An­nal­isa Bar­bieri

on the ques­tions read­ers ask most

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

Ten au­tumns ago, I started writ­ing the Guardian’s ad­vice col­umn. The leaf-fall of let­ters and emails quickly set­tled into dis­tinc­tive piles, the largest of which I hardly dared give a name to. By spring, I had a thick folder that I couldn’t ig­nore, la­belled: Mum love gone bad. There were other piles, too, other re­cur­ring themes – dys­func­tional sib­ling re­la­tion­ships, deal­ing with teenagers and lots about sex in long-term re­la­tion­ships.

So when I was asked to con­trib­ute to this spe­cial is­sue, I thought about the ques­tions I am asked most of­ten, and the con­ver­sa­tions – or lack of – be­hind them. These are the con­ver­sa­tions I wish the peo­ple who write in could have with those caus­ing them pain.

The most pop­u­lar topic

“I’m a grownup and I re­ally don’t like my mum.” This is the most pop­u­lar ques­tion, and it scares me. (Sure, there are let­ters say­ing peo­ple hate their fa­ther, but moth­ers are num­ber one.) It seems to af­fect daugh­ters more than sons. In the most ex­treme cases, be­yond mere an­noy­ance, anger burns through dis­ser­ta­tion-length let­ters, full of self-re­crim­i­na­tion, con­fu­sion and sad­ness. I was fairly new to moth­er­hood my­self when I started, and had a mother of my own. It fright­ened me: is this what hap­pens, I thought? I learned that, some­times, yes, it is.

Maybe you had a chaotic mother, or a ne­glect­ful, abu­sive or con­trol­ling one. Maybe she over-en­meshed you, and you were trapped. You grew up think­ing your child­hood was nor­mal, be­cause you didn’t know any dif­fer­ent. That’s the way it usu­ally goes. Then you get to your “safe place”: you’re in the job you al­ways wanted, in a good re­la­tion­ship, maybe have chil­dren. And this trig­gers some­thing, and you start to won­der: was my up­bring­ing nor­mal; was it right; am I be­ing un­fair? And then, in­evitably: I could never imag­ine do­ing that to my kids. With each rev­e­la­tion comes an over­whelm­ing emo­tion. I’ve seen adults in their 40s floored by this re­al­i­sa­tion. Con­ver­sa­tion? They are des­per­ate for it. But with whom?

The very per­son you should be talk­ing with here is the very per­son who doesn’t, maybe can’t, lis­ten. My read­ers’ let­ters show that these moth­ers only like to trans­mit, not re­ceive. Let’s face it, if they could have con­ver­sa­tions that healed, they wouldn’t be writ­ing those let­ters.

You could try. I have seen peo­ple try: they ask ques­tions around their own mother’s up­bring­ing, which can pro­vide vi­tal clues as to where things went wrong. With a re­ally ex­tra­or­di­nary mother, some­one who can do work on her­self, res­o­lu­tion can be found with time and talk. But of­ten, sadly, it can’t. Con­ver­sa­tion is seen as con­fronta­tion. So then what?

If you are a mother your­self, the ques­tion can be­come a taunt: will I be­come like my mother? The an­swer is – al­ways – no. But some fam­ily pat­terns can re­peat. In the most sim­plis­tic terms, it’s like a knit­ting pat­tern (I of­ten use wool and knit­ting as analo­gies for com­plex emo­tional problems). You have only one pat­tern, so you knit that be­cause that’s all you know, un­til some­one shows you a dif­fer­ent pat­tern and, sud­denly, your jumper is trans­formed.

Talk­ing to a neu­tral per­son can help with this. You can try to dis­cover what your place in it all is – what be­hav­iours you con­trib­ute that you can control. But then you have to re­mem­ber the golden rule: you will never change your mother, and you can’t control how she be­haves. Have that con­ver­sa­tion with your­self. The word I find my­self writ­ing most of­ten in talk­ing about this sub­ject (these let­ters on my key­board must be worn down) is “bound­aries”. Build some, re­in­force them, keep to them. Your mother made her choices, now you must make yours.

‘What hap­pened to my baby?’

“Teenager” is a po­tent word. I wish I’d know that when I was that age, but, like al­most all teens at some point, pow­er­ful was the last thing I felt. Read­ers of­ten write about be­ing con­fused and alien­ated by their teen chil­dren and, re­ally, con­ver­sa­tion is the last thing they feel they can have with them. “What hap­pened to my baby?” is a com­mon re­frain. Ac­tu­ally, your baby is still there.

The best way to start a con­ver­sa­tion with a child who has hit the 13-plus mark is when you are both do­ing some­thing else. Teens can find di­rect →

eye con­tact con­fronta­tional and it can make them panic. So in­stead of tack­ling them face-to-face, come at them with a side-by-side ap­proach. But be pre­pared for the fact that chil­dren – of all ages – like to save their most im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tions for when you can least have them: when you are about to go to bed, on a dead­line or chang­ing a tyre on the side of a four-lane motorway. I think it’s a test.

And the one thing I will say straight away is that if you have any work to do on your own psy­cho­log­i­cal problems, hav­ing a teen will shine a keen, harsh light on them. So if you fear re­jec­tion, your teen not want­ing to an­swer your ques­tions will im­pact you more pro­foundly. Be aware of this. If your re­ac­tion is ex­treme, it’s more about you than them. Af­ter all, you don’t want your child writ­ing to me about topic num­ber one: see above.

Teens of­ten don’t want to an­swer a ques­tion straight away. They are masters of hid­ing their emo­tions at school. So keep ask­ing, but not in ma­chine-gun fash­ion. Give it time; I’m talk­ing days, not min­utes. Don’t over­re­act, be­cause if you do, you are sow­ing the seeds for them not telling you some­thing next time. If you panic, good things to say are: “And then what hap­pened?”, “What do you mean by that?”, “How does that make you feel?” Those phrases can buy time. But don’t be afraid to just say, “That sounds hard for you.” Chil­dren of­ten crave em­pa­thy more than prob­lem solv­ing.

Ev­ery child and ado­les­cent ther­a­pist I’ve spo­ken to (and in 10 years, that’s a lot) has said that teens are ba­si­cally gi­ant tod­dlers. They need bound­aries, they need hugs. Be kind. Don’t be afraid of the con­ver­sa­tion de­scend­ing into a (con­struc­tive) ar­gu­ment, ei­ther, but pos­si­bly not while driv­ing. “The car is of­ten when we can re­ally say what we want, be­cause ev­ery­one is al­ready shout­ing,” teens of­ten tell me. But as a par­ent, don’t make it about you. Lis­ten. They will be: any­one who thinks teenagers don’t lis­ten has mis­taken lis­ten­ing for fol­low­ing or­ders.

And if you get it wrong, don’t worry too much ( but apol­o­gise), be­cause var­i­ous stud­ies now show ado­les­cence con­tin­ues un­til the age of 26. You’ve got time for plenty more con­ver­sa­tion.

‘I don’t get on with my sib­lings’

The sib­ling re­la­tion­ship is com­pletely fas­ci­nat­ing, be­cause it of­ten re­veals the se­crets of the fam­ily dy­namic. How you got/get on with your sib­lings can mirror what’s go­ing on fur­ther up – with your par­ents. But it can also dic­tate the way you in­ter­act with oth­ers out­side the fam­ily. So if you find your­self avoid­ing con­fronta­tion, or be­have a cer­tain way with spe­cific per­son­al­i­ties, it’s worth look­ing at whether they em­u­late, in some way, your sib­ling in­ter­ac­tions.

When­ever some­one writes to me with is­sues to do with their broth­ers or sis­ters, I look for clues fur­ther back in their early lives, when fric­tions were usu­ally set up. It’s not a given that chil­dren don’t get on. Sure, some gen­eral “I hate her/ him” is nor­mal; but if my col­umn is any­thing to go by, re­ally dys­func­tional sib­ling re­la­tion­ships are nearly al­ways shaped by parental in­flu­ence. Some par­ents like to di­vide and rule. They may have one golden child who is favoured, and one may, some­times quite lit­er­ally, be the whip­ping boy. An older child can visit the re­jec­tion they feel from the par­ent on a younger child.

Chil­dren of­ten grow up blam­ing their sib­ling(s) en­tirely. It’s only when they leave home and learn to forge these re­la­tion­ships out­side of the fam­ily um­brella (if it’s not too late) that peo­ple have any hope of heal­ing these wounds – and of­ten re­alise what hap­pened to cause them.

All ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion has to start from a point of em­pa­thy and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. So be­fore speak­ing to them, it’s worth try­ing to imag­ine life from your sib­ling’s point of view. If you speak to a fam­ily of, say, five adult broth­ers/sis­ters, each will have a dif­fer­ent take on the same oc­ca­sion, and all are valid.

A re­ally good film that il­lus­trates this is Hi­lary And Jackie, in which the same scenes are played from each sis­ter’s point of view. I of­ten think of that film when I need to look at things from an­other per­son’s per­spec­tive: how must it seem to them? If you need to have a con­ver­sa­tion about a tricky sib­ling re­la­tion­ship, it’s al­ways best to start with a ques­tion such as, “What was that *in­sert an oc­ca­sion* like for you?”

A re­ally re­veal­ing ques­tion to ask an older sib­ling you don’t get on with is what it was like for them when you ar­rived. How was that han­dled? I’ve seen whole re­la­tion­ships trans­formed af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion pred­i­cated on just that one ques­tion.

In­stead of say­ing, “You were hor­ri­ble to me” (you can get into the specifics when your re­la­tion­ship is more ro­bust), it’s best to start with, “We were pretty vile to one an­other, weren’t we?”; say­ing, “That must have been tough for you” can heal years of hurt, if it’s heart­felt. And it’s re­ally worth try­ing, be­cause the sib­ling re­la­tion­ship is of­ten the long­est-last­ing of your life.

‘We can’t talk about sex’

Ob­vi­ously no one writes to me to say they are happy with their sex life: that’s not the na­ture of the trans­ac­tion. And al­though the let­ters may vary in de­tail, all have one thing at their core: a lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and a fail­ure to keep the sex con­ver­sa­tion go­ing, es­pe­cially in a long-term re­la­tion­ship. The con­ver­sa­tion may be needed due to many things: a dis­so­nance in li­bido; deal­ing with in­fi­delity; or, usu­ally, sex wan­ing in the long term. The irony seems to be that the bet­ter you get to know some­one and the longer you spend with them, the less able you are to talk about sex with them. I think this is of­ten be­cause, in long-term re­la­tion­ships, you are try­ing to bal­ance out para­doxes such as the de­sire for se­cu­rity and ex­cite­ment. In new re­la­tion­ships it’s mostly about the lat­ter.

I speak to a lot of sex and re­la­tion­ship coun­sel­lors and they all say the same thing about “how of­ten”: it doesn’t mat­ter how much or how lit­tle you have sex as long as both partners agree. And you can’t agree if you don’t talk about it.

Un­for­tu­nately, if re­sent­ment has built up, it’s of­ten dif­fi­cult to keep the neg­a­tive emo­tion out of a con­ver­sa­tion, and re­crim­i­na­tions never bring res­o­lu­tion. Pick­ing your mo­ment to start these con­ver­sa­tions is pretty key. Ob­vi­ously it de­pends on the cou­ple, but it’s of­ten bet­ter to build up to talk­ing about sex rather than just div­ing straight in with some­thing like,

“I never reach or­gasm when I’m with you.” Mak­ing the other per­son de­fen­sive doesn’t ease com­mu­ni­ca­tion and of­ten blocks it.

A re­ally good starter is to be­gin talk­ing about a happy time you spent to­gether: “Do you re­mem­ber when?” and build from there. You may not get there on the first at­tempt, but keep try­ing. Even talk­ing about “you both” builds in­ti­macy – which isn’t the same as sex. A coun­sel­lor once told me in­ti­macy was when both of you knew ab­so­lutely what was go­ing on emo­tion­ally with the other per­son.

If you need to talk about a spe­cific prob­lem, try open­ing with some­thing like, “I shut down when you…” in­stead of, “You make me sick when you…” “I feel like this…” in­stead of, “You make me feel…” Lan­guage can make or break this.

It’s also easy to look at peo­ple who have a lot of sex and think, “Sorted.” But that doesn’t al­ways mean there’s not a prob­lem, or that the re­la­tion­ship is happy. “We have sex sev­eral times a week,” said one reader re­cently (mar­ried for 20 years, three chil­dren, no, I don’t know how they do it, ei­ther) “but my partner has no idea what I like, never asks and doesn’t want to know.” If sex is com­mu­ni­ca­tion, then self­ish sex is a mono­logue

It doesn’t mat­ter how of­ten you have sex as long as both partners agree. And you can’t agree if you don’t talk about it

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