Sunday, February 10, 2013

What Do I Owe You?

Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about family relationships and how difficult it can be when they become abusive. We weren’t talking about domestic violence in the sense that you normally think of it—physical abuse perpetuated by a spouse or significant other—but instead we talked about verbal and sometimes psychological abuse perpetuated by “first-family” members, such as a parent, grandparent, or sibling.

I told him what a difficult patient my mother was during the last days of her illness, and he told me about his mentally ill sister.

Unfortunately, I could have shared a bunch of other stories with him. Not my personal stories, but the stories of other friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Stories of troubling relationships with sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. Some of these loved ones are mentally ill, like my friend’s sister, but others aren’t.

My friend and I found that we’d both struggled with the answers to these two questions while managing our relationships with our difficult loved one—What do I owe you? and How can I best love you?

My friend told me that he’d made the decision to limit his time with his sister, which meant he would not be present at family functions. I know this decision was hard for him. I remember deciding that I simply would not talk to my mother unless something in our relationship changed, because I’d come to the conclusion that allowing her to hurt me with her words wasn’t good for either of us. Not confronting her prevented us both from growing, dealing with our stuff, and transitioning our relationship from minor child/parent to adult child/parent, which is where it desperately needed to go.

I was helped along with this decision by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, authors of the book Boundaries, and their discussion of the notion of stewardship—that we each are stewards of the time, talents, and money that God has gifted us, and we need to take care in deciding how to use those gifts. Later, this notion was given greater depth when I was introduced to the concept of being responsible to someone without being responsible for her. Generally speaking, adults are not responsible for other adults, but sometimes people try and make us feel guilty about what we won’t do for them, causing us to forget that. So, if my brother is irresponsible with his money and now can’t pay his rent, I may choose to help him, but I am not obligated to help him, regardless of what I have or can afford. I don’t owe him in that way. I am not responsible for him, regardless of what manipulative tactics he may use to convince me otherwise. And, it may be that the best way I can love him is to confront him about being irresponsible and then help him (if he chooses to accept the help) find a way to solve his problem that does not involve my simply doing for him what he should be doing for himself.

Of course, when your family member is mentally ill, these issues are compounded fiercely, and I don’t pretend to know what any particular individual should do when faced with this painful and complicated problem, except perhaps seek professional help. But I do know this—ultimately, no matter what decision is made, the individual will wrestle with and must answer these two questions that I’ll ask again. What do I owe you? and How can I best love you?

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