When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself. — Louis Nizer
Are you in an untenable situation right now? Have you given yourself a bad back by bending over backward to accommodate someone who is breaking the rules? Has your confusion about your role or rights perpetuated this problem? Is it time to draw up your own Rules of the Woed (as one seminar pundit named them)?
Remember to pull a mea culpa so the people affected don't feel they're being unfairly blamed for behavior they were never held accountable for in the first place. That's the catch-22 of not explaining and enforcing policies up front. Rule breakers may initially know what they're doing is wrong, but if no one complains, they conclude that it must not be that bad. Their logic is "If it was really important, you'd stop me, so I guess this must be okay."
"Talk about confused," Abigail commented. "My twenty-two-year-old daughter had me turned inside out and upside down. I was supposed to be the parent in the relationship, but she had me twisted around her little finger.
"I had always dreamed of those close mother-daughter relationships where you went shopping together, swapped clothes, and shared confidences. It was never like that with us. Tiffany's teen years were a nightmare. She stayed out past curfew, had terrible grades, and stole money from my purse. My friends told me her disobedience was typical adolescence and she would grow out of it. She never did.
"Tiffany came home after college because she couldn't find work. A couple of months stretched into six months, six months stretched into a year, and she still hadn't found the 'right' job. During this time, she was wrecking my town house, when she wasn't lying around watching soaps. Every time I tried to talk to her, she'd turn things around and say I was unsympathetic.
"I tried to get her to go to therapy with me, but she wouldn't. I finally went myself The therapist sat through that entire first session and hardly spoke. She just let me pour out my frustration. Over the next few weeks, she helped me see that I was being bullied by my own daughter and that I had enabled this situation by not setting and enforcing ground rules. She helped me understand that the way out of this mess was to keep asking myself, 'Who's the parent?' and by giving Tiffany what she needed rather than what she wanted. She also suggested I pull a mea culpa."
Abigail continued. "Mea culpa is Latin for 'my fault.' The therapist told me trying to rein Tiffany in at this point was going to be tough because the precedent was set that she could do whatever she pleased. The only way to change this losing game was for me to take responsibility for letting things get out of hand. After all. Tiffany was only doing what I had let her get away with. The therapist helped me write up 'House Rules' and told me how to resurrect a more proper parent- child relationship.
"The following Monday, I told Tiffany we were going to have the first of what was going to become a weekly family meeting. The therapist had emphasized how important it was to make this a formal ritual rather than a casual get-together, so we sat down at the dining room table. I explained it was my fault things had gotten out of hand, that I realized the error of my ways, and that things were going to be different from now on."
"I laid out the house rules and explained that as an adult, if she wanted to continue living in our home, she needed to obey the rules because we were no longer going to live in pandemonium. I explained that family members living together agree to abide by common laws of decency so everyone can coexist cooperatively. I explained that every family member (even if there are just two of us) needs to contribute so household maintenance and upkeep are kept equitable. I explained that if family members choose to ignore these rules or abuse the rights of housemates, they lose their right to live in that home.
"Tiffany just sat there, stunned. I told her I should have done this a long time ago, but had not been clear about my role as a parent. I now realized my job was to teach my child how to be a self-sufficient citizen who gets along in the world with others. I hadn't done her or me any favors by being so lax in my standards. I told her it wasn't too late for both of us to learn this lesson, and that I was going to hold us both accountable for behaving responsibly.
"Some of our house rules included basic rules of courtesy. Not calling each other names. Calling by six P.M. to say whether you're going to be home in time for dinner. Cleaning up messes in common areas — the same day! Divvying up household chores. This is where I asked for her input. We made up a list of what needed to be done and went through the list, alternating choices.
"I also told Tiffany, 'A condition of you continuing to live here is that we go to counseling together once a week. If you have issues with this, we can work them out with the therapist.' I wrapped up by saying, 'I have absolute clarity about this, and there will be no wavering or giving in to pressure or excuses. If you break the rules once, you get a warning. If you break them again, you'll need to get your own apartment and support yourself, and no amount of begging, pleading, or name-calling will get me to change my mind.' I told her I was looking forward to living together in harmony, and I hoped this would be one of the best things that ever happened to us. It was."
A woman who heard this story asked skeptically, "Do you really think that a mother would have thrown her daughter out of the house?" I told her, "She needed to be prepared to do just that or otherwise she'd be a paper tiger. Empty threats serve no one. That's why it's so important to be clear about the appropriateness of your proposed action. The mother was doing the right thing by claiming culpability for the past and by outlining the new policies and consequences for the future. If the daughter chose to break the rules, it would be her fault she's out of house and home, not her mother's. 'Tough love' is simply a way of teaching people that they will be held accountable for their behavior, whether they like it or not. Instead of the world revolving around them, they learn that if they do the crime, they pay big-time."