Mixed Emotions Revisited

Q: I’m writing concerning your column, “Mixed Emotions” (Jan. 20, ’14). What could be going on is that the daughter wants a connection with her parents. And at the same time, she is angry/resentful that she hasn’t had any until now. When I’m angry with someone, I don’t want to connect with them before dealing with the anger, in which case your answer would not work.

I would suggest that the parents first find out what is really going on. This could be done by saying something like this, “We have been receiving mixed messages from you, it seems like you’re … (say whatever you think is going on), is that correct?”

What do you think?

A: In the column in question, parents wrote in about their 25 year-old, single daughter. She often mumbles that her parents do not “care enough about her.” Yet, whenever they attempt to engage her in conversation, she expresses annoyance and resentment, complaining that they are “bothering her” or “not letting her breathe.”

In my response, I discussed the concept of ambivalence and explained why denying an ambivalent feeling creates problems. I concluded by recommending that the parents ignore the inappropriate portion of their daughter’s mixed message, while responding to the appropriate part.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that this young woman wants a connection with her parents. I also agree that she is angry with her parents. The resentment, however, does not appear to be justified, as the parents have made numerous attempts to reach out to their daughter. Unfortunately, each time they do, they are rebuffed by her. As a result of mixed emotions, therefore, the daughter is sending her parents mixed, contradictory messages.

You write that my “answer would not work.” And you suggest the parents first deal with their daughter’s anger.

The parents cannot deal with their daughter’s anger, however, because she is avoiding them. They would want nothing more than to find out “what is really going on.” If their daughter constantly distances herself from them, they have no way of finding out.

You would advise the parents to confront their daughter with the fact that she is sending mixed messages, in essence, that she wants closeness and distance at the same time. Then they should speculate as to the reason for their daughter’s ambivalence and ask if they are correct. While such a direct, straightforward approach sounds logical, I would not recommend it for the following reasons:

Through her very actions, this young woman is demonstrating that she is denying her own ambivalent feelings. Instead, she is projecting her conflict onto her parents. If her parents were to confront her as you suggest, she would most likely become defensive. And this could exacerbate her resentment toward her parents, demonstrating the wisdom of Chazal, who taught, “Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say that which will be heard, so too is it a mitzvah for a person not to say that which will not be heeded” (Yevamos 65b).

There is a delightful chassidishe maiseh which beautifully illustrates this principle. An almanah once poured out her heart to a Rebbe. She was unable to keep up with the mortgage payments on her home. And the bank had informed her of the impending foreclosure, which would leave her and her orphaned children homeless. The bank president was Jewish. And the almanah asked the Rebbe to intercede on her behalf.

The next day the Rebbe went to the home of the bank president. The bank president graciously welcomed the Rebbe and asked what he wanted. The Rebbe answered that he needed nothing.

“Then why did the Rebbe come?” the bank president asked.

“I cannot tell you,” replied the Rebbe.

The curious bank president asked again. Again the Rebbe refused to answer. Then the Rebbe got up. And the bank president escorted him out. All the way to the Rebbe’s home, the bank president kept asking why the Rebbe had come. When they reached the Rebbe’s home, the Rebbe quoted the aforementioned Gemara. He concluded, “I am not fulfilling this mitzvah by sitting at home. But if I come to your house and do not tell you that which you will not heed, then I have fulfilled this mitzvah.

“How does the Rebbe know I will not listen?” asked the bank president.

“I will prove it,” said the Rebbe. Then he asked the bank president to stop the foreclosure.

“Even though I am the bank president, I am unable to do that.”

“See, you just proved my point,” said the Rebbe.

The exasperated bank president told the Rebbe he would see what he could do. And a week later the almanah received a letter informing her that her mortgage was paid and her debt was cleared.