the family) would not love her enough and indeed her voracious hunger resulted in just that. The more she tried to pull me closer, the more I pulled away. That was a great sadness.

I ended up doing battle with the doctors who refused to give her antidepressants to quiet her anxiety and her chaotic brain, but I insisted and used my professional influence (and my big mouth!) to finally get them to concur. Once she was on a daily regimen of medication, her psychotic outbursts ended. In all other ways, she was beautifully cared for at Calvary Hospital and the illness that had progressed so far as to predict only six to eight weeks at the beginning did not get her for a full six months. None of the medical team could believe how strong and resilient she was; several times her condition deteriorated, but each time she revived—seemingly stronger, more vibrant than before. She was formidable. She refused to go until she was ready.  Without saying all she had to. She died on October 30, 1998. She was 88. Ironically, the night she died, at precisely the same hour, a self-portrait of S’s that hung above the fireplace in J’s home, came crashing to the floor. No one had touched it. It had been hanging there securely for 18 years. This night it fell.

Depending on how one looks at it, it is either profoundly sad or a profound blessing that Mom opened up to us on her deathbed. I prefer the cup half full; had my mother never softened and let us in, she would have died feeling unloved and without any of us really knowing her and without her really knowing us—particularly me. Though Catherine never stopped trying to connect with her, I had shut her out almost completely. Having had the chance to know her and in many ways, more importantly, to love her unconditionally was a great gift to me. The death of a parent or loved one does not mark the end of a relationship; it arrests or freezes that relationship within the frame that it last lived. We are left with who the person was in life but also in their dying. Fortunately for me and my family, Mom left us with the sense that we were loved by a very loving mother. True, it doesn’t wipe out all that came before, but it certainly provides another framework through which to know and remember her, and most importantly, to forgive her. For that I am deeply grateful. And I love her.


As may well have been predicted by psychology, the wounds that descended on my family from my mother’s tragic loss of her mother and her father’s refusal to speak about it, to my father’s failure to stand up for us, to my brothers’ refusal to open up and possibly even move beyond history, to my sister’s and my tempered success at building a friendship later in our lives, silence was the cancer that attacked my family and silence that damaged us. Had my mother come from a home that encouraged speaking about grief and sharing pain, her mother may have lived a longer time in my mother’s life through family conversation and storytelling; the closeness to her father and her siblings would have deepened had they known how to open up and talk to each other. As I think about a household that never gave words to such tragedy, I cannot imagine the loneliness that arrested each of them from my grandfather to my mother and her six siblings; it’s remarkable that they all (except Dan) married, had families, and lived lives they appeared to regard as worthwhile, perhaps even good—a tribute to their character, resilience, and their father’s love.

Psychology Today

Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust: VIII Parenthood? Not Sure? This Time the Ambivalence Is My Own

Roadblocks VIII

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.

Just as there is no universally correct way to live a life –i.e. in a committed relationship or single, so also is this true for the decision to have or not have children. The choice is individual and varies with the needs and wants of each person. One of the most critical decisions one makes in a lifetime, it changes the trajectory of one’s own life and has lasting effects on the child that might result. It follows that a certain level of ambivalence is natural with such a major life choice and needs to be examined thoroughly.

Not only is the commitment of the individual great but the changes that result in the relationship between the parents are also significant and need careful consideration- specifically, open conversation about how each feels about the prospect of parenthood and the concerns of each. Therapy at this time can be instrumental in assisting the couple identify the source and intensity of the ambivalence for each and, in turn, the best course of action. (It’s important to note that the decision to have a child with a reluctant partner puts strains on the relationship as well as on the two people (and the child!); it brings with it additional burdens on the willing parent and resentment on both sides for the lack of attention of his/her partner).

Regrettably, too often people choose by not choosing and glide blindly into parenthood as if it’s the inevitable purpose and direction of every life and relationship–not surprising given the external pressure one receives to decide in favor of parenthood–it’s the norm, what society expects, family wants, and what we believe we should do. The undecided person struggles emotionally–feeling guilty for not wanting a child or children, for not embracing the prospect with excitement, seeing oneself as selfish. One way that people avoid the dilemma of making what feels like an impossible decision is to have sex without protection. The resulting pregnancy is viewed (incorrectly!) as accidental—but that’s not the case; the fact that two people have sex without protection suggests strongly that there’s a wish for pregnancy, conscious or unconscious. (And if it is done without the knowledge of the partner, it reflects a serious trust issue that often has lasting effects on the relationship –and, once again, the innocent child. Children have a right to be wanted and loved—an individual going against his/her natural inclination can threaten that). Clearly, It’s a critical decision that deserves in depth consideration–one I’ve met over and over professionally and in my own life as well.

Though I had happily taken care of my younger brother during our early years as if he were my own child and had lots of babysitting jobs and several delicious nieces and nephews, I was not prepared to be a mother. Perhaps because of my mother’s obviously ambivalent feelings about her children—adoring us on the one hand and resentful and competitive with us on the other, I was never drawn to motherhood. I didn’t think I’d love a child. I certainly didn’t want to give up my life and everything I’d so worked for to care for a child or children. My experience was that men left all childcare to women, and they were the ones who got to be ambitious and the trailblazers professionally. Women in my generation (raised in the 1950s and 60s) set aside their own ambitions and wrapped their lives around that of their husbands and children. I wanted too much from life to be satisfied with such a secondary position in my own life.

I dreamed of driving a car, working and traveling. I didn’t want my mother’s life. Mom gave us her food, her dessert; we had beautiful clothes; hers were plain and frumpy; she seemed to want nothing for herself but to be the center of our family. She claimed to need nothing except the pleasure of taking care of us. The exact opposite, no part of me wanted to be a stay at home Mom and could be satisfied with only a child for company. Because I didn’t feel the maternal pull that other girls and women spoke of, I concluded that I wasn’t meant to be a mother and wouldn’t make a good one. During my first marriage, my husband didn’t want children (he subsequently had four!) and I let that be my decision as well. Once divorced, I was sure my chance of motherhood was finished, and I was fine with that.

Then I met Alan. It was clear early on that he wanted a child.

“I’ve never been able to decide.” I confessed. “I’m afraid I won’t love a child.”

You’re a loving person, how could you not love a child? Especially ours.

“I’ve never even felt the pull to motherhood. Every woman I know with children was dying to have them. Most can’t wait.”

Not feeling drawn to it doesn’t preclude the ability to mother.

“Most of the men I know leave the mothering to the woman. I’d hate that.

Think of who you’re talking to. I’m already pretty domestic—cooking and doing the food shopping. It’s unlikely that I’ll suddenly turn into the macho man who has nothing to do with home, hearth and babies.

I let his trust in me and in himself decide for me. It was true that he was far from the traditional uninvolved man I was accustomed to—he cared as much about how we furnished our home and what we had for dinner as I did. There was no reason why he’d suddenly change when it came to a child. I was as convinced about him as I could be with no actual test, but I remained very frightened about my own instincts. I started to work with an analyst he’d studied with (I’d decided that I wanted to work with a woman) who seemed to be the perfect person to accompany me on this journey to yet another potentially dark place inside myself. And so she was; we worked hard those long months and for years after. I longed to feel the excitement that I saw in other women over their pregnancy and impending parenthood. While I was thrilled when I first found out that I was going to have a baby—it had worked!—that excitement was short lived and very soon was shouldered out by all my self-doubts and terrors. All my life I suffered from serious doubts about my ability to be the stand-up caring person that my loves, family and friends, deserved. But this was the most profound test I’d ever faced.

I was cowed by the finality of it too. Once I decided to have the child, there’d be no no turning back. I’d be a parent for the rest of my life—responsible for the health, physical, emotional, and psychological of this new person in the world. It was daunting. Though I took very good care of myself physically and had a very healthy pregnancy—I stopped smoking, drinking wine and coffee, took vitamins and walked as often and wherever I could, I was in constant terror emotionally. Fortunately, Alan was right there beside me throughout, reassuring me that he had total trust in my ability to love and mother a child.

Then in the latter weeks of my ninth month, I slipped on the damp pavement coming into our apartment house and broke my ankle. It was raining out and I was wearing flip-flops! Always quick to indict myself and feeling profoundly guilty for whatever unconscious need I might have had to sabotage this pregnancy, I had to ask myself what conflict that fall would resolve (was I trying to hurt the baby?! I couldn’t bear that thought). Always kinder and more accepting when it came to assigning blame, Alan posed another, far more benign unconscious scenario, I guess you wanted to be my baby for awhile. We laughed, and I, relieved and grateful, became his baby. I lounged around the house in pretty nightgowns with him bringing me ice cream and sexy novels. I had longer polished fingernails than I’d ever had before or since.

David, our beloved David (and beloved is in fact what his name means), was born at 9:49 P.M. on July 24, 1980. From the moment I laid eyes on him, I loved him without reservation. He’s a loving son who lights up every room he enters, and he certainly added a dimension to my life that I never knew was possible. (I’ve often thought of how kind Mother Nature is in not allowing us to have any sense of what we’re missing without children. The loss would be unfathomable if we knew in advance what we know and feel once a child has entered our lives).

Happily, being a mother did and does come naturally to me. Truly loving does bring with it the wish and impulse to care for.  At 37, David is married and an amazing father and one of the finest human beings I know—smart, witty and very kind and a wonderful friend to Alan and I as well as to his many fine friends. We see each other as often as we can and share as much as possible in one another’s lives, yet we are separate, three distinct personalities that blend beautifully to make a family.

Not surprisingly, this success didn’t come out of nowhere. First and perhaps foremost is the fact that we “lucked out” with David. He’d always been an easy loving child—peaceful even in utero. Add to that the fact that Alan and I were totally committed as parents. Because we were older when we had David, we were content to spend a great deal of time nesting at home and being a family. Though we each had our own lives as did our marriage, we were ready to slow down. We’d each traveled and lived a great deal before we met so that David didn’t interrupt or short-circuit any of our dreams. Despite the fact that I’d been so anxious and ambivalent during my pregnancy, the intense work I did in therapy confronting these feelings left me emotionally prepared and free to love him without pause or ambivalence once he was born. It was his time and time for us as a family. We were ready for him and each loved being parents.

It’s always struck me as amazing that such extreme doubt could be followed by such assurance and pure joy. I’ve long wondered if this and the fact that I didn’t experience any postpartum depression was at least partially the result of my having so confronted the negative feelings I had about mothering that they were truly dissipated (or at least significantly reduced). I’ve always wanted to do a research study of the possible connection between postpartum depression and the confrontation of the ambivalence that comes with motherhood—specifically, is postpartum more prevalent in women who have not confronted the negative side of the ambivalence that is part and parcel of pregnancy? If so, it would follow that because I’d only confronted the negative, mostly positive feelings remained.

Another factor in our family’s success is that Alan and I have been meticulous in our efforts not to repeat the sins of our parents. Not that we’ve been fully successful but we’ve both kept these and David’s vulnerabilities in front of us along the way and have used these to teach us how to parent him. David was (and remains) very sensitive and meticulous in his wish to please (so like Alan and I in this); therefore, it’s been extremely important for us to underscore for him his own uniqueness and his right to his own life—his choices and paths. Our goal has always been to help guide him while staying out of his way as he begins to create himself and listen to the voices in his own head. He is clear that his life is his own and that we will support him in every way as he lives it. Given my wish for support from my father when my mother abused us or distorted the truth, I’m particularly proud of the fact that Alan and I demand the best parenting from ourselves and each other. If we don’t concur on a point, David usually knows. We’re not afraid to openly disagree with each other about the route we’re taking with him. If one of us is excessively demanding (that would probably be me) or critical (more likely Alan), David can count on the other of us to stand up for him. And we talk. A lot. To each other. As duos and as trio. In our family, no one person is more (or less) important than any other. Our son is included in all decisions that effect him/our family. His vote counts. It always has. He knows it and he exercises it.

Though it may seem like I’m peacocking excessively here or that I’m presenting a perfect picture of the making of a family, forgive me. The picture and the road have not been/are not perfect and smooth sailing throughout—we’ve had the same harangues and troubles that any family does—but we’ve never stopped working on it. And talking to each other! Perhaps that is what the peacocking is about—my pride in our efforts, our conversations, and our commitment to each other. Though we slip and slide as humans do, we are ever conscious to try not to take each other or our family for granted. It is the great gift of our marriage and family and our work in progress. We are blessed.

Psychology Today

Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust VII The Struggle Towards Commitment

Roadblocks VII

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.


I’d been single for over eight years and complained bitterly to my therapist that the only men I met were either unavailable or competitive: committed to proving they were smarter than me, when he suggested that I attend a psychology conference going on that weekend at NYU where I was studying for my doctorate. I hated conferences but decided to go out of a commitment to not turn away from any reasonable opportunity to meet a man with whom I could potentially develop a consistent relationship. My therapy had brought out the fact that though consciously I wanted to marry again, my past history—namely conflicted relationships with my mother, brother, and ex-husband resulted in my unconsciously ‘choosing’ men with whom I could not find permanence (either married or emotionally unavailable). So my needs for intimacy where taken care of, albeit temporarily and to a limited extent, by dating men who offered nothing beyond a pleasant evening or series of evenings. It’s important to note here the reason for the unconscious sabotage. What I wanted consciously conflicted with what compelled me unconsciously. Though I desperately wanted to have a committed relationship, unconsciously I didn’t believe that men were trustworthy. My experience growing up taught me that. The people that I loved abandoned me; loved me conditionally and only sporadically. So my protection against repeating what I knew would be ambivalent love, was to choose ambivalent lovers—men who would prove that I was right. They too were unsure about or incapable of a stable relationship. That way I was safe. I could have closeness without danger of permanency. Intimacy with a truly loving man was a fiction. Hence I had to protect myself from the possibility of a permanent relationship. Going to the conference was part of my commitment to take the chance of meeting available men.

And so I went to the conference. There I met Alan—tall, gloriously tall, good-looking and shy. Not surprisingly, beyond the thrill of his height and attractiveness, it was his shyness that caught me most. Like me, he was clearly not comfortable in these forced meetings, and it showed on his face. His handsome confident features were softened to those of a young boy when he entered the room. I recognized the self-conscious movements—the tentative smile, the eyes that searched the room for a friendly face. I was drawn to him as to a friend I had known for years. I was amazed to see a man so open and vulnerable yet so stately and elegant. Most men carried themselves with reserve and postured strength and invulnerability. It took many meetings for the softness to be revealed. Yet here was a man who clearly did not posture; he was not armed with any persona but his own. He was utterly human.

That was February,1978. One year and one half later, we were married in the house he was building when I met him. The following July, we had our son, David. Last September we celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary.

Ours is a rich life; we are very good friends and we love each other dearly. He is a very funny man and we laugh a lot—as often as possible in fact. More than anyone I know, except my best friend Carol, Alan has supported me in every way. He fully believes in me and has been the one who stood beside me in every new venture—from teasing out the research, typing my dissertation and cooking meals while I rested during the final stages of my doctorate (I graduated with my Ph.D. in June of 1979 during our first year together), to encouraging me to finally start writing (poetry) which I had long talked about but never seriously pursued, to supporting and providing the seed and sustenance money for the literary press I started a few years ago at a time when, following our son’s graduation from conservatory (he is a violinist and composer), he expected that we would retire to no commitments and total freedom. More than anything, our life is enriched by our deep trust and utter commitment to each other.

That is not to say that it has been clear sailing throughout. Though we were in love pretty much from the outset, with the issues that each of us came with, our relationship has been clearly challenged—several times. Besides the fact that we were different religions, which did not matter to us but caused a great deal of conflict in his family, we both came from powerful, controlling mothers and kind but passive fathers. Alan had never been married before –he was 40 when we married and like my mother, his felt that no one was good enough for him. Though I was fine intellectually and professionally, I was too tall and I was not Jewish. But the rejection was far more primitive than any of these things. These were the things his mother hung her hat on. More than anything, she was enraged when Alan, her only and always compliant son, stood up to her and married me despite her disapproval. He had finally said ‘no’ to her as I had said ‘no’ to my Mom—ironically both refusals regarding marriages. He had crossed a line – separating his will from hers – and he refused to be pulled back no matter how she tried. She was everlastingly injured (she died 10 or so years later without ever having made peace with him: though she continued to see us, she continued to be wounded and critical of him) and she took out her pain in harsh and bitter ways on both of us.

Thus, we were both always expecting criticism and were hypersensitive to any suggestion of control. This made for very difficult ‘exchanges’ of ideas and differences of opinion. To complicate things, because our fathers were each powerless with our mothers, we always regarded ourselves as alone and without protection. We could not count on anyone to come through in a pure and loving way for us and that transferred eventually into a deep mistrust of each other. Yet, in order to develop a deeply intimate relationship, we’d have to open up in ways that we hadn’t since childhood. That meant being vulnerable to each other in much the same way we were with our parents. Terror—conscious or not – went with that nakedness. Though we each craved closeness, closeness could be dangerous. We began the dance of moving towards each other then away.

Because we each expected the other to do what our mother’s did, namely, dictate and control, we responded as such. So, when he, a quiet man generally, became silent in anger and did not speak, I not only felt the frustration and pain of being what seemed like frozen out, but also a groundswell of those feelings associated with my mother’s silences that I had repressed for so long. Rather than regarding his silence as a natural response from an otherwise quiet man, I saw it as something he was doing to me, something he was withholding from me—a punishment perhaps, like my mother’s refusal to speak then her demands for kisses. Likewise, he saw my crying and pleading for him to speak as histrionic demands reminiscent of his mother’s emotional manipulations. Hurt and tears were part of both hers and my emotional apparatus but Alan’s resistance and rage over mine (which resulted in even greater silence—he’d walk away and refuse to deal with me at all) was associated more with the powerlessness he felt as a boy with a mother he could not please, than it had to do with me. So whatever anger or frustration we felt in the current situation was intensified by the well of rage and mistrust that we carried with us from childhood. So arguments accelerated rapidly into battles. We saw our spouses as repeats of our parents.

Both very vulnerable to criticism, we took opposite routes to defending against it. Alan emulating his mother, took on her disapproving tone in his dealings with me who, in this psychological triangle, had become the replacement of himself. I, in turn tried to inhibit or stifle the criticism by ‘dancing as fast as I could’ (as I had with my mother, Sonny and ex-husband!) – trying to anticipate his wants and needs and wrapping myself around these, meanwhile harboring resentment for his failure to turn himself inside out for me. When the inevitable criticism lunged, I was devastated that one so devoted and giving as I could be treated so poorly. Wounded and desperate for his approval and reassurance, I’d pursue him relentlessly until he refused to continue the argument and left the room.

So into this room with two people who love each other (or at least thought they did until this bonfire erupted), come two strangers, too crazy nasty strangers who have to be warded off or defeated. Marital therapy which we pursued during two particularly painful crises, states that there are actually six people in a marriage—the couple and both sets of parents. Acceptance of parents in the closet, sitting at the breakfast table and under the bed may not be a comfortable concept, but it is real and it is helpful. And it’s the only way I know of to make sense of the multitude of fixes and deadlocks that are part of every marriage. Therapy provided us with an objective third party listener/observer who helped us tease out what belonged to us personally and to our interaction and what belonged to old unresolved wounds and betrayals that we were acting out.

People often wonder what it is for two psychologists to marry and I’d say that we have the same problems as all married couples but we have a framework and a vocabulary for understanding or approaching them. But clearly that didn’t mean we could always ‘fix’ them ourselves—like everyone else, we’ve needed an objective person to help us tease out what is actually going on. What belongs to today? What belongs to the past? The advantage we have though, as long as we don’t use it against each other (and we don’t), is that we understand human behavior and have each studied ourselves extensively (much of our therapy is required by our training) and are basically honest about our own ‘baggage’. That package you might say allows us to ‘cut to the chase’ quicker than most. I can’t imagine living with a person who I could not share that view of the world and people—it is a grass roots commonality in our marriage that I am very grateful for. We’re like two mathematicians or two athletes—we share a common landscape and language.

I am ever grateful.

Psychology Today




Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust VI

Roadblocks VI

The Break:     Independence Finally


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.


One would hope that in a dysfunctional family, the siblings might band together thereby gaining support from each other; perhaps even offer a more positive mirror through which to view themselves, but this didn’t happen for the most part in my family. My older siblings were convinced that I was Mom’s favorite—she beat me less than she did them. Further intensifying their rage, Mom corralled me into following them home from school and reporting if they’d been smoking. Though I begged her not make me do it, I had no choice. She counted on me; it was for their own good, it was a sin not to obey—all her rationales. I couldn’t refuse. You didn’t say no to Mom. So I did her bidding and was ostracized; my sister had nothing to do with me until well into adulthood, and my older brother terrorized me for the rest of our days. How were they not to hate me? And while Mom was quick to enlist me as her spy, she’d turn to them, often in front of me and ask, Why do you hate your sister? Your sister is your best friend. (!!). My only friend was my younger brother, who was equally lonely and tortured by the older two. Mom needed to pit us against each other. That way she’d insure her position with each of us; we’d never prefer each other over her. The only way to accomplish that, besides bad-mouthing us to each other, was to make sure all the arrows (love, attention, affection) pointed towards her. Rather than encouraging friendship between us, she undermined it. We were competitors—enemies even. And so she divided and conquered.

To complicate things for me, though I had a few girlfriends, I was socially unpopular. As I explore in Confessions of Joan the Tall (a memoir written in the voice of my 12 year old self), I was very tall (over 5’11 inches) by the time I reached high school, so from a very early age, I was teased unmercifully by the boys in the neighborhood as well as my older brother S and his friends. Clearly, I didn’t have a safe place outside of home either until I found temporary respite in my all girls high school. It was heaven. I’d found peace. My alienation continued through college, but turned around completely once I started to meet men outside of my immediate community. I enjoyed great popularity with men and the leap in confidence that went with that success, though I was still very innocent and uneducated about how to choose the right ones. My first husband, for one. He fooled around pretty much from the beginning of our marriage. But I pretended not to know. No, I didn’t pretend—that sounds far too conscious; I didn’t know because I was deft at not looking beneath the surface of any supposed ‘truth’ I was presented. What he told me, I believed. Everything that conflicted with that, I repressed.

We were married for 6 years during which time, he got fired from or quit several jobs and often stayed out all weekend. Convinced that any minute he’d walk in the door, I wouldn’t leave the house. I tried to keep the truth from family and friends. I was so ashamed that I had a husband who didn’t want to come home, so I spent a great deal of time alone. I responded to him the way I did all my young life to my mother and S—namely that I could not get angry – no matter what he did. I just begged him to come home. When he decided to do so, he’d simply make a few jokes and make me laugh and that would be that. I’d happily make him some bacon and eggs. I was so relieved that he had finally come back home, that he did love me, that he wasn’t really rejecting me, that I accepted anything he did. Just don’t be mad at me. Just don’t leave me.

As in most cases of abuse however, the hurt lived side by side with affection. At the same time that he was abandoning me for days on end, he was also professing his love, often and vociferously and showering me with praise. He was noticeably very proud of me and told me how beautiful I was. He liked to show me off to friends and colleagues and bragged about what a great cook I was, how smart. To one as needy as I, his admiration was seductive and necessary. I was also used to such mixed messages and ambivalence. Having lived all my life with a mother and older brother who told me – in word or deed – that I was loved and not loved often at the same time, the territory was familiar, so I focused on trying to deserve their love. When love was uncertain and fickle, I didn’t become angry and blame them for not loving me, I blamed myself for not being worthy of their love and tried even harder to please.

Despite all my pleas, eventually he did leave me. For the sister of a friend who was pregnant with his baby. One Sunday afternoon when he arrived home after being gone for two days, he tearfully confided that he needed me to go to Juarez, Mexico and get an immediate divorce, so that he could marry her and avoid her getting in trouble with her father. Outrageous as his request was, my response was even more so. I begged him to stay with me and let us adopt the child. He refused. I came to my senses and refused to go to Mexico. I would not get a divorce; I didn’t believe in it, and I didn’t want it. He left and we were unofficially separated. I was devastated. I wanted him more than I’d ever wanted anything (except Mom?). Under any circumstances. For many months I held out the hope that he would change his mind and come back to me. I’d have gratefully, happily welcomed him. I waited and waited. We were not divorced for another three years (initiated by me). I later found out that he married his girlfriend right after we separated without having been divorced from me. It frightened me to think of how available I had been for shabby treatment, how willing I was to accept any abuse in the name of love.

Popular as I had become before my marriage, I remained very underdeveloped as a person. I was easily impressed – swayed and dazzled by the charisma of this man and his utter confidence. He traveled through life so easily, presented himself for respect and inclusion everywhere. He was the exact opposite of me. While I continued to live in the world with a sense that I was unworthy and a disappointment to all who knew me—I wasn’t the friend, sister or daughter that the people I loved deserved, he took what was his own painful early life and lack of education and turned that into an almost Machiavellian manipulation of the world. He was outrageous yet very smooth – well liked and charming and made friends wherever he went. And everyone helped him—my best friend’s father got him a job selling insurance which he subsequently quit; my younger brother J helped him get into St. John’s though we later found out that he had never finished high school. When school became too cumbersome for him, he quit and started wearing my St. John’s college ring as proof that he had already graduated.

Like many abused women, I held out the hope that my love and belief in him would turn him around. It was always clear to me that he was chasing something or running from it; I later decided that he was living out his mother’s prophesy—that he was just like his drunken father who died alone in a rooming house many years after last seeing anyone in the family. But he would show her—there was always a swagger to his actions and a sneer under his breath. I also suspect he hated everyone he fooled. The very mention of his name in my mouth is foreign and anathema. I find it so difficult to relate to the person who married him. Her naiveté’. Her ability to be fooled. Her neediness, most of all. For so many years, I was ashamed of her. Now, I’m simply deeply saddened (it strikes me that I’ve used that word several times throughout this series about my crippled family). Her willingness to accept whatever came to her as long as she was loved. And if not truly loved, then lied to.

As I look back, I’m convinced that my commitment to marrying him was at least partially fueled by my mother’s complete disapproval of him. Marrying MK was my first emphatic “No!” to my mother. It was my Harley. Prior to that, she had successfully vetoed several decisions I’d made; at one point, I wanted to move from teaching to social work, but she insisted that if I did, she’d have a nervous breakdown or a heart attack. She was adamant and I, not surprisingly, relented. Always doubting myself, I wondered….maybe I wasn’t being fair to her by choosing a profession in which I might have to go into impoverished, crime ridden areas and risk my safety. Maybe making choices that could bring me harm wasn’t fair to my loved ones. How could I choose a direction that would cause her worry? How could I be so selfish? (How could I act as if my life was my own? Interestingly, my only concern about making a potentially dangerous decision was that it might upset Mom; it never involved concern about protecting myself). But when it came to deciding who I’d marry, I knew it was my choice and not hers. And she vehemently disapproved; she didn’t like or trust him—in hindsight justifiably so, but she didn’t give reasons that I could hear other than that he wasn’t an American citizen (ironically, he too was born in Ireland) and not educated and was only equipped for manual labor and bartending. I didn’t care about those things—I would have preferred that he be educated, but the lack of it wouldn’t deter me. I think that too added to his lure and attractiveness. He was rough like S and his friends. My mother thought that I was worth more than that—a bluecollar profile was beneath me. I completely disagreed with her reasons for rejecting him and thought that snobbery and bigotry were immoral reasons for judging anyone. Like her, I was immovable. All I knew was the way that he made me feel. It was like catching the prince. He was rugged and handsome, smart and funny, and all the girls thought he was gorgeous and were excited by his ‘bad boy’ mystique as was I. Despite all the dates that I had had, he was my first real boyfriend; no one made me feel as special, beautiful and loved as he did. Devilishly handsome, exciting and a bit dangerous, he was delicious to one as repressed as I.

It was out and out war between me and Mom. I even left home to escape her tirades and to teach her that sooner or later she’d have to give in.

He was also my ticket to the world. No one left home until they married at that time. Though I had a car—it was the first thing I bought when I started to work—I wanted to leave Edgewater permanently. I wanted to travel. He had been in the service and had been to Germany and Europe and bragged about being the only enlisted guy on base to have his own car—a Porsche. None of the guys in Edgewater drove a Porsche (I always loved cars – particularly sports cars – and could identify every one—model and year), and yet when I met him, he was driving a VW bug—a red convertible. That also intrigued and impressed me. I’d never met a guy who had the guts to drive a VW Bug. No Edgewater guy would be caught dead in such a sissy car. But he did anything he wanted to, and no one dared laugh at him. I admired his confidence above all and what appeared to be his complete lack of concern for what other people thought. Paralyzed as I often was by my concern that I’d do the wrong thing or hurt someone’s feelings, I was amazed that someone could be so free.

And he was the exact opposite of the kind of man Mom always said I’d marry. She used to laugh about how I’d marry a very rich man who would be completely henpecked by me. I’d be draped in furs and carrying a little poodle, and he’d be running along behind me – a very short frightened man. I hated it and her when she said that. I never wanted to be that kind of wife; I never saw myself as a forbidding self-centered person who would gravitate toward a weak man. That was entirely unattractive to me. And I was hurt that she had such a picture of me. Admittedly, I had a strong sense of my own opinions and I voiced them freely at home—we were allowed to be vocal about anything that did not have to do with religion or breaking a commandment, and of course feelings were never fodder for the Cusacks. But there was nothing beyond that that would suggest I’d want a one-sided relationship in which I controlled a very controllable man. This was her projecting her feelings on me, I think. In fact, in many ways, that’s who she was with Dad. With all of us actually. What she wanted she got—and that was a level of attention that shut everyone else out. So she designed a marriage for me in which I had all she wanted me to have along with a totally ineffectual husband—one who would clearly never be any competition or threat to her.    

And Mom competed with me too. She taught me to love beautiful things—particularly clothes – and love them I did. But when she saw that, she seemed to enjoy baiting me and slapping my face with it. Defining it as shallow and manipulative. Of course, I ended up feeling guilty and wondering if she was right that I was superficial and shallow. And would I end up marrying a man I could henpeck?

In retrospect, I believe my mother’s hostility stemmed from her envy of me. She taught me to love what she loved; she wanted me to dress like a model and carry myself in the world like one. She wanted me to have an education and a career. Above all she wanted me to be independent and strong and able to care for myself—in case my husband left or died. She always seemed intent on preparing me for this. “Keep something in your own name,” she always told me. I felt as if she was sculpting me to do exactly what she’d have done (or actually did do) with her life. But when I started to have those things – the clothes, the career, the education, the confidence in myself as an attractive woman – though the conscious part of her was thrilled, unconsciously I believe she resented it. So she created an image of me for the whole family that made a caricature of my interest in lovely clothes and my strong personality. And everyone laughed at the picture that she created. When Mom was cutting and sarcastic, you didn’t fight her, you joined in.

In any case, my need to defeat Mom, to escape confinement in Edgewater and to win the love of the almost mythic teenage guy sailed me unprotected into MK ’s arms.

And eventually into a major break with the Church. Despite the fact that MK left me and ‘married’ another woman, this man was my husband for life. I was barely 30 years old when we divorced and according to the Church I could not date or certainly marry again if I wanted to stay a member in good standing of the Catholic Church. Should I choose otherwise, I’d be expelled from the Church, refused the sacraments and risked hell in the afterlife. This made no sense to me. It wasn’t loving. This wasn’t the Jesus I knew. The Christ that I was brought up on would not want me to be unhappy. He’d have known how hard I tried to save that marriage and how innocent I was in this relationship. But it was the teaching I knew. The same narrow view of what is right and wrong and the same rigidity. Though I was encouraged to seek an annulment, I knew that we did not qualify for one. There had been no deception and our vows were made openly and freely. Eventually, I left the Church completely. Having defied Mom, the ultimate power, standing up to the Church seemed almost natural.

Finally and perhaps most critical, along with the end of my marriage and commitment to the Church, I started psychotherapy – my strongest commitment that I had responsibility for myself, and to the extent that I could control it, I’d never let anyone hurt me again. And that included family as well as friends and men that I would date. In order to do that I would learn what was at the center of my desperate search for love and approval and my profound dislike of myself. I also promised myself I’d never do anything or expose myself to anyone who would make me feel bad about myself when I looked in the mirror. I was profoundly moved over how damaged I was, how available I had been for abuse and how little responsibility I took for my own care. True, there’s no insurance policy that assures us safety in life but to the extent that I could learn what danger was (person or circumstance), I would train myself to set off red lights in my head when I was exposed to it. I was deeply committed to getting well.

Not surprisingly, beyond my failed marriage, therapy led back to Mom. To Sonny. And The Church. There was much work to be done.

Psychology Today

Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust V



Siblings:  Adoration and Abuse

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.


My older brother S was the first of us to leave home. Not in body (none of us did that until we married) but he bought a motorcycle—a Harley Davidson. He was eighteen. When Dad and Mom refused to give their permission, he got our older sister to sign for it. He needed someone over twenty-one to sign the papers and though Mom and Dad were furious at C for doing it, they knew she could do what she wanted, and they couldn’t stop her. So S got his bike. That was the first thing C did to openly defy Mom and Dad. Before that she’d gotten caught smoking in her high school bathroom and hung out with some kids Mom didn’t approve of, but generally speaking, she kept a low profile. But when she signed for the bike, she openly lined up beside S against Mom and Dad. The alliance that was created in childhood with C and S sneaking cigarettes and sharing secrets were solidified pretty much for life with that move. S trusted C like he trusted no other person in the family.

So S got his Harley. That was a turning point for our family. S was making his statement—in a very loud and public way completely violating what Mom and Dad wanted and getting C to help him. The huge noise of the bike shook the house and our small untouched town and lots of unsavory looking bikers with long DA (duck’s ass) hair appeared at our house. No one had a motorcycle in our town. Guys there got boats when they were 18—some even cars, but none motorcycles. Only the Hell’s Angels had Harleys. And more than Mom, it drove Dad crazy. (But for the young girl in me, it was very exciting having an older brother with a Harley—black and gleaming silver – that made a huge commotion when he got home or started her up. And surprisingly, his rocky friends were always nice to me – dark mysterious guys in black leather jackets and heavy unwashed jeans who spoke in monosyllables and had black frames around their fingernails. They scared and intrigued me).

S had always been rebellious. He did poorly in school, refused to go to college and barely finished high school (a major slap to my mother who’d been so committed to saving money to put each of us through college that she actually took a job – full time! Like most immigrants nothing was more important to her than us completing college and having professions). S’s only interest was drawing, so Mom and Dad enrolled him in a local art school where he excelled. But that didn’t offer opportunities for employment. There was no option for him but to try for the plumbers union with Dad. Proud of how naturally Sonny took to the work, Dad got him a job in his shop, and S became Dad’s helper. It was clear to all of us, how proud they were to be working together. But Dad’s pride, as always, was tainted by his fury at S’s rough and hard look—his long uncut hair reminiscent of James Dean and Marlon Brando infuriated Dad; then the motorcycle pretty much completed the picture of the son disappointing and embarrassing the father. Once he got the bike, S stopped riding to work with Dad and took the bike instead. Everyone on the job talked about it. Dad hated it, but as was his way, said nothing and smoldered instead. The bike announced to the world that S wasn’t and didn’t want to be like anyone else. Even Dad. (Especially Dad?) No one would stop him. And no one ever did. Not Dad. Not Mom. Not even his wife and children. S has done exactly what he wanted for his entire life. And sadly, rather than that continuing to be a statement of independence and confidence, it’s often been fueled by rage.

Shortly after buying the bike, S rode it to New Orleans with his biker friends, and coming home, was involved in a major accident that nearly killed him. (A woman going the wrong way somewhere in Virginia, suddenly – without signaling – crossed the road in front of him. He flew 75 feet over the hood of the car into a ravine on the side of the road). When doctors removed his clothes, they found his rosary beads had left a permanent imprint in the leather of his jacket pocket. Mom and Dad were very proud and assumed that that was why he was alive. That was also the reason, they believed, that he incurred no head injuries. (According to the doctors, it was miraculous that his skull was not also fractured given that he wore no helmet. They weren’t required in the early sixties and neither S nor any of his friends would be caught dead wearing one). He was rushed to South Boston Hospital in Virginia where he was confined for 6 months, then to NYC’s Joint Diseases Hospital for another 3 before they sent him home in a full body cast to be taken care of by Mom for the next year.

(Sad to say, we never spoke about how any of the three of them—S, Mom or Dad or for that matter me and my other two siblings—felt about the crash that shattered their/our lives. Worse than not talking about it, I believe we were all so emotionally defended that we didn’t fully feel it—not deeply, not in a connected, loving way. To start with, we’d always lived our lives alone putting one foot in front of the other in life and in trauma, feelings buried, our own and each other’s. If we were in pain, we lived with it. But despite our silence and emotional disconnection from each other (so typical of us), we rallied to tend to the business of S’s recovery—me asking a cousin to lend us the money for a new car so that our parents could visit him throughout, Mom and Dad traveling back and forth each weekend and conferring with doctors, C and I tending to our younger brother and the house in their absence. Ironically, we banded together and were finally a family).

Clearly the accident itself and all that came from it marked a major turning point in S’s life both physical and psychological, but it resulted in perhaps the greatest emotional trauma as well – not the accident or his broken body, but the year in bed at home with Mom taking care of him. He was 21 years old, and his Mom had to bring him the urinal and bedpan and give him a bath. He didn’t talk much during that time or any as a matter of fact, but knowing Mom, she must have ridden him quite a bit about the bike, not to mention his being first hand witness to her tirades over the rest of us. And he was powerless to respond. He had always used his body (as well as his mouth) to escape and express his anger (most of which amounted to teasing and tormenting me and our younger brother), and now he was completely imprisoned neck to toe in a cast. He was also used to being alone and leaving when he got mad; in fact, from the time he was a teenager, he had lived (hid out!) in the cellar most of the time. Now he lived in the dining room! The table was moved out, and a hospital bed was brought in. He was captive. He could not get away from any of us. Especially Mom. The ever-present fracture between them that began when he was a young adolescent and refused to do her bidding intensified a hundred fold when he had to lie there completely dependent on her— a frozen white mummy naked in all the places he most needed to remain private. It was the worst type of paralysis/impotence for him. He was never the same. His meanness took on a life of its own. No one escaped it. Anger had always been at the fore; now rage became the dominant emotion of his life. It was boundless and eventually bordered on psychotic.

To occupy himself and escape his prison, he decided to read the Bible – The Old and New Testaments. During that time, periodically, I’d bring him a pad and paper and try to get him to draw; he’d given it up sometime in high school and showed no interest in it despite his considerable talent. That changed when he discovered that his body would never regain the physical strength needed for plumbing work. He decided to put the accident insurance money toward a career in painting. He started at the Art Students League and when he very quickly graduated to painting murals for the League entry foyer, we ‘knew’ the reason for all of it—the accident, his survival, his mission from God. ART. He’d been chosen for genius! He decided to use what money was left to study on his own in Mexico. Revered as the most gifted painter in San Miguel de Allende, a painter’s oasis; artists and critics alike remarked on how similar his style was to that of Rembrandt. However, though he was treated like royalty and referred to as El Padron, after a few years he grew tired of working there and came back to Brooklyn and started to paint the family.

We dedicated ourselves to his work. Dad retired from plumbing, bought an electric saw and started to make all of S’s frames as well as furniture for his apartment, including beds and dressers for his daughters. And he, Mom and I all posed. Our younger brother became his business manager and represented him at the various gallery shows that resulted. His career was burgeoning and the New York art world attested to his fineness. The portraits of Dad, all entitled The Framemaker, featured Dad’s quiet stoicism and strength and focused on his hands—masterfully roped and capable. Though the motorcycle and many of his tirades seemed to suggest otherwise, S’s paintings of Dad revealed his great respect and admiration of him. The paintings of me and Mom were equally revealing. In these, his anger was unleashed. Though I was barely thirty years old and quite thin, he painted me middle aged, fleshy and puffy faced like our aunt, a nun and at least fifty years older than I. I just paint what I see, he shrugged. A passive – aggressive bullseye! I was a very tall girl in a pink dress and he was laughing again and calling me an ‘Overgrown Alice in Wonderland’.

(Of all the family, S expressed his anger with me most openly—never forgiving me for following him from school and reporting to Mom so many years before. Like C, he believed that I was Mom’s favorite. On the other hand, his resentment toward me probably started shortly after I was born—11 months after him—when he was dethroned by the new baby—an age appropriate crisis and the route of sibling rivalry. Though I have no memory of it at all [attesting to how traumatic an event it was], the rest of the family recalls him taking me into a closet and cutting my waist length hair. Anger has always been the third partner in the room where S and I have been. Painting me old and swollen was just further reflection of that).

But his portraits of me paled next to those of Mom. They were ruthless, characterizing her as a cruel woman with searing red eyes. She was menacing. Diabolical. We were all horrified at what he put on canvas, capturing her most evil self, and offering these portraits for public view at his many shows. Yet she appeared undaunted, laughed and made sarcastic comments about them but continued to pose – as if she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he had gotten to her. But to me, and I imagine most onlookers, it was bizarre. The level of rage in him and apparent denial in her were out there for the world to see.

During that time we also supported him financially. He made it clear, and all of us agreed, that such a gifted artist as he could not waste his talent working at a regular desk job—his talent warranted him support from others just as the painters of old. We weren’t giving him anything, he rationalized (explaining away his dependency on us and negating our generosity), rather he was letting us share in his remarkable art. And remarkable it was. It moved us as the transubstantiation of the Host had and the parting of the waters. Clearly, S had been visited by God and his art was extraordinary. He was another Rembrandt, Da Vinci, perhaps Michelangelo.

Remarkably, he had replaced Mom as the center of our family. And we were ripe for it—we’d already had one person (Mom) next to whom the rest of us paled. One person who believed that she was entitled to our complete devotion. He was her reincarnation. Now we had two narcissistic personalities dictating what was expected of us. Despite that fact that there was no greater force nor personality than they/theirs, she seemed to step aside after the accident to do the holy work of tending to her son. (Years later she reclaimed her focal position, but for a good twenty years each of us dedicated our lives to his work). It had become a religion for us. Though our family hadn’t been blessed by one of us entering the priesthood or sisterhood, we had been anointed with the next best thing and equally important. And we were grateful. S’s art was our religious vocation and legacy. There was no holier work in our eyes. Nor in his.

One wonders how such obsession comes to be. Frankly, I still do. What can possibly account for the fact that my family followed S so faithfully, so exclusively for so long. Some otherworldly force held us firmly in its hand. Looking at it 40 years later, I believe that much of the obsession stems from the times—it was the 1950s and early 60s; all authority was absolute – government, clergy, police. There was no questioning, no rebellion, no expectation of a voice. We were told what the truth was, and we believed it. Education was academic and dogmatic, and thinking was not part of the process – even when my younger brother and I went to college —our schooling was parochial. Add to that the fact that we lived in a tiny untouched hamlet (in the northeast corner of the Bronx); our parents were uneducated farmers from an utterly Catholic country; and our family (under my father’s leadership) was overly involved with the Catholic Church. In school, there were no field trips to museums, no library, no classes in music (except glee club) nor art. We knew the names of artists through the church—the greats whose work we saw in our Catechism or in the art on the walls of the Church. Particularly important to all of this is that it was a strong Church teaching that great responsibility came with a gift for art or music. It was a sin to waste it. God had given it and one had to accept it. And the way to accept it was to make it the center of one’s life. There was really no choice. S had given himself over to God through his Art. And we admired and respected him for it. How could we not devote our own lives to further that mission? It was holy work. Not to have participated would have been a sin for us as well.

But that too had to end. As we grew older and more conscious of how ‘common’ great talent is—one only has to look at the museums and concert halls to know how many gifted people there are in the world, S became less exceptional, less anointed in our eyes. He also continued to rage at Mom—they were out and out warriors finally—and be abusive to the rest of us. Though he moved back in with Mom and Dad each time he returned from his latest flight from the US (he’d become very militant politically—strongly supporting the Black panther movement – and vitriolic in his attacks on us and the world), either he or she would instigate a battle and S would move out with his family. That happened several times, until such time that we all grew tired. He couldn’t tolerate the fact that we didn’t abandon his daughter after she left home—it was her or us—and we had finally grown tired of the years of abuse we’d been subject to. The ritual was always the same, he returned to his boyhood in Edgewater and the mistreatment and betrayal he’d experienced at the hands of our family—particularly from Mom and me—and rage would escalate and fly untethered at us. We became frightened. He broke off all ties and disappeared. The only contact we’ve had in the last 25 years was his appearance at our Dad’s wake, our attendance at his wife’s funeral and three separate phone calls to me inquiring about C’s health when he’d heard that she’d been sick. But for the daughter he’d forbidden us to see years before, to this day, C is the only one he has any contact with—a phone call every few months to check in. She was his only friend in the family from boyhood and so she remains. She may well be the one person he’s trusted in his lifetime—except for his devoted wife who remained committed to him through all the many moods, separations and abuses of his life. He continues to live alone.

Psychology Today

Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust IV

Emotional Triangles









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.

The effects of having an ambivalent mother and passive father resulted in lifelong trust and intimacy problems for me and my siblings, and our mother’s demand for devotion often resulted in emotional triangles. She insinuated herself into virtually every relationship we had. The most painful of these centered on my sister—the oldest of the four of us – my sister and Dad, she and her friends and she and her husband. And our mother’s competition with all.

Sadly, C felt that Mom didn’t love her. Rather than a lack of love, I believe it was Mom’s possessiveness that fueled her rejection of C—she simply had to come first. Always quick to attack, she was envious of my sister’s close relationship with our dad, and our dad’s closeness to her. Because he had a special nickname for her and was attentive to her (and her of him), Mom often felt abandoned by both of them. Mom also deeply resented C’s friends (as she did mine). She had no friends of her own and didn’t like any of ours. She didn’t trust them. Why did we? They weren’t worthy of us. She knew what we deserved, and she never met anyone who ever came close.

As a young girl, C had an active and successful social life. In fact, of the four of us, she and Sonny had the most normal teenage years. They hung out with a crowd. They, at times, preferred friends to family, they smoked, listened to rock and roll music, they liked the opposite sex and had the usual secrets that teenagers do from their parents. But rather than viewing these as signs of a successful transition from childhood to adulthood, Mom read them as a rejection of her. When C preferred to shop for her own clothes or with friends, Mom saw that as a betrayal. Sadly for both of them, Mom took on every outside interest or friend of C’s as an opponent and as proof that C preferred them over her. That hurt both of them. I don’t think that Mom ever forgave C for not choosing her for all activities, and C never got over the fact that Mom seemed to love her less than she loved me and our brothers—especially me.

You were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, C always complained. That meant I had Mom. And in a sense she was right. I put no one before Mom when I was a kid and well into adulthood. She had more control over me and was able to mold me in ways that she couldn’t with C. I did what she wanted me to do, became who she wanted me to be. I was the abnormal one—socially uncomfortable except for my lack-luster girlfriends and terrified to do anything that would disappoint Mom or Dad or would smack of sin. C and S, my two older sibs were just average kids doing their share of breaking away but still staying close to home and family. But their very natural and age-appropriate assertions of identity and independence were violations of trust and abandonment for Mom.

Not unlike all of our siblings, C’s confidence was very low. Convinced she wasn’t smart, she didn’t want to be noticed and had a hard time expressing herself among all the big mouths at our dinner table. Unlike the rest of us, she wasn’t aggressive so she was often shouted over. Eventually, she just stopped trying to talk. Like Dad, she kept what she felt private and never developed the ability to stand up for herself. (Sadly, trust in oneself was never encouraged in our family). Her dilemma intensified when she decided not to go to college and chose instead to study business (which she excelled at), but she never got over her feelings of inferiority – especially with our younger brother, J and me. Not only were we louder and more aggressive than she was but we both went to college and that elevated us even more in Mom’s eyes and intensified as he and I went on to get advanced degrees. To this day, C believes that we’re more intelligent than she is because we’re better educated. To Mom and therefore to C, education equaled/equals intelligence.

Regrettably, friendship never came easy for C and me. Though we tried as adults, we kept missing each other—always one step ahead or behind the other. When she was ready, I wasn’t; when I was, she wasn’t. At a certain point, we lost contact completely. Her belief that I was Mom’s favorite and Mom’s seeming preference for me and the boys, carried over from childhood, made it impossible to be friends. Anger, particularly repressed, has always been a cancer in our family, so it backed up in each of us and spoiled whole casks of our lives.

Though we did eventually reconnect and started having weekly lunches, we continued to struggle. Particularly about my relationship with our younger brother, J, and his wife—a triangle which never included her.

Have you heard the latest from our wonderful family? C asks. My stomach sinks. I don’t want to have this conversation.

“What do you mean?”

Mom called and yelled at me for not calling J to remind him to pick her and Dad up at the airport Saturday. He forgets and she blames me! Typical.

“That’s Mom. She can’t get angry with J. He’ll turn her off completely. She gives you the hardest time of all of us, C.”

I know. Do you hear much from J?

“No. I keep telling you that but you don’t seem to believe me.”

Well, you’re his favorite. You must hear from him. Mom keeps telling me to call him. You too. I’m tired of calling you guys. All I hear from Mom is how great you two are. I’m the one who does everything and you two are the heroes. I guess because you’re the educated ones.

Clearly, C was resentful. How could she not be? As an adult, she was a completely devoted daughter—by the time she was in her early twenties, she was telling Mom everything, calling her every day from work and handling all of my parents’ day to day business and financial concerns. Ironically, Mom finally had what she had always craved—C’s preference for her company over any other. Mom was C’s best friend (but she was still quick to criticize her—or tear down anyone new who entered C’s life) and she was more sure of C than she was of the rest of us. At a certain point in our lives, each of us began to stand up to her, and she knew that there’d be repercussions for me and the boys if she gave us a hard time. But C, so like Dad, seldom ever spoke back to her and Mom took advantage of that.

Fiercely loyal, C did the same thing with her second husband. After her first marriage broke up, she had custody of her young son and remarried a few years later. Though I believe he loved her, her new husband was very openly critical of her, her friends and family. Particularly Mom. How like her he was, both so quick to tell C what a disappointment she was, how she chose everyone else over them. It was uncanny how they duplicated each other. I used to dread being in a room with the two of them—C’s husband and Mom competing to be right all the time. They fought over everything—each committed to being the one that C listened to—neither of them tolerating anyone else having greater influence over her than they did.

The family triangle! It seemed that our family was/is always constructing, or if not constructing, then caught in emotional triangles, and everyone I can think of was instigated by Mom and later C’s husband. But triangles can be seductive. Though very stressful, they can offer the one fought over great affirmation and for us there were great wells of longing that needed filling, and certainly two loved ones fighting for one’s attention goes a distance in filling those wells (at least temporarily). I don’t know if that was true for C. I know the battling caused her heartache. Eventually, her husband became ill with breathing and heart problems and hence needier and more resentful of C’s relationships with friends and family. No, they wouldn’t be coming for Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving…It was clear that C would never leave him—like she would never leave Mom—especially after he got sick. She finally retired and a few months later, he died following a fairly simple surgical procedure. This was one year after Mom died.

I’m convinced that C’s husband’s and Mom’s deaths were C’s liberation. With both gone, there is no one there to criticize or undermine her. No one to defend herself against or to compete for her devotion. There are no emotional triangles. While Dad was alive, she continued to handle his business needs for which he was enormously grateful. For the first time in their lives, their devotion to each other stirred only pleasure in those around them. And very importantly for both of us, she and I have again rekindled our friendship which we watch over carefully – requiring honesty and directness from ourselves and each other. Of the four siblings, ours is the only relationship to have survived our past. Having no framework from childhood for closeness to fall back on, we have to invent as we go. We still struggle; we are who we are, and we know it. We’re trying to accept it.


Unlike my relationship with C, my younger brother, J and I were close friends until well into adulthood. Joan is me in ‘drag’, he often said describing me to people who hadn’t met me. Like that between S and C, the bond that held us in childhood flourished in adulthood. The family caretakers, we took care of each other and together we took care of everyone else. And the affection was reciprocal. J always said I was his real mother; I took care of him as a child and continued to do so as he grew. I encouraged him to go to college, but like all of our siblings, he questioned his intelligence, so I countered with how smart I knew he was. Just as years later I followed him to NYU for graduate school, he followed me to St. John’s for undergraduate school and there we shared many of the same friends. We shared everything. We protected each other. We were the team that we were as kids.

Just as in childhood his friendship saved me from utter loneliness and muted (as much as was possible!) the bite of S’s rage, in adulthood, J soothed me through the pain of a failed marriage. He and his wife willingly shared their two sons with me and included me in family vacations and all holidays. He also set about convincing me to go back to school to get my doctorate; he prescribed the same program at NYU, a joint practice (he was already on his way to his Ph.D. in psychology), independence and the financial security to buy my own home. I balked, refused, and finally agreed.

Years later, we opened Westchester Psychological Services office in Hartsdale, NY. Plopped in the middle of the huge empty box that became our offices, we were new kids on the block masquerading as major leaguers. Sleek brass door signs announced us: G.P.C, Ph.D., Joan M. Cusack, Ph.D. We had no patients but our waiting room could accommodate 15.

Eventually, people were referred to us. We worked as a team as often as was feasible clinically. Two brains focused on a case was reassuring. Less lonely. Dealing with the emotional and psychological vulnerability of patients humbled us greatly. We knew well how critical each intervention was. Each word, each nonverbal cue. Neither of us was so confident that we didn’t labor long hours over cases. And long hours examining our own counter-transference (feelings triggered in the therapist during treatment that must be analyzed, so that they don’t distort his/her clinical judgment and patient analysis). Our partnership was our saving grace.

But then I met Alan, my second husband, married, had a child and left our joint practice to establish one closer to home. I was very sad, however, to leave J. Though he insisted that he fully supported the move—it was the logical thing to do, it also marked a complete change in our relationship.

“What’s going on J. I never see you anymore. You’re always busy. Can’t we at least get together for lunch?”

We see each other all the time—you guys are coming over for a barbecue on Sunday.

“But you’re very remote. It would be nice to get together – just the two of us to catch up. We haven’t spoken alone since I left the office. I miss that.”

Things are pretty much the same with me. Nothing to talk about. Give D a call; she could use a lunch out or a day of shopping. You know me, I never had much to say.

J was gone from me. But he left Mom and Dad too.

Thank God, Dad and I can always count on you and J when we need help or advice, Mom often said. And they often did. We were always the ones called on—particularly about our older siblings (and so the family triangles multiplied!). But most of these crises took place when J was a young father of two boys and his only family life was more than full—he was juggling family, school and full-time work—meanwhile, being called by Mom to help with the crisis of the day in the family. Sadly, I was less available to help and in some cases more needy of attention myself—first by my own fractured marriage and life, then my graduate studies and life as a single person and finally my second marriage and motherhood. Eventually, the signs of wear were beginning to show on J. I suspect he was feeling overloaded, tired of caregiving, and abandoned. He became very moody and receded into himself. Clearly, he wanted to be alone. He let his wife take his place in all relationships. Even with me. I missed him terribly and kept trying to reach him but he was unresponsive. I was hurt and resented being ‘turned over’ to his wife. Our friendship, almost overnight, became the familiar triangle with her replacing him and him a shadowy non-participant. Not surprisingly, like Dad. Eventually, I stopped pursuing him.

But life was more than a loss for J. As he moved further and further inside himself and away from family, he discovered sculpting. Though remarkable in his own right, he had lived most of his young life in S’s shadow. His gift for art wasn’t really taken seriously by us until well into adulthood when he began to sculpt. In reality, his talent was completely eclipsed by S. Not surprisingly, today, he sculpts as he lives: privately. He prefers not to be known. He sculpts for the pure love of the art and the act of the art, yet he proudly shows his work to family and friends. In fact, it was sculpting that started us talking again.

At a family gathering, I asked, “How’s the work going?”

Come down to the studio, he offered. I’m working on a new piece of Mom and Dad.

Then later, “Don’t they look like they’re standing on the church steps after Mass?”

“It’s uncanny. It’s them bowing toward each other—she whispering a secret, him giving his undivided attention.” I was stunned at the power of the work. His subjects appeared to move in space and speak. They were alive. He began to give pieces to me for Christmas, a birthday…

This new relief looks like you. Take it. I cast an extra.

Thus began a renewal of our friendship which took the form of a delightful monthly lunch that pleased both of us.  For awhile. Inevitably, another incident would occur that would separate us again. The last, a conflict between me, his wife and son was six years ago. Aside from a periodic phone call to ask me about our sister’s health, we haven’t spoken since the day of our father’s funeral. I don’t expect that to change; despite our close friendship for so much of our lives, J and I ‘matured’ into siblings who do not trust each other. That’s very sad. But fortunately we were there for each other when we most needed it—as children.

Our fourth sibling, S, will be explored in my next post. His is an even more complicated story but also true to our collective mistrust of family and love.

Psychology Today

Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust III


The Passive Parent

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.

As unpredictable as my mother was, my father was that predictable. He was a devoted father who worked hard and spent all his free time praying and helping neighbors with various plumbing and construction projects around their homes. (My parents emigrated from Ireland each at 18, just weeks before the Depression, then worked at odd jobs, went to school, met, married, and settled eventually in a small bungalow community in Throgs Neck, The Bronx.)  None of the homes were winterized when we moved in, so all the dads gave their weekends to raise a house, add a cellar or bathroom, extend a living room, add sheetrock dividers to separate beds. Living as my parents called it ‘hand to mouth’ in the Bronx in 1954, neighbors were vital to the life of each family: all the mothers watched the kids and the fathers built our homes, their only payment, as many bottles of Ballantine or Rheingold as it took to beat the heat of a sweltering parade of Saturdays from April through November. We were one family and were happy in that life—all but Mom (She was content to stay inside the house rather than “gossiping with a bunch of women”.)

A loving father and husband, Dad seldom, if ever, raised his voice. Evenings after dinner and the family rosary, he’d play the harmonica for us, then carry us piggyback to the bathroom for that final pee before bed. We adored him and Mom knew it. She often complained that we never listened to her but one look from him and we were all in tears. She was right. And he was no disciplinarian. He left that to her and tried to keep out of our wars. But on occasion she caught him at the door when he came from work with a long list of our offenses.

His attempts to corral us were perfunctory—a simple reprimand in a slightly raised voice. But after a day or two, we’d be back to our old routine.

What’s the point in talking? she’d say, The only thing they understand is the strap. And she used that often.

One day, to satisfy her, he changed tactics ordering us into the Back Room — a clear sign we were getting a beating. But it was always Mom who beat us; Dad never did, so we were really scared.

“You’ll get the licking of your lives for not listening to your mother,” he roared as he pulled off his belt and slammed the bedroom door. “Lay down on the beds!” he ordered.

Safely in the beds though, he’d cover us with my brothers’ thick comforters to protect us, whispering, “Cry out like you’re hurting,” then raising his voice, “This will teach you!” he beat the blankets and we screamed. Mom, in the kitchen, I imagined, satisfied and victorious making herself a cup of tea.

This seemed to us a clever resolution (and a welcome relief!) since any attempt on his part to stand up for us resulted in such rancor over his siding with us. The prior week was the last of his attempts to stand up for us.

You’re supposed to be disciplining them, not siding with them against me, she cried bitterly.

“I’m not siding with them. I just meant that what they did didn’t seem so bad.”

How can you say you love me if you take their part against me?                               

A man who seldom cried, Dad cried that day, “Why would you ask that?”

Eventually, Dad, stayed out of these confrontations completely. As we grew older and were too old to spank, his earlier “tricks” were outdated. He was powerless to help us anyway. He kept quiet, I rationalized, not only to save himself but also us–in a sense short–circuiting the rage that surely followed his defense of us. The result was that we never expected protection from him. We didn’t expect it from anyone. We were on our own. I don’t even remember being angry with him (I’d repressed it if I was). Rather we felt sorry for him; if anything, we saw him on a par with us when it came to Mom. He was as crippled as we were.

(In retrospect, I feel sorry for my mother, handling all the discipline of four kids (in 6 years) with no help from him. Like most kids, we listened less to Mom—probably because she was always there, mornings, after school, at dinner, bedtime, checking up: did we do our chores, our homework, what friends we hung out with, what comic books we read, smelling Sonny’s breath to see if he’d been smoking, did we take our cod liver oil…it was endless. Mom was the warden and Dad was the Pied Piper).

And we hung on his every word. Nothing was worse than the thought of his disappointment. Each of us turned ourselves inside out trying to please him and the way to do that was to pray. So each of us prayed a lot. Even my rebellious older brother became an altar boy and joined the Holy Name and Nocturnal Adoration Societies to pray beside Dad and make him proud. My sister and I often went with him to dawn Mass in The Poor Clare Monastery. Besides the pleasure it obviously gave Dad, I loved the feeling of holiness and purity that came with it. There were scores of saints I could call on to intercede for me, along with The Blessed Mother, Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Ghost, and of course, the Poor Souls in Purgatory. I loved having such a huge loving family always listening and understanding. I finally had what I’d always dreamed of. No matter how sad I was or how bad things seemed, I never really felt alone.

It took until I was well into adulthood to be angry with my father. And that’s not uncommon. Children of passive parents have a very difficult time getting in touch with the anger associated with emotional abandonment. In the eyes of the child, the parent is helpless, often the victim themselves (particularly mothers). They’re certainly not at fault for the discord or abuse that exists in the house—in fact, their silence may be said to minimize that by not introducing another variable into the hellish mix. The child/adult tells him/herself that he/she should feel sorry for the downtrodden parent. This protection/pity of the passive parent often lasts a lifetime. It’s less painful to see the parent as a victim and to feel compassion than to see the parent as inadequate. The truth invites guilt for blaming the helpless parent (we expect ourselves to be better than that) and great loss at the admission that the one parent the child identifies with is flawed. It takes considerable work and time (usually in therapy) for an individual to face his/her unconscious anger toward this parent—he/she is very reluctant to view the self as aggressive like the abusive parent.

Though I didn’t expect my father to protect me from my mother while I was growing up, as an adult, I did expect him to confront her when she invented stories about us. In her effort to keep us embattled with each other and exclusively hers, she’d often color the truth or out and out lie about one of us to the other. Often in front of him. But regrettably, he wouldn’t correct her; he’d just stand by silently as she recounted her fictions of abuse at our hands. One particular time, I arrived for a visit to my brother and his family in England, and there was a scarcity of beds, so my friend and I were set to sleep on the floor. That was fine with us, but not with Mom. She insisted that we were tired from the long flight and needed a good night’s sleep, so she and Dad would sleep on the floor and we’d take their beds. We refused, multiple times, but she kept insisting. Exhausted from the trip and touched by her generosity, I agreed. When I got home however, I heard from my younger brother that she’d told the story in reverse. We had just ‘taken’ her bed and left her and Dad to sleep on the floor. Remarkably, Dad, who was there both times, for the incident and when she relayed it, never refuted her account. He just kept silent while she maligned us. My brother was incensed that I would be so selfish and treat my parents so shabbily. That kind of thing happened more often than I’d like to admit. I finally got so angry with my father (I had by this time begun to get in touch with much of the rage that I’d repressed for so long) that I actually slapped his face for his refusal to stand up for me. That slap carried rage for a lifetime of his emotional abandonment. That’s a hard word to associate with my father—he was so present in so many ways, but it’s accurate. It’s also a terrible memory—one I wish never happened and for a long time didn’t remember until it revealed itself when I was writing my last book, Orphans, which tells the stories of my parents, individually and together, and my relationship with them.

Besides the lack of protection that the child of the passive parent experiences, such parenting can reap damaging results later in childhood and adulthood. For one, the child may conclude that protection doesn’t exist in any relationship. So the child is determined to count on no one.  The world is not a safe place; one is out there on his/her own. Bonding is difficult because it requires trust and this child/adult has little reason to trust. Perhaps most critical, the child does not have a model for standing up and speaking for oneself, for fighting for what he/she believes. Children need positive role models, and they learn from their parents (particularly the parent of the same sex), how to be a woman, a man, a substantive human being. The parent, through his/her behavior teaches the child not to speak, not to have opinions, or if they do, to keep them to themselves, to not strive for uniqueness, to be compliant rather than independent. The child learns to remain on the outside of any vital conversation or dialogue where he/she might be blamed or judged.  So the child mimics the parent and becomes a shadow of the self he/she could be. There’s great sadness in that.


Though we had found the formula for pleasing Dad, his holiness presented another variable in our struggling sense of ourselves. We were a deeply religious Catholic family with Dad in charge of our spiritual life as Mom was of all else. Truly Christlike, Dad was as close to perfect as anyone we knew (except perhaps for the nuns and priests), and as hard as we tried, we were aware we could never measure up. We could never be as good as he was–or the saints were. I for one was aware that as much as I prayed and went to Mass when I didn’t have to, there were also times I wished I didn’t have to. On the contrary, I was sure Dad never felt that way; he seemed to love every movement he made toward God. What made me particularly sad and guilty was that I knew he desperately wanted one of us to become a priest or nun, and I was terrified that I’d be called by God to do so. I didn’t want to –any more than I could imagine giving up my life to defend God as I knew the martyrs did and surely Dad would.

Sadly, we came up short once again; for Mom, we could never love her enough; for Dad we could never love God enough. We were a disappointment to our parents, to God and to ourselves.

Psychology Today

Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust II


Psychological Defenses:  Often Our Salvation

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.

With an ambivalent mother as the barometer of mood and well-being (often it’s opposite), our home was a threatening place. She knew all and saw all, and though there’s still a part of me that wants to refute it, her responses were violent. But the young Joan didn’t know that; in fact, this is the first time in my life that I’ve described my mother as violent. I can feel the trembling in my chest as I write this. My impulse is to soften that word—to insist that I’m overstating. Certainly, violent is not the way I want/wanted to see her. Nor the way I was taught to view her. Because she had presented such a positive persona to us, Dad, and the world (My kids are my life), I didn’t see her treatment as abuse. Nor was I angry with her: it wasn’t her fault.  It was a flaw (more likely several) in me that caused her to erupt or refuse to speak. Clinically speaking, I had introjected her. Simply put, I saw myself as she saw me (as I believed she saw me).  Her behavior told me that something was wrong with me—I didn’t love her enough or I was inherently bad. And I swallowed that whole. This introjection of the parent, particularly the mother, is the cornerstone on which the child’s sense of herself is constructed and the bedrock of what we come to know as the superego or conscience.

Hence the damage occurs very early in a child’s life. He/she has learned to dislike, disapprove of, even hate him/herself.  It became my quest to monitor what seemed to please and displease my mother and to tailor myself according to that template—what would make her love me? Though there were times when her love was apparent, the opposite was also true, so I could never be sure (and according to Skinner’s theory of reinforcement, it is intermittent reward that is the most effective. The subject continues to behave at the highest level when the pattern of reward is irregular. The outcome cannot be predicted so the effort must be constant). Thus began my unrelenting effort to discover what she wanted and to become that person. Anything to end the silences or quiet the rage.

And Mom’s anger was lethal. Initially, my three siblings got regular beatings with the belt. I was spared for several years because I was ‘nervous’ and diagnosed as such by our doctor when Mom took me to see him to explain the belly pains I was getting regularly. These started with a ‘spastic colon’ and accelerated into colitis as I got older (I also developed other physical problems which will be explored in a later chapter of this series). The other reason I escaped the strap, (besides the fact that I was as close to a perfect kid as she could have imagined) was that I responded to her rages with uncontrollable trembling—until one day she turned on me yelling, Maybe this will stop the shaking! and flung the strap at me as well. After that, I got beat just like everyone else (though not as often because I was obsessive in my attempts to be good). Mom was convinced that I’d been faking, and there was no way she’d let me ‘pull the wool over her eyes’! The attack succeeded—even I believed I was pretending.  To this day, I’m not sure what the truth is.

One wonders how these children and the multitudes of abused children (many under the guise of spare the rod, spoil the child brand of parenting) cope with the dissonant messages from parents. They’re loved, not loved; they’re good, bad; they belong; they’re outsiders. They can do little or nothing to combat the physical abuse (other than, as discussed in an earlier chapter, to enlist the more loving parent or grandparent, uncle or aunt, perhaps teacher or clergy person who might potentially intervene. But that seldom happens; the child has to have a sense of his/her own rights to complain about his/her parent’s treatment. Most do not. To do that would be a betrayal. [Yes, despite all of the abuse, the child still remains faithful to the parent]. Instead, they keep trying to escape the wrath and appease the angry parent. The fault is with them; it’s their badness that keeps the parent enraged).

On the other hand, there are psychological tools or defenses that the child naturally (unconsciously) reverts to to make sense of their world. In fact, these defenses are essential in protecting (“defending”) against the loss of sanity. One cannot maintain sanity believing two opposite realities. Our brains demand stasis, logic, order. As is the case with the child mentioned above, he/she cannot live with the truth that the parent is cruel; rather, it’s less traumatic to identify with the aggressor and see the self as flawed. In my own case, though my home was, in reality, a dangerous place, I’d never have admitted it was anything but idyllic. That’s the power of psychological defenses. Profound in their facility to rewrite history, they assist the child/adult in avoiding truths too painful to know/admit consciously: i.e. the awareness that one’s family is troubled and unsafe, that a parent is mean or evil, that they hate their cruel brother or envy their sister. Denial buries these from the conscious mind and replaces them with fictions that are easier for the child to tolerate.  Thus, I was convinced that ours was a loving mother and a loving home.

(Particularly impressive is the power of dissociation in children/adults who have been sexually abused. The knowledge that his/her parent has violated the child in such a heinous way is close to impossible to assimilate. Add to that the fact that in most cases the parent continues to be a presence in the child’s life (often displaying otherwise parent-appropriate behavior and affection)—perhaps sitting across the table for breakfast or dinner. How does that child not explode or disappear into insanity? He/she splits off separating the intact self from the one violated).

And it’s not just children who employ defenses. We all do. Certainly my father was insulated by denial in continuing his delusion that Mom was a loving mother who harbored no ill will against her children. My mother’s defenses remained intact as well (I will explore her psychological development in a further chapter); with reaction formation she was able to convince herself that she was who she wanted to be. She needed to see herself as a good mother who gave all for her children and found her happiness in mothering. And so she did. She died believing that.

It’s important to note, however, that though these truths disappear from the conscious mind, they are not erased completely; they still exist in the unconscious mind [psychology teaches that we have a conscious, a preconscious and an unconscious mind] and can wreak their own havoc on the psychological development of the child continuing their erosion into adulthood until such time that they become conscious and are worked through—most likely in psychotherapy. (That process is complicated and involves teasing out the source of the person’s misperceptions and confronting them; the patient/client and the therapist become partners in a kind of research project aimed at discovering who this person is and where he/she came from—making conscious the unconscious. That’s the goal of therapy. The decision to enter therapy usually stems from the individual’s dissatisfaction with his/her ability to achieve happiness—be it in relationships, professional life or overall peace with one’s life and self).

Finally, though defenses develop unconsciously out of a need to make sense of a dissonant reality, and are therefore essentially good, they often become problematic (outdated, if you will) when they continue to protect us in environments that are actually safe, in other relationships that may well be loving. When the young man or woman continues to see all potential partners as replacements of the parents—forbidding, demanding acquiescence, hypercritical—and to respond as such, intimacy and trust with another becomes virtually impossible.  Our defensive response is no longer appropriate. We expect the world to treat/view us as our parents did. But the world isn’t our parents. Some may be like them, but not all. It becomes our challenge and that of therapy to recognize the difference.


The following is a list of commonly used defense mechanisms many of which will be discussed further in subsequent sections of The Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust series:

Repression: “Keeping distressing thoughts and feelings buried in the unconscious”

Denial: “Refusing to accept reality or fact, acting as if it isn’t so/didn’t happen”

Rationalization: “Creating false but plausible excuses to justify unacceptable behavior”

Identification: “Bolstering self-esteem by forming an imaginary or real alliance with           some person or group”

Displacement: “Diverting emotions (usually anger) from their original source to a               substitute target”

Projection: “Attributing one’s own thoughts, feelings, or motives to another”

Regression: “A reversion to immature patterns of behavior”

Reaction Formation: “Behaving in a way that is the exact opposite of one’s true feelings”

Sources: Weiten, Wayne. Psychology: Themes and Variations. Thomas Wadsworth

Upcoming: Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust III: The Passive Father

Psychology Today

Bryant Park Reading Room Celebrates CavanKerry Press

credit: Angelito Jusay Photography


Bryant Park Reading Room Celebrates CavanKerry Press

September 5 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Bryant Park, United States + Google Map

The Bryant Park Reading Room hosts emerging and established poets through the summer with evening readings. Sit under the park’s London Plane trees and listen to the artists read their own work.

Tuesday, September 5, 7:00pm–8:30pm
Reading Room
Featuring the Poets:

Jeanne Marie Beaumont
Joseph Legaspi
Kevin Carey
Tina Kelley



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