How can I free myself of my parents’ control?

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 15, 2005

Mom and Dad say if I don’t lose weight, they won’t find me an apartment for grad school.


Dear Cary,

I am a 24-year-old young man who lives with his parents in a wealthy suburb of a major American city. I graduated from college three years ago. I spent a year abroad teaching English and came back to the United States at the end of 2003. I have had trouble getting full-time employment since then. I have had some internships and occasional temp work that gives me enough money to slowly pay off a small and interest-free debt (owed to my parents) and also have some spending money. My temp work does not give me enough money to afford rent. I wanted to move out of my parents house ASAP, so I did what most suburban kids in my situation do: I applied to grad school.

The problem is that the only grad school I got into was in the nearby city. I have a small trust that pays for tuition and books (legally it can only be used for education expenses until I turn 35). I still can not afford an apartment. My parents think I am overweight and told me that they would not start looking for an apartment for me until I weighed 145 pounds. My height is 5 feet, 6 inches. I lost six pounds very quickly, but my weight has been hovering at the 155-156 level for the past few weeks and nothing I do seems to make it go down. I go to the gym five to seven times a week. I eat less. It looks like I will not make 145 by the time school begins unless I starve myself and go on a water-only diet.

I have been a late bloomer my entire life but it is beginning to drive me insane and throw me into mood swings. I am the only person I know who lives at home. My social life really suffers for it as well. I know lots of people who live in the city and I feel like I do not get included in a lot of activities because it would require too much planning. They can just call or e-mail each other and say be at place X in a half-hour or 40 minutes. Including me would require giving me enough notice to let me catch a commuter train in, get on a subway, etc. If I end up commuting to grad school my social life will continue to suffer. I will not be able to go out to dinner after late-night classes and such because I will worry about getting home at a reasonable hour to study and get enough sleep.

I see my problem as being the sum of three things: my constantly being a late bloomer in all social situations, being too economically dependent on my parents, and that my parents believe it is acceptable to treat a 24-year-old with carrot-and-stick deals and punishments. I want to be free. I want to experience what it is like to be a 20-something living in a city and be able to do things at a moment’s notice. I feel like by the time I am independent of my parents it is going to be too late for all these things. Everyone else will have grown up and be on to the serious stuff like career advancement, settling down, buying houses, starting families, and worrying about 401K plans.

What can I do to make myself free, Cary? How can I convince my parents that they are being insane about the apartment-weight deal? (BTW, they got my brother an apartment no questions asked when he started grad school. They claim he was not overweight.) The few friends I told about my apartment situation think my parents are insane but can’t give any advice. Am I just being another spoiled rich kid from the suburbs who is learning harsh lessons about reality? How can I keep my sanity and stop from being depressed about my situation — and the fact that it never seems to improve?

Late Bloomer With the Carrot in Front of His Face

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Dear Late Bloomer,

You ask, “What can I do to make myself free?” What you can do to make yourself free is move out of the house and get a job.

You may hesitate to leave home because your parents are offering you a lot of help. But the “help” they are offering is not helping.

There are two kinds of “help” that parents typically offer. One is helpful help. Helpful help sometimes doesn’t seem like help at all. Being thrown out of the house, for instance, can be helpful, though it may not seem so at the time. Being made to wash dishes, pay rent and mow the lawn can also seem unhelpful, but can actually teach a young, indolent wastrel certain laws of economics and human behavior that govern an astonishingly large part of adult society, from competition for mates to distribution of resources to the balance of give and take required to maintain love and friendship. Real help sometimes does not look like help at all. Likewise, what looks like real help is sometimes nothing more than sinister manipulation that is confusing and undermines the spirit.

In your case, the “help” you are getting from your parents seems profoundly unhelpful. I would guess that’s because it’s not age-appropriate. When you were a weak little kid, the carrot-and-stick approach might have made a certain amount of sense: You were biologically dependent and in need of operant conditioning. You needed to learn rules of behavior by repetition and practice, and the reward system gave you incentive to keep practicing the same behaviors over and over until they became rote. The object of such a system is to prepare the weak, helpless child to become strong and self-sufficient. Once the child has reached that point, however, it’s time to abandon the carrot-and-stick approach. Otherwise, it becomes a system of control. It makes you crazy. It torments you. It undermines your more or less natural instinct, which is to leave the parental compound, forage for food, dig a shelter and mate.

(Frankly — as one who has no kids and so probably shouldn’t talk — I’m a little troubled by the carrot-and-stick system of child-rearing: How can it possibly prepare one for the real-world reward system, whose rules are strange and random and require problem-solving ability of a whole ‘nother order? How does a kid, raised in such a way, interpret situations where participants don’t spell out their reward programs quite so explicitly? “If I lose five pounds, then can I have the job?” “What?”)

It’s not that your parents are monsters, necessarily. Parents get used to dealing with you in a certain way. And at times, in my opinion, parents don’t really want you to leave; they would prefer to have you helpless. That doesn’t reflect well on the parents; but it’s not like they’re out consciously to screw you over. Nevertheless, they hamstring you with their systems of control and manipulation. They mess with your head.

You have to get away from it, for your own good.

So it’s time for you to leave. Don’t wait for your parents to kick you out. They’re not going to do that. Leave. Get a job. Learn to cook and clean for yourself. Work full-time until grad school starts. Keep a part-time job while you’re in grad school. If you need living expenses, take out a student loan. Take it out in your name. Don’t ask your parents to co-sign.

Remember: As the right-wing jingoists like to say, Freedom isn’t free.

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OK, I get it, my husband’s a verbal abuser

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 8, 2008

It’s taken me a long time to accept what my therapist has been pushing at — but I think I’m ready to act in my own interest.


Dear Cary,

I’m troubled.

At long last, my therapist did something I sensed she meant to do a long time ago — assign me to read a book on verbally abusive relationships. I suspect that, despite her dissimilation, she expects me to find myself there, in the role of the victim of verbal and psychological abuse.

And I do.

And yet on another level, I question the whole idea. The book contains no citations. It could well be cut from whole cloth, as they say — an angry woman’s fantasy of how men are, how men act. Even if that characterization is a straw man (womyn?), it is a tempting one, especially when the self-help verbiage gets a little much. But where do we draw the line? I seem to be standing on a line, on one side of which is mutually unproductive communication that can be resolved through talking and counseling and new approaches, and on the other is a crowd shouting “Why haven’t you DTMFA?”

Since I have been with him, I have gradually given up my passions — my theater, my academic field, my crafts, my gym membership. Only those things that he finds acceptable — the hobbies, the reading, the baking (but never on hot days) — remain. He wished to own a house. We own a house. I cook, clean, launder, mow the lawn, call the repairmen, run the errands, pay the mortgage. I have been working for seven years under the assumption that these are all choices I was involved in, decisions I made. And yet I daydream of a cozy studio apartment where I am alone and everything — the belongings, the music, the choices — is mine. Of going where the jobs in my field are, instead of staying where they aren’t. Of dallying with women, and perhaps men, with beautiful souls.

I take pills. I go to therapy. He goes back to school. I applaud this — it is a sensible decision that will lead to a stable job in his field — even as I resent his freedom to do so. I make a point of telling him that I wish to return to school (yet again) once he finds a job. He is wholly supportive of this, he says — once the loans are paid off, once we are no longer in debt. Despite my thrift, the loans pile up. When I fail to manage the money as he directs, I am chastised. Every cent I spend is one that cannot be used to pay off those loans and buy my freedom from menial jobs that siphon my self-confidence and passion, but which pay for the therapy to deal with the panic attacks and crying jags that primarily manifest themselves when he’s around.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

There is a long and storied history of psychological instability in my family, on both sides, which has led me to believe that my problems were internal and self-contained. There is also (as I learned recently, yet have known all along) a long and storied family history of controllers and controllees, criticizers and objects of criticism. I am not sure what his family has given him, aside from a Midwestern up-by-the-bootstraps aversion to psychoanalysis of any kind.

A dear friend says that she had these concerns before she knew him, from my tone, from my phone calls. She met him, and “[saw] how he looks at me,” the love in his eyes, and her fears were assuaged. I know that he loves me, from that same look, those same heartbreakingly beautiful smiles. I also know that he expects me to read his mind, then tells me that I am the one who needs to fix my reactions so that we can communicate — who drives me to tears with his inconsistencies, then allows me the solace of his embrace.

It is not that I fear to be alone or independent — aside from the annoyance of dividing things up, the prospect seems inviting. But the prospect of remaking myself in my own image, of reclaiming the me that was, is more complicated. And there are so many things that I would miss. Friends, games, holidays, my mother-in-law, even the house that taunts me with its constant breakings and dirtiness. Him, the man who has been so good for me in so many ways, who rescued me from an equally dead-end (though less malignant) relationship, whom I’ve shared so many adventures with. Who I’m not even convinced is aware of what he’s doing.
And yet things cannot remain as they are.

Angel in the Details

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Dear Angel,

I am going to try to be direct. You know that’s not my style. But still.

I suggest you leave this guy.

There is only one twist: You make your new life first.

I basically agree with the DTMFA approach — with one caveat.

The caveat is that you begin not by disrupting your current life but by building your new one. If you leave without trying to rebuild your life first, you may find yourself alone in a new place, isolated from friends and family, without a solid network, without a life plan, having just gone through a traumatic breakup, flooded with emotion, and you may, under that stress, be more prone to fall back into your old pattern of finding a rescuer, a controller, a caretaker. You may slip back into the same situation with someone else. So I advise taking a gradual approach to building a new life so that when you leave him, you have a new life to step into. Work to develop new behaviors and reinvigorate abandoned passions.

For instance, these things you mention that you have given up — your theater, your academic field, your crafts, your gym membership: Put these things back in your life one by one. When you begin doing this, he may object. Keep in mind that you are leaving him anyway.

It may help to set a date and write it in your calendar, say, six months. In six months you are leaving. During that time you tackle the many concrete tasks of rebuilding your life. This includes looking at new places to live and working out your budget. As you pursue this project, at a certain point — and this may happen sooner than you expect — it may become impossible to continue to live with him. Your positive action may force buried conflicts to the surface. He may decide that he is divorcing you. He may become unstable. He may threaten you. If he is a certain kind of man, when his control over you is threatened, he may become dangerous. So, while laying the groundwork for an orderly departure, you need to also be ready to leave quickly if things get to that.

The point is this: To the extent possible, don’t act precipitously to your own detriment. Instead, begin putting your life together and try to leave at a time that is best for you.

Now, regardless of his objections, you may find that you yourself just can’t build this new life while still living with him. You may feel paralyzed, blocked, unable to act. If so, OK. Leaving him might be a precondition to putting your life together. That’s OK. Discuss this with your therapist and make a plan. But please do what you can to prepare first. Give it a try. Take what steps you can to reconnect with your theater, your academic life, your crafts and your gym first. Do what you can.

Just so we’re clear: Yes, I think you should leave. DTMFA or whatever. Just, to the extent possible, prepare first.

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