Q: We have a 25-year-old single daughter who lives at home. She is the fourth of our five children and the older of the two who are not yet married. The other is a 19-year-old son who stays in the dorm during the week and comes home only for Shabbos once a month.
This daughter has an excellent job as a speech therapist. She actually works for three different offices. But altogether she works over 35 hours a week and earns a good salary. She has friends with whom she is in constant contact and is hardly ever home.
Every now and again, she will mumble comments (under her breath but loud enough to be heard) to the effect that she feels we do not care enough about her. She will say “…as if you really care,” or “… not that it matters to you.” But when we do try to initiate conversation with her, she will express annoyance that we are “on her back,” “bothering her” or “not letting her breathe.” We are really confused and feel that whatever we do is no good. Can you help us?
A: Your letter provides an excellent illustration of the phenomenon called ambivalence, or mixed feelings. That is the emotional state in which one has conflicting feelings about the same thing. Ambivalence is not a bad word. It is a natural, common condition which we all experience as part of daily living.
Suppose, for example, you have a simchah to attend. But you feel especially tired that evening. On the one hand, you would very much like to greet the baalei simchah and wish them mazel tov. On the other hand, you wish you could simply call it a night and go to bed early. The desire to do something and not do it — at the same time — is called ambivalence.
Chazal, of course, were very familiar with this concept and had a graphic term to describe it. They called it “chamar gamal,” literally, a donkey driver who is also a camel driver. (Eruvin 35a) A short explanation is needed to understand this term. A camel is a naturally impulsive animal. A camel driver, therefore, must stand behind the animal to restrain it. A donkey is a naturally stubborn animal. A donkey driver, therefore, must stand in front of the animal to pull it forward. A donkey driver who is also a camel driver, however, finds himself in between both animals and pulled in opposite directions at the same time.
Sometimes the situation becomes more complicated when we deny our ambivalence and then, as a result, send out mixed messages which confuse our friends and family. A good example of this is when older young people deny their ambivalent feelings about independence. They aspire to greater independence, which is normal, healthy and appropriate. At the same time, however, they may harbor hesitant feelings of doubt and apprehension. In denying their ambivalence they will assert their desire for greater independence while clinging tenaciously to some of their earlier dependencies.
Your daughter’s behavior, as described in your letter, provides an excellent illustration of a young person who is denying her ambivalent feelings. More specifically, she talks about wanting to be left alone. At the same time, she complains that you are not demonstrating enough caring for her. In short, she is confusing you by sending you mixed signals about what she really wants. And she is further complicating matters by making you feel that you are at fault.
When children — or any other people, for that matter — deny their ambivalences and send mixed signals, it is a good rule of thumb to respond to whichever message seems to be the most appropriate while ignoring the other contradictory message.
Let’s take your dilemma as an example. Your daughter complains that you are not sufficiently interested in her affairs, meaning that she would like to spend more time communicating with you. Although she is not being direct and is expressing her need in a negative fashion (i.e., “as if you care”), her desire to have a modicum of conversation is appropriate. When she brushes you off, however, and tries to frame your attempts to reach out to her as an unwanted intrusion, that is an inappropriate message. Since you cannot pay attention to her and ignore her at the same time, you are best off pursuing the former and avoiding the latter. By trying to engage your daughter in conversation the worst you can be accused of is bothering her. If you retreat completely and have nothing to do with her, however, your daughter could mistakenly conclude that you have totally abandoned and rejected her. So keep trying to talk to her even if she continues to rebuff you.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.