By Esther Mann, LCSW
On The Other Hand . . .
Two weeks ago, a woman wrote in to me about her relationship with her married daughter, Tzippy, who had been living in Baltimore. It’s seems that, for no reason that she could gather, Tzippy decided to totally cut her mother out of her life, no explanations given. What made this situation so much worse, if one could even imagine such a thing, was the fact that her daughter was pregnant and this event ended any possible opportunity for this woman to even get to see her grandchild after the birth. A heartrending story.
The writer filled in some important details regarding her own life, including the fact that she had been married to an abusive man for quite a few years, whom she eventually divorced, plus other elements about her mental well-being that came together to tell a story of a most difficult childhood that her children no doubt were forced to experience.
The purpose of writing to me was to inquire about what could possibly have happened to encourage her daughter to so totally separate herself from her mother. And at such a meaningful time in their lives.
As I made clear from my answer, with so little information, at best all I could do was to speculate about what may possibly have happened. So I created a possible scenario in which Tzippy felt she needed to detach herself from everything relating to her past life, her pre-marriage life, which felt so dysfunctional, in order to create a healthy, happy, and new reality for her now growing family. Though unquestionably not the only possible explanation, nevertheless a case scenario that does sometimes occur.
However, it was only one possible answer. Upon further consideration and, I must say, some insight that I gained from some of you readers who took the time to call and write in, I believe that there could be other explanations for the daughter’s unusual and hurtful behavior. One plausible “master plan” that could have played out, and does play out more often than any of us would like to believe, involves the possibility of a controlling husband who systematically worked on alienating his wife from family and friends—ultimately feeding into an abusive marriage where he is in total control and the wife has no one left to turn to.
It might be hard for healthy people in healthy marriages to understand, but there are those men who set out to dominate their wives in every possible way. It can sometimes begin in a subtle, seemingly innocuous fashion, during which time a husband plants ideas in his wife’s head, suggesting how individuals, for one reason or another, are bad influences in the wife’s life. Sometimes the approach is anything but subtle.
The husband may engage in conversations, focusing on one friend and then another, pointing out how none of them are worthy of her friendship. For instance, he might start by saying that one particular friend is jealous and wishes her only harm and that her other good friend isn’t really very smart and the third friend doesn’t act as though she likes her very much. Eventually, there is a certain type of woman who starts believing these accusations. Of course, not every woman can be worn down to the point where she no longer trusts her own instincts. But under the right circumstances, with enough pressure and persistence and a serious dose of insecurity thrown in for good measure, there are those women who can be brainwashed to believe anything.
And the same goes for family members. The husband’s agenda includes stripping away any and all positive feelings that existed toward every member of the wife’s family. Suddenly, the wife’s mother, who was always considered by the wife to be caring and helpful, is labeled invasive and insensitive. The kind, generous father may be called controlling and selfish. Siblings become jerks and the entire family is now officially labeled as losers.
There is no logic to the things a controlling husband can say or do. But the really scary thing is the reality that there are some men out there who have the ability of twisting and turning truths into ugly accusations and undermining their wives’ sense of self to the point where they don’t know what to believe anymore and ultimately begin to believe their abusers.
Just for the record, there are marriages in which it is the wife who alienates her husband from his family and former friends. It goes both ways. But for the purpose of this column, I am focusing on the wife being the victim.
To the mother who wrote in, let me say: This scenario is obviously much more unsettling than the one presented two weeks ago, and downright dangerous for Tzippy and the baby. If this should be the case, and of course, let me say that it is only speculation, it’s important for you to take a proactive approach.
There was no conversation last time around regarding siblings and where they fit into this mix. I would want to know if they are in touch with Tzippy and what they have to say on the matter. Have they been able to stay in touch or were they also cut off? Can they provide any insight?
Is there a rabbi, an old friend, or even someone from your son-in-law’s family who could reassure you that Tzippy is out and about, looking well, connecting with others, and, generally speaking, participating in a full life? It’s important to confirm that Tzippy’s behavior does not convey the signs of an abused wife who has been diminished and led to a place of disengagement from family and friends and a normal life.
Hopefully, this will turn out to be one of those cases where you considered the worst and it was an overreaction. Always better safe than sorry. Nevertheless, should you hopefully learn that Tzippy is doing well and living a full life, you are still sadly left with a huge question mark and a hole in your heart that should be filled in with Tzippy and your grandchild. Which brings us back to my original column.
You have every right to feel sad and lonely for the pieces of your family that are missing right now. But it’s important to stay hopeful that Tzippy will one day soon wake up and realize how important it is to bring you back into the fold. And in the interim, do everything you can to fill your life with an abundance of love from your other family members and your friends.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.