Many psychotherapists concur that exceptional work can be accomplished when a patient reaches out for help during a critical phase. My patient “Sheila” telephoned me in a distraught state, saying that her twenty-one-year-old fraternal twin sons had just informed her that they recently got the same tattoo to celebrate their twin bond. Of course, people have varied opinions about their children becoming tattooed, and Sheila had profound judgmental feelings about this sort of thing. She explained that she had very personal reasons for having such an adverse reaction and was furious at her children for making this decision on their own.
Sheila and I talked at length about her rage and resentment in light of her sons’ behaviors. Our conversation opened years of overaccommodation and pent-up anger that she harbored in response to her family of origin. In many complicated ways her emotional life had been stifled and stunted in order for her not to feel vulnerable, hurt, or needy. She defended against the terror of those feelings by being somewhat controlling, rigid, and repressed. The emotional price that she paid to feel safe had impacted her capacity to trust her children and allow for more authentic intimacy to evolve.
Sheila is insightful and kind and quickly grasped how her self-protective behaviors have interfered with developing closer emotional ties with each of her sons. She discussed how her sons’ twinship frequently alienated her. Nonetheless, she found the opportunity to talk openly with each young man by himself to explain why her reaction to the tattooing was inordinately punitive and rejecting. So, rather than having her anger shut down the connection, she successfully used the disruption to begin to open avenues of communication. In many ways, the crisis provided an opportunity to break through years of misunderstandings and disagreements.
Sheila shared that she was frightened to talk about many of her family traumas because she felt tremendous shame and did not want to burden her kids. Yet now that the boys are young adults, it seemed advantageous to be more open and authentic. I do believe that things happen for a reason sometimes. Hopefully this snafu will open a conversation so the family can begin to sort out what has prevented closer bonds for both Sheila and her sons. At this point, it appears that their developing closeness will continue to grow now that they have an improved path toward resolving conflict and accepting differences of opinion.