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An Ambivalent Visit

When I was in my middle thirties and still a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Nevada, I remember discussing a personal family problem with my supervisor, Dr. Duane Varble. He and I had finished talking about one of my clients and since we had twenty minutes left in our appointment, he asked me what I was planning to do over spring break. I told him I was going to New Jersey to visit my parents and added I was feeling strong ambivalence about the trip. Interested, he asked me if I knew what that was all about. I said I didn’t, but it was something I should probably discuss since it had been bothering me.

He then asked, “When you go home to see your folks, what do you want to have happen?”  I thought for a bit and said, “I wish during my visits that they would inquire about my life. They don’t seem to have any interest in what I’m doing here in the doctoral program or how I view the world in general. Whenever I visit, all my dad wants to do is garden and cook, and all mom wants to do is watch movies and do crossword puzzles.”

Duane said, “So, your ambivalence about the visit is tied to the worry that you won’t be nurtured.” I nodded in agreement. He then said, “Maybe you need to think about which Ron you want to send home for the visit. Is it Young Ron who wants nurturing and parenting, or is it Adult Ron who accepts his folks just as they are? If you buy a plane ticket for Young Ron, I suspect he’ll be disappointed again.”

“Why must my visits be on their terms?” I asked.

Duane answered, “Because they are who they are. They don’t know how to relate to you in the specific manner you deem acceptable. I’d suggest you consider taking the high road and send Adult Ron home to visit-he’s the one who is more willing to accept them exactly as they are.”

I gave Duane’s interpretation of my ambivalence a lot of thought and decided it would be worth the effort to send “Ron the Adult” home for the spring-break visit. I decided I’d suspend all my expectations about how my folks should relate to me and that I would gracefully and enthusiastically join in any activity they wanted to pursue.

I did so and what occurred was magical. I had a wonderful four-day visit. I gardened with my dad and moved yards of dirt, and together, we planted boxes of flowers and veggies. I also spent time with him in the kitchen. I picked his brain about how he cooked some of his Italian specialties. While we were doing some of these activities, he told me stories about his family and the Italian traditions he learned growing up.

My mom and I did crossword puzzles together and watched movies. While doing these things, she began to talk about her childhood, her life before marriage, and what it felt like getting older.

I’m sure they could not have put into words what I was doing differently during my visit but I knew they could clearly feel I was more present and more involved in their lives. My need for them to relate to me in more psychologically sophisticated ways dropped away. Our connection during those four days felt rich and right, and it confirmed Duane’s belief that I needed to shift my expectations.  

Over the years, clients have come into my office with this same dilemma. And I have asked many of them the two very important questions that Duane asked me: “What do you want to have happen during your visit,” and “Which person will you decide to send home to visit with your folks?”

This little story illustrates the powerful effect unrealistic expectations can have on our friendships. The more we are able to accept our friends and family exactly the way they are, the less often our hopes will be dashed when we relate to them. The great gift, of course, is that we may even find out that dipping into their world is great fun.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   


Comment from Ed Barbera
Time: September 18, 2008, 11:34 am


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