Are You Clashing with Family Over the Current Presidency?
Healing Family Bonds In Polarizing Times
By Christa Santangelo, PhD
Rob and his teenage son Peter’s relationship was threatened over the recent US presidential election. Dad was unable to hear anything his sixteen-year-old son Peter had to say about Peter’s more liberal beliefs. Son insisted Dad’s support of Trump was a deal breaker; he refused to talk to him. What was once a close and nourishing bond was fraying. Father and son came to me in crisis: The relationship was on the line.
Is it possible for members of our own family to be so far from our emotional reach? Can our identification with beliefs topple the most essential human bonds?
Dostoevsky said that Hell is the inability to love. I agree.
The research also agrees. The aim of my work as a psychotherapist is to repair my clients’ ability to love in the face of what seem like impossible challenges. This healing takes us deep into ourselves by way of the limbic system.
The limbic part of our brain is responsible for the rhythm, the emotion, the connection, the attachment. Engaging with our limbic brain is how mammals love and how we influence each other. Our neocortex is the CEO—making lists, decisions, arguing facts, coming up with linear theories about who, what, where, why, and when. When my clients are constructing elaborate arguments they are engaged in the CEO brain. It rarely gets us anywhere on its own. All parts of our brain and body are part of the healing journey. The limbic brain is slower to change, but it contains the deep rivers of emotions we need to discover in order to heal.
“Because our minds seek one another through limbic resonance, because our physiologic rhythms answer to the call of limbic regulation, because we change one another’s brains through limbic revision—what we do inside relationship matters more than any other aspect of human life.”
—A General Theory of Love, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon
How do we repair the lost love between a parent and a child? When we hit core places like identity—which politics, religion and other topics hit—we need to go deeper than usual to open space. And we need to open space because as mammals, relationships matter. A lot.
I believe to heal an alienated teen and her parent is the first step to healing the collective wounds of the world. It is slow going and sometimes meandering. But I think any healing is worth the effort.
When I am working with any couple (parent-child, husband-wife), I ask all members to go within and see where he or she is being touched emotionally. Where is the rigidity coming from? The hurt? I invite the person who is the least “wounded”—or who has the least complex set of painful issues in that moment—to start to create space and flexibility. Ideally all would bend a bit, but we know that this is difficult.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
–The Gnostic Gospels
This father-son pair did not want their relationship to perish over Trump. What Dad needed to bring forth was his fear of being vulnerable. As he sat and raged over his son criticizing him, he stomped his foot a few times as an exclamation point. A somatic window in.
“What are you feeling when you stomp your foot?” I asked. Rob looked more solemn as he revealed the deep vow he had made as a child bullied by a mean stepfather: Never back down.
“You have to defend yourself in life,” he said. “I stand behind my beliefs. No one walks on me.” His inner child had spoken.
For Dad to accept his son’s criticism of him, a key aspect of parenting, he had to face deep feelings that had never been revealed. Shame, guilt, lack of self-love, to name a few.
To heal we need to go to these earlier wounds.
As Dad stomped his foot for the third time, I asked him to pause and feel the fighter. Tears flowed. “I don’t want to fight with my son.” He choked back tears. A few escaped down his flushed cheek.
“I know you don’t,” I said.
As I listened to Rob’s old wounds, he was able to make space for his son’s beliefs and not feel so deeply threatened. When I looked over at Peter he looked engaged with his father for the first time in a very long time. He reached over to touch his father’s knee.
“Do you have to keep fighting?” I asked.
Dad nodded, tears still flowing: the tears of his child knowing that he didn’t have to fight anymore. Tears of relief, of empathy for his own pain. A softness emerged. His eyes and body settled. And he could be empathic, in turn, to his son.
“I love my son. That’s the bottom line. Who cares if he criticizes me. He’s a teenager. He needs to have his own opinions heard. I’m his Dad. I can just listen.”
“Yes, you can,” I said with a renewed sense of confidence that Dad and son had re-entered each other’s hearts. Where they belonged.
Can you relate? How has your inner child been triggered in this election? Which relationships have been threatened? What did you learn about this story? Send me a question or comment: firstname.lastname@example.org.