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How to not blame your parents for the way you are

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Part 2 of the “blaming our parents” series


Let’s say you’re thirty-two years old—or fifty-two years old, whatever!—and you can’t speak Chinese. Who do you blame?

Well, if you were born and raised in China, the child of Chinese-speaking parents, something’s seriously wrong and needs looking into! But for the rest of us, it’s about your parents’ repertoire, something we talked about last time. You don’t speak Chinese because your parents didn’t speak Chinese. And if you speak with a deep Southern drawl, it’s probably because your parents were Southerners who brought you up in the South. A Southern accent was in their repertoire, and not because they willed it but because they grew up that way.

The important thing is, what do you do about the fact that you don’t speak Chinese? You could form a group with other people and spend your time sharing your anger and resentment at how your parents deprived you of the ability to speak Chinese.

Or you could start learning Chinese.

Now here’s the thing. Which of the two alternatives is easier?

Anger and resentment! Blame!! And that’s why we go there. It’s way easier than learning Chinese at thirty-two.

The whole point of talking about our growing up from the point of view of repertoire is to make blame seem like the stupider option.

Because if it’s all about stuff you didn’t learn or mis-learned, then it’s just like everything else in life: when you find you’ve been doing something the wrong way, you find the right way and learn how to do that.

You’d do that in a second if you found you’d been making spaghetti and meatballs the wrong way for years. Why should it be any different with the life skills you coulda, shoulda, woulda picked up from your parents as a kid?

The other good thing about this approach is to look at the way we do things as just a skill. Or the lack thereof. Not some trait that a person either has or doesn’t have.

Take the stuff we talk about in Why Couples Fight. It’s really just a list of wrong ways to do things and right ways to do things. Ways that work, ways that don’t work. And we show the ways that work.

For example, making sure your partner feels heard before you shoot your mouth off is a life skill and it works to prevent conflict and produce solutions. Jumping in and cutting your partner off because you feel disempowered—or doing or saying things to make your partner feel disempowered—are skills that produce bad results: acrimony, resentment, and distance.

Now it just so happens that making sure your partner feels heard before you shoot your mouth off is not in the repertoire of the vast majority of people. So the vast majority of kids do not grow up in families where they learn this skill by osmosis, osmosis being the way we learn all the most important life skills. That’s how a mama lion teaches her cubs to survive: she has the skills, she displays those skills over and over, the cubs copy her over and over, they learn to survive.

It’s the same with the other skills we talk about in Why Couples Fight. Very few people grow up in families where the parents demonstrate how to avoid making power moves. On the contrary.

Very few people grow up in families where the parents demonstrate how to develop and discuss options, and do so without acrimony.

So freakin’ what!?! Very few people grow up in families where the parents teach their kids Latin and calculus. Do we act like freakin’ idiots and blame them for that? No. We go to school and learn Latin and calculus if we have a mind to.

Take my case. What right did I have to blame my mom for having a severely limited repertoire, given that she was an ignorant, peasant woman suddenly transported to Manhattan, via Holocaust-torn Central Europe? If we’d stayed in that place where you could only survive by trading in the black market, she’d have been the mother of the year, because she was great at that. She kept us alive with that.

It cuts even deeper than this. There’s a profound moral to this story:

  • The millennia of unchanging rural life when parents really could pass on to their kids everything they needed to function effectively as adults have been over for at least 200 years

  • Life is all about learning

  • The more you learn the better off you are

  • The faster you become aware of your areas of ignorance and misinformation, the better off you are

  • Once you’re out of elementary school, it’s up to you to take responsibility for what you learn. If you want to know something, you have to hunt it down and find a way to master it.

  • If you need to learn something, start now. Don’t look back. Look forward.

  • And understand the learning curve:

Learning only seems hard because at first progress is slow. But it’s not hard because you’re stupid or because the subject matter is too hard. It seems hard because that’s the way learning goes. Discomfort turns into comfort. Unfamiliarity turns into familiarity. Difficulty turns into mastery. You’re actually on a kind of up-turning roller coaster! Hop on, take the ride, don’t worry about your progress, and you’ll slide up to master before you know it.

That’s how people who have good lives approach things.

Or you could blame your parents.

Why Couples Fight is offering you a way to have a better life on a silver platter.

NOTE: Everything I’ve said here applies to the roughly 97.5 percent of parents who

are what statisticians would call two standard deviations from the mean in terms of

being dysfunctional. These are the parents where you are getting into the territory not

of “stuff people know and stuff people don’t know,” but of diagnosable psychiatric

disorders. Parents who are f--ked up. Not parents who are limited but parents who

shouldn’t be parents.

In situations like this, where growing up in this household is a true nightmare, saying

“don’t blame your parents” seems too glib. It’s true that as the children of such parents

find their way to health they also find their way to let go of blame, but only because

they ultimately realize blame is hurting themselves more than anyone else. But if

you’re the adult child of such parents and you find the message in this post simplistic

to the point of being offensive, I understand and I apologize. It wasn’t aimed at you.


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