In a recent article by Sally Brampton in the Sunday Times, a woman whom I will refer to as Joan, writes about her father who left the family home after 30 years of marriage some seven years ago. Joan talks about the effect his departure has had on her, her mother and her family. A link to the abbreviated letter can be found here (update, the article was never published for some reason). In brief, she writes about how his departure had a devastating effect on her mother and her sisters. He didn’t talk to the children about it. Instead, he wrote to her and her sisters “a very cold and factual letter”. He has made an effort to apologise and Joan and her father have tried to get their relationship back on track again. However, Joan finds that “she is extremely closed down and can’t forget her feelings of abandonment or disappointment in him”. She states that he asked to see his newborn second grandchild but Joan refused as she finds his visits so awkward and sad. Joan realises that she needs to get past her feelings but she doesn’t know how to do that at the moment. Her father has now asked her whether it is time for them to go their separate ways. She wonders if it is their only option. Joan says that she is desperate to reconcile this situation.
Sally responds by empathising with Joan’s pain and says that she found the idea of his letter shocking. She tries to explain why the father may have chosen this course of action. She says that perhaps he was afraid of breaking down and that combined with his own guilt, this was a way of separating himself from painful emotions. Sally does not condone his behaviour but she tries to see the situation from the father’s point of view in an attempt to help Joan reconcile the situation. Sally continues by saying that perhaps Joan’s refusal to allow him to see his grandchild may have been the final straw for the father. This may be why he has said that it is better for them to go their separate ways. Also, he is aware of the pain that his visits have caused Joan and he does not want to cause any more pain. Sally advises Joan to write a letter to help her get the situation into better perspective. She recommends that she does not send the first draft but writes several drafts of it to help her get over her feelings of abandonment. She tells her to be emotionally honest in the letter and says to her that the letter will help her to look at how her own behaviour has contributed to the rift. Sally finally asks her to reflect on how she would feel if one of her own children refused her access to her grandchild.
This is a multilayered, multifaceted dilemma and I would like to comment on the situation that Joan finds herself in from a psychological perspective, taking into account Joan, her father and Joan’s mother. Joan said that the separation of her parent’s relationship came as “a shock” and she always had a good relationship with her father. If this were the case, I would ask Joan how is it then that she was oblivious to her parent’s marital discord. There clearly must have been tensions, which subsequently lead to the separation of her parents. Perhaps, Joan was aware that there was something amiss in her parent’s relationship but she chose to ignore it. Or, to put it another way, perhaps she idealised her parent’s relationship and indeed her own relationship with her father. As Melanie Klein outlined, idealisation by an individual is used as a defence mechanism to shore back unpleasant emotions. Also with idealisation, the least crack (in this case the shock of the separation) causes a total collapse of one’s world. In this case, Joan’s world collapsed and opened the floodgates to her own feelings of anger, and frustration. To cope with these emotions, Joan has drawn on a primitive defence mechanism called splitting whereby she has divided the parental couple into good and bad. She has identified with the mother (the good object) in this case and demonised the bad object (the father). During this process she has also split herself into good and bad and projected her bad parts into her father which, has had the effect of demonising her father further and reduced her capacity to think and feel clearly.
Joan says that she and her father had a good relationship. As previously stated, there is an inconsistency between this good relationship and him writing to her to tell her of his separation. So what kind of a relationship did he really have with his daughter? Was it a relationship, where Joan’s mother was excluded? In other words, was it Joan’s job to keep the parental couple split apart? Or was Joan bought off in some way, whereby the “good relationship” was based around gifts, indulgence and one where she was managed by a father who couldn’t communicate to his daughter on an emotional level. Either way, there appears to have been a relationship between them where there was emotional dishonesty.
Sally does not mention Joan’s mother. This in my opinion has the effect of justifying Joan’s anger at and her demonization of her father. As previously stated, Joan’s splitting of the parental couple into good and bad and her identification with her mother (the good object) has had the effect of absolving her mother of all responsibility. However, Joan’s mother is just as culpable as her father for the dysfunctional non-emotive family unit.
I wish to reiterate that all these assumptions are made based on Joan’s printed abbreviated letter.
So, what should Joan do? Joan needs to face up to her responsibility for idealising her parent’s marriage. Counselling will help her to deal with the emotional outburst that the separation has triggered in her and take responsibility for it. Part of that responsibility will involve looking at how she has projected her anger solely at the father. Focusing in on this will help her to bring the splits together i.e. the bad father and the good father, the good mother and the bad mother. This in turn will guide her in how she should approach her father. She does need to keep in mind that her father has a difficulty communicating emotionally. As long as she is aware of this, she will able to approach the situation in a different way.